by Warren Richard

How do good wines evolve over time? We asked ourselves this question and decided to find the answers. However, we wanted to observe the process from start to finish—from the vines into the barrels and then finally into the bottle. We began our quest last September and volunteered to harvest at Gray Ghost Vineyards; from that starting point, we got an up-close and personal look at the grapes and the de-stemming process. In March 2006, we were able to taste the wines out of the barrel and thus observe their development, and this included the same Chardonnay that we helped to harvest from the previous fall. The next step in our journey was to attend a winemakerís dinner that featured the finished products; these wines were ones that are currently offered at the winery itself. Finally, we took advantage of an opportunity to compare vintages over time at a vertical tasting at Gray Ghost Vineyards. We chose Gray Ghost Vineyards because they have won numerous state, national and international awards including Best of the East for three consecutive years; furthermore, they maintain an immaculate vineyard and facility, Therefore, we knew that Gray Ghost Vineyards would provide us with some of the answers to our complicated question. In this four part series, we will share with you how good wines are made in Virginia.

Part I: Harvest

With our question in mind, we began our search for the answers on a cool, misty morning in early September; it was a pre-dawn hour, and Warren was wise enough to bring along a large thermos of coffee in the car, and the caffeine was much appreciated during our trip to the vineyards. By the time we arrived, Cheryl Kellert had already set out a generous breakfast spread on the crush pad; Warren replenished his coffee intake, and Paul headed for the donuts and juice. As the sun began to rise, Al and Cheryl gave the volunteers a lesson on how to use the sheers to carefully cut the grape clusters from the vine with special care not to snip the precious canes. With these instruction and armed with our pruning sheers, we took to the vineyards to gather the Chardonnay fruit.

The mist continued throughout the morning, but that did not deter us from our mission—to fill the lugs with as much fruit as we could harvest from the Chardonnay vines. The fruit clusters were beautiful to behold, and we could not help but notice the aromatic experiences as we trimmed leaves, snipped the clusters, and even sampled a few grapes. We were also careful not to include clusters from beyond the growing zone; these grapes produce a bitter effect not appreciated in a nice Chardonnay. The time seemed to fly, and by 11:00 AM we and the other harvesters had completed the mission. Now it was time to enjoy the lunch that Cheryl prepared for us and to watch the de-stemming process on the crush pad.

Al Kellert invited the harvesters to observe the process known as de-stemming. De-stemming removes the stems and seeds from the grapes; Al prefers this procedure as opposed to crushing as it removes the risk of bitter seeds and stems from being crushed along with the grapes. From the de-stemmer, the grapes are transferred to the press; the grapes are pressed by an expanding bladder devise that gently extracts the juice from the grapes. From this machine, the extracted juice go into tanks and ultimately into barrels for the aging process. In March 2006, we were able to sample this evolving Chardonnay right out of the barrel!

Part II: Barrel Aging

To continue our quest, we attended Gray Ghostís barrel tasting; of course, we were anxious to taste the Chardonnay, and we were not disappointed. The Chardonnay exhibited lush fruit characters, but the oakiness that one may associate with Chardonnay was not evident. We were quite pleased with the progress and learned that the Chardonnay was not ready for bottling. From the Chardonnay station, we moved on to the Cabernet Franc and then to the Cabernet Sauvignon. Here is where things got very interesting. After initial samplings of the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, we received a lesson on blending. We returned to the Cabernet Franc station, and here we received a small amount of Cab Franc, and then we blended the Franc with a larger portion of the 2004 Cab Sauvignon. The result was remarkable—the jamminess of the Cab Sauvignon married quite well with the big raspberry flavor of the Franc. A similar treat awaited us with the 2005 Cab. Sauvignon. While the 2005 Cab Sauvignon was very young in the barrel, it was evolving quite nicely, and the blend of Cab Franc gave us a hint of the final product. We were quite confident that both blends provided a strong indication that the Gray Ghost 2004 and 2005 Cab Sauvignon will earn many awards, and we eagerly anticipate the release of both vintages.

