Thoughts from the Barrel Room

With the red harvest complete, and extended macerations underway, I’m starting to think more concretely about how barrel aging will affect the wine and how we can use this understanding to enhance quality. It goes without saying that barrels are not neutral vessels. Aromatic substances in oak quickly diffuse into wine, and some of these combine with or react with substances in the wine to create new flavors. It’s a bit like using spices while cooking. A little bit can enhance the natural flavor of the ingredients, adding complexity and depth. Too much can hide great ingredients, and faulty ones. Oak also contains tannins that have both beneficial and detrimental effects on wine. 

Each of the 40 or so coopers in France have developed their own style that starts with tree selection. The final characteristics of a barrel are related to the species of oak (for example, sessile oak adds depth to fruit flavors), the terroir of the forest where the trees grow (for example, wetter regions tend to grow faster and have looser grain), and the portion of the tree that each stave comes from (for example, staves from the outer portion of the tree tend to have finer grain). Only trees of a certain width will be large enough to make both inner and outer staves from the heartwood, so a cooper that wants to make very fine grain barrels needs to buy larger trees, all else equal. Then each cooper adds its own differentiating touches. Some only cut trees during a waning moon from October to January when the amount of sap is lower than it is at other times. Sap provides nutrients for spoilage microbes and attracts insects, and expansion of sap when it freezes can result in cracks in the wood. 

Once the staves are cut, the climate in the mill yard affects the seasoning process. Wet conditions are associated with slower aging and more microbial activity, which can add new and complex flavors. Staves are routinely aged for two years to dry and stabilize the wood, soften the tannins, and reduce or change flavor substances, but in some cases, there is additional benefit to three years of aging. We have seen barrels that have imparted a green sappy taste to wines, the result of poor or inadequate seasoning. Stave seasoning can also be influenced by the position of the pallet in the yard (wood near the outer portion of the yard seasons faster because it is exposed to more wind) and how closely the staves are packed together. Some coopers rotate their stock and have fewer staves per pallet to avoid this variation. 

Toasting is another source of significant variation between barrels. Most barrels are exposed to fire to allow the staves to be bent and are then toasted to change the nature and quantity of flavor molecules that are released into the wine. All coopers have their own recipe for this process. Some use higher temperature fires for shorter periods of time while others use lower temperature for longer periods. Some coopers use infrared thermometers to toast to a specific temperature while others add sensory evaluation (aroma and color) to judge when the desired toast level has been achieved. Some turn the barrels over the flame more frequently than others. If you have ever grilled meat on a wood fire, you understand what a difference these variables can make in the final product.

Dodon visits Tonnellerie Sylvain in July 2017.

Because of variation in cooper style, it’s often the case that very well-made barrels pair poorly with wine from a single vineyard, or even plot within a vineyard. Many of the best winemakers use an extensive process to evaluate barrels. Several months ago, Polly and I were invited by Eloi Jacob, general manager at Chȃteau Fonplegade, to taste a single lot of 2016 Merlot that had been aged in ten barrels from seven different coopers. We were joined by our consultant Steve Blais, the Fonplegade winemaking team, and representatives from most of cooperages. The tasting was blind to all of those participating, and Eloi had developed a thorough scoring sheet that we used to compare and contrast the aromas and palate of each sample. The differences between the ten samples was stunning. 

At Dodon, we also conduct systematic trials of barrels from new coopers to find the right barrels for a wine. Each barrel is tasted and scored for flavor components at least three times in the first year of use.  As a result, over the past five years we’ve moved from an even mix of fine and medium grain and toast levels to very fine grains, thin staves, and lower toasts. (Unfortunately, the move to finer grains and lower oak impact also moves us further from the species of oak that grows at Dodon, Quercus alba, so it’s unlikely that we’ll make our own “Dodon” barrels any time soon.) For the 2017 vintage, we purchased from only one of the six coopers we started with five years ago. We’ve instead started working with four smaller coopers who are willing to fine tune the toasts, perhaps adding a minute or two to the standard recipe for a specific situation.  

Continuous evaluation and improvement is a very healthy process, one that we embrace fully. We have tasted recent vintages of Dodon wines with most of the coopers that we work with, but to have representatives from all our coopers participate in a single blind evaluation of each other’s barrels would result a much more thorough, critical evaluation. In the end, selecting barrels is a continuous process of systematic trials combined with rigorous evaluative techniques such as the one used by Fonplegade. 

August Updates

Dodon Welcomes Seth McCombs  Polly and I are very pleased to introduce Seth McCombs as Dodon’s new Assistant Winemaker. Seth comes to Dodon with 15 years of vineyard and winery experience in Virginia and North Carolina. Born and raised in Lynchburg, Seth started in 2002 in the laboratory at Chateau Morisette where he quickly developed his passion for wine and, like most of us in the industry, learned many parts of the wine business outside his job description. In 2006, he moved to Raffaldini Vineyard and Winery, where he served as Assistant Winemaker, and then in 2011, he became Winemaker at AmRhein Wine Cellars, where he was responsible for a 30-acre vineyard as well as cellar operations. While at Raffaldini, Seth studied Enology and Viticulture at Surry Community College. He was most recently Winegrower at Capstone Vineyards in Linden, Virginia. 

Dodon's new assistant winemaker Seth McCombs (left), Tom (middle), and BJ (right), harvest intern, prepare for bottling. 

Dodon's new assistant winemaker Seth McCombs (left), Tom (middle), and BJ (right), harvest intern, prepare for bottling. 

All of us on the Dodon team are thrilled that Seth and his family – Stephanie, Arlo, and Maggie - have been able to join us mid-season for the 2017 harvest, and we hope many more. You will quickly recognize them for their outgoing, easy-going spirits and the fastest smiles in the Mid-Atlantic.

We will, of course, miss former vineyard manager Nick Maliska, who has taken a cellar position at Pritchard Hill’s Ovid  in Napa Valley. Nick was with us during a period of rapid evolution and growth.  We wish Nick, Lizzie, Sophie, and Loie all the best in the next phase of their wine journey.

Brief Vintage Update  The bird nets are all up, so our attention is quickly turning to preparing to bottle 800 cases of wine this Friday, August 18. I’m excited about all the wines, especially the 2015 Oronoco and Dungannon. We’re also getting ready for the harvest. The season has been shaping up nicely. Veraison came early, July 20 in Block 40 (Merlot), and went quickly, with superb uniformity across all the blocks. This means that the fruit will ripen evenly and allow us to fully extract all the flavors, always an exciting prospect for a winemaker. The modest rains have kept the wines in peak condition, allowing photosynthesis to work its magic, as have the cooler temperatures with lots of clear sunshine. 

The yields look excellent, just where we expected them. As usual, the Sauvignon is likely to be the first pick, probably the end of August, followed a week or so later by the Chardonnay.  I’m looking forward to having new clones of each of these varieties come into production this year, especially the musqué clones that will add significantly to the aromatic character of the wines. Steve Blais, our consulting winemaker, and Lucie Morton, our viticulturist, are planning to visit the third week in September, just in time for the first Merlot pick. 

So far, so good. Mother Nature has been smiling. We're excited by the vintage.

What are Dodon Soils?

