Veraison: Coming in Hot

The date of onset of véraison was the latest in our 4 years of having fruit on the vines, but the grapes completed the transition from green to red more swiftly than ever before. The uniformity of ripening within the vineyards oldest block (CS2014) was also a bit different from previous years, with the rockier downhill sections changing color at nearly the same pace as the uphill rows.

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Each year we record the date when roughly half the berries have turned red, and we begin to sample grape chemistry once we exceed 90% véraison. An interesting facet of this years ripening is while the coloration occurred rapidly, the level of sugars are a touch lower for a similar level of color. Out of curiosity, we sampled the uphill 8 rows separately from the rockier downhill 8 rows and found that the rocky vines were producing grapes with about 10% less weight, but 3% more sugar — both of these values are likely within the margin of “sample error”, since we are expecticng 100 grapes to represent the entirety of 1/4 acre of vines but still… interesting. Conventional wisdom has it that rocky soils will produce more concentrated grapes, and so far this data agrees.

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2019 Mid-Vintage Update

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It is with relief and great pleasure that the vines begin véraison, when we see our Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot clusters turn from green to red and begin to ripen, developing sugars and flavors.  All the frantic work of controlling vine growth by tying vines to the trellis and hedging rows slows down and almost stalls.  This seems to happen at the perfect moment—just as the hot, late days of summer begin, and right as our endurance and patience begins to unravel.  We get to take a breath, as the fruits of our labor literally ripen on the vine.

It has been a wonderful experience to develop an appreciation of this process.  In the first few years of tending the vineyard, we would stress at each phase of vine development.  In the Spring, we would watch the delicate buds swelling and hope for frostless mornings.  During early Summer, we would frantically tame the canopy with the sinking feeling that this vine growth would never come to an end.  Late in the season, we would watch the weather for rain and constantly check the pH and Brix levels of the grapes, while we impatiently waited for perfect flavor and ripeness.  It slowly started sinking in that what we were hoping for and stressing about was balance in the vineyard.

After five years of growing grapes, we are finally beginning to get a feel for the timing and the breadth of this process—what musicians might refer to as, “the silence between the notes.”  To be sure, we still sweat the small things, but with more appreciation of the whole cycle.  We take time now to breathe, stopping to enjoy the shaded spots and taking satisfaction in the moment.  We take time to observe the natural balance of each vine and of ourselves in the midst of this process.  On occasion, these moments can yield insight.

In Virginia, we are cursed with the Japanese Beetle, a pest that devours the leaves of the vines, inhibiting their ability to ripen fruit.  We are dedicated to a biodiverse farm, with a majority of forested land, no herbicide use, and cultivation of various cover crops.  But the resident population of Japanese Beetles have always made us feel as if we were “under siege”.  In our first two seasons beetles claimed about 50% of the foliage, sorely compromising plant development and likely contributing to some winter survival issues.  As a result, we did not harvest a crop until the vines reached their fourth year.

In our frantic third year of farming, we reluctantly applied some inorganic insecticide on a small planting of first year vines, hoping to help them get established.  We reasoned that since we were not taking any fruit from these vines that year, the benefits to plant growth seemed justifiable.  At the same time, our holistic mindset kept reminding us that tough intervention may fix a problem in the short term, but the system may never self-correct, becoming dependent upon the chemical.  We waited and watched.  We wondered about our tiny vineyard within the much larger ecosystem of the surrounding Albemarle and Nelson County areas.  Was this chemical intervention worth it?  

Then last year (2018) something interesting occurred:  we noticed that on our mature vines, the beetles limited their feeding to a zone about five feet off the ground, near the highest trellis wire.   Even better, we noticed that they hardly touched the block of vines we had just planted who were all below three feet tall and presumably (hopefully) out of the beetles’ preferred zone.  We concluded that there was no need for insecticide of any sort, organic or non.  The canopy of the mature vines looked ragged, but we were going to hedge some of that anyway.  We worried about leaf damage impacting sugar development in the grapes, but the vines ripened a beautiful crop last year.  We felt the tradeoff was well worth it.

