Sunday, May 22, 2011

Proper Vineyard Elevation and Location in Virginia

Let me give you some useful information. Most people place their vineyards along the highway and paying customers and not in the best place for growing grapes. Look at Narmada, Gray Ghost, Barrel Oak, Five Rivers. But the best farmers (Linden, Rappahanock) know that there is a proper elevation for grapes which is the thermal incline above 600 feet and below 1,500 (1). The next time the temperature goes to -15 degrees (as it did in 1996) you are going to see many of these newer vineyards killed right down to the ground. That is what happened at Prince Michel and that is why they don´t grow grapes in that frost pocket anymore.

Farfelu has always been a rotten place to grow grapes because of frost. Rappahanock Cellars is at a better elevation just below Chester Gap. Narmada plants mainly hybrid grapes instead of French ones because with their American lineage they are more cold hardy.

Beyond the absolute low temperature and the damage that can do there is the issue of frost.  Frost which comes too late in the spring will kill off the current season's crop.  Frost that comes too early in the fall abruptly ends the growing season and thus the ripening of the fruit.  Vineyards at optimal locations--say Chester Gap Cellars--get up to three weeks of additional growing time each season.  So they can ripen certain red grapes which require a long growing season when others cannot.  Of what importance is ripeness?  Beyond sugar level red grapes which are not ripe produce bitter and thin wine.  It is bitter because of the seeds and thin because of the shortened period of time used to make such wines when their seeds are still bitter.

Ask Jim Law and he will tell you all of this is true. Ask Dennis Horton and he will tell you that is why he does not plant grapes which need a long growing season like Cabernet.  Ask Gabriele Rausse at Monticello and he will tell you at that elevation when the temperature hit -15 it was -2 at their location and everything was O.K.Vineyard consultants know this. But prospective land buyers in the county who are looking for vineyard sites want to be right next to the highway and paying customers. So they put their vineyards in the wrong place. The best farmer-businessmen, like Jenni McCloud of Chrysalis, grow grapes at their winery site but also have ideally situated vineyards in the mountains just for this reason. Denis Horton had such a vineyard but lost his lease and the resulting lawsuit to get it back after he had spent much money to develop a vineyard there.

So let me reiterate for those of you looking for a vineyard location. The best location is one with a south-eastern exposure and elevation above 600 feet and below 1,500 feet.  At this elevation cold air drifts to the bottom and the warmer air is held aloft protecting the grapes. If you have ever been to the Rhine River valley in Germany then you know what I mean. And grapes facing east and south receive the early morning sunshine even in the waning days of October. This dries the dew from the fruit thus reducing mildew and rot. Vineyards facing north miss the late season sun and vineyards facing west are too hot and are left to stew in the humidity in the morning thus having increased problems with fungal rots. Vineyards on flat land are great for farming in California and Chile but invitation to disaster here in Virginia. There they have the additional problem of improper drainage. Grapes do not like to stand in water. For this reason sloped land is preferred.

1 "Vineyard Site Selection"  (Virginia Tech 2003)


Here is perfect example of the danger of frost at low elevations from John Hagarty:
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