When Polly and I were in Bordeaux a few years ago, we visited Damien Bielle, technical director at Château La Gaffelière. La Gaffelière is a Premier Grand Cru Classé estate that lies on the descending slope below St. Émilion’s famed limestone plateau. It’s adjacent to Château Ausone, one of only four class A château in the most recent St. Émilion classification. La Gaffelière is one of 14 Premier Grand Cru Classé B château.

As we looked up the hill, Damien explained how the special soil of the plateau and the hillside location had produced many of the region’s great wines. When we turned to return to the cellar, we could see Château Pavie, also Class A, to the southeast at the base of the slope where the soil becomes more alluvial and sandy, where one might think the soils would be less likely to produce the stunning wines of the plateau. When we asked Damien how Pavie achieved its status despite the presumed challenges of its site, Damien’s response was matter of fact and utilitarian. “They know how to farm it,” he said. 

It turns out that the four St. Émilion class A chateau – Ausone, Angelus, Cheval Blanc, and Pavie –each have very different soils from one another, and even within their vineyards, there is considerable variation. The key is that the wine growers at each site intimately understand their soils, and they adapt their viticultural and winemaking methods accordingly. 

How are soils classified?

Because soils across the world differ, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has created a comprehensive taxonomy that characterizes soils based on their characteristics and suitability for agriculture. There are six taxonomical levels. The highest, most general level is the soil order; the most specific is the series. There are 12 orders and more than 15,000 series. With so many series, the characteristics of the soils within each are very similar. 

There is no dominant soil order among the world’s wine growing regions, let alone specific series that are associated with the best wines. This fact alone leads to the conclusion that high quality wine grapes can be grown on different types of soils. Inceptisols are the most common soil order in Bordeaux, alfisols in Burgundy and the Loire, and mollisols in northern Italy, California, Oregon, and Washington, and the ancient wine regions of Armenia. Alfisols, which are good for many agricultural uses, are also found in Maryland and Virginia west of the fall line.  

Dodon’s soils substantially differ from those in other wine growing regions. Termed Marr-Dodon complex soils, they are described as fine-loamy (meaning smallish particle size), siliceous (having high levels of silica that warms the soil), semiactive (modest cation exchange associated with low fertility), mesic (medium temperature), aquic (Dodon series) or typic (Marr series) (aquic soils retain more water than typic) hapludults (derived from sandstone). 

Hapludults belong to the ultisols, an order found in humid climates and characterized by high degrees of weathering, mineral leaching, and acidity. They age very rapidly, leading to rapid turnover in rock and mineral content. With relatively low fertility, they are marginal agricultural soils that require significant inputs for most crops, but these characteristics make them good candidates for viticulture.  Ultisols have a well-developed reddish clay horizon (horizons are the distinctive layers that can be seen at various depths below the surface) associated with weathered sandstones and resulting in their common name “red clays” in the southeastern United States.

quartz river rock.jpeg

Dodon’s distinctive soils represent a considerable opportunity to make wine that will differ from those produced in other regions, even when the climate and grape variety are the same. The process of discovering what the final wines will be like adds enormously to the excitement and pleasure of our project. I often wonder whether Dodon Merlots will exhibit the power found in Pavie, the finesse in Cheval Blanc, the minerality in Angelus, some combination, or none of these. While we have some early hints, each vintage brings new learning. What we do know is that understanding the nuances of the vineyard soils and farming them with care and precision are essential to the process of discovery.

How do we study soil?

We started by understanding what we mean by soil, which usually depends on whom we are talking with. Engineers, concerned chiefly with the stability of buildings, roads, and other structures, define soil broadly as any material that can excavated without systematic drilling or blasting. In other words, to an engineer, soil is everything above bedrock, which is about 3,000 feet below the surface at Dodon. 

Soil scientists and farmers take a narrower view of soil, defining it as a medium that can support rooted plants. Soils that meet this definition vary in depth, mineral and rock composition, and hydrology. Since most agricultural plants are relatively shallow rooted, only surface soils have been surveyed by the United States Department of Agriculture. Dodon series soils have been characterized to a depth of 72 inches. Because grape vines can send roots more than 200 feet below the surface, they are influenced by soils well below typical agricultural assessments.

Even though soils within a series (Dodon series, for example), have very similar characteristics, there can be, and usually is, significant variation on any given parcel. At Dodon, geologist Bubba Beasley documented this variation using electromagnetic induction imaging to identify plots that differ according to water holding capacity, mineral content, and texture. The resulting image represents a rich mosaic of individual plots, each created hundreds of millions of years ago and transported to Maryland’s western shore uplands. (I’ll describe the origins of Dodon’s soil in a subsequent post.)  

Uploaded by The Vineyards at Dodon on 2014-09-05.

How do we use our understanding?

We used the information from the survey to lay out the vineyard in ways that would maximize our chances of creating complex, balanced wine. For example, Merlot grown on clay soils tends to have more structure and intensity than those grown on sandy soils, where the wines are often described as elegant and finessed. Because we think of Merlot as foundational for Dodon wines, most of our Merlot is planted on plots with more clay where we hope it will have good intensity and structure. 

The information from our survey allows us to precisely farm each plot. For example, areas of the vineyard dominated by sand and gravel have less water holding capacity than areas with more clay. We are a bit quicker to irrigate those parts of vineyard. Because of the leaching, we include calcium and magnesium in our nutrient management program, providing small amounts of these essential elements to thicken grape skins and provide both more flavor and better disease resistance. 

Bubba found that some parts of the vineyard were nearly “dead,” with compacted grey soil that lacked microbial and insect life, undoubtedly the result of fifty years of “conventional” agriculture characterized by excessive use of herbicide and inorganic fertilizers, and by compaction associated with use of heavy equipment. The wines from these areas of the vineyard are weak, lacking the structure and fatness that we want for Dungannon and Oronoco. To restore life to these plots, we’ve been using deep tillage, adding compost and compost teas, and strategically planting deep rooted cover crops to create better soil structure and allow oxygen to enter the soil. 

It’s all, of course, a bit of an experiment, with educated guesses dominating our hypotheses. Because the soils differ from those in other parts of the wine growing world, we can’t merely duplicate their methods. And even after hundreds, or even thousands, of years, the Bordelais are still learning. A winemaker from Pomerol recently told us that he had been working for 43 years to improve one plot of Cabernet Franc that consistently ripened a week or two after the others in his vineyard. His last experiment involved adding river gravel to the soil. Even though he added only a small amount, the result was higher sugar levels but also green notes in the final wine, making him worse off than he had been. If the Bordelais don’t have all the answers for their plots after thousands of years of experience, we can’t really know after just ten how to optimize the wine from any given plot at Dodon. And so we've started on a long and interesting journey of discovery and learning. 

Occasional Notes

The growing season officially started Monday with bud break in the Nebbiolo in the experimental vineyard, and a few Chardonnay in block 9 (the third leaf vines) of the commercial vineyard. It’s always exciting, accompanied by both celebration and a touch of angst.

I’ve been asked quite a bit about the effects of March’s cold spell. The short answer is that it delayed vine phenology, reducing the risk that a late season frost would cause bud damage. It also gave us time that would otherwise have been lost to the warm winter to finish pruning.

