Archive for February, 2011


Petit Verdot: Virginia’s Next Wine Gem?

Posted on Feb 24 2011 | By

Red Bordeaux Grape Gaining Traction in the Old Dominion

Color and spice and everything nice.  An apt description for a grape that Virginia wine lovers will be hearing—and tasting a lot more of—in the years ahead.

There’s nothing petite about Petit Verdot.  It produces a big, bold, dark wine that historically has been used as a minor blending grape in the Médoc region of France, typically contributing less than 15% to their classic blends. Its origins are thought to predate Cabernet Sauvignon and its sparing use in Old World wines provide depth and color to Bordeaux’s best offerings.  The French think of it as a spice not a sauce.

In the United States, for a wine to be called by its varietal name, a 1983 Federal law requires it must contain at least seventy-five percent of the grape named on the label.  It’s called varietal labeling.  In Virginia, a growing percentage of Petit Verdot is being crafted in this style.  And it’s causing a buzz.

In 2006, there was no separately reported acreage of commercially grown Petit Verdot in Virginia.  Yet in 2010, five of the top fifteen wines earning gold medals in the Governor’s Cup competition were bottlings of this deep purple beauty.  Think zero to sixty in 3.5 seconds.  And the grape is still in second gear.

Origins of a winner
So how did this aristocratic grape find its way to Virginia?

Tony Wolf, VA State Viniculturist

As with much of the advancement in viticulture in the state, Dr. Tony Wolf, Professor of Horticulture at Virginia Tech and the state’s cooperative extension viticulturist, played a role in determining if the grape could perform here.  “We found the vine grew well throughout the state because of its cold hardiness.  I think its future lies in its blending strengths. It can be a tougher sell as a straight varietal since it’s not a familiar grape to the average wine consumer.  But I’m upbeat about the vine and recommend it as a viable vinifera species for winegrowers throughout the state,” he says.

Wolf further underscores it will be state’s winemakers who ultimately decide how the grape will best be utilized. That debate is well underway and you may want to join in.

In tests plantings in Winchester from 1991 to 1998 and in Blackstone from 2005 to 2007, Wolf evaluated the grape’s potential for thriving in Virginia’s terroir.  He  advised winemakers in 2008 that in addition to its cold hearty constitution it produced a wine that was rich in color, acidity, alcohol, tannin, and spicy flavors.  Winemakers around the state looked up from their labors and responded with a collective, “Oh, really?”  The vine began to be planted statewide.

In 2006, any Petit Verdot being grown in Virginia would have been listed under an “other red Vinifera” category since the plantings would have been quite small.  In ’07, 101 acres were officially reported under vine and in ’08 115 acres.  Total wine grape production in Virginia in 2008 encompassed 2,870 acres, generating some 7,000 tons of fruit, so the grape was still in its infancy.  Statistics for 2009 are not available because the Federal Department of Agriculture stopped reporting individual vine acreage in the state.  The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office assumed that responsibility.  In March of this year, updated acreage plantings will be available.  Look for the grape to have gained an even stronger foothold in the last two years.

Winemakers’ verdict

Andy Reagan

So what are vintners around the state saying about the grape’s potential?  There are two camps of thought.  One segment of cellar alchemists believes a varietally labeled version will dominate in the years ahead.  Others are less optimistic, thinking the grape will retain its reputation as a blending component.  Most all believe the berry will find a permanent home in the state regardless of how it is employed.

One of the more passionate proponents of the grape is Andy Reagan, winemaker at Jefferson Vineyards.  “I believe Petit Verdot will become the best variety in the state. Just a few years ago at Jefferson we were producing sixty cases a year.  Now it’s around 600 and we could sell 1,000 cases if we had the fruit.  Some of the knocks about Virginia red wine is that it lacks color, structure and not enough depth.  Petit Verdot has it all; inky hues, firm tannins, good acidity, and a spicy palate.

