Wine Varietals for the Mid-Atlantic Region

Search continues for distinctive signature wines

by Linda Jones McKee
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A soil pit demonstrates the soil type at Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Md.

Mt. Airy, Md. -- In the past 20 years, several winegrowing regions have become known worldwide for growing and making some of the best wines of a given type. New Zealand and Sauvignon Blanc is one example; Oregon and Pinot Noir, New York and Riesling are two regions in this country that have emerged with distinctive regional wines. So far this has not happened for the Mid-Atlantic area, despite the fact that more acres of grapes are being planted and more wineries open every year.

The region, sometimes referred to as the Piedmont Plain, extends from southeastern Pennsylvania south through Maryland and Virginia into northern North Carolina. Because of the “continental” climate, with cool/cold winters, hot and humid summers and a tendency toward late spring and early fall frosts, the Mid-Atlantic is more often compared with France than with the Mediterranean climate found in California.

In August, 2009, the Pennsylvania Association of Winegrowers held a workshop that evaluated Grüner Veltliner and Cabernet Franc as candidates for the region’s signature varietals. This year, the attention has switched to Cabernet Sauvignon, with several workshops from New Jersey to Virginia featuring that varietal.

The most recent seminar was a Bordeaux Wine Workshop held at Black Ankle Vineyards in Mt. Airy, Md., on July 16. The workshop’s goal was to compare and contrast Mid-Atlantic grapegrowing and winemaking with that of Bordeaux, and then to identify some ways that viticulture and winemaking practices in Bordeaux could be used to improve wines in the Mid-Atlantic region.


Dr. Jean-Phillippe Roby Black Ankle
Dr. Jean-Phillippe Roby

The main speaker, Dr. Jean-Phillippe Roby, head of the viticulture and enology department at ENITA de Bordeaux, looked closely at the similarities and differences for soil and climate in Bordeaux and Virginia. Roby is more familiar with Virginia because he serves as a consultant to RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, Va. He pointed out that both Bordeaux and Virginia have diversity of soils and, to some extent, of climate. Consequently, there is a possibility of finding appropriate varieties that can be grown and sufficiently ripened to make the type of wine winemakers want.

The main objective, according to Roby, is to harvest grapes between mid-September and mid-October that have achieved aromatic, polyphenolic and technological maturity—all at the same date. For concentrated wines, berries must be small, with a high ratio of skins to juice.

Ideally, there should be water constraint early, in July, so that veraison occurs at the beginning of August: Training systems and viticultural practices should work toward this goal. Bordeaux has a cool climate with between 700 and 850 mm of rainfall per year. In contrast, Virginia has a colder winter, a hotter summer and rainfall that, in some years, is greater than 1200 mm.

Vines in Virginia have a shorter vegetative cycle, since budbreak is later, but have more rapid growth, especially in June. Higher temperatures in the summer result in vigorous growth and a decrease of acidity within the grape berries.

In Bordeaux, if there is too much water stress, there is no irrigation to fall back on; the only way to deal with the lack of water is to decrease the yield, remove the cover crop between rows and/or cultivate the soil. If there is too much rainfall, grass is used to compete for the water; the type of grass and the frequency of mowing are factors that can be controlled.

Cabernet Sauvignon requires a longer growing season than Merlot; selection of a low vigor rootstock such as Riparia Gloire de Montpellier can help to reduce the vegetative cycle, especially during a wet season. Nitrogen regulation is another important factor in producing good Cabernet grapes: Virginia often gets snowfall, which adds additional nitrogen into its soils.

In both Bordeaux and Virginia, disease is always a threat, and in both areas consumers are demanding that growers use lesser amounts of pesticides. This is more difficult in Virginia and Bordeaux than in Mediterranean climates: In those areas, growers must decrease the vigor of the vines and take cluster positioning seriously.

In summary, Roby stated that what is needed now is not more new technology but better monitoring, and the technology to help with that process. Soil and vine vigor mapping, and developing a reference database for each vineyard plot that includes pruning weights, dates of phenologic stages, maturity monitoring and available nitrogen, are all important.

Lucie Morton, the well-known viticulture consultant in the Mid-Atlantic region for many years (and who was trained at France’s University of Montpellier) summed up the differences between this area and Bordeaux when she pointed out that Mid-Atlantic vineyards have no wine history or experienced support network.

In addition, she noted, the soils are “virgin” as far as grapes are concerned and haven’t been mined of their minerals by grapevines for hundreds of years. Consequently, growers in the Mid-Atlantic region need to remember that especially with a more “tropical” climate, vigor is a major consideration. Growers must control vegetation and crop levels to avoid veggie, green wines. Rootstocks should be low vigor (and several different rootstocks used, to compensate for seasonal differences); vines must be shoot thinned, leaf pulled and hedged; “replacement parts” viticulture must be practiced to help keep a vineyard productive in spite of trunk diseases and winter cold events.

Morton stated unequivocally, “Bordeaux reds work well here, but we need to remember that diversification of product is important as well.

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