But as always with nature, the longer answer is much more complicated. False springs, like the period that preceded the March cold spell, are increasingly common, and they can be very disruptive to balance in the vineyard. At Dodon, we’re especially concerned about the consequences on pest control. For example, insect pests like grape berry moth are more likely to survive winter, hatch earlier, and have more generations during the growing season, but natural predators do not necessarily keep the same schedule. Increasing insect species diversity, which we hope will mitigate these pest/predator timing mismatches, is the chief motivation for Dodon’s new cover crop project. It will take a few years to get established, but in the coming years, crops like mustard, buckwheat, cowpeas, and bachelor buttons may be as common as grapevines in the vineyard. As Bob Cannard says, “Half for you, half for nature.”

Our ancestors probably knew much more about maintaining balanced ecosystems than we do now. I’m often reminded about how much wisdom we’ve lost, most recently by a remarkable report published in Nature. Sequencing the DNA from the calculus of 40,000 year old Neanderthal with a dental abscess revealed evidence of salicyclic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin) and Penicillium (the fungus that produces the antibiotic penicillin). While we can’t know for sure, Neanderthals appear to have learned to use the tools at hand as very sophisticated medical treatments, knowledge that we subsequently lost only to rediscover, and then overuse, in the post-Pasteur era.

Winter 2017 Update

Winter is pruning time, and no matter how long we think it will last when viewed from November, the season always passes too quickly. There are lots of competing demands, and sometimes, like this year, it is cut short by warm weather. But like all cultural practices in the vineyard, we don’t cut corners.


Pruning is a critical task that helps regulate vigor and yield for the coming season. At Dodon, we typically remove as much old wood as possible, using a technique known as cane pruning to reduce levels of fungal inoculum. Assuming the vines were balanced during the previous season, this method assures optimal shoot spacing and the number of fruitful buds per vines. Beyond these basic principles, that are lots of decisions to be made. For example, we always wonder whether to leave an “insurance cane” that would provide extra buds in the event of extraordinary cold that can kills buds during the height of winter.

But now winter is merging into spring, and the vineyard team is rushing to finish pruning and tying the vines. The warm weather has made the work pleasant enough, but to be honest, we would prefer biting cold and snow until late March. By keeping the soil cold, these conditions help maintain dormancy and delay bud break until later in the season when there is less risk of damage from a late season frost. We’ve also noticed that cold soil helps synchronize bloom across varieties, a significant work saver in early June when things are busy in the vineyard. By killing eggs and larva, very cold weather also reduces insect pest pressure throughout the season. All told, we’re glad to see a week or two of colder weather in the forecast.

Why do we care so much about Dodon soils?

Grapevines grow just fine in water supplemented with a few nutrients, a method known as hydroponics. Growing hydroponically has lots of advantages. Because it can be done indoors, hydroponics allows perfect temperature control, and it avoids disease pressure often associated with rain, humidity, and insects. Vegetative growth can easily be regulated by adjusting the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the amount of nitrogen in the aqueous solution. It’s little wonder that tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables, and most commercial marijuana are grown hydroponically.

But many wine growers stubbornly cling to ancient notions of terroir, the idea that the place in which the fruit is grown has a major influence on the taste of the final product. These “terroirists” view themselves as interpreters of their vineyards and not as creators of a wine. They view wines that express the characteristics of the vineyard, such as the minerality often seen in cool climates with limestone derived soils, as ambassadors of “place,” and by association, the vineyard, the farm, and the surrounding community.

There are several ways in which soil can affect the way that wine tastes. The first, and probably the most important, is the movement, distribution, and purity of water in the soil. The amount of water available to plants is determined by the soil’s slope, texture, rock and organic matter content, and depth. Vines in areas with too much water available to them tend to grow vigorously, using energy to produce more foliage than is optimal to ripen the fruit. Indeed, wine grapes tend to do best in conditions of modest water deficit during ripening, and it’s this characteristic that has resulted in the aphorism that vines must “struggle” to produce the best wine.

Soil mineral content plays a substantial role in shaping the characteristics of wine. Minerals in soil largely come from weathering rocks, but they have a much more ancient origin, forming just a few million years after the Big Bang. Most of the earth’s 4,500 known minerals are composed of combinations of just six elements – oxygen, silica, aluminum, calcium, magnesium, and iron. For the most part, the effects of minerals on wine are indirect. For example, in wet conditions, orthoclase feldspar (composed of silica, oxygen, and potassium) is converted to kaolinite clay, releasing potassium that is taken up by vines and transported to the berries. During fermentation, high levels of potassium can precipitate tartrates and reduce acid levels, giving wine a flat, flabby taste. On the other hand, high levels of dolomite (an oxide of calcium and magnesium) compete with potassium uptake, thus increasing wine acids, and it is associated with thick skins, resulting in resistance to infection and more intense flavor in the wine.

Finally, living organisms in soil directly and indirectly influence the characteristics of wine. Microbes – bacteria, yeasts, fungi – provide nutrients in digestible forms to the vines, and they compete with plant pathogens. They digest dead plants and animals to form organic matter that acts as a store for nutrients and water. Many microbes make their way into the fermentation tanks, altering fermentation kinetics and the flavors that result. Larger organisms, such as insects and worms, modify soil structure, allowing better drainage and oxygenation that promote vine health and ripe fruit. Together with the other components of soil, living organisms help to form a dynamic, complex ecosystem that is constantly changing and renewing itself.

Those of you who have toured with us know the effort that we’ve made to understand Dodon’s soil and its origins, the care we’ve taken to select the most appropriate varieties and rootstocks, and the attention we’ve paid to laying out the vineyard to best match the plants with the underlying soil. Despite

the potential of hydroponics to make consistently good wine, we’ve chosen the more difficult, potentially more costly traditional methods because we believe that soil plays an essential role in crafting wines of depth, harmony, and balance that reflect the place in which they were grown. In subsequent posts, I’ll describe the story of Dodon soils, where they come from, what they are, and how they make Dodon wines.

Looking Beyond Organic Certification

I’m often asked when leading guests on a tour in the vineyard whether Dodon is “organic,” or at least aspires to be certified as an organic vineyard. It’s a fair question. In many ways, we fit the common image of organic farmers. On a summer visit, you will find our vineyard team out with hoes, clippers, and other hand tools, carefully cultivating the soil and tending the vines. Regulations governing organic certification require practices that are standard operating procedures at Dodon, such as use of organic composts, mechanical weeding, and use of biological controls for insect pests. These methods are labor intensive and expensive, and they illustrate our commitment to sustainability, ecologically-friendly practices, and a balanced ecosystem.

But the answer to the question is no. Dodon is not, and does not aspire to be, certified as an organic vineyard.

Despite the pastoral image of the organic farmer, the main difference between organically certified and conventional agriculture is the use of synthetic pesticides. Organic certification standards allow use of non-synthetic, and a few synthetic, chemicals, while conventional agriculture does not have any restrictions regarding use of synthetic compounds. Because non-synthetic substances are derived from biological (e.g., Bacillus thuringiensis toxin), botanical (e.g., neem and pyrethrins), or other sources (e.g., minerals such as sulfur and copper), they are considered more “natural.”

But non-synthetic chemicals are still chemicals, and they are often toxic to non-target organisms, including people. Take pyrethrins, a group of six naturally occurring substances derived from Chrysanthemums. These plant extracts have been used as insecticides for millennia, and depending on the specific extraction methods, many are certified for organic use. Pyrethrins are highly effective against a broad range of insect pests. Unfortunately, they are also highly toxic to beneficial insects, such as honey bees and other pollinators, much more so than many synthetic insecticides that target a narrower range of insects.

