Second in an occasional series about the 2015 vintage at Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia.
Fernando Franco walked along a row of merlot vines and pointed to a bud, its tiny reddish-orange leaves just beginning to unfurl. “This is my favorite time of year,” he said, his ready smile even wider than usual. “It’s as though the vines are saying, ‘Yoo-hoo, Fernando, we’re back! Time to take care of us again!’ ”
This was “bud break” in early April at Barboursville Vineyards, north of Charlottesville. Wintertime pruning and trellising by Franco and his crew had prepared the vines to begin their work on the 2015 vintage. Within the next few weeks, the leaves would separate fully from the buds, and the vines would start to form grape clusters. The vineyard team would then cull unnecessary or extra shoots to concentrate the vines’ energy on the clusters that Franco wants them to ripen. Like pruning in winter, shoot thinning — and “green harvesting” later in the season, when unevenly ripening clusters are discarded — is one way the vigneron instructs the vine how to grow.
Spring, the season of renewal and rebirth, is exciting for vintners everywhere, but it’s also a tense time. The vines at this stage are vulnerable to frost. Franco and Luca Paschina, Barboursville’s general manager and chief winemaker, were like boys with toys, talking about their two new wind machines: tall two-bladed fans designed to prevent frost from settling on the vines. Each machine cost $35,000 and can protect 12 acres. Barboursville now has 15 to cover its 186 acres of vineyards.
They were also anticipating delivery of a new “frost dragon,” an Italian-made propane-fueled contraption that is towed by a tractor and shoots hot air — up to 180 degrees — under the vines as far as 150 feet. When the hot air rises, the wind machines knock it back down toward the ground. The heater uses 100 gallons of propane per hour as workers tow it through the vine rows.
As of early May, the wind machines remained still and the dragon silent. The warming temperatures had reduced the danger of frost, and the crews began cutting off and discarding the “insurance canes” they’d left on the vines during winter pruning. Yet vineyards along the Blue Ridge in Virginia and Maryland suffered a May 14 frost two years ago, and “Thomas Jefferson recorded a killer frost at Monticello as late as June,” Paschina noted.
After showing me the budding merlot, Franco led me to a nearby plot with newly planted vines, their wood barely sticking out of the ground. He knelt in the red clay soil and tugged on an orange tag attached to a vine. “Nebbiolo,” he said.
The Barboursville crew has been busy this spring, planting 45,000 vines. The work included seven acres of new vineyards and some replanting of older sectors. Most of the new vines, however, filled gaps in existing vineyards, replacing plants weakened by time and disease or killed by the polar vortex during the winter of 2013-14. Winter kill that year was not as widespread in the Mid-Atlantic as it was in Michigan and Ohio, but Paschina estimated he’d spent more than $120,000 to replace vines that were damaged by the cold. That figure does not include the cost of replanting or the lost production, as the new vines take three seasons to produce a crop.
As we sat in the winery’s Library 1821, an elegant tasting room featuring some of Barboursville’s older vintages, Paschina described his efforts to rejuvenate and expand his vineyards. In recent years, he has increased his plantings of nebbiolo, and his first release of vermentino, a white wine popular in Sardinia and Tuscany, prompted other growers in the area to add the variety. This year’s plantings included Virginia’s first Ribolla Gialla, another trendy white grape from northern Italy.
This growing emphasis on Italian grape varieties reflects his and the winery’s heritage. Barboursville is owned by the Zonin family, a major Italian wine producer. Paschina, 53, is a native of Piemonte, where nebbiolo is the basis of the region’s famed Barolo and Barbaresco. He is soft-spoken but not shy with his opinions about winemaking or the Virginia wine industry. This year will be his 25th vintage at Barboursville, which he has developed into the state’s most significant winery.
Many Virginia winemakers stress the need to develop new vineyards to meet the wine industry’s growing demand for grapes. This year, several wineries — including Boxwood, Ankida Ridge, Veritas and Early Mountain — have expanded their plantings. Winemaker Michael Shaps of Virginia Wineworks has formed a vineyard management company to oversee vineyards he buys grapes from and to develop new vineyards throughout the state. Williamsburg Winery has embarked on an ambitious effort to expand and renew its vineyards.
Yet Paschina offered a different perspective, focusing on replanting older vineyards and overcoming legacy problems from two decades ago.
“People talk about the soil in a vineyard, and of course soil is important,” Paschina explained. “But we can’t overlook the importance of plant material.” He credits good plant material from vine nurseries, including better variety and quality of rootstock and clones, for improving the wines at Barboursville and helping newer wineries make high-quality wines despite inexperience.
“With good plant material, a vineyard should last 30 years” or more, he said. “We have a cabernet sauvignon vineyard planted in 1992 that is still going strong and should last for another 10 years or so.”
That one was part of Paschina’s first plantings in the early years after Gianni Zonin brought him from Piemonte to Piedmont, in 1990. Most of his initial efforts were not so lucky, however. Through much of that decade, many of California’s vineyards were ravaged by the second phylloxera epidemic, so demand for new plant material was immense. Virginia wineries struggled to find vines to buy, and those few available were of poor quality. California’s nurseries at the time were riddled with viruses, a problem that often doesn’t become apparent until years after the vine is planted.
“Some of these viruses really start showing 15 to 20 years later,” Paschina said. “They may be benign. If a virus reduces vine vigor a little, that’s fine. But most are worse. You start seeing the symptoms on the leaves, but the virus is hurting the vine before that, because it affects how it feeds from the ground. Production starts to decline, and the quality isn’t so good. There’s little choice but to take a sample of a vine and send it to a lab.”
Today’s technology is much better at detecting viruses. When Paschina signs a contract for new vines, he insists on sending samples from each shipment to a lab for analysis. “We’ve rejected two entire shipments,” he said.
As Barboursville’s general manager, Paschina balances the heavy initial cost of investment against delayed returns in the vineyard. But as chief winemaker, he says quality is his main concern.
“If we see a vineyard in decline, it has to go,” he said. “It may only be 15 or 20 years old, but we’re not in this business to make quaffable, everyday wines. We want to make the best wine we can. Do I want to make an okay merlot, or a great one?”
For Franco, the vineyard manager who has walked those vine rows and greeted the emerging buds every spring since 1997, the decision is more emotional.
“It’s not easy ripping out a vineyard,” he said. “It breaks your heart.”