May 2018 Issue of Wines & Vines

High-value Bordeaux-Style Blends

Wineries in Virginia and New York succeeding with $50-$100 wines

by Ray Pompilio

The Eastern U.S. wine industry has evolved dramatically in the last 30 years and that evolution was on full display at a sold-out session focused on high-end red Bordeaux-style wines during the Eastern Winery Exposition March 6-8 in Lancaster, Pa. The conference drew more than 1,100 people for sessions on viticulture, enology, sales and marketing as well as a wine industry trade show.
     Two Virginia winemakers and one from New York's Long Island brought more than 100 years of winemaking experience to share. The European influence on these wines was evident: Luca Paschina, native of Alba, Italy, and winemaker for Barboursville Vineyards in Barboursville, Va., started his career in the early 1980s in Italy. Just about the same time, Roman Roth, the winemaker for New York's Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, N.Y., began his winemaking efforts in Baden, Germany. Jim Law, owner and head winemaker of Linden Vineyards, Linden, Va. planted his first vineyards in 1985, and has travelled extensively in Europe, learning from numerous growers and winemakers on each trip.
     All three produce a high-end Bordeaux-style blend, which is the signature wine of their wineries.
     Attendees sampled Paschina's 2012 Octagon, a blend featuring 50% Merlot, 49% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc. Roth's 2013 Christian's Cuvée is labeled as a Merlot, with 92.5% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc and 1.5% Petit Verdot. Law's 2012 Hardscrabble contained 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. All were powerful yet balanced wines from vineyards of different altitudes and soil compositions, but very similar in the attention to details their winemakers employ.
     Law's Hardscrabble Vineyard, which provides the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes for his blend, is located 1,200 to 1,400 feet above sea level. Law identifies his efforts as "declassification," where he disregards the specific identities of what grapes he selects. "All of our decisions are made from the palate," he said.

Blending by taste, not a formula
Law presses his red grapes into three fractions, and during fermentation he tastes every two days. The wine is further "declassified" into as many as 300 variable-lid drums before going into oak. Some 60 barrels from different producers and ages are used, and blending trials begin by January. The trials are done daily, and can last more than a month, when necessary. The wine will rest for 20 to 22 months before the final blending and bottling. Law produced 446 cases of the 2012 Hardscrabble, which is priced at $55.
     To Law, Cabernet Sauvignon is the most important varietal (the Linden was the only wine in this group containing it), but what is in the final blend is not dictated by variety, but taste. "We're not fixated on the blend," he said.
     Luca Paschina came to Barboursville in 1990. Barboursville Vineyards has approximately 185 acres of vines at an elevation between 550 and 800 feet, and Paschina has increased the acreage of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The vineyards are planted on slopes with grades that range from 5% to 25% and which are particularly helpful during a rainy vintage.
     Vineyard blocks are machine-picked according to taste, and often separated during fermentation according to block character. "I separate as many lots as possible and try to be open minded," Paschina said.
     The wine will spend about a year in Italian oak, and then 6-10 months in stainless steel. Paschina said he firmly believes in consistency, and chooses his grapes, cooperage and blends with that in mind.
     Blending is done by taste only, with the winemaker and several associates tasting blind until they find a consensus. The quantity of any one grape in the blend is not as important to Paschina as consistency in the character of the final blend. "Never blend according to plan," he said.
     The 2012 Octagon contains 49% Petit Verdot, a grape which had never previously made up more than 10%. The 2012 vintage produced 1,215 cases and is currently available from the winery as a library selection for $85.

Merlot is 'king' in Long Island
Wölffer has 54 acres planted on Long Island's South Fork and owns and purchases grapes from another 150 acres on the North Fork. The sandy soil vineyards average 55 feet elevation and are about 2.5 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
     Roth said he believes Merlot is "king" on Long Island, and those vines were planted in 1990. He too always looks for consistency, and the hand-picked fruit is meticulously sorted for quality. "If the grapes don't feel right, you can't make great wine," he said.
     After sorting and destemming, the must is collected into a 6,000-liter upright, wooden tank, where it undergoes three pump-overs every 24 hours. When fermentation is complete, the grapes are pressed with a modest 1.1 bars of pressure and transferred to barrels "dirty," where the wine will remain on its lees for about 9 months before blending.
     Roth prefers to not taste the wine during its stay in barrels and opens the barrels for topping only. He typically assembles the blend in early August. "I always make my blend for power," he said. "When you make a high-end wine, power is the key."
     After blending, the wine is aged for 20 months, half in new French oak, half in one- to two-year-old French oak. A final component to making this wine, according to Roth, is pride, but not arrogance. The winery produced 300 cases of its 2013 Christian's Cuvée wine that had a price of $100 and is completely sold out. "You have to totally believe you can do it," Roth said.

Ray Pompilio is a wine writer based in Ithaca, N.Y., and a regular contributor to the Wine East section of Wines & Vines.

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