Because the real differences between conventional and organically-certified agriculture are small, some of the most ecologically-minded farmers have chosen to forego certification. They believe that meeting certification requirements is a diversion from the real objective to produce healthy food in a sustainable manner and may be detrimental to the crop and the environment. When Polly and I were in California last summer, we visited one such farmer, Bob Cannard, at Green String Farm whose produce is served at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ well known Berkeley restaurant. Bob is widely known for his visionary, yet radically unconventional, approach to growing fruits and vegetables.

Bob Cannard with students at Green String Institute. If you look closely you will see the vegetables (our half) among the diverse cover crops (nature’s half).

Bob Cannard with students at Green String Institute. If you look closely you will see the vegetables (our half) among the diverse cover crops (nature’s half).

Bob believes that healthy, tasty, nutritionally complete plants are the result of a large and diverse population of microorganisms in the soil. These microbes fix nitrogen, digest carbon containing organic matter, secrete acids that break down rocks into minerals, and protect roots from invading pests. Creating this diversity requires that we renew the soil with a complex diet of composts, shells, rocks, and decomposing plant material from diverse forbs that also provide habitat for beneficial insects. Bob summarizes it with the phrase, “Half for you, half for nature.” Failure to feed nature its portion leads to imbalanced and depleted soil, unhealthy plants, and inferior food.

None of this diversity and balance is required for organic certification. Most of the organic produce in your local grocery store comes from farms that may meet certification requirements, but they are just as sterile as conventional farms. These farms are home to single crops treated with (organic) chemicals such as sulfur and copper that reduce microbiological life in the soils. In the extreme, some organically certified produce is now grown indoors in water supplemented with nutrients, no soil or biodiversity required.

Cabernet Franc vines after the 2014 harvest in Dodon’s experimental vineyard. The vines on the left, treated using standard pesticides as recommended by the extension service, defoliated following infection with Downy Mildew. The organically treated vines on the right held their leaves much longer, but note the telltale blue tint of the copper.

Cabernet Franc vines after the 2014 harvest in Dodon’s experimental vineyard. The vines on the left, treated using standard pesticides as recommended by the extension service, defoliated following infection with Downy Mildew. The organically treated vines on the right held their leaves much longer, but note the telltale blue tint of the copper.

Our trials at Dodon, done in partnership with Virginia Tech plant pathologist Mizuho Nita, convinced me that while we could successfully produce high quality fruit in most years using methods that would allow organic certification, the environmental costs would exceed those associated with a more ecologically-based program that includes judicious use of synthetic pesticides. For example, while copper adequately protected the vines from fungal pests, it required very high doses that would in the long run poison the soil and reduce microbial life. And a combination of pyrethrins and pepper spray reduced Japanese beetle pressure, but we had to apply it three times a week, reducing beneficial insect levels and creating more problems.

None of this discussion should be taken as criticism of the organic farming movement. By and large, it’s a big step in the right direction. But because the methods required for certification did not advance our environmental or winemaking goals, we’ve chosen to look beyond organic agriculture to a more ecologically friendly approach. In future posts, I’ll talk about what we are doing to create a sustainable, balanced ecosystem that is rich in diverse bacterial, insect, and plant species. We hope that these new techniques will result in healthier vines, earlier ripening, and better wine, all with fewer chemicals, organic or otherwise.


Happy New Year

Happy New Year!  We just left the cellar, sniffing, tasting, listening, and stirring one last time in 2016. The ‘16 vintage is coming around nicely. The Sauvignon Blanc and Rosé are developing the flavors and weight that characterize the Dodon site. They’ll be ready for bottling March. The Chardonnay has finished themalolactic fermentation and is settling in for its year-long elévage. The primary fermentations (the conversion of sugar to alcohol) are yet to finish in the reds, but the familiar snap, crackle, pop from the bung hole prove the yeast are still working.

The rest of the team has been off the past week to spend time with their families after the bustle of the season. The quiet and calm of the cellar, and the repetitive task of stirring each barrel is the perfect time to reflect on why we make wine. It is a challenging and humbling job. While the seasonal rhythms are comforting, nature is a powerful force and dictates the timeline. There are no choices; we have to be ready for each season. Learning to live in harmony and balance with nature’s forces will take a lifetime, and it’s not something we will ever fully understand.

Why do we do it? Well, we love the challenge of learning to live with nature. But mostly we appreciate the connections with people. We’ve made many new friends this year. The diversity of our wine club members is stunning – scientists, diplomats, business people, environmentalists, farmers, musicians, even an archeologist who has restored a winery that is more than 4000 years old. And our Dodon team is growing as we increase production. Regina Mc Carthy (and her family) joined Dodon this year as the Director of Client Services; Steve Blais from Pomerol became our new consulting winemaker; and we hired a new vineyard associate, Mario Amaya-Rubio. Two newborns- Roberto’s daughter, Jacabeth, and Nick’s daughter, Lois – are of course the best of the ‘16 vintage. Each child reminds us that we are simply stewards, not owners, of land borrowed from the next generation. Good wine brings us together to talk, to learn, and to understand, all while enjoying the beauty that nature gives us. This is what wine does best.

We are thankful for the opportunity to make wine for you, we are grateful to all who have joined us at Dodon over the past year, and we very much look forward to spending 2017 with you.

All the best for the new year.

2016 Vintage Summary

The red wines are now in tank, primary fermentations nearly complete, extended macerations underway, and the conversion from malic acid to lactic acid getting starting. While the next movement of the vintage is still being written, the personality of the growing season is now clear. Starting, as spring always does, with anticipation and hope, the rhythm quickly began alternating between moments of dramatic threat and pastoral idyll. Like Sibelius’ second symphony, the sense was that of an ongoing conversation between death and salvation, personified by increasing tension, fatigue, and anxiety before ending in a final heroic conclusion.

As we reported in June, spring was characterized by a warm March, freezing temperatures in early April, and cold temperatures during bloom that all combined to reduce crop loads by about a quarter. The cold of spring gave way to scorching summer temperatures, with more than twice the average number of days over 90 degrees than is typical. Red spider mites thrived in the heat, puncturing leaf cells to feed on the chlorophyll needed to ripen the fruit. I remember walking the vineyard in late August thinking the vines looked tired, giving the period after veraison a Sisyphean quality. The variation in ripening was startling, with green berries remaining into September in the Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot blocks, despite two “green harvest” passes to remove lagging clusters.

Phenol development was also out of sync. In temperate years, grape anthocyanins (the chemicals responsible for color) and skin tannins (responsible for structure) develop in parallel. But this year, the anthocyanins developed early and then dropped off as the skin tannins matured. Since overall structure, balance, and age worthiness are in part related to the anthocyanin to skin tannin ratio, picking decisions assumed extraordinary significance.

