Harvest to be excited about at Keswick Vineyards
Our job as winemakers is to reflect in a glass how and where the grape was grown. This concept of terroir encompasses all the variables of soil type, climate, rain, sunshine and the management of those factors. If we manage to grow the perfect grape, then at least we have the opportunity to make the best wine possible.
This is our mantra, along with the belief that our best wine is yet to be made and that we can always improve.
As of writing this, we are not quite done with our 16th harvest here at Keswick Vineyards, a harvest that will be looked back at in a few years as possibly being one of the best, if not the best of the last 15 years.
Making good wine is no longer acceptable to us, we need to make wines that are emotive, intuitive and are full of character and that all starts in the vineyard.
Our vineyard is special; it has proven to be so having produced grapes for 3 Governor’s Cup winning wines in the past 12 years. The most outstanding of those grapes are the Bordeaux ones along with Viognier and Chardonnay. We are privileged to be stewards of this wonderful piece of wine real estate. After some careful research about our soils and elevation, we decided to expand our Bordeaux planting by 50% with new vines of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot being planted this past spring. It will take a few years before they start producing fruit and probably another 5-10 before they mature and really start producing the quality we are hoping for.
Some of the changes we have implemented have been to  increase the vine density per acre and  introduce multiple clones within the block to ensure a variety of flavors to work with
In the past we had 800 vines per acre and now we have 1200 vines per acre, which means that each vine has to produce 1/3 less fruit for us to achieve the desired tons per acre. We believe that by asking the vine to produce less, the quality of the grapes can only be improved which will result in better wines.
Clonal diversity is also important since each clone of the same grape can produce wines that are completely different. To use our Cabernet Franc as an example, we selected clones 214 [violet, raspberry, tannic with less herbaceous character] and clone 327 [more structured and brighter acidity]. Ultimately the goal is to create diversity that can be managed and vinified accordingly, creating more interesting and profound wines.
Thankfully we received adequate rainfall during the months of May and June; the young vines thrived in these conditions with very little need on our part to water.
Leading up to harvest, the growing season was pretty typical. We were spraying every 9-12 days as needed, disease pressure was kept in check and the Japanese beetles were testing our patience to the limit. Netting was put up to deter birds and deer and veraison started late July, into August.
Harvested started August 22nd which is about one week earlier than normal. Our Chardonnay is always the first to come off and that was taken off with mechanical harvester in the early hours of the morning. Our Chardonnay has been the white that has received the most attention since we are constantly trying to define our style. This year the juice was fermented in tank before being transferred to neutral French Oak barrels for ageing. We did experiment by using a new yeast and by not feeding the ferment as we normally do, favoring reductive winemaking instead, which is a style more common in Burgundy. Reduction in whites is gaining notoriety and things like flinty are a common association with this style of wine. For me, the Chardonnay is far more interesting, the palate is pretty tight and the nose complex. I also believe that this style will favor more time in the barrel and will warrant additional time in the bottle. This might be the best Chardonnay we have produced but for those that love oak and butter, this is not it. Ours is definitely leaner, showing more acidity than normal, the oak is subtle imparting more weight and texture versus primary oak character. Time will tell and our consumers will no doubt be the benchmark for how we rate this wine but I am pretty excited.
In years past we have produce up to 4 viognier wines, with Viognier also used in the V2 and Syrah blends. This year we have made a decision to produce only 2. Our viognier harvested in front of the manor house will comprise the regular estate bottling, and the block on the side of the property will make our Signature Series Viognier.
We have always found it hard to really make 4 distinctive wines, but we do have 2 distinctive blocks of Viognier. One is planted on clay and the other on schist and shale. They ripen differently and taste remarkably different, so we decided to express each wine individually. Our front viognier was machine harvested and has been tank fermented and will be tank matured. The Signature Series Viognier was hand harvested in 3 passes and while tank fermented, is now ageing in tank, stainless steel barrels as well as neutral French Oak barrels. The tank portion will retain the acidity of the Viognier, while the neutral oak will give the wine some texture. The Stainless steel barrels are equipped with interchangeable heads which allows us to introduce a small amount of oak and determine the type of oak used. This is the first time we have used these barrels and the results thus far are enthusing.
Our Signature Series this year is dynamite while the Viognier more than holds its own and is more typical of the wines produced in this area.
The whites this year are very elegant and focused, very clean and very pretty. They will offer immediate enjoyment and the Signature Series wines will reward some cellaring if you have the patience to lay those down.
We are mostly excited about our reds though.
Virginia experienced a drought during harvest which meant we are able to hang our reds and pick them at optimum ripeness. Ripeness is not just a measurement of sugar. We define ripeness by the color of the skins, the color of the seeds and how those tannins taste. We were fortunate enough to be able to pick all our fruit based on these parameters versus racing against the clock to beat the normal rains we get.
Merlot was the first red grape off the vine September 14th, followed closely by the Touriga. Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot grapes were only harvested October 8th, which is about 2-3 weeks later than normal.
All our Bordeaux reds were hand harvested and sorted before being transferred to either stainless steel tank and or T bins for fermentation. We made some subtle changes to the way we make our reds. Fermentation temperature rarely exceeds 88 degrees, punching down or pumping over the cap is occurring less often and the must is again starved of Nitrogen. Yeast selection is based on the  ability to ferment all the sugars  produce little VA or H2S and  require little Nitrogen to do its job.
All of these changes have resulted in wines that are a bit more fruit forward, slightly more interesting due to the fact that they are again in a reduced state. All our fermentations finished without any problems and pressing off was done directly to barrel, allowing us the opportunity to separate the press fractions. This will allow us the ability to track each fraction as they mature and give us more flexibility to blend later.
Most of the wines are now comfortably resting in barrel, just starting to go through the secondary fermentation, where the malic acid turns into lactic acid. These wines are dark and inky, the tannins are quite soft and supple and I think will turn out to be the best we have done so far.
Look out for the stellar Cabernet, PV and Merlot wines, they are all superb.
I get asked a lot of time about barrels and how we use them. We see oak in terms of salt and pepper for food. If you have a great protein you might add some spices to bring out the flavor of the protein and that is what we require from our barrels. We have moved to larger format barrel and use very little new oak. We do not want to mask the purity of these wines; we want you to taste the fruit of the Merlot, the spice of the Cabernet Franc and the licorice of the PV. The oak has to hold that all together without being too dominant.
It might be a bit too early to really gauge the strength of the vintage and quality of the wines, but all signs hint that what we have in the winery right now is quite special. Virginia has gone from strength to strength and I would like to think that Keswick is doing the same.
Lastly, I have quite a few people to thank as the success of the harvest is directly the product of hard work of many people.
Firstly I would like to thank Al and Cindy for allowing us the freedom to craft these wines and to go a little crazy and indulge our need for pushing the envelope, without their support we would not be able to progress.
To my wife Kathy, she holds everything together and is by far the most understanding, supportive and beautiful human in this world; I love you and will see you soon.
To Danny, Lewis, Gerardo, Izzy and Luis - Their work is crucial to these wines and I could not do it without them and thank them for their dedication.
Thank you to Chris Hill who has been instrumental in helping us get better
To Shannon, Kerry, Joan, Alease, Marina, Mr.Rich Stover and all of our wine club members that have helped us pick or sort, we really appreciate all your support.
And to the rest of our amazing staff, Brian, Karen, Meghan and others, our success is shared and we look forward to keep growing and getting better.
And to all our customers, we thank you for your continued support. We promise to continue striving to make the best wines possible and hope that these new 2017 wines will not disappoint. Wishing everyone a joyous Thanksgiving and blessed holiday season!
Stephen Barnard and the entire Keswick Vineyards staff