As we have further settled into our role as grape farmers, we noticed yet another boon to our Japanese Beetle issues during this year’s growing season:  several chewed up piles of beetles on the ground.  Something is eating the beetles!  We don’t know what it is yet, but we can definitely say beetle damage is less than half of that from previous years.  There is something new in our ecosystem preying on substantial  amounts of beetles.  Maybe it’s the crows, finally paying us back for decimating every last berry of the small crop of 2016?  We learned then that netting needs to be fastened not draped.

It is too soon to declare “equilibrium!!”, as there are usually two waves of beetles per year.  Who knows what years to come will show, but for now it appears the vineyard ecosystem is self-correcting.  Or perhaps in the very least, we can take another breath between tasks, and appreciate and enjoy the humbling and ongoing process of growing wine in Virginia.

Being New

The MAV crew and family having a sip with Michael at King Family Vineyards. Amelia has a wonderful palate, but she’s only allowed to sniff for the next several years :).

The MAV crew and family having a sip with Michael at King Family Vineyards. Amelia has a wonderful palate, but she’s only allowed to sniff for the next several years :).

In wine regions old and young, all over the northern hemisphere, mid to late spring is time to taste the previous vintages product. In Bordeaux they call it “en primeur”, literally translated as “being new” — we’re not Bordeaux, but we sure get the notion of being new. Late May was time for the Mount Alto crew to pack up our best glasses and head to King Family Vineyards where Matthieu Finot and his team were guiding the 2018 through its maturation.

Our goal is to express the “terroir” of our little mountain, which encompasses sun, soil, farming, and the weather of the vintage. The 2108 growing season saw our area smash the all time record for rainfall, but through the good fortune of porous soils, diligent farming, and ruthless culling at harvest, we brought in a nice, healthy crop of grapes to make wine. The excess rains of the vintage produced a less tannic and concentrated grape than in a drier year, so we aimed for a wine style that would reflect the best aspects of the fruit. Matthieu opted for gentle punchdowns and extraction during fermentation and to use only neutral oak barrels (5 years old) to age the wine.

Winemaker Matthieu Finot locating the single barrel of Mount Alto Vineyards 2018 red amongst his sea of wine.

Winemaker Matthieu Finot locating the single barrel of Mount Alto Vineyards 2018 red amongst his sea of wine.

A new wine will often be shy in winter, but in spring we begin to get a sense of the nature of the vintage. The aromas are evident, so too the structure and mouthfeel, and the range of flavors.  We tasted the 2018 Mount Alto Red, a blend of about 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petit Verdot from barrel, and what follows are a range technical descriptions offered by the winemakers and some of us growers. I say “technical descriptions” because we want to let the beauty be judged by the imbiber, but to be purely subjective for a moment, WE are thrilled with what we've got going on here. Our fears of a difficult vintage have faded to reveal a wine that we are very proud to call Mount Alto — if you’d like to get release info, sign up for our mailing list here.

Pouring a sample from the “barrel thief”. The 2018 Mount Alto Vineyards red is a combo of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petit Verdot, co-fermented and aged as a single “field blend”.

Pouring a sample from the “barrel thief”. The 2018 Mount Alto Vineyards red is a combo of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petit Verdot, co-fermented and aged as a single “field blend”.

  • Matthieu -- Palate: morello cherry, baking spice, balanced, with good weight.

  • David -- Clean, balanced fruit. Light bodied and good acid… I was impressed by the presence of a solid glass of wine.

  • Camila -- loads of red berries aromas, blackberry flavors, balanced, good structure.

  • Robert -- cherry aroma, balanced acidity, medium tannins, balanced overall wine with a background flavor of cinnamon and clove that was present in our 2017.

  • Michael -- classic cabernet black currant aroma, good balance. Lovely finesse while maintaining a cabernet identity.