“I like to blend in a bit of Cabernet Franc or Cabernet Sauvignon to emphasize the fruit component which it doesn’t possess in abundance. In the vineyard, it’s been a consistent producer.  We’ve doubled our planting in the last two years and still can’t make enough of it.  It’s one of our tasting room favorites,” he says.

Jason Burrus

Jason Burrus, winemaker at Rappahannock Cellars, won’t go as far in committing to the grape’s future.  “I like Petit Verdot and Virginia should definitely pursue its cultivation.  But sometimes I think we place too much emphasis on varietal wines.  I don’t think predominately Petit Verdot or Tannat wines will cast a positive light on the state.  I see it more as a blender for use in Meritage-style wines,” he explains.

Michael Shaps

But no sooner that one opinion is expressed and a counter thought erupts.  Michael Shaps, owner and winemaker with Virginia Wineworks enthuses, “The grape could be Virginia’s number one red in less than ten years.  It will create its own demand. As more of it is poured in tasting rooms around the state, word will spread.

“Predominately I make it as a 100% varietal and use lesser amounts in some blends. It is a highly extracted, aromatic wine and makes itself in the vineyard, ripening consistently throughout most of the state.  It is a wine for the serious consumer.  And we need to connect with that category of drinker to put Virginia on the national wine map.  The buzz about the grape is well established among winemakers.  Soon the general public will catch the excitement.”

Stephen Barnard

Stephen Barnard, winemaker and General Manager at Keswick Vineyards, produces between 100 to 250 cases of the wine each year depending on the grape’s availability. He makes both a varietal and a blended rendition. “I’ve found some problems with inconsistent cluster development in our vineyard so we must carefully cull it at harvest time to eliminate any green berries.

“One drawback is its unfamiliarity which can hinder sales.  It takes time to educate the public to the merits of a new wine.  But Cab Franc had a similar challenge and it was overcome.  Petit Verdot is a big, aggressive, inky wine and not suited to everyone’s taste so I strive to make a more elegant version.  I love the wine and love making it,” he states.

Jeff White

Jeff White, owner and winemaker at Glen Manor Vineyards, and a relatively new vintner garnering impressive reviews for his wines, sees the grape as having multiple personalities.  “It is my most consistent grape in the vineyard and I use it for both blending and producing a 100 percent varietal. So far the wine has been perfect just by itself. I will produce about 125 cases as a varietal this year.  Everyone loves it and it sells out fast.  Last year, I was down to two cases and I pulled it off our tasting sheet. I sent an email out announcing the impending end of its availability.  It sold out in thirty minutes.  I think it could ellipse Cab Franc,” he says.

In pursuit of excellence
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the grape is it typifies Virginia’s pioneering spirit and willingness to continue to search for the grape that will place our state among the top producers in the Nation.  It’s perseverance with cause.  Reputations are firmly established when success is consistently met in both the vineyard and the cellar.

Every wine region in the world seeks to identify itself with one or two specific grapes.  Think Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Oregon Pinot Noir, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Argentina Malbec and Australia Shiraz.  In Virginia, Cabernet Franc and Viognier have made their mark.  But as our industry matures and gains more experience growing grapes and making wine, the search will continue for the ultimate wine berry.

Perhaps Petit Verdot will, indeed, be the breakthrough red grape of Virginia.  Keep your eye on tasting notes throughout the state. There’s a new Virginia wine gem emerging and its ultimate success or failure will be judged on how well it performs in the glass.

If you want to weigh in on the decision, cast a vote with your palate.


Published in the 2011 spring edition of The Piedmont Virginian.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

John’s February Pick of the Month

Posted on Feb 20 2011 | By
Fabbioli Cellars
Cabernet Franc

Doug Fabbioli experienced a catastrophic loss of grapes in the spring of 2010 to frost.

Fortunately, his 2009 vintage produced abundant and solid wines which will see him through until his 2011 harvest is in the bottle.  His ‘09 Cabernet Franc is a medium weight red with delicate aromas of cinnamon and cherry and displaying soft cherry & berry notes on the palate.  The finish is smooth, clean and framed by a veil of smoke, showcasing the skills of this talented winemaker.