The next threat was posed by Hurricane Ermine in early September. While she eventually went east, we hustled to get the harvest started in earnest. The Sauvignon blocks gave a solid yield, 3.5 tons, with good acids and sugars. Like 2015, we macerated one lot to add depth and interest to the wine, and this year, we fermented a small amount in oak to add roundness for the blend with Chardonnay. As we reported in the June newsletter, the combination of frost and shatter significantly reduced the size of the Chardonnay crop to 1.8 tons, about half the 2015 yield. This year, we picked about two-thirds on September 12, when there were more apple and other ester derived flavors, and the remainder on September 21 at much higher levels of sugar and ripeness to add body and weight to the final wine.

The final push came in early October. An inch of rain on September 19, followed by cooler temperatures, replaced toil with an ethereal, peaceful tone in the vineyard. But the bliss was short. The threat of 7-10 inches of rain and then a hurricane (Matthew) came just a week later. While we were lucky to have just 2½ inches before picking the red varieties, the berries swelled and many split, motivating long hours at the sorting table to select the best fruit for the wines. The mood at the table was resolute. It helped to remember that winemaking is 90% perspiration, with just hints of inspiration mixed in.

Like Sibelius, we can end on a hopeful note, celebrating the summer and the harvest. Despite the small yields, about what we expected after bloom, the effort was enormous. The product is, however, worthy of that effort. Despite the heat, flavors and color are superb, and in an unusual twist, the acid levels are nearly perfect, giving the wines an unusual level of harmony and balance this early in their development. Sometimes early mischief in children gives way to creativity and brilliance in adults. Like parents, we’re looking forward to raising these wines, watching their personalities unfold.

One Winegrower's Take on GMOs

Support for genetically modified organisms or GMOs got quite a boost this summer when the National Academy of Sciences released their most recent report on GMOs, concluding that, compared to “conventionally” farmed crops, GMOs have had generally, but not uniformly, positive effects on producer income and that they are safe to eat. To be sure, the NAS committee comprehensively reviewed the literature comparing GMOs with conventionally farmed crops, so from this perspective, it fulfilled its narrow statement of task. But many winegrowers will view the scope of the report as limited, comparing two largely technologically driven agricultural methods but leaving out more ecologically-based methods that rely on diversified ecosystems to improve quality and increase yields.

What we now call conventional farming has its origins in the Green Revolution, an effort led by Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug to increase crop yields, defined as the number of calories produced per acre of agriculture. Relying on high yield, disease resistant varieties, mechanization, and inorganic fertilizers, the then new agriculture virtually eliminated famine in India, China, and Latin America in the years following World War II. But these techniques also came with challenges. The focus on a few varieties reduced genetic variation and thus increased susceptibility to some diseases. Widespread use of pesticides resulted in increasing resistance to them among the very insects and weeds they were intended to treat, and overuse of fertilizers has polluted ground and other waterways, including the Chesapeake Bay.

GMO technology is largely intended to solve the problems associated with now conventional farming while continuing the search for increasing yield. After a quarter century of experience with crops modified to resist insect pests and herbicides, which represent the majority of commercially available GMOs, some progress is being made. Bt maize is a type of corn modified to secrete a natural bacterial toxin effective against corn borer caterpillars. Use of Bt maize has been shown to increase yields by about 9%, and because it is associated with reduced use of alternative, broader spectrum pesticides, its use also appears to be associated with increased diversity of beneficial insects in farm fields. The benefits of herbicide (usually glyphosate) resistant crops are less apparent. Yields have not increased in most cases, and because the gene has “drifted,” many weeds are now also resistant to this once useful product. And our colleagues Claude and Lydia Bourguignon have shown that use of these herbicides has reduced microbiological activity in soil by as much as 85%, reducing both quality and pest resistance among food crops.

In contrast to the genetic techniques that produce GMO crops, agroecological methods (the approach that we take at Dodon) blend respect for traditional farming with modern tools. For example, creating a diverse agricultural ecosystem that provides habitat for beneficial insects appears to reduce dependence on chemical insecticides. According to Miguel Altieri, Professor of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at the University of California in Berkeley, these methods have increased yields by 30-50% when compared with conventional methods, much better than the 9% increase seen in studies of GMOs. Altieri has also documented similar benefits using agroecological techniques at Benziger Family Vineyards in Sonoma.

At Dodon, we’re very concerned about some of the unintended consequences of GMOs that were not considered in the NAS report. As weeds have become resistant to glyphosate, several seed companies have created crops that are also resistant to broadleaf, growth regulator herbicides such as 2,4-D, dicamba, and triclopyr. Drift of these herbicides, sometimes over many miles, is common, and they are highly toxic to grapevines. Indeed, we have already seen what we think is triclopyr injury in some of our younger Chardonnay blocks. The source of the triclopyr isn’t clear; it could be a neighboring farm using it in a no-till system, a lawn care company, or a tree company clearing road or power line rights-of-way. What is clear is that widespread adoption of herbicide resistant crops will only increase use of these products on farms, and hence the associated risk to our vines. It’s an issue that keeps me awake at night.

Healthy Chardonnay leaves are shown on the left; on the right note the curled edges and differences in color and lobulation that could be the result of triclopyr exposure.

Healthy Chardonnay leaves are shown on the left; on the right note the curled edges and differences in color and lobulation that could be the result of triclopyr exposure.

The focus on yield and a few other traits, such as shelf life, has resulted in striking loss of genetic variation in food crops. Before the Green Revolution, about 30,000 varieties of rice were cultivated around the world. Currently just ten varieties make up the vast majority of rice production. GMO crops are likely to reduce this further. Yet there is a price to pay. Think about the taste of tomatoes at chain grocery stores compared to those you get at the local farmers’ market. Food, like wine, is an ambassador of its community, reflecting the tastes, values, and traditions of the people who live there. When we lose the unique qualities of our local food, we lose something of ourselves.

This is not to say that GMOs are intrinsically bad. They are powerful tools that should be used in appropriate circumstances. Similar genetic methods are being studied to treat cancer, hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and many other diseases. In agriculture, the Golden Rice Project is a global effort to use genetically modified rice to reduce Vitamin A Deficiency, a global public health problem that causes 500,000 cases of blindness and 2 million deaths in the developing world each year. It is this opportunity that recently caused more than a hundred Nobel laureates to endorse the project. If GMOs can help solve a problem of this magnitude, then by all means consider them. But do so in the context of all the alternatives.

A long time ago, another Nobel laureate, Arno Penzias, told me that the measure of a scientist is the quality of the questions she asks, not the quality of the answers she provides, advice that has served as a guiding principle in many parts of my life. The NAS understands this principle very well, and in response it has designed processes to ensure that its committees ask the most salient questions to examine from all perspectives scientific issues of national and global importance. Above all else, this comprehensive, balanced approach is the reason that the nation’s leading scientists give freely of their time to serve on NAS committees.

But in the case of its GMO report, the NAS seems focused on whether or not to accept GMOs, a dichotomy that I would expect from the manufacturers of GMO seeds and the environmentalists who seek to ban them, but not from an authoritative source like the NAS. It would be better to ask who, what, when, where, and how GMOs should be used. When and in what contexts do they offer the best alternative to the problem to be solved? What criteria should be used to make decisions about their use, and who should make those decisions? How do they stack up against alternatives? As Dr. Penzias admonished, the most important thing is to ask the right questions.

