As we enter the first official day of Spring, we generally reflect on the harvest that was and evaluate the wines as they continue to age or, in our case, finish their secondary fermentation in barrel. It allows us as winemakers to take a critical look at the wines and to judge if harvest decisions and processing protocols were beneficial and if the wines are truly reflective of the vintage as we hoped they would be. I spent a great deal of time with the wines this past weekend, evaluating not only the different varietals, but also the barrels they were in to see how the oak was impacting the wine. I am very pleased to state that I am thrilled with how the wines are developing, and how much more developed they are at this point than they normally are. To understand the strength of the vintage, you have to understand the growing season. The key point for me was the much cooler than normal May and June. With evening temperatures in the 50’s the fruit was able to retain a lot of its natural acidity, reflected in the harvest chemistry. Acidity for me is a key component in wine, and is arguably one of the things I focus the most on. In cooler growing seasons as was 2014, I find the aromatics of the wine to be that much more pronounced and the wines tend to have a focus and juiciness as opposed to warm vintages. The other benefit is that we deal with lower pH must or juice, which is perfect for us since we ferment most of our wines without the addition of any commercial yeast. This low pH [higher acidity] environment makes it much harder for bacteria to grow and makes it much easier to ferment wines to dryness with the native yeast in the winery. I often get asked why we tend to go this route and the answer is quite simple. As a winemaker, I am aiming to reflect in a glass the manner in which the fruit was grown as opposed to how it was manipulated or made in the winery. I am a firm believer in the notion that the best fruit makes the best wine, while also making wine that is unique and special. My job therefore is to respect the character given to me by the vineyard, and not interfere too much.
Starting off with the whites
It is not that I do not like the occasional buttery, oak driven Chardonnay. I think there is a time and place for such wines. I truly believe though that the market place is shifting towards more fresher styled wines, wines that showcase minerality or steeliness as opposed to weight and rich textures. Our Chardonnay style is driven by our fruit and the soil on which it is grown. Our Chardonnay grows on fragmented rock, with shale and limestone littering the parcel. If you crack those rocks together, you almost get a saltiness in your nose, it is this character that I want in our wines. We have moved away from barrel fermentation, opting to ferment in tank where fermentation temperatures can be controlled and thus drawn out to about a month before they completely use up all the sugar. By extending the fermentation period upwards, we can essentially create wines that are more linear and focused, while creating aromatics that are clean and more subtle. Our oak regimen is that we exclusively use French oak, but are working more with larger format barrels. Essentially we do not want you swallowing a 2 x 4 when you taste the wine, we want the oak to lift or support the fruit, integrating with those stony fruit, apple and tangerine flavors. Our 2014 is everything we hoped it would be; fresh and vibrant with wonderful acidity, and just a kiss of oak that elevates the fruit and keeps everything in balance. Earmarked for August bottling, this might be the best Chardonnay we have ever produced.
The state grape of Virginia, that has come under fire of recent time due to its struggles in the vineyard. Highly prone to frost and bud damage, our 16 acre took quite a hit and we ended up with a minuscule amount of fruit. The positive is that the quality was amazing, and we were able to pick clean fruit that was wonderfully ripe. Viognier is such an intoxicating wine, and you immediately get loads of tropical aromas as you press the fruit. With such little fruit, we did not have the ability to experiment and this year we opted for a tank fermented, barrel matured version. I felt that the acidity of the wine could stand up to some three-year old barrels, and we could build up some nice texture on the palate. There is a lot of discussion among winemakers as to what the exact style of Viognier should be, many choosing to use more tank fermented wines in their final blend, sometimes with just a touch of sweetness, Our version is bone dry, has the typical aromas of the grape but will also be able to see a few years in the bottle due to the influence of oak. At a recent tasting of some of Virginia’s finest Viognier wines, I favored ours that were 4-5 years old, proving to me that our wines are built to last. In the world of accessibility and the drink it now mentality, the 14 will offer immediate gratification, but will reward patience for those that can wait and prove to be a stunning wine in a few years.
The big Reds It is hard not to get excited about red wines when you get fruit that is ripe, clean and picked whenever you wanted. Other than Merlot, I was extremely happy with the quality of fruit across the board, especially for the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot.