Pair this refreshing red with a hearty lamb stew and oven fresh Ciabatta bread.  Drink now through 2014.

Visit Fabbioli Cellars at

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

2010 White Harvest Hits the Bottle

Posted on Feb 14 2011 | By

On August 11 of last year, I posted a report on my 2009 wine production. In it I included an assessment that the hot and dry 2010 Virginia growing season held the threat of heartache for winemakers; especially for the production of white wine.

The heartache never materialized.

Blistering summer temperatures can drive up sugar levels and drop acidity in white grapes that is not conducive to making aromatic and bright white wines.  But if my experience is mirrored by the professionals around the state, the Grape Class of 2010 graduated magna cum laude.

As expected, the juice I was able to procure last September was, indeed, lower in acidity than hoped for.  But that’s not unusual in Virginia.  When the deficiency occurs winemakers can add natural grape acids to produce balanced wine.  The addition can be done both before and after fermentation, but ideally the correction is performed before the juice is converted into wine.

Let’s Get Technical
In my case, I treated most of my white juice—Pinot Gris, Viognier and Chardonnay with additions of tartaric acid, the major acid found in wine. Only my Seyval Blanc was procured with good acidity levels.  For those unfamiliar with winemaking, the thought of adding acid to juice may seem off-putting.  But it is a critical component of sound winemaking if the harvested fruit is deficient.  Without it, the final product would be flabby and boring with a one dimensional character.  Bump up the acid to proper levels and the wine comes alive.  Think of a generous squeeze of fresh lemon on a tender filet of Mahi Mahi; the sea catch’s flavor is enhanced and intensified.  Ditto for wine.

This year I also committed to blocking a secondary fermentation called malolactic in all my whites.  While not a true fermentation process, it converts the malic acid in a wine to lactic acid, softening the mouthfeel and producing butter notes on the finish. It is most commonly used in making Chardonnay.  Remember tasting notes that mentioned a “buttery Chardonnay”?  The wine went through ML, or malolactic fermentation.

But I prefer white wine that is bone dry, bright and razor sharp, so I prevented ML through an addition of sulfites.  Most commercial wine is treated with a minuscule amount of sulfur.  It inhibits microbial activity and permits wine to age for longer than a year or so.  It is probably the single most important additive in producing sound wine.  Dried fruit, by the way, has several more times sulfur added to it to preserve the product.  Sulfur is widely used in commercial food processing.

White Wine Undergoing Malolactic Fermentation

One mystery that I again encountered was the failure of sulfur to stop a slow, inexorable ML from occurring in my Chardonnay.  I have discussed this issue with professional winemakers who are hard pressed to believe the ML process could proceed with sufficient levels of sulfites in the wine.  Nonetheless, I have three six-gallon carboys of Chardonnay—completely dry—that continue to produce telltale ML bubbles slowly crawling of the sides of the vessels, even with 50ppm of free sulfur in the wine.  The wine completed its primary fermentation back in late September and has been softly perking away ever since, converting the malic acid to lactic.  To assure the process goes to completion, I wrapped the carboys in an electric blanket and maintain the wine temperature at 74 degrees.  ML bacteria are very sensitive to cold and could stop working if the wine became chilled.  Daddy needs to keep his little babies nice and comfy.

Let It Be
So what to do?  Let the wine be itself.  I dare not proceed further with cold stabilization or filtering because home winemakers cannot steri-filter.  If I don’t let the wine have its way in the carboy, it most assuredly will have its way in the bottle.  And I am not a fan of cloudy, fizzy Chardonnay.  It’s here that patience in winemaking is rewarded.  The wine tastes good so I will let it proceed through full ML before it goes into the bottle.

I have now bottled 23 cases of my white wines and they are pouring very nicely, displaying pale straw hues and aromas and flavors ranging from white peach and lemon to tropical fruits; all framed with bright acidity.  Jean and I can’t wait for the summer months to really begin enjoying our little hobby in the glass.