News from the Vineyard: A June Update

The Bordelais say that the quantity of the vintage is determined in June and its quality is determined in September. That’s not quite true, but now that we’ve finished bloom and the fruit has set, we have a good sense that that the 2016 vintage will be on the small side. It started with the early bud break at the end of a very warm March, followed by two hard freezes in early April, and then cool, wet weather through the rest of April and most of May. The necessary handwork in the vineyard was unpleasant, and managing the tractors was tricky and sometimes dangerous.

Despite our best efforts, there was a great deal of bud loss during the freezes, especially in the Merlot blocks, that reduced the overall size of the crop by 30-50%. Keeping these vines balanced will be a challenge for the rest of the year. The cool stretch in April and May compounded the problem by inhibiting fruit set. This year, most of our clusters are tiny. The silver lining is that tiny clusters tend to be loose, reducing mildew pressure on each berry. And we’ve had fantastic weather during bloom, which reduces the likelihood of botrytis as harvest approaches.

But here is where June can influence quality as well as quantity. Each node in a grapevine has three buds. In good conditions, the primary develops into a mature shoot, sets two to four clusters depending on the variety, and results in uniform ripening. If for some reason the primary buds don’t develop, the secondary buds mature and set one or two clusters that ripen a week or two after the clusters on primary buds. Tertiary buds only mature when the others do not, and they do not produce fruitful shoots. Because of the cold weather, many of our vines have a mix of primary and secondary shoots, which means that ripening will not be uniform come harvest.

There are several approaches that we can take to minimize the challenges to quality in this situation. One is to drop the secondary clusters now, just after fruit set, when it is easy to distinguish primary from secondary shoots, but this risks excess vigor in the canopy. Foliage that is not balanced by the proper amount fruit results in methoxypyrazines that in turn lead to vegetal flavors, such as green pepper or asparagus, in the wine. The next option, the most likely, is to drop clusters that are slow to ripen at veraison. The third is to harvest from each vine twice, selecting only those clusters that are fully ripe each time. The fourth is to allow the clusters on the secondary clusters to “catch-up,” which usually happens very late in the year if we can let the fruit hang long enough. These last two options preserve the quantity of fruit harvested but are difficult to implement well.

We’ll have to keep a watchful eye out all season to see how things develop. As our friend Claude Bourguignon said, our challenge and our opportunity rests on our ability to be clever in the vineyard.

Are Time and Terroir an Illusion? Reflections on Mark Matthews’ new book, Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing.

Issac Newton described time in absolute terms that I find intuitive. It is the same everywhere, it has constant duration, and it flows continuously in the same direction. According to Craig Callender, Professor of Philosophy at University of California, San Diego, Newtonian time is a kind of master clock that carves our world into instants.

Over the past century, however, physicists have slowly chipped away at Newtonian time, so that most are now prepared to accept a timeless universe. Atomic clocks placed at the foot and summit of Mt. Washington do not give the same time 24 hours later. Experimental evidence from quantum mechanics has demonstrated that the future can influence the past. A single event is perceived as occurring at different times depending on the velocity at which an observer is moving. Stripped of these core features, is time nothing more than an illusion?

Claude & Lydia Bourguignon examine Dodon's soils.

Claude & Lydia Bourguignon examine Dodon's soils.

While physicists debate the existence of time, agricultural scientists have long argued about the existence of terroir, a term that describes site specific influences on how we perceive wine. The most recent attack comes from University of California Davis professor, Mark Matthews, in his recent book Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing. Professor Matthews offers a comprehensive synthesis of research on the interaction between soil and grapevines, and finds little to support the notion that soils or other features of terroir contribute any unique qualities to the wines grown in them. In a way, it’s comforting to hear, again, that fine wine can be grown on many different soils. Winegrowers in a new region like the mid-Atlantic will find it good to hear there are no innate barriers to greatness.

Still, while a terroirless world may be easier to accept than a timeless world, both contradict millennia of recorded human experience. We can all agree that a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Medoc and one from Napa Valley taste different. Likewise, Sauvignon Blanc from the eastern Loire and New Zealand taste different. There are, of course, many factors that could explain these differences, such climate and weather, and vineyard and winemaking practices. That said, even within our own vineyards at Dodon, the taste of Merlot grown on the clay/gravel soils of Block 21 differs from the taste of the same clone grown on the sandy loam of Block 28, despite similar treatment of both in the vineyard and the cellar. It seems logical to conclude that something about the soil – its composition, structure, aspect, drainage and water retention properties, and microbial flora – has had an influence on the way in which the wine tastes.

The challenge with Professor Matthews’ thesis is that he attempts to answer the big question about terroir without clearly defining the outcome. To be fair, we don’t know a great deal about what to look for, but there are some common themes. Wines grown on chalk or limestone soils, as in Chablis for example, tend to exhibit a sensory characteristic known as minerality. If minerality is caused by this soil characteristic, then we would expect to find it in wines grown on similar soils. This is exactly what we find at Dodon in those parts of the vineyard planted on soils with layers of weathering oyster shells that share mineral characteristics with limestone. There are other wine characteristics that also seem to correlate with soil properties. Wines grown on clay tend to have a sticky quality on the palate; likewise, those grown in loam can have a powdery feeling.

Instead of looking at these sensory attributes, however, researchers have assessed far cruder outcome measures related to fertility, plant growth, and ripeness. As Matthews points out, grapevines grow well even when raised in a soilless environment, but this doesn’t mean that wines grown in diverse soils all taste the same. Although plant and fruit characteristics are not the outcomes of interest when asking about terroir, even using these crude measures, the studies seem consistent with an effect of soil properties on wine. Water restriction, whether through deficit irrigation or natural drainage, results in more color. Nitrogen availability is loosely associated with yeast metabolism and production of aromatic molecules during fermentation.

There are other flaws in Matthews’ arguments against terroir, some of which are simply unrelated to the core question he sets out to answer. For example, he points out that for most of the recorded history of winegrowing, terroir and its related tastes – goût de terroir if you will – had a pejorative connotation. Terroir wines were considered of lower quality, perhaps because of poor sanitation in the cellar that led to infection with brettanomyces, a yeast that gives wine a barnyard-like aroma. This historical view is interesting, but it is irrelevant to any rigorous understanding of the effects of terroir on wine. The same might also be said for his argument that terroir is nothing more than the invention of Burgundian marketing departments. And some of the arguments seem pointless. Although wines grown in various places can be distinguished by their mineral content, it would be silly to believe that flavor molecules are transported directly from the soil to the wine, so why spend the reader’s time rebutting them.

The idea that both time and terroir are illusions rests on the absence of evidence that they really exist. In both cases, human experience tells us otherwise. We perceive that time flows from past to future, serves as a useful measure of things like the duration of events and speed of a car, and allows us to get to appointments as scheduled. Our palates tell us that wines differ when grown in different places. The purpose of science is to explain our observations, so I’m confident that the scientists will eventually find the reasons for the discrepancy between their current research findings and our holistic experience. No fanciful belief in astral powers is required. In the meantime, the mysteries of both time and terroir are intellectually intriguing and fun to debate, so I plan to keep my watch handy and not miss tasting time.

2015 in Review

It was a busy year around Dodon. In February, Matthieu Finot joined the team as consulting winemaker. Matthieu’s training in Burgundy and his 23 years in Virginia bring remarkable experience and a steady hand to the cellar team. In March, we were joined by vineyard consultant Lucie Morton and geologist Bubba Beasley to map the vineyards using electromagnetic induction. Our immediate motivation was to find those areas most appropriate for each varietal for our April planting of eight acres and 16,000 vines.

The mapping also set the stage for a visit from Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, consultants to some of the world’s most prestigious vineyards including Domaine Laflaive and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy, Château Trolong Mondot in Saint-Émilion, and Harlan Estates in Napa Valley. Claude and Lydia are interested in the Mid-Atlantic as a wine growing region because of the age of the soils. This is especially true of the coastal plain of Maryland where the soils originated during the first uplifting of the Appalachian Mountains about 480 million years ago. As these ancient soils weather, the ever smaller particles create surface area that allows formation of new minerals that are in turn available to the vines, adding complexity and timeless soul to the wine. Claude and Lydia offered some practical vineyard and winery practices to emphasize these characteristics in Dodon wines.

The growing season was average at best, filled with the usual challenges that require uncompromising attention to every detail. Very cold temperatures in February, below 15 degrees in 2015, are the kinds of temperatures that reduce insect populations, especially sharpshooters that spread Pierce’s Disease, even though they make dormant pruning a sometimes chilly experience. Gradual warming brought a typical mid-April bud-break, but cooler temperatures later in the month led to slow shoot development and flea beetle damage. May brought very dry weather, tough on the new plantings, until bloom, when a cool, wet stretch interfered with fruit set. The latter had two unexpected benefits. First, while the wet weather makes late season rots like botrytis more common, this year it also thinned the clusters in a way that partially mitigated that risk. Second, it allowed Tom to express his natural “farmer’s pessimism.” Put another way, it reminded us that nature is always in charge around the vineyard.

The remainder of the summer was largely hot and dry until harvest, when wet weather began with five inches of rain the third week in September. The new plants grew very slowly, good in the long run from a quality perspective, but also resulting in delays in production from those vines and in some cases, loss of the wines. Like most things, these conditions have advantages and disadvantages for bearing vines. The chief advantage is that it slows growth of the foliage and encourages early veraison, allowing the vine to put more energy into ripening the fruit. On the other hand, hot dry conditions encourage increases in potassium uptake, resulting in lower acid levels and wines that can taste “flabby.” On balance, since we can achieve the benefits of the dry conditions by letting the grass and weeds grow to compete with the vines for nutrients, we would have preferred a bit more rain this summer.

Harvest was, well, harvest. A low pressure system stalled off the Carolinas, bringing daily threats of rain and twice daily weather reports from our friend and colleague Bob Marshall, founder of the WeatherBug network. The rains during flowering and again in September created the conditions for late season bunch rots and led to marathon sessions at the sorting table. That said, despite year of almost perfectly backwards weather, we finished with 17 tons of excellent fruit that will produce about 1200 cases of wine that demonstrate the exceptional power, elegance, and harmony of the Dodon site.

The Dungannon Legend

As those of you who have toured the vineyard with me know, we’ve spent a great deal of time trying to understand Dodon’s ancient soils and the agriculture that has influenced their current expression. One dominant theme is tobacco, which stripped much of the land of organic matter, nutrients, and microbial activity, making this a terrific site for wine growing. We often comment that we can taste these old tobacco plantings in our Cabernet Sauvignon, enough so that we decided to call our Cabernet-based blend “Oronoco” after the variety of tobacco grown here.

The second theme is thoroughbred horses. The story about the match race held May 4, 1743, between Dungannon, a horse imported from England by George Hume Steuart, and a horse from the stable of Charles Carroll of Annapolis is the stuff of legend. Steuart purchased Dodon from Nicholas Carroll in 1725 and was thus the first of the nine generations of our family to live and work here. We’ll celebrate this event on May 14th with release of Dodon’s first Collectors wine, also named Dungannon, and a race rematch between horses ridden by Polly’s brother Steuart and Randall Pearre, a descendent of Charles Carroll.

Because the Maryland Gazette was not published between 1734 and 1745, we know don’t very much about the origins of the race or why the Steuarts and the Carrolls were the protagonists. Both families were wealthy landowners and horsemen, and they may have participated in the horse races that took place during 1720s and 30s at the city fairground north of West Street. According to Jane McWilliams, in Annapolis, City on the Severn, by the 1740s, the horse races were better attended than the fairs and were a source of entertainment.

In my musings, I like to think of the Steuart vs. Carroll race as nothing more than a pleasurable way for friends to spend a spring afternoon, perhaps a bit fancier and more embellished than the races that preceded it, but a pastime none-the-less. The trophy for the race, a silver punch bowl called the Annapolis Subscription Plate, was much fancier than the spoons given the winners of prior Annapolis races. It is described as the oldest surviving silver object minted in Maryland and the second oldest horse-racing trophy in America.

But legend and verifiable truth are sometimes hard to disentangle. Most tellings suggest that the Steuarts issued a serious challenge to the Carrolls, but the reason is not described. Once again, according to Jane McWilliams, George Hume Steuart and Charles Carroll had many disagreements in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, but whether these played a role in a 1743 challenge to defend family honor isn’t known. The Maryland Jockey Club was formed at about the same time as the race, but its role in planning that race is unknown. Certainly the Jockey Club would soon organize Annapolis Race Week, a significant annual event attended by George Washington, and it went on to play an important role in the growth of horse racing throughout the country. Dungannon must have won the race, since the trophy ended up in the Steuart family and was later loaned in 1932 by family descendants to the Baltimore Museum of Art, where it remains on display to this day.

Nostalgia and hyperbole aside, we love the story and hope to add to it with the May 14th rematch. Horse racing, like wine growing, is about connecting with nature, heightening our senses, and most importantly sharing a pleasurable moment with friends and family. And like this historical narrative, really great wines are full of intellectual intrigue and hedonistic surprise, constantly drawing you back to the glass to find its subtle nuance. In this way, Dungannon, the legendary horse, and Dungannon, the wine, share a great deal.

Dancing with Nature

We are often asked in the depth of winter about the effect of cold temperatures on the vines. Usually, the answer is that cold weather during winter dormancy is good for them. Chardonnay and Merlot are the least cold hearty varieties at Dodon, and even these tolerate temperatures as low as -3 degrees F before there is any bud loss.

It’s a much different case in the spring, however. As the vines begin to emerge from dormancy, they are much less tolerant of the cold. The picture, taken this morning, shows a second leaf Chardonnay vine with buds in various stages of growth. Near the bottom, the buds are barely swollen and still very dormant. Buds at this stage will tolerate temperatures in the single digits. Moving up the vine, the buds are progressively swollen, near to the point of bud “break.” About half of buds at this stage will die when the temperatures reach 27 degrees F. Once the leaves have started to separate, they become progressively more susceptible to cold injury, as is the case with the bud at the top of the vine.

The vines at Dodon emerged from dormancy especially early this year after an unusually warm March. The temperature in the vineyard at 6am Wednesday morning was 23.2 degrees F, clearly well into the danger zone. We had prepared for the predicted cold by mowing the grass very short to capture as much warmth in the soil as possible, by cultivating the non-bearing blocks with small vines, and by spraying a mixture of potassium, calcium, and seaweed that alters the physiology of the vine in ways that mimic their dormant state.