During our harvesting and barrel tasting experiences at Gray Ghost, we discovered several answers to our initial question. Good wine making begins in the vineyard. Immaculate vineyards insure that vines produce the healthiest fruit possible even in difficult years. Gray Ghost maintains a vineyard free of weeds that compete with the vines for needed nutrients. Also, the barrel room must be spotless, and temperatures must be monitored so that wines ferment and mature in a healthy environment. Gray Ghostís barrel room would pass the strictest standards of cleanliness, and climate control obviously receives top attention. The barrel room is very cool with low humidity. The cement floor is spotless, and dangerous microbes that threaten barrels and their precious liquids cannot threaten evolving wines at Gray Ghost. Finally, expert knowledge about varietals, microclimates and soils (what the French call terroir) prevail at Gray Ghost. The result, of course, is quality wine; in fact, as of this writing, Gray Ghostís 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon has already won gold at the 2006 Tasterís Guild International competition.

Part III: Comparison Over Time

How long can wines be cellared? In particular, can Virginia wines age well? The answers to these questions led us to the next phase of our quest. To find out, we attended a vertical tasting of Cabernet Sauvignon at Gray Ghost on April 8. At this event, we tasted 10 Cabernet Sauvignons produced by Gray Ghost since 1993, and we were allowed to compare how the Cabernets aged over time.

We must first clarify that only well-made red wines can be aged for a lengthy period of time. However, the degree to which this is possible is really dictated by the grapes themselves. Generally, grapes that develop in hot and dry weather will usually produce a wine capable of aging; however, adverse weather conditions will potentially produce the opposite outcome, and it is really up to the wine maker and his/her skills to ensure that a quality wine can be produced even with less than optimal conditions. Red wines produced in the best of growing seasons can be kept for a least 10 years or longer.

With this in mind, we began our vertical tasting. Al Kellert started us off with a flight of the latest vintages of Cabernets, and he started with the 2002 vintage but stopped with the 1998 vintage. As we tasted through each vintage, Al gave us some background information on the conditions for each year. Our table concluded that all of the vintages tasted excellent; however, we were mixed on which year was the best. Paul preferred the 2002 Cabernet; this one was produced in the last of several drought years in Virginia, and it was still bursting with cherry and plum flavors. Warrenís favorite was the 1998 Cabernet; this one was also produced during a drought year, but the years of aging had mellowed the tannins considerably. Warren detected some tobacco and cassis flavors that was not evident in the latest vintages. Once this comparison was completed, Al moved us on to the earliest vintages, and we tasted the 1993 ‚1997 vintages.

Here is where we really got to appreciate the ability of good wines to age nicely. The consensus at our table was the 1993 vintage was still king. Aromas of plum, dark cherry, and even leather were evident, and despite its age, the finish was both smooth and long. Velvet was the word that came to mind! In fact, Al shared with us that a critic for Gourmet visited the winery and asked to taste the 1993 Cabernet from Alís library. The critic was pleasantly surprised that a Virginia Cabernet had aged so well!

Al also shared with us that some years were very tricky indeed for Virginia wine makers. Wet summers, visits from hurricanes, and early frosts can provide headaches for the winemakers, and these conditions particularly threaten the quality of red varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon. However, we learned that even in these circumstances the dedicated winemaker can still manage to produce a quality wine. At Gray Ghost, constant attention to the vineyard and awareness of weather conditions occur even in the best of weather conditions. Cabernet grapes are allowed to hang on the vine for as long as possible and are picked when sugars are at optimal levels. However, an eye must be kept on the weather; for example, an early October frost will wreak havoc on the delicate Cabernet grapes.

As we enjoyed the wines and conversation, we also ate foods prepared by Cheryl Kellert that complemented Cabernet Sauvignon. These included pork tenderloin, steak teriyaki, venison, blue cheese, and pasta dishes. We finished the evening with the award-winning Adieu, the late harvest Vidal Blanc dessert wine that has garnered Gray Ghost the Best of the East award for three consecutive years.

The vertical tasting gave us more answers to our questions; it was enjoyable and educational experience, and we could only marvel at the hard work and expertise required to produce good wines. However, we still were not done with our quest, and the final portion of our journey had to do with food and wine. The final Gray Ghost event that we attended was the Winemaker’s Dinner at Marriott Ranch in Hume Virginia; so, read next time to discover the results!