As for my red wines, about a third of them have completed ML and the rest are chugging away under an electric blanket.  Almost all red wine is encouraged to go through ML and it will not be till early summer before I consider bottling any of my Cabernet Franc/Petit Verdot blend or Cabernet Sauvignon.

But that’s not a problem. Last year’s reds are pouring just fine.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

A killing Frost

Posted on Feb 09 2011 | By

Fabbioli Cellars Survives Ultimate Vineyard Threat

Perhaps a farmer’s greatest fear is frost. In one chilling night an entire harvest can vanish. And the timing of the natural disaster is brutally exquisite.  Just as earth’s solar energy surges with warmth necessary for rebirth, a layer of cold air silently descends killing the emerging life.

Frost possesses an especially powerful hold over a grower of delicate wine grapes.  In Virginia, a thriving wine culture has developed over forty years.  Much of the growth has been driven by the ability to master the art and science of growing Vitis vinifera, the vine species that produces 99 percent of the world’s wines.  For three hundred and fifty years our winemakers could not successfully cultivate the fragile vine.  Farmers no less esteemed than Thomas Jefferson tried and failed.

Then in the late 1970s, tentative steps were taken to acquire the skills to grow the fruit and within twenty-five years the industry was no longer dependent of native and hybrid grapes for survival.  The state’s wine industry exploded.  Viognier, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and many more classic wines became readily available in tasting rooms across the Old Dominion.

But each year, success is tempered by the difficulty of bringing harvests safely into the cellar.  Cold winters, humid summers, insects, mildews and assorted fungi are a constant threat to those with the hubris to grow the sensitive Eurasian grape.  And no threat is more swift and mortal than frost.  One cold, clear and quiet spring evening can create killing fields where hours before verdant growth held sway.

Frost has its lethal way at the vine’s most vulnerable period of growth.  As the buds break open in mid-April and the leaves uncurl in the spring sun, tiny knots of BB-like clusters appear, foretelling the juicy grapes they will become.  At this point, the vine has cast its die for fruit production.  It must continue to receive the gift of warmth.  Any temperature drop below 32 degrees and the buds can succumb, as will the hopes of the winemaker in transforming the vine into wine.

Our Story
And it’s here that our story of death and recovery begins.

Doug Fabbioli was destined to be a winery owner.  One of his first jobs was working in a vineyard in upstate New York after graduating from high school.  Upon earning a college degree in business administration, he moved to California with his wife Colleen and spent ten years gaining experience while working at the Buena Vista Carneros Winery, the oldest premium winery in California, founded in 1857.

In 1997, he moved to Virginia, intrigued with what was developing in the state’s wine industry.  There were sixty-five wineries in the Commonwealth at the time. Today, there are almost 200 statewide; twenty-six in Loudoun County alone where Fabbioli Cellars is located.  For three and a half years he was winemaker at Tarara Winery north of Leesburg, followed by a few years of work as a wine consultant.  During this period, he purchased 25 acres of fertile land off Route 15, built his home and planted eight acres of vines.

Fabbioli Vineyard

“When I bought my land, I knew it wasn’t a perfect vineyard site due to the possibility of frost.  But I had a variety of reasons for the purchase, including my desire to stay in the area, a convenient location for Colleen’s commute to work and a commercially viable location for a winery.  It was overall a solid decision,” Fabbioli recalls.

“During this period, my production was less than 400 cases a year.  After I opened the winery in 2004, I continued ramping up production, making 3,500 cases in 2009.  I had some slight frost damage in the past but nothing serious.  On May 10 of last year—Mother’s Day—frost warnings were forecasted. I wasn’t particularly worried based on past experience. And I didn’t take any preventive measures to protect my vines.  I live in an area of estate homes and one of my neighbors raises horses.  I was reluctant to employ measures that would create noise or fumes that might have an adverse effect on his stock. That night a hard frost fell.  By morning I knew I had problems.