One final note, here's a fond farewell, and see you very soon to Michael McGeary, who was the assistant winemaker to Matthieu at King in recent years. Michael has just been named head winemaker at Rocklands Farm Winery in Poolesville Maryland. Michael was so great to work with, and he will be missed, and we wish him all the best and hope our paths cross again. Hope all our DC metro area friends swing by and check out the happenings at Rocklands — we are sure that Michael will be bringing great things to further their mission.

Michael McGeary, former assistant winemaker for King Family Vineyards now head winemaker at Rocklands Farm Winery in Poolesville MD. He’s smiling, but sad inside since his glass of MAV 2018 is empty.

Michael McGeary, former assistant winemaker for King Family Vineyards now head winemaker at Rocklands Farm Winery in Poolesville MD. He’s smiling, but sad inside since his glass of MAV 2018 is empty.

Season of Certainty

There is a steep learning curve in ones development as vignerons and vigneronnes: so much uncertainty, so many questions, so much insecurity!  But one thing we have learned in the last 6 years is that in the vineyard, May and June are months of certainty. We know exactly what to expect when we arrive: we will be in the rows attending the vines.  The tasks involve training the shoots onto the trellis, thinning them out, and of course, watching and waiting for berry-sign as we eagerly anticipate bloom and then fruit set.   

Cabernet Sauvignon in bloom. Tiny flowers, mighty flavors.

Cabernet Sauvignon in bloom. Tiny flowers, mighty flavors.

Though the late spring pace is more relentless than the winter pruning season, the scenery is vibrant; the sights and smells compensate for the somewhat urgent pace.  And since the primary task is shaping the canopy, the gratification is instant!  We learn the vines in this time: their growth habits, their mishaps and vulnerabilities, the effects of soil variation, the volunteer and intentional cover crops, and we get to see the results of our winter pruning decisions.  Though we are in a race against the clock, there is definitely time to make new observations. We now know that the over winter onion-grass gives way to yarrow in early spring, which cedes in turn to clover blossoms and wildflowers come late spring.  Also, this year our young team noticed for the first time that there is a subtle, fresh, citrus aroma coming from the Cabernet Sauvignon flowers in bloom. 

 

Not everything is certain of course, the  weather is still unpredictable, and with that comes some variation. There are days when heat and humidity forces us up before sunrise and inside by lunch time (on those days we head to see Matthieu @KFV and taste vintage 2018 Mount Alto Red -- more on that little beauty soon!). Vintages differences in quantity of rain and mean temperature can lead to variations in  growth rate, and hence they determine if our pace in the rows is frantic or just fast-paced. And of course, untimely rain during bloom can reduce the number of grapes in the clusters. But still the vines grow, and every time we arrive at the vineyard we know what our focus will be, no need for a Gantt chart.

Petit Verdot in row #1 finally reaching maturity. This vine has been thinned of approximately 60% of its shoots in order to permit light and air flow.

Petit Verdot in row #1 finally reaching maturity. This vine has been thinned of approximately 60% of its shoots in order to permit light and air flow.

First leaf Petit Verdot (planted this April), pruned down to a 2 bud spur to promote focused, vertical growth.

First leaf Petit Verdot (planted this April), pruned down to a 2 bud spur to promote focused, vertical growth.

This spring has seen ample rain and vigorous growth, but clear dry days were the norm through bloom, and so the 2019 crop seems poised to be fairly sizable. The vines have required their fair share of tying and thinning, and the new block of Cabernet Sauvignon that we planted in 2018 has demanded attention to detail as we seek to master the art of establishing a strong trunk -- so too the new block of Petit Verdot that we put in this April. The work is hard on the body this time of year, but on the spirit it is so easy.

We hope you are well,

Mount Alto Vineyards
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Might as well, Might as well...

