What exactly is the style of Virginia Wine?

I had an interesting conversation with a fellow Virginia winemaker the other day.   He made a comment that he could pick out Keswick wines in a flight every single time, that is to say that there is something about our wines that make them uniquely Keswick!

Huh, I guess in a way that means that we are making wines that are consistent despite the variations in vintages [of which there are many in Virginia]. But what is it that defines our style I asked, the answer.   “I dunno, I can just pick them out”.

Well that helps me as much as reading a book in Chinese.

There is no question that Bordeaux wines have a unique style, the same can be said of German Rieslings, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and Burgundian Pinot Noirs. There is a quality in those wines that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world that defines the very essence of where the grapes were grown and how the wines were made.  The wine makers touch is important too, it takes some work to get that finished wine to reflect the quality of the grapes, trust me I have made mediocre wine out of fantastic fruit.

So back to Virginia and it’s style.  With almost 200 wineries in operation today and the state being the 5th largest in wine production in the U.S., it’s safe to say there are a fair number of folks who believe in the quality and the potential of Virginia wine. just look at the awards some of the wineries have won in international competitions and you will see that we have come a long way in a short amount of time.

To be truly competitive in the global market and to gain the trust of the consumer, I believe that Virginia has to market an identity of sorts and start playing to our strengths. I believe those strengths to be Viognier and Cabernet Franc.  Both these varietals do well in the vineyard, unlike others that are less forgiving in poorer vintages.  Yes we make good Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon; but consistently?  I am not so sure about that, a bit of hit and miss for me.  Furthermore, can we compete with the best versions of those wines world-wide?  Again the honest answer for me is no.  Can the best version of a Virginia Cabernet Sauvignon compete with the best Bordeaux or Napa Valley?  Maybe in the future but not right now.

Viognier and Cabernet Franc are a completely different story though.  Outside of Virginia, Cabernet Franc is generally used as a blender and Viognier (outside of the Rhone) is planted in such small quantities that varietal bottlings are hard to find.  That just screams market opportunity and the chance to create an identity for Virginia by putting our best foot forward. I have tasted many Virginia Viogniers and have found them to be comparative to the best offerings from around the globe (maybe a bit of bias creeping in).  In a recent blind tasting, conducted by my good friend Andy Regan, Virginia wines rated consistently in the top against many fine and well-known producers from California, France, South Africa and Australia.

For me at Keswick, I have been focused on producing consistent wines, despite the vintage variations. That means understanding the vineyard and producing fruit that will allow me to push the envelope of quality and style, even if we cannot define it.

In any case, Virginia is a state to watch, and man it is good to be making wine in this part of the world.



Keswick Vineyards


Trying to understand this Vineyard

My personal belief is that a great vineyard is the starting point of great wine. The concept of “Terroir” in Virginia is a mute point as we have not been doing this long enough to figure out what works well and what does best in the predominantly clay soils of Albemarle County, and at Keswick Vineyards. As such, in 2000 when the vineyards were planted, 12 varieties were planted. 11 Years later, we are taking a hard look at what we have learnt and re-evaluating our thought processes.

I have had the fortune to have made all but 2 vintages here at Keswick Vineyards so I have a little bit of insight to the vineyard and the fruit, how it grows, what our trouble spots are and how to deal with them. The biggest issue we face so far is the vigor of the vineyard. With plenty of rainfall and warmer than normal temperatures, the rate of growth has been exacerbated and staying on top of 43 acres has proved challenging.

For the last few years we have been pretty resolute in training our vines in a conventional manner, in that all fruit bearing shoots are trained vertically, tucked in between 3 parallel sets of catch or foliage wires. The problem however is that in a vigorous vineyard. this leads to a dense canopy which means intense canopy management in order to manage disease pressure as well as ensuring our sprays are effective and penetrate the fruit zone.

A conventional Vertically trained vineyard

We have moved away from said conventional wisdom and are experimenting with slightly different systems this year, seeing if we can find the one that best suits our vineyard. It is important to note that what works for us, does not necessarily work for another.

We have decided that dividing the canopy on the West side might be the way to go, while still maintaining a vertical canopy on the East side [which is the cooler side]. dividing the canopy simply means that 50% of the shoots are trained vertically while the remainder of the shoots are allowed to flop over towards the ground. The thinking is that we can crop our vineyard at a slightly higher tonnage while still maintaining a clean and healthy canopy which will ultimately produce quality fruit. Of course we are not putting all our eggs in one basket, so we have still have a fair portion of the vineyard manages as we have in the last few years, why change a winning formula?

Notice the East side is vertical while the West side is divided

Initial results seem positive, we have absorbed the more than normal rainfall and have managed to maintain a clean vineyard, that shows no signs of disease. The crop is uniform and we have roughly 4-5 tons an acre which is more fruit than is normal on our farm. The biggest question yet unanswered is one of fruit quality. This all means nothing unless we get the quality fruit that allows us to continue making the wine that can help put Virginia on the wine-making map. We also need to get used to seeing a vineyard that looks rather messy and not uniform and pristine.

another view of the vertical system, with hedging completed

It is also worth noting that all this experimentation is mainly taking place on the Viognier, of which we have 16 acres planted. Viognier in our experience, produces a far denser canopy than Merlot for instance, so growing them exactly the same way is just not viable.

Norton vines trained as a single high curtain

Time will tell if this will improve the quality of the fruit [which is the ultimate goal]. How will we know? Well the wines will be good, as the best wines are MADE IN THE VINEYARD.




Friended Franc – FINALLY

The Facebook phenomenon has been a tidal wave that has swept us away. People are constantly checking their phones for updates, news feeds and connecting with friends of years gone by. Personally I do not get why they call it social media, to me it all seems a little anti-social.

Whatever your opinion, you cannot deny that internet communication is quicker and more far-reaching than any other form of marketing these days. Current implies now, old news is just a few seconds away, such is the world we live in.

Wine making is steeped in history, newer advancements in equipment and techniques; yes,  but the fundamentals of wine making [turning juice into wine] can be traced back hundreds of years. So why not combine the two, old meets new, romance meets innovation. It was with this theory in mind that we decided to make a wine using “Facebook” in that during each step of the wine making process, I would shoot a short video explaining what stage of the process we were in, and our friends could decide on what to do next by voting. Some of the choices given were, when to pick the fruit, how to ferment it, what barrel to put in and so on and so forth.

Our friends voted for French oak, natural fermentation, letting the fruit hang to make a bolder wine and to make a true Cabernet Franc with no blending component whatsoever. It pains me to say that I think this wine actually surpasses the conventional Cabernet Franc we made in 2009, and that did incredibly well for us and was well received.

Well my dear FACEBOOK FRIENDS, the wine was bottled on Monday [Memorial Day] and is now awaiting release, when we can come up with some cool way to do that;  continuing the Facebook theme and trend of course.  Any and all ideas are welcome, if you have a killer idea and we use it, I will give you a bottle of the wine as a thank you gift; so help us out here.

The wine itself is good, not just in the way we made it, it is just good. The nose has an abundance of fruits [none of the bell pepper which I am not a fan of], the palate is soft and silky and there is just the right amount of oak which holds everything together. It is very bright with good acidity [which to me was the hallmark of 2009] and will continue to age and improve over the next 3-5 years. We produced only 48 cases, so quantities are limited and will sell out quickly upon release. This is a blatant sales pitch but you have got to be a friend on Facebook to get this wine, so hit that “like button”.

This was truly a gimmicky wine, but it helps you the consumer get involved with the wine making process. As the Consensus blending for the wine club serves to teach and educate, the Facebook concept strives to make wines that appeal to our friends and consumers, and that cannot be a bad thing. Who knows, I might be able to take it easy this year and have all our wine club members and friends make all the wines, they did a good job with the


To view the video of bottling, go to Facebook and click on the Keswick Vineyards page.