Wednesday, October 1, 2008

In some spots, a bit of weather havoc reigns

So you want to be a winery owner, eh, where images of Napa Valley dance in your head and your vocabulary adopts words such as vintages and . . . malicious intent.

Huhhh? “This is my 29th vintage and I feel like there aren’t any more cards in the deck that I haven’t seen,” Rob Deford of
Boordy Vineyards was saying by phone last night. “Maybe a funnel cloud, I don’t know.”

And actually he’s wondering if that’s what he did see amid the cloudburst that had just stopped pounding his vineyard, located about 15 minutes north of the Baltimore Beltway in Hydes, Md. "We’ve had an unbelievable drought down here. Figuratively, of course. We were pummeled by rain again. We got 3 inches here this past weekend and we just got another deluge. It almost looked like a funnel cloud.”

It’s a fact of life in the wine-making business that every year will pack a few surprises. The excellent ones, such as 2007, are more the exception than the rule, certainly on the East Coast. That was one to savor. This one has thrown its share of curves. “It’s been a challenging year, to say the least,” Deford continues. “But we’re playing chicken with nature, which is what we do in difficult years. And we’re holding and trying to get the fruit past the point . . . it picks up water when it rains and then we have to let it dry out, but each time we do sort of step up a little bit in fruit quality if we can get those four drying days after the rain. And I know some people have picked quite awhile ago. We’re still holding on to Chardonnay . We haven’t even picked that yet.

“So we’re trying to play it as long as we can. Looks like we’re going to come out with good but not great fruit, I would say this year. But you never know until the shouting’s over, I mean, there’s more than just the sugar to look at. It’s overall profile of ripeness and, you know, I’ve seen worse years and I’ve surely seen better, like last year, where it was just about perfect.”

Deford says they have only pulled off the Pinot Grigio and Seyval Blanc grapes so far. What remains are the Chard and vinifera reds and Chambourcin. So still plenty of work to get done before the landscape changes into its late fall costume. “It’s a little scary because the question is, ‘Will we get to it before the foliage gives up the ghost?'” he says. “We’re hoping, if we can hang in there, really the key is, will the leaves continue to function. In a wet year they tend to get a little more assaulted by late season fungus diseases and crinkle up, and any kind of a frost, of course is the end. But right now the foliage is looking pretty decent, and if conditions permit, we’ll hold on right through the frost and, in the case of the reds, we’ll let the leaves get frosted and then we’ll pick the fruit after that.”

The action isn’t all centered in the vineyard, of course. Previous harvests have been bottled and released, and two recent one have Deford effusive in his praise. One is what they call a Landmark Reserve that blends Cabernet Sauvignon,
Petit Verdot and Merlot from Boordy’s vineyards in western Maryland. “That’s getting more bottle-aged now and it’s just a very rich, a very deep wine. And then the other is the Chardonnay from ’07, which is the first year that we’ve gotten some of the new clones into the wine. We have quite a few clones in the field now. One of them I’m really excited about is called a Muscat clone. It’s a Chardonnay, but it’s got this amazing almost Muscat orange, Muscat aroma. The clusters are very small, the yields are very light. It gets quite sweet, and that was last year’s ’07. That [was] the first year we got that into the wine and it’s out there now and it’s just a delicious wine.

“Landmark is an ’05,” he continues, “which was another really good year. So we’re sort of in that wonderful bridge where we have a nice aged red from ‘05 and we have some whites from ‘07, and those two were just superb years.”

Which circles back to this year and its headaches, although Deford wasn’t calling to complain. It just came up in the conversation as we chatted about the vagaries of the business, particularly when it comes to Mother Nature. It seemingly had started off well across the region, but got nastier as the summer progressed. Chaddsford Winery in southeatern Pennsylvania found that out last month when a hailstorm destroyed the grapes in its estate vineyard. The summary of the damage and its impact is covered thoroughly in
this winemaker report that adds a special and personal dimension to the winery’s Web site.

How this year’s growing season treated the various vineyards, Deford continues, “depends where you were. The weather has been sort of sporadic and spotty. We for years have been sorry for people who have been hit by hail. And this year we got hit by hail, and that was one of those bizarre, freak things. It took about 60 percent of our crop in our western Maryland vineyard. We got absolutely hammered, and that was just one of those freak things that, it had almost a knife edge precision to it. It went through like a mower and it took all the crop in one of our vineyard and about half in another one. And then if we had been over 20 yards, it wouldn’t have taken anything.

"So in that respect, ’08 has been a year that has almost been,” he says, pausing and then laughing a bit to figuratively keep from crying, “let’s say sort of malicious in intent from time to time.”

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