One long party from front to end.
Tune to the whistle going round the bend.
No big hurry, what do you say?
Might as well travel the elegant way.
— "Might as Well" - Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter

I write this a few days after the vernal equinox, so spring-like weather is soon to follow. The winter weather on Mount Alto has been uneventful, but persistent, with only a few false spring days, and absolutely no sub-zero temperatures. This the first winter in our 5 vintages where I can recall no below zero days, and this is a welcome respite. Temperature below zero can often lead to bud damage (bad), and trunk damage (way, way worse) in our climate. Work on our little mountain has also been persistent, and pleasant — it’s been a time of growth for the Mount Alto team and our project, not least which is that David and Camila have moved to a house in Nelson County, so that they can be closer to Mount Alto. Read on for some more assorted tidbits about this winters work.

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 A Space for Visitors
We have always envisioned Mount Alto as a place of focused work, but a huge part of this whole wine-growing thing is to create something pleasurable to drink, so naturally, we want to share the results of our work. Thus, a space to receive guests is needed. Our goal is not a full-fledged “tasting room”, but rather a small, warm, inviting place to host 2-6 guests by appointment to share our wine and the story of how and where we grow it. This space has been a work in progress for nearly as long as we have been doing this project, and it is creeping ever closer to completion. The core Mount Alto team has performed a majority of the work to get this space standing, but when it comes to aspects that needed an artist’s/craftsman’s touch, our family friend David Sickmen has stepped in to teach us, inspire us and build our space (did I mention cover-up our mistakes?). This winter David finished up the remaining siding, the interior trim, and constructed a window bar and trap door over our hand-cellar. The story of the oak that was used for the bar/cellar is something we are particularly fond of: Mary Lou salvaged it from the site of a horse barn that was being demolitioned. Laying in a pile near the entrance to one of her favorite trails she found about 20 slabs of old-growth oak rough-sawn into 2”x8” planks. David Sickmen sanded, planed, dowled, joined, and gave them 11 coats of Tung oil. In spring of 2020 we hope to be open to visitors and share this bespoke piece of ourselves.

Hugelkultur
We have cleared about an acres worth of trees in expanding our vineyard, but struggled with what to do with the biomass. Given our soils, and the relative age of the trees, there was no commercial timber prospects — so conventional wisdom had it that we burn it, or chip it (that’s a lot of mulch!). If burned, we would cause an immediate release of CO2, and if chipped, mulch degrades and releases a majority of its CO2 in 2-3 years. So, in 2017 we began to work with with a group of students from VA Tech department of Biological Systems Engineering (think Enviro + Ag engineering) who were looking for a senior design project. They looked at the full carbon lifecycle of all aspects of the vineyard to help us contextualize the problem — and as it turned out, this tree clearing (”land use conversion”) would be the lion’s share of our CO2 emissions over a 30 year period. In the end, we settled on an approach that would utilize, rather than dispose of the cleared trees: Hugelkultur. German for "Hill Culture", a permaculture technique that involves burying woody biomass to build soil fertility. Soil that is enhanced in this manner, rather than slowly leaking out the carbon from the trees, actually can increase the soils ability to store more carbon, since water retention, and biomass production are improved. We began a small pilot in winter 2017-2018 to grow Black Locust vineyard posts, then expanded to a larger scale (300 square foot) terrace this past winter. The 300 square foot Hugelkultur mound takes about 1/15 of an acre of cleared trees. We are moving this biomass into a soon to be apple grove to help supply David’s growing passion for cider production.