Part IV: Wine and Food

And now we get to the last part of our series on expert winemaking—-wine and food pairing. Whether it’s the Sunday barbeque or a four-course dinner party with special friends, pairing the right wine with food makes for a memorable and enjoyable occasion. In my experience, the wines themselves become topics of conversation. However, the critical piece is choosing the right wine to pair with food, and the right wine must also be a quality wine. To complete our journey, therefore, we decided to attend a winemaker’s dinner that also completed our experiences with the wine making process at Gray Ghost Vineyards. This particular event took place at the Marriott Ranch on March 25, 2006, and we anxious to see which of Gray Ghost’s award-winning wines were paired with the menu items.

The first course featured various cheeses served with the Victorian White. Of interest to me was the perfect match between the stilton cheese and the Victorian White. The Victorian White is a stainless steel Chardonnay, and it is a refreshing a wine with citrusy notes that complemented the various cheeses quite nicely. Eventually, we all took our seats at the dinner table, and we were treated to a delightful evening of exquisite cuisine and fine wine.

The second course was of interest to me, the Louisiana native. Featured here was spicy andouille sausage with lentils. This dish would have delighted my Cajun grandmother, and she would have been particularly pleased with the pairing—the 2005 Gewurztraminer. Aromatic and spicy, the Gerwurztraminer demands to be noticed, and this pairing was truly unique. I took note of this pairing and served it at one of my own dinner parties; both the dish and the Gray Ghost Gerwurztraminer won rave reviews. For Gray Ghost, their 2005 proved to be an international success, and awards included a Grand Star Award in the Lone Star International Wine Competition.

We reluctantly finished our second course, but we knew that the third course with wine was on the way. The third wine was Gray Ghost’s Victorian Red, and this rose-style wine proved to be yet another crowd pleaser. Now we know that the word “rose” conjures images of the sickly-sweet, sickly-pink White Zinfandel; however, Gray Ghost’s Victorian Red resurrects the reputation of roses once enjoyed before the hot-tub ’70s. This gold-medal winner is a semi-dry wine and a blend of Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay; the chef paired the Victorian Red with red beet salad and fried Irish cheddar cheese on spring greens. The Victorian Red’s bright fruit flavors complemented the earthy beets and spicy greens quite well.

As we lingered over the Victorian Red, we anxiously awaited the fourth course, and this, indeed, was heartiest dish served that evening. This course included pecan crusted beef tenderloin with juniper jus, bleu cheese scalloped potatoes, and creamed spinach; its partner was the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. This was the marriage made in heaven. Another multiple medal winner, this Bordeaux-styled Cabernet brought to this course a full-bodied feel and velvety finish. Cherry and tobacco flavors was the ultimate pairing with this hearty course; in particular, the bridge ingredients that included juniper, bleu cheese, and mascarpone accentuated the berry and currant flavors exhibited by the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon.

By now we had reached the end of our evening, but we were treated to one more delight. Apple Pound Cake was the dessert course, and this was paired with the outstanding Adieu. The Adieu is Gray Ghost’s late-harvest Vidal Blanc, and it has earned Gray Ghost three consecutive Best of the East Awards. The 2005 Adieu has already earned two gold medals as well as numerous silver and bronze medals from various international competitions. This was certainly the sweetest wine we had that evening, and its apricot flavors and honey-like texture provides a dessert in itself.

By the end of the evening, we had reached the end of our trek, and we had more questions to our original question. Well-made wines are evidenced by their ability to complement well-prepared foods. Bridge ingredients provide essential links to wines that are expertly crafted, and we were able to attest to this fact at the winemaker’s dinner. Several of the wines that we enjoyed that evening were new releases by Gray Ghost, and the international awards garnered by Gray Ghost were earned after this dinner. We suspect that the acclaimed Gewurztraminer has already sold out. As of this writing, the Kellerts have cut the ribbon that opened their new tasting room, and they will celebrate their twelfth anniversary on July 8-9. We thoroughly enjoyed the educational experiences that we received, and we appreciate the time that Al, Cheryl, and Amy spent with us to prepare these articles. We have already signed up to harvest this fall!