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Saving the Harvest

After all that rain, how’s Virginia’s 2003 vintage looking?

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Williamsburg Winery was started in the late 1980s; it’s one of the old-timers in Virginia. It makes predominately easy-drinking, nonserious blends like Governors White and Plantation Blush. Matthew G.R. Meyer is only its second winemaker in 15 years. Meyer is from Napa Valley and just now feels like he has been dropped onto Mars.

“It is a vintage fraught with peril,” he says of 2003. “We had biblical proportions of rain from early spring to fall, culminating with a hurricane.” Usually the growers and the winery work in a sort of semiharmony. Growers always want to pick early for safety and quantity, while wineries always wish to hold out for later and the highest quality. “In spite of the challenges, many of the vineyard managers have done an excellent job maintaining the vines. Because of this, we had decent fruit arrive at the winery.” So is this place really like Napa? “Winemakers definitely work harder on the East Coast,” Meyer says.

One of the several new releases from Williamsburg Winery will give you an idea of Meyer’s work — fortunately they are a good vintage. Williamsburg Winery Reserve Viognier, 2002, at $24 is a terrific wine. Its silky honeysuckle flavors make it a classic high-quality viognier. Try it with crab or lobster. The Williamsburg Winery Chardonnay Acte 12, 2002, at $17 uses well-grown grapes resulting in a well-crafted chardonnay. Meyer isn’t trying to imitate Napa here as much as he is making a restrained wine using the flavors that the Virginia climate has given him. These are both benchmark wines.

Back in the 1970s in California a new type of winery sprang up. The name that stuck was “boutique winery.” Several things had to occur to qualify as such. The owner had to have made a fortune somewhere and put it into the winery. This owner had to have a professionally trained winemaker and had to have a vision of taking on the world in quality.

Such a winery has sprung up in Keswick at The Keswick Vineyards, owned by the Schornberg family. Stephen Bernard is their winemaker. His degrees in winemaking and viticulture are from South Africa. “This is just my second harvest in Virginia, and in one word it was tough,” he says. “You really have to struggle to get the fruit ripe here. We left quite a bit of fruit on the vine, but with our tonnages being lower, our fruit was quite clean.”

Tasting Keswick’s 2002 wines was a complete revelation. Keswick Vineyards Chardonnay, 2002, at $20 is subdued and elegant. Most new wineries come out with an all-oak monster to try to get everyone’s attention. This is a very European wine and a successful effort. One thing about boutique wineries is the size of their production: 200 cases. Keswick Vineyards Viognier Reserve, 2002, won “best white wine in America” at the Atlanta International Wine Summit. At $50 it is pricey, and there are a world of other wines for the money. But it is very good, extremely well made and sleek with a finish that lasts and lasts.

Keswick’s reds are based on what was planted in an existing vineyard. The Touriga, 2002, Virginia, $20 is soft and light with an intriguing cinnamon, orange-peel flavor. Just 45 cases were produced. I am certain they have heard this before, but if some of the touriga could be replanted with cabernet franc (the top award-winning grape in Virginia) and combined with Bernard’s deft hand at coaxing flavors that are subtle and elegant, the rest might very well be history. These are serious award-winning wines.

The Napa of the East is a phrase that was no doubt uttered by a winemaker at a dinner and has become the informal trademark of Virginia wines. Too bad it isn’t true — we aren’t the Napa of the East. Both our climate and style are European, subtle, subdued, cooler and riskier. When reading about and tasting the 2003 vintage next year you need to treat it like any other off-vintage from anywhere else in the world. Taste it first before making commitments. Some will make good wine and some will be terrible. Use your own judgment. You can figure out Virginia wines a lot better if you taste them alongside their European counterparts. Try German Riesling alongside ours, as well as white Burgundy with our chardonnay and red Bordeaux next to our reds. And you can be sure that someone will find those grapes that survived on the vine and make an Isabel Blush.

Michael Shaps, consulting winemaker for a dozen Virginia wineries, summed it all up. Speaking to this year’s harvest he says: “I would compare it to being stationed in Baghdad. You never know what will hit you next and where it is coming from. What made the difference this vintage is a sorting table.” In Napa, a sorting table is for cosmetic purposes only. Here, it was essential for sorting and discarding bad grapes. “I can’t wait for this prolonged harvest/war to end.” S

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