Despite the extreme cold, the vineyard seems to be in good shape so far. We lost about half of the buds that had broken, but these are largely confined to the second leaf blocks of Chardonnay, where during our winter pruning, we left more buds that are needed for the coming vintage. Buds on the nearing vines appear healthy. More cold is on the way, with low temperatures in the high 20’s predicted, so we will spray again today. If an inversion is forecast (where warmer air is above a layer of very cold air at the surface), we will build fires at the bottom of each block to facilitate air circulation.

2013 Harvest Review

Harvest is over. The wines are pressed and aging in barrels. Careful attention to detail and patience have taken over where organized bedlam and urgency once reigned. It’s snowing as I write – a good time to reflect.

IMG_1083The weather, cool and wet most of the season, had turned perfect – hot days, coolish nights, and no rain – in mid-August. The downy mildew we had been battling all summer dried up. But as September progressed, the unusual features of the vintage became the dominant trend.  The sugars jumped quickly, ranging from 23.5 degrees brix in block 21 to 25.5 in the Petit Verdot in block 23, and then didn’t move much. Then, on September 25, the acids started to drop quickly. It started with the Merlot in block 21 and went quickly across the vineyard over the next week. Because high acid levels protect the fruit from botrytis and other late season mildews, loss of acid is always a worrisome event. Heavy rain or even dew could mean the fruit will start to break down.

So we started picking – 3000 pounds of Merlot from block 21 and 1500 pounds of Cabernet Franc from block 22 on September 28. After the first few rows of Merlot, we had three teams working simultaneously. Under Mike’s steady hand, the pickers filled the lugs and sent them to the crush pad crew, led by my mother, where we weighed, destemmed, sorted, crushed, and moved the fruit to the tanks. Rocky and John were in the cellar, taking care of the routine monitoring, drawing a saignee for the Rose, and testing the must. The fruit was beautiful.

Tank 9 was filled with Merlot by lunch, when the pickers started sending the Cab Franc. In contrast to the Merlot, the yields were low, in part because we pulled out nearly 200 diseased vines last winter. To get an optimal fermentation temperature, we try to fill the containers, but even our small tanks are too big for 1,500 pounds. Based on his experience in Pomerol and Napa, Rocky suggested we pop the tops from some barrels and use these in place of tanks. Using tarps and space heaters, we were able to get the temperatures into the mid-80′s, and 4×4′s served as tracks for rolling the barrels to keep the caps moist. The results exceeded our expectations.

What began evenly, calmly, almost serenely, quickly turned to frenzy as the rest of the reds ripened – almost all at once – while a tropical storm emerged in the Caribbean and a cold front tracked from the west. Four acres of nearly ripe fruit and tropical weather on the way is recipe for winemaker anxiety. With the storms due Sunday evening, we decided to pick everything Saturday and crush Sunday, a strategy made possible by our cold fermentation room that doubles as a refrigeration area if need be. Leaving nothing to chance, we also chose Sunday for our blessing of the grapes ceremony.

The yields in the younger blocks were very low, the result of the very low vigor in this part of the vineyard, but like blocks 21 and 22, the quality was great. Added to the 1,600 pounds of Cabernet Sauvignon and 800 pounds of Petit Verdot, we had enough to fill one fermenter and a couple of more barrels, leaving only Cabernet Sauvignon block 25 to hang through the storm.

On Sunday, the crush pad hummed and the cellar buzzed with activity. In addition to the crush, we had pump-overs and nearly 20 active fermentations to manage. In the following weeks, we sniffed, tasted, listened, rolled, and pumped-over morning, noon, and night, literally. The goal during this period is to manage the “cap,” the mass of skins that is forced to the top of the fermentation by carbon dioxide produced during the fermentation. If the cap gets too wet or too dry, vinegar producing bacteria can take over before all the fruit and tannins are extracted. If this happens, the resulting wine will at best be pale and thin; at worst, it will be spoiled. Fortunately, we did our tasks well. Only block 25 disappointed. The rain lasted longer than predicted, resulting in botrytis and loss of about 75% of the crop.

And then it was time to press, again almost all at once. We were able to wait for the tannins to shift to the mid-palate, just where we want them, before pressing. On some days, we pressed three wines, each taking about 5 hours, carefully tasting each cycle to determine the best time to make the “press cuts” that separate the best fractions from the rest. The barrel fermentations produced such little volume that we decided to press these wines by hand, adding to the long days. (Rocky’s biceps are two inches bigger from all the cranking on the ratchet.) But somehow, all the wine got into a barrel, and now we wait, using all our senses to monitor the élevage until the wines are ready for bottle – in the spring for the Sauvignon Blanc and the Rose; the fall for the Chardonnay, and spring 2015 for the reds. The white wines are golden, round, lively. The red wines have deep color, wonderful fruit, and remarkable structure. We’re very excited about the vintage.

2013 Harvest Update

Harvest is what we work for. And now it’s in full swing. The Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are in the cellar, settled, and the fermentations started. We started slow, a good warm up for the new cellar, with just 750 pounds from the third leaf SB in block 12. The fruit was very ripe, brix 23.8 for those who care about sugar levels, and very clean. Young vines always yield less fruit, but even we were surprised a few days later when the fourth leaf SB in block 11 produced 3000 pounds from less than a half acre. We’re fermenting those two lots separately, very slowly, but we’ll eventually bring them together to produce a delightful wine, with Block 11′s slightly less ripe fruit bringing SB’s characteristic aromatics to merge with fullness on the mid-palate contributed by Block 12. In the cellar, it’s remarkable to taste the emerging wine each day, spritzy and sweet, and complex with yeast as the fermentations get rolling.

John and I walked the red blocks this morning. They handled last night’s rain well. The near perfect weather of the last few weeks left us in good shape. The Merlot skins are giving up plenty of color and their tannins are no longer bitter. The acids are dropping (pH about 3.45), and the seeds are passing through their “black tea” quality on the way to the walnut character that indicates they are fully ripened.

Harvesting the Merlot will start the real work in the cellar. We try to pick and sort on the same day, which means equal time in the vineyard and standing at the sorting table, and then doing chemistries, starting the cold soaks, and cleaning up. It makes for very long day. A few days later, we’ll start the pump-overs, three times a day to extract as much  flavor as we can from the skins.

My favorite part about harvest is the picking. Working fast is important. The sugars start to deteriorate the moment the peduncle is cut. Hot days hasten the process. Keeping the fruit cool is the reason many growers in hot regions pick at night, but temperature must be balanced with other factors, especially the morning dew common in southern Maryland. The water dilutes the juice and thus the flavor. We’re lucky at Dodon, since the cellar is never more that a quarter mile from the fruit, allowing us to get it quickly into cooler temperatures.

Despite the pace of picking, time passes gently, calm before the coming frenzy of the cellar. Conversations come and go easily, usually starting with a discussion about the fruit and what we’re seeing, smelling, and tasting. How ripe is it? Is ripeness even on all parts of the bunches? Is there much rachis failure, a sign of some problem in May during bloom. Did any fruit get sun burned, indicating the need for more attention to leafing? Before long, though, we settle in, discussing families and events of the day and interests. New volunteers become part of the team in the course of a few panels. Sometimes we are just being – quiet, reflective, thankful – a moment distant from multitasking and multiple demands. We watch as empty lugs disappear with a steady rhythm that marks our progress, each filling with 30 pounds of fruit and then carried away.

We’re off to a great start.