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Progress, Lessons-Learned, Self-Doubt and Affirmation

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The rainy 2018 vintage yielded many things, most obviously our first “commercial-size” vintage — we finally harvested enough fruit to produce a full barrel of wine. Folks that strive for high quality wine are diligent to avoid “over-cropping”, however, you have to be able to produce a critical mass of fruit in order to take advantage of such things as barrel aging, and other seemingly simple “economies of scale” like a stable temperature during fermentation. It was a close call, the rainy harvest led to splitting fruit, which required us to leave 30-40% of our crop on the vineyard (and winery) floor in order to ensure only clean fruit reached the fermenter, but we made it. This milestone relieved a slew of self-doubts. We also began a relationship with winemaker Matthieu Finot from King Family Vineyards which was, to say the least, comforting. While we were losing our minds at the weather misfortune (and missed calls), Matthieu worked coolly and calmly, and made a wine that defied the worst fears of the vintage. Fermented in barrel, aged in neutral barrel, a low-intervention creation (just fruit and yeast) the 2018 Mount Alto is displaying beautiful aromatics, and firm tannins despite the soggy weather. We are watching it’s evolution closely.

Hard Work beats Hard Rain, Every Single Time
From bud break to harvest, this past year was a race against 2018’s meteorological excesses. Mad rain leads to a crowded canopy which leads to shaded, rot-prone berries. With effort, and proper prioritization, we kept ahead of the leaf growth, thinning, mowing, tying and retying the shoots. Harvest required intense field sorting to remove damaged berries, dawn till dark. The rainiest year on record came, and we handled it. We handled it well, and looking back now we gain courage and confidence, rather than fear of the next rainy vintage crashing our party — but still, we’ll be happy if we don’t see that kind of rain again for many years :).

Might as Well, Might as Well…

Springtime approaches and we find ourselves at the beginning of a new vintage, and it is time to decide what frame of mind and level of meticulousness we will approach our season with. Do we invest in automated vine tending machinery, or continue this labor intensive, vine by vine wine-growing?  The lessons of last year affirm the labor-intensive approach: if nature gives us it’s worst, hard work can still reveal our vineyards best.

Harvest 2018: The Soul of a Card Counter

It was an August of glancing blows.  The rains came and fell heavily on the west side of Mount Alto, and then again on the east side of the James River, but each time, the eastern slope of Mount Alto was spared the worst.  It’s all about perspective, getting 5” of an inch of rain in a month when the next mountain over gets 10” makes you feel lucky.  It was no lazy August, but given the rain we did get, we had astonishingly small berries on the clusters, excellent fruit chemistry, and were actually entertaining fantasies of 3 more weeks of sunshine and a relaxed harvest of perfectly ripened grapes.  The skins of the Cabernet were just starting to feel supple when a pre-hurricane cold front dropped over an inch on us.  Berry weight jumped up rapidly, and a very small portion of the berries began to split, and we began to sweat — but then 5 days of sunshine and 90+ temperatures dried up the split berries, and returned berry weight to its modest baseline — we felt that we’d dodged another one.  We checked in with Matthieu, and agreed that another 10 days or so would be perfect — so we’d count on our luck to hold with Florence coming up the coast.  We checked in with Luc Tessier to help us screw up our courage for the days to come…

“You see, to make a great wine, you must have the soul of a gambler.” - Luc Tessier

“You see, to make a great wine, you must have the soul of a gambler.” - Luc Tessier

And then we took one on the chin.  An inch one night, 2 inches the next, and the clusters began to fall like dominoes.  The soul of a gambler got exchanged for the soul of a card counter — we estimated our risks and measured a rapidly escalating level of of fruit loss, and put the cards on the table (the sorting table that is — ok, no more gambling analogies).  Harvest was a tempest: we tried to balance speed (every hour more berries split) with accuracy, field-sorting to remove hopeless clusters.  The decision to harvest was made at 11 pm on a Sunday — we all called in our work favors to get the day off and started first thing Monday morning.  We worked dawn till dark with intermittent rains — in all another 3” falling before we could finish up (making an even 6” for the last 3 days of the season).

What a machine?! And damn those are some good-lookin’ berries!

What a machine?! And damn those are some good-lookin’ berries!