“I walked the entire vineyard on Monday and saw the extent of the damage.   I was hopeful the growth might spring back, but it didn’t happen.  In a few days, I knew I had lost ninety percent of my crop; forty tons of fruit valued at $80,000.  The finished wine from the harvest would have produced $500,000 in revenue.  It was the biggest financial hit I had ever taken in the wine business,” he states.

Fabbioli believes he may have inadvertently contributed to the extensive damage.  A month before the frost descended he made a decision to spray the vineyard with powerful nutrients. The idea was to spur growth and boost the protective power of the vines.  Unfortunately, the strategy worked almost too well. The vines had generated luxuriant new foliage but it was primarily soft tissue vegetation especially sensitive to temperature fluctuations.

“I think I set the vines up for trouble.  Our last frost in Virginia is historically in mid-May.  If I’d been able to go one more week those vines would have produced a beautiful crop. But farming is like life.  It’s all about timing. It was the largest single vineyard loss in the state that I am aware of,” he laments.

The Recovery

Doug Fabbioli

To know Fabbioli is to appreciate what happened next. “When word got out of my loss, I began to receive calls from around the state from fellow winemakers expressing concern and offering to sell me some of their fruit.  That may sound like taking advantage of my crop failure, but most winemakers are loathe to sell fruit they can use themselves; especially in a year when frost hit a large number of vineyards to lesser degrees,” he states.

The respect Fabbioli had earned over the years for his honesty and willingness to share his knowledge with other winemakers resulted in the calls of assistance.  The character of George Bailey in the 1947 classic movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, comes to mind.

“It was an emotionally difficult time for me.  But I was able to relieve some of the stress because I was beginning blending trials of my 2009 Tre Sorelle, our signature red wine.  It’s a blend of Cabernet Franc, Tannat, Petit Verdot and Merlot and the individual wines were exceptional.  It was gratifying to create a superior blend while experiencing such a devastating loss.  During the blending process, I became convinced I would overcome the frost problems and continue to make quality wines in the years ahead,” he says.

The Future
So were lessons learned from the unfortunate experience and are plans in place to prevent a reoccurrence?  Yes and yes.

“I was planning to take some incremental actions to prevent such a failure in the future but Colleen pushed me to fix the problem permanently.  I began to research a variety of ways a vineyard can be protected but many of them are prohibitively expensive for a small operator.

“One example is wind machines—equipment similar to windmills that are installed in vineyards to force warmer upper air down on the vines on cold nights.  They cost about $25,000 each and I would have needed at least two.  I began to explore my options and learned of a relatively new solution called a cold air drain.  The technology is out of Brazil but the equipment is manufactured in California.  Prior to signing a contract, I visited a vineyard in Maryland to evaluate the equipment and was impressed,” Fabbioli explains.

To understand how the system works, picture his vineyard sloping gently down toward the western part of his property.  On freezing spring nights, cold air runs down the slope like water and pools at the base of his vineyard, slowly backing up and smothering a large percentage of his vines in frigid air.  When employing a cold air drain system, a curtain of thick plastic sheeting is hung from his deer fence at the bottom of the slope trapping the air.  Then a machine—similar to a large commercial fan on steroids and located in the center of the pool—draws in the blocked air at ground level and forces it skyward with a powerful blast.  It’s similar to the action of a snow blower,drawing snow at its base and casting it up and over a driveway.

Eventually the fan mechanism in the unit will be equipped with its own motor but for the first few years Fabbioli’s farm tractor will power the unit, reducing his investment costs to around $12,000.  Not a small sum but within his budget.

To recover from the loss of his crop, he purchased twenty tons of fruit last fall and cut back on his marketing efforts to temporarily reduce demand for his wine.  Fortunately, his bountiful 2009 vintage created a supply of wine that he is drawing upon during the current year. If all goes well, next year will see a full recovery from his unfortunate Mother’s Day memory.

Occasionally, when guests are sipping wines in a tasting room, you might overhear them musing on the romance of owning a winery.  But when the dream bumps up against reality it can be a painful experience.

Just ask Doug Fabbioli.

Published in the February 9, 2011 edition of the Loundon Times Mirror.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES