Newsletter: Spring 2017
In the Vineyard: February is always a good time to take a mid-season look at the winter rainfall totals. The Western Regional Climate Center collected weather data for Plymouth, California from 1943 until 1963. During that 20 year period, 1950 registered the highest rainfall total at 41.5 inches. This year, through mid-February, our gauges have totaled over 39 inches of rain, and with the forecast for more storms in February, we could easily surpass the 1950 totals. A record year by any account, and 3 months of the rainy season still to go. However, it will be the soil moisture content which dictates whether or not the vines need a mid-summer drink. The wet winter will certainly delay that action. An additional side effect of the wet weather are the complications it brings to the start of the dormant season pruning cycle. The task which usually begins in February has been somewhat hampered by the rain. Care has to be taken to ensure that the mechanical equipment does not unnecessarily compact the wet soil around the vines.
Around the Winery: We would like to take this opportunity to announce that Joel Medina has been given the official title of Winemaker at Bray Vineyards. Joel came to the Shenandoah Valley in 1997 from Acanbaro, Guanajuato, Mexico and until 2006 worked at the Deaver Flower Farm. He came to Bray’s the following year and worked with both the grape vines and general gardening duties. In 2008, Joel began his apprenticeship as a winemaker under the mentorship of John Hoddy, our head vigneron. John will remain as executive winemaker to oversee the Bray style while Joel accepts responsibility for the day-to-day operations of crafting our fine wines. The Bray winemaking team is augmented with inputs from our Consulting Winemaker, Marco Cappelli, and Thomas Allan, our assistant manager and also the sommelier at Taste Restaurant.
Up-coming Events:March 4th and 5th is the Amador Vintners’ annual “Behind the Cellar Door” wine tasting extravaganza. Bray Vineyards will be joining 45 other wineries in presenting the best of the food-friendly wines of Amador County. Eric Burns will be serving his delicious meatballs with raspberry and roasted chipotle sauce over polenta. We will be sampling a barrel of our 2014 La Dama Oscura, a Brunello clone of Sangiovese, alongside a barrel of our 2014 Sangioveto clone of Sangiovese. Learn to discern the different characteristics between clones of this important Italian varietal.
Both the Brayzin Hussy Blonde, and Brayzin Hussy red will be available for a special event discount of $99 per case. Feel free to mix and match in order to get your perfect combination.
Visit the Amador Vintners Association website at: Amadorwine.com for tickets and event details. Presale tickets are $55 for both days, $45 for Sunday only and $10 for a designated driver. These will be available online until February 28th at 11:00 pm. Tickets can be purchased the day of the event at participating wineries for an additional $5 each.
Trivia: What grape varietal has the potential to express the bracing acidity and minerality of Riesling, the floral bouquet of Pinot Gris, and the mouthfeel and fruit of Viognier? The answer is Albarino, Bray Vineyard’s newest varietal, and the subject of this month’s newsletter trivia section. A source of high quality white wines from the Iberian Peninsula, Albarino is an important cultivar that is both morphologically diverse, and subject to a considerable amount of name confusion. The grape is known as Albarino in the Galicia region of northwest Spain, (Galicia is an autonomous area of Spain, containing several provinces and located directly north of the Portuguese border). The grape’s name changes to Alvarinho when you move south across the border into northwest Portugal. Although these two similarly named grapes are in fact genetically identical, there is considerable doubt about other synonymous varietals. Two in particular, Cainho Branco (from Portugal) and Cainho Blanco (from Galicia), were once thought to be morphological divergent strains of Albarino. The DNA analysis says otherwise, and the current evidence indicates that these two grapes are the same varietal but a completely separate cultivar from Albarino. To add to the confusion, there are regions in northwest Spain growing grapes that are locally known as Albarino but which are genetically related to a grape named Savagnin which itself is genetically identical to Gewurztraminer.
Albarino displays a large amount of morphological diversity which is usually considered an indicator of an ancient grape varietal. As with most old varietals, there is always some unsubstantiated romantic folklore associated with their time and place of origin. In Albarino’s case locals thought the grape to be of German ancestry because the name “Alba-Rino” translates as “the white from the Rhine”. Riesling was thought to be the parent grape. After all, there are some very noticeable similarities between the two grapes, both in the morphology of the vine, and in physiological characteristics of the finished wine. Legend has it that the 12th century Benedictine Monks from the monastery in Cluny, Saône- et Loire, France brought the grape to Spain during a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the Capitol of Galicia and alleged burial site of Saint James the Apostle.
Unfortunately for the romantics, the earliest documented records of Riesling date from the 15th Century, and recent DNA analysis shows zero correlation between the two varietals. There is a partial DNA relationship with another old Iberian varietal called Louriero, but whether it is as a parent or sibling is unclear. It also has a close DNA relationship to the Malvasia Fina grape which was documented growing in the Minho Provence of northwest Portugal as early as 1790. The Malvasia family of white wine grapes are thought to have originated in Greece. However, there were no written references to Albarino in Galicia until 1843 when a document referred to a parcel of 40 vines that were thought to be between 200 and 300 years old. If true, that would certainly indicate that Albarino has been grown in northwest Spain for a very long time. Immigrant, indigenous, or crossbred from both, the exact ancestry of Albarino, like many European varietals may never be definitively established. A case in point: there are currently over 80 cultivated modern grapes that can trace part of their ancestry to Gouais Blanc an old prolific varietal grown by peasants in medieval times. However, much of that lineage is still conjecture owing to numerous parent grapes being extinct and unavailable for DNA analysis.
Today, the premier growing region for Albarino is the Rias Baixias Denominacion de Origen or DO (a Spanish classification similar to an appellation, but which covers other food products like cheese). Albarino accounts for over 90% of the wine grapes grown in Rias Baixias which is further divided into 5 distinct sub-regions; each with their own micro-climate and winemaking traditions. Subject to a maritime influence from the Atlantic Ocean, the region’s overall climate is cool, humid and very wet with annual rain totals sometimes exceeding 70 inches. Albarino is a thick skinned grape with tight clusters, and the damp climate requires care to prevent powdery mildew. Growers typically train their vines on high trellises or pergolas to provide plenty of air circulation but even then a stringent spray regimen is required. While the wines styles can vary by sub-region, they all tend to be bone dry with a pale golden color, crisp acidity, and alcohol levels around 12%. Aromatic profiles can include white peach, apricot, melon, pineapple, mango and honeysuckle.
Spanish winemakers have enthusiastically embraced the entire pallet of modern winemaking techniques. Pre-fermentation maceration, wild yeasts, barrel fermentation, extended lees contact, and malolactic fermentation are all possible depending on the producer. Regulations on planting density, pruning, training methods, and authorized yields have also had a positive influence on quality.
Traveling south into northern Portugal, Albarino (Alvarinho) is one of a number of white grapes permitted in the Vinho Verde DOC (denominação de origem controlada: the Portuguese appellation system for agricultural products). In the early 16th century the Portuguese established regulations designed to maximize the production of maize. As a result, grape vines were restricted to the margins of fields and grown around the trunks of trees and draped over bushes surrounding fields that were used for other purposes. Today, there are still some vineyards that are relics of this practice, but most vineyards have transitioned to traditional trellis systems. One aspect of viticulture that has not changed is the Portuguese practice of over cropping the vines. High yields coupled with a cool maritime climate result in grapes with less than optimum ripeness, and wines with alcohol levels less than 10%. Vinho Verde literally means “green wine” but actually translates as “young wine”. Most of the whites, Albarino included, are destined to be blended into this early drinking low alcohol wine. These wines are sometimes bottled with a little CO2 added to give them a light sparkling and refreshing sensation in the mouth. In two smaller sub-regions of the area, Monção and Melgaco, Albarino is destined for single varietal wines with higher alcohol, and those grapes are carefully nurtured to achieve the optimum ripeness necessary for that style.
Inevitably, Albarino has found its way to the grape growing regions of the New World with varying degrees of success. The Australians began importing the grape in the 1980’s and have achieved some success with their version of this varietal’s wine. However, in 2009, a French ampelographer identified some of the vines in Australian vineyards as the French grape Savagnin, which DNA testing subsequently confirmed. Apparently the original 1951 clippings in the Spanish collection were actually miss-identified cuttings of Savagnin. True Albarino clippings were added to the collection in 1975. So depending on when they were planted, some vineyards in Australia are imposters and some true Albarino. It has become a marketing and legal nightmare.
Fortunately, with the grape being a more recent arrival in California, vintners here avoided the Albarino identity crisis. According to the California Grape Acreage Report, there were less than 2 acres planted prior to 2001, with a gradual expansion to 280 acres by 2015. Today there are vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley, Clarksburg, Napa, Edna Valley, Los Carneros, and in Amador’s Shenandoah Valley. While the climate of these areas is markedly different than Spain’s Rias Baixias region, the vinicultural practices, particularly in regard to lower yields, may be more in line with Albarino’s needs.
The Bray Vineyards Albarino was grafted over to established rootstock and we have 220 vines that are now 3 years old. Selective pruning kept the 2016 crop small and in balance with what the young vines could support. We processed only enough grapes to produce 12 cases of wine for our first Albarino vintage. The inaugural release is scheduled for March at the “Behind the Cellar Door” celebration. This is a light, medium bodied wine with only 13% alcohol. The nose is predominately floral with hints of green apple, while on the pallet the refreshing acidity combines with overtones of honeysuckle and pear. This easy drinking Albarino will be a perfect summer time choice for hot lazy afternoons.
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Website: Brayvineyards.com is the place to go for additional information on the winery, upcoming events, and past issues of this newsletter. It is also the online store for our current inventory of direct shipment wines, the available library wines, Bray logo clothing, and other winery paraphernalia. If you can’t visit us in beautiful Amador County, then perusing the website is the next best thing.