A good deal of winemaking is experimentation. Inoculating with different yeasts, opting for shorter or longer maceration periods, inciting or preventing malolactic fermentation, aging in new oak or neutral oak—these are just a handful of the decisions with which our Mr. and Mrs. Wine Wizards are faced. Something not commonly experimented with are the types of grapes grown. It might seem that playing with varietals would be the easiest way to keep things fresh in the tasting room, but because it’s a good five years before vines are in full-blown production mode, it’s six or more years before you’ve bottled your first vintage and learned from your success (or failure). Add in Virginia’s hot, humid, and unpredictable weather and it’s too costly a risk for most.
With one of Virginia’s highest annual productions (32,000 cases), Barboursville Vineyards has deep enough pockets to try old grapes on new soil. It also helps having a winemaker who got his oenological degree on old soil, but who’s been making wine in Virginia since it was a teen on our national scene.
Italian-born Luca Paschina’s in his 22nd year as winemaker at Barboursville and considers himself a Virginian. While he retains an undeniably Italian charm and sense of style, he thinks like an American. He believes for Virginia’s wine industry to grow, its 200-plus wineries need to plant more vines. Paschina adds five to 10 acres of new vines every year to the 160 acres already under vine on Barboursville’s 900-acre estate. He grows plenty of the usual cabs, chard, viognier, and merlot that do well here, but he’s also tried a bunch of Italian varietals—some with more success than others. Pinot Grigio, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Moscato have all come into their own and won either hearts or awards, while Dolcetto and Ruché didn’t fare so well. “I grew Ruché for two years and still miss it. I’m going to try again.”
One of his most recent endeavors has been with a white wine grape called Vermentino. It’s a happy little grape that’s most at home in the warm regions around Italy’s Tyrrhenian Sea (namely Liguria, Tuscany, and Sardinia). Though we’re far from a sea, Paschina recognized the grape’s forgiving personality—it’s highly productive, easy to grow, resistant to drought, and ripens smack in the middle of the harvest cycle. Fermentation in stainless steel or neutral oak preserves its sunny, grassy, citrus qualities. Whether at a resort off the island of Sardinia or with lunch at Palladio Restaurant, Vermentino woos every shell and sea creature from crab to swordfish and its herbal qualities make it a reverie next to pasta with pesto.
Barboursville’s first Vermentino vintage was 2010 and came from a mere acre of vines. Paschina only produced one barrel, which amounted to 300 bottles (or 25 cases). He calls it a reserve because it can age up to three years in the bottle. It practically sold out at its release party and then went on to win a gold medal at the International Winemakers’ Challenge in San Diego, so it never even got to strut its stuff in the tasting room. This past year, Paschina produced 1,500 bottles (125 cases) of Vermentino Reserve and released it at an Italian feast back in June. While the 2011’s already nearly halfway sold out, it is for sale at the winery and is being poured in the tasting room and at Palladio. And it’s downright delicious.
Since the Vermentino adapted so well to Virginia’s terroir in both 2010 (hot, hot, hot) and 2011 (hot, wet, wet), Paschina’s planted an additional five acres of Vermentino that once in “fruition” will produce about 15,000 bottles (1,250 cases). “The ’10 was fuller-bodied, more tropical. The ’11 is more floral with green apple and pear flavors, but if we can make good wine in the extremes, then we’ll do well with it,” he said.
So what grape might Paschina try next? “I want to do albarino,” he said. Another white seaside grape, but this one from Spain, Chrysalis has had success with albarino and Afton Mountain Vineyards planted an acre of it last year. We’re willing and thirsty subjects.