Once we reached the winery, we sorted clusters again on the conveyor belt, sent them into the destemmer and then passed the berries over the vibrating sorting table to insure that only intact berries reached the fermenter.  Ultimately, the final yield got reduced by about 40% due to all of the triage, but it was what we needed to insure healthy grapes.  With an early harvest like this, and modern wine-making techniques, it can be tempting to try to intervene — put back what nature left out. But given that this was only the 2nd harvest on our new site, we had no way of truly knowing what might be missing — David was fearless, insisting that the only way to understand our terroir was to follow a low-intervention route with the goal of simply seeing how it had responded to this rainy vintage (David really does have the soul of a gambler). 

Mary Lou with one last minute bit of sorting after the crush.  photo: C. Burda

Mary Lou with one last minute bit of sorting after the crush. photo: C. Burda

So, Matthieu navigated an old-school approach, fermenting in neutral barrel, with just twice daily punch downs to gently extract from skins and seeds lest green flavors resulted from our early harvest. In contrast to tumult of the last couple weeks before harvest, fermentation delivered one pleasant surprise after another, first yielding a surprisingly dark color, and then a highly aromatic nose, with red-berries all over the palate.  And as fermentation came to a close we realized we would suffer none of the “green” flavors so feared in a vintage like this.  Perhaps the few weeks of dry in July and the modestly wet August were all we needed?  Perhaps it’s just terroir?

Fermentation is done, and the vintage is now resting in barrel, and we’ll let it be till spring, then we’ll start evaluating it.  Early forecast is that it will be a wine to release and drink early — a wine for pleasure if not contemplation — which will be just fine by us.  This was an exhausting vintage — hard-working, nail-biting, comfort-zone expanding — and we’re thirsty.

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Mid-Season on Mount Alto 2018

It is early August and the grapes have now started turning color, so seemed like a good time to catch up and reflect on the season thus far.  April saw us planting more Cabernet Sauvignon vines, new clones and root-stocks to increase diversity and total potential yield, with ultimate tonnage capacity up by 40%.  We extended our rows into some of our rockiest soils, and are super excited to see what they might yield.  Bud break occurred in the 3rd week of April, 2 weeks later than 2017.  The non-stop rains in late May and early June finally gave way to an extraordinarily dry July. The challenges of a wet spring were many: outrageous canopy growth, disease pressure, worries about rain-compromised pollination, and the need to work around the weather.  All told, we weathered each of these challenges well, and we entered July with a well managed canopy, and a healthy (albeit modest) crop of grapes for vintage 2018. 

Photo Credit: C. Burda

Photo Credit: C. Burda

When we are deep in the thick of sun-up to sun-down canopy management in the dog-days of June, it is hard to think that it will ever settle down.  But the relentless hours spent shoot-thinning in June result in a July that is tranquilo, and allows us time for house-keeping.  The June to July shift in vineyard intensity is abrupt -- we find ourselves looking beyond the rows as if emerging from a fog.  We mowed the grounds, prepared our electric fence to keep raccoons from ripening berries, hung bird netting, did tractor maintenance, and finally, we were able to take a moment to taste the previous vintage that has been evolving in the winery. 

The 2017 vintage is our first wine, and while it is hard to be objective at this stage, we can say that the results are not only encouraging, but honestly, quite exciting.  Winter and early spring tastings saw a wine that was very shy, defying any categorization, but the wine that greeted us in early July was much more forthcoming with firm tannin structure, a lively assortment of flavors and aromas of ripe berries.  When it first hit my palate, hidden amongst the red berry,  I noted a hint of cinnamon -- surprising, but when I reviewed tasting notes of other red wines grown in schist soils across the world, I found that cinnamon spice flavors are commonly mentioned.   Is this the first inkling of a common, terroir-driven thread in our wines grown on a hillside of schist and quartz soils?  It's probably too soon to tell, as our wine growing mentors remind us that well-crafted wines will continually evolve and surprise during their first 36 months or so. 

We can't wait to follow the 2017 vintages progress, and will bide our time stewarding the 2018 vintage through veraison and harvest.  

The Mount Alto Crew