2018 Vintage Summary

Tuesday, October 2 was a beautiful, if somewhat warm, autumn day – the kind of day that we hope for in early October, when we are typically just starting to pick the black grapes. But this, the final day of picking in 2018, signaled the perplexing character of the vintage. The image of Dodon’s weather vanes pointing toward each other on an otherwise lovely morning is its lasting symbol.

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The year started with brutally cold temperatures, as low as two degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) on the morning of January 7. While a few weeks of very cold temperatures has many benefits in the vineyard, we start to worry about bud viability when temperatures approach zero. In contrast, February was usually warm – speeding vine phenology - but March was cool – slowing the vines. Bud break occurred in the Chardonnay on April 15, about on-schedule, followed by freezing temperatures three days later.

The next variety to bud, the Cabernet Franc, waited until May, indicating that a late year would ensue. Yet this isn’t what happened. Bloom, which typically occurs 45-60 days after bud break, arrived just 24 days later. Suddenly, it was an early year, requiring adjustments to already modified schedules for canopy management and sprays. The vines were confused by the temperature extremes, as were their human partners. Dodon’s vineyard manager, Roberto Gomez, finally thawed from winter pruning, complained of vertigo.

And then it rained. And rained. And rained. The soil at Dodon is made up of about 50% solid matter – rocks, minerals, microbes, insects – and 50% pores, occupied by air and water. When the pores fill completely with water early in the season, the roots don’t have enough oxygen to develop normally. In response, the leaves produce more stomata (the structures responsible for evapotranspiration) than they would otherwise. The effect is to make the vines more susceptible to drought.

So of course, drought came in early July, and the vines became stressed. As we finished irrigating the south slope, it started raining again, this time lots of it. Our colleague Jim Law of Linden Vineyards described it as biblical in its proportions. We had more rain in September than in the previous five Septembers combined. And when it wasn’t raining, it was hot and very humid. Most people correctly associate excess moisture, whether from humidity or rain, with molds and mildews. But by drowning the roots late in the season, excess rain causes the vines to focus on survival by growing roots and foliage, diverting energy from ripening.

Our usual response to excess rain is to let the canopy grow higher, increasing evapotranspiration, and let the grass grow to create competition with the vines. But this year the amount of rainfall overwhelmed these measures. The canopy developed downy mildew, and the grass grew so quickly that we couldn’t keep it out of the fruit zone. The fruit ripened unevenly, with the ripest fruit falling prey to botrytis and other late season bunch rots. We sorted heavily while picking, leaving about half of the black fruit on the vineyard floor.

To say that the vintage was, and remains, puzzling is an understatement. We never quite knew what to expect. The vines remained confused all year, with growing shoot tips appearing around the vineyard throughout September. This atypical behavior also occurred in other plants, particularly crab apples and magnolias that could be seen blooming throughout southern Maryland this fall.

Decisions about picking were particularly uncertain. In mid-August, I told the team that I didn’t think we would begin picking for at least two weeks. Four days later, we picked the first of the Sauvignon Blanc followed by the Chardonnay, both from the east vineyard. We waited a week to pick the Sauvignon from the west vineyard.

We also picked the black fruit earlier, and thus less ripe, than in the past. In the cellar, we extracted less aggressively, leaving behind the unripe tannins that cause bitterness. With less structure, the wines will need less oak and more stirring to achieve their potential. As a result, the 2018 red wines promise to be more accessible early in their life, and less age-worthy, than is typical for Dodon wines.

Despite the challenges, or maybe because of them, I’m left feeling extraordinarily grateful for this vintage and the lessons that it brought. There were many bright spots. Our effort to create a balanced ecosystem seems to be working. The increasing diversity of insect life around the vineyard is stunning, and except for the occasional spot treatment, we didn’t use any insecticides this year. A mantid even joined us on the sorting table this year.

While there was a bit of mold in the Sauvignon clusters, the white wines turned out beautifully. I’m especially excited about the Chardonnay, which has the depth, range, and vitality that we seek from this classic variety.

The main lesson, though, is that the climate is changing rapidly. Over the last three years, old weather patterns have given way to prolonged periods of drought and rainfall. It has tested our farming and winemaking skills, the front of house team who rearranged plans daily, and even club members who had hoped to attend one of the seven rained-out Dodon ‘til Dusk gatherings. (Thank you for your patience.) These challenges will continue, especially in the mid-Atlantic where temperatures and rainfall are predicted to rise faster than in other parts of the world.

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In response to these changes, we need to think critically about how we can adapt and become more resilient. It’s crazy to irrigate in a year of record setting rainfall, but that’s what we needed to do. Fortunately there are solutions, some that we are already working on. Soil with good structure allows excess water to pass through quickly to the aquafers below. Soil rich in organic matter holds on to some of the water until it is needed by the plants. In the pastures, we can create this healthy soil using a technique called MOB grazing; in the vineyard, we can create it using appropriate cover crops with deep roots and plenty of residual biomass.

As the year comes to an end, the 2018 vintage reminds me of Bach’s six suites for solo cello, performed wonderfully by Yo-Yo Ma.  Each suite is based on a different French dance, and each is composed of six movements that span the range human emotion, none the same but all very beautiful. The same might be said of the variation that occurs between vintages, and in 2018, variation within the vintage. Like Bach’s cello suites, some vintages are deep and soulful, some sad and mournful, others light and lively, but all with their own exquisite charm. The lesson of this vintage is that we can succeed by dancing together as a community to nature’s varied tunes.

Raise a Glass to Polly

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Polly is the inspirational leader of the Dodon team. She keeps all of us going in the right direction, gets her hands dirty when needed, and looks out for the human side of the vineyard and cellar.    She brings these same qualities to her career in public health policy where she has recently been recognized as an Honorary Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. It’s a rare honor, conferred on only a few non-nurses each year.  The formal announcement can be found here.

Some Frequently Asked Questions about Dodon: A Conversation with Polly and Tom

Why is the winery open by appointment only?

Tom. Dodon is home to three generations of our family, a fact that shapes all activities at the farm. When visitors come to the vineyard and winery, they are visiting our home, and as in our home, the space and the events that we host reflect our tastes and preferences – simple, yet refined and textured; modern, yet pastoral and hospitable; elegant, yet warm and intimate. And, as in our home, we plan gatherings at which we can be fully present and engaged with each of our guests.

Polly. Because we are only open by appointment, we can organize our schedules to ensure that we can spend time with our guests. We want to share the Dodon story in a calm, comfortable atmosphere. The seated tasting format also emphasizes the role of the person hosting the tastings, who is not only knowledgeable about wine, but also an integral part of Dodon’s vineyard and winemaking.

2017 Vintage Summary: A Year of Providence

2017 Vintage Summary: A Year of Providence

In what has become a metaphor for the 2017 vintage, a black widow found her way onto the sorting table in the last hours of harvest. We’ve always known that there are lots of black widows in the vineyard, but mostly they keep to themselves, quietly helping rid the vines of unwanted insects. How she got to the table is anyone’s guess. It seems unlikely that she was on a cluster when it was snipped into an unsuspecting hand, so perhaps she crawled into a picking basket that inadvertently landed on her web. In either case, we popped both the spider and her grape into the sorting bin, and off she went to the compost pile. No harm done to either party. 

Thoughts from the Barrel Room

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. 

August Updates

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. 

What are Dodon Soils?

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). 

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.

Looking Beyond Organic Certification: Part I

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.

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.

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.

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.

News from the Vineyard: A June Update

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.

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

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.

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.