2014 Cabernet Sauvignon:
Arguably the king of reds and one that cannot ripen in Virginia if you believe conventional wisdom. Many believe the focus should be given to Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot or Tannat. The beauty of theories is that there will always be exceptions to the rule and in our case, we more often than not can get ripe Cabernet Sauvignon into the winery. The winemaking process after that is relatively quite simple. The fruit is meticulously hand sorted, ensuring that only the best berries make it into the fermentation tank. We painstakingly discard all under ripe fruit, stems and leaves that may have passed through the de-stemmer. As with all our high-end wines, we choose to allow the fermentation to begin and finish naturally. We monitor the wines very carefully, punch the cap down judiciously and frequently to extract as much color as possible and we pay careful attention to the way in which we press the skins. It is well know that there is a qualitative difference between free run and press fraction wine. In years gone past, we would just set the press to a program and allow the press to do its thing. We now however run the press manually and press over a longer period and more gently. By tasting the press wine, we can determine at which point the various lots should be separated and how they should be aged. Our two lots of Cabernet received a fair amount of press wine this year, since the tannins were so ripe, supple and silky. The press wine gave the wines some serious backbone which for the style we make is somewhat needed. I am so excited about the 14 vintage Cabs. One lot is in 100% French oak barrels, all manufactured by Mercier and what a huge blockbuster of a wine. Dark and inky, with lots of blue and purple fruit on the nose. The oak is there but it is meshing nicely with the fruit of the wine and there is an underlying acidity to the wine that keeps the wine quite light on its feet which I find really attractive. This is not a wine that will see a bottle soon, earmarked for bottling in 2016 after 22 months in oak. I predict that it will need at least five years in the bottle before it realizes it’s potential. BY FAR, the best Cabernet we have ever made in my opinion, and we have made some good ones recently.
Our second lot of Cabernet is maturing in slightly older barrels, since this wine is historically always the most aromatic of the two. With blending of the two lots common, the first lot is the structural backbone of the wine, while this sucks you in with gorgeous aromatics. Hard to pick a favorite of the two since they are both so good, albeit for different reasons.
2014 Petite Verdot:
Traditionally a blending grape in the world of wine, but taking quite the center stage in Virginia. I sit on the fence with this one a little since I still see its value in blends versus a stand alone varietal wine. It has great tannic structure and dark flavors but sometimes lacks the finesse I search for in wines. If however, you are one of those that does not mind laying these wines down for a few years, PV can be quite the charming wine. Our 14 will be a bit too much for some in its youth, incredibly tannic and dry at this point in time, it will require some bottle time to soften up and reveal itself. We have used some tight grain French barrels for this wine, two to three years old to respect the fruit. I was playing with the idea of American oak but decided that it did not need more sweetness which American oak sometimes imparts. But my word, this wine is rich and dense and unapologetic-ally big. Plan on having this with a cigar or steak, you are going to need it.
I am always highly critical of this varietal, partly because I am still learning how to make it since it is mainly used in blending. I am not a big fan of herbaceous flavors in red wines, and too often I find Cabernet Franc wines that quite frankly have been either picked too early, or have been badly managed in the fermentation stage. The tannins can be quiet astringent and chalky, leading to flavors of bell pepper and wet leaves, devoid of any fruit. It is a style I try not to make so we really try to hang our fruit as long as possible to mask those greener flavors if we can. Quite often, this grape comes in late September and this year we were able to let it hang 10 days longer than our historical average. I was really looking for a change in tannins and flavors, not really worried about sugars and acid. The point at which the flavors are more spicy, with black pepper is when we pick. Thoroughly sorted we have a different approach to fermentation versus the other Bordeaux varietals. I like to ferment a little cooler and most often we press off prior to fermentation being completed, trying to manage the tannin extraction or more specifically the type of tannins we extract. Our barrel regimen focuses more on American oak, using the natural sweetness of the barrel to mask or cover up the slightly greener tannins you can get. I do have two brand new French oak barrels in the program this year for research purposes and I really like them. They will blended back into the final lot but it would be interesting to see if those barrels would have such a positive influence in a greener or wetter year. With this wine earmarked for early bottling and release, we need to ensure the wine is ready for the market place, so we will be paying careful attention to the oak influence and how big the wine can become. I have to say it is the best version we have ever made though, if you like spicy wines showcasing more red fruit characteristics.
WOW, from what I hear from other producers the 2014 will certainly rank as one of the finest in recent memory and consumers can look forward to these wines as they start making their way onto tasting room shelves. Since our philosophy is to allow the fruit to dictate the direction of the wines, our wines are highly extracted, rich, lush and will require some ageing for them to fully develop. I am not saying that they will not be good immediately, they will be, but they will be incredible with some time. These are the wines you should stockpile your cellar with, I know I will be. I almost forgot, I did also taste our 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon wine as it enters its 16 month in barrel. Holy moly this wine has come along beautifully. It is very similar to our 2009 version, with a core of dark fruit but built on a frame that exudes finesse and elegance as opposed to sheer power and strength. I feel like a stuck record but again, this wine will delight in its youth but will blow you away with some time in the bottle. Virginia definitely has its ups and down when it comes to wine and vintage variability. I am glad to report that 2014 is definitely an up year, just wish we had more wine. But hey, do not take my word for it, come taste the wines with me at our May 9th and 10th barrel tasting. Call our tasting room and join me for an in-depth tasting of some of the finest wines we have ever produced. Space is limited so call now to reserve your space.
I lastly want to thank my guys in the vineyard for working so hard and getting this vintage done. to Jeremy, Lewis, Luis and Steve, I owe you a debt of gratitude for all your time and effort, hopefully these wines make you proud and justify all your hard work. Also to my wonderful wife who keeps things ticking in my absence and supporting me throughout, I love you and could not do this without you, I’ll try to be home a touch more before the next harvest starts.
Winemaker Keswick Vineyards