Monday, November 5, 2007

2007 Villa Ruzzo Marechal Foch

In planning my vineyard back in the year 2000, I knew something about wine making but nothing about what, if any grapes could be grown for wine making in the Capital District of New York State. I did a lot of research online and I looked to local vineyards for guidance. There were exactly one (1) vineyards growing wine grapes within an hour of my home. "This is not a good sign" I thought to myself. The next obvious question was, "why?" I was fortunate enough to stumble across the Cornell University website which just happens to include a plethora of viticultural information. This is due to the Finger Lakes AVA grape growing region. This AVA (American Viticultural Area) I found to be the most similar to the climate in my backyard. Using online historical weather databases, the information all said "you can't grow high quality wine grapes in your backyard." I guess that's why there was only one tiny little nothing of a commercial vineyard anywhere near my house. "Great, now what?" Because I was NOT about to give up on my plan for a home vineyard! So I read, and I read, and read some more. I went from having no idea what the difference was between the grape varieties used to make a French Bordeaux and a California Meritage. (there is no difference for the most part) I learned that most European wines are not named after the varietal that they are made form, while most new world wines are. I learned about the red varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Zinfandel/Primitivo, Sangiovese, Gamay, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo just to name a few. The white varitetals: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Semillion, to scratch the surface. I had made wine from some of these varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Merlot. I purchase these from a local distributor who imports California grapes every September. I had also come to appreciate many different commercial wines over the years. The conclusion that all the current knowledge had drawn me to though was this: Sadly, I could not grow the type of grapes I needed to make the types of wine that I love to drink. What and indescribable let down that was. You see, all the available expert advice coupled with the historical meteorological data said that Vitis Vinifera, the grape used to make the highest rated wines (ie; Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc etc.) could not handle the climate in New York's Capital Region.

I was crushed ( no pun intended), yet determined not to give up. Along the way, I had read about French-American Hybrids. These were exactly what their name implies; hybrids of Vitis Vinifera (wine grapes) and the cold hardy, disease resistant native American varieties, which make great jelly and juice, but terrible wine. Without going into way more detail than I already have, these varietals were created during the late 1800's in an effort to develop wine grapes that could resist the phylloxera root louse, an unintentionally imported American pest that pretty much wiped out all of France's vineyards at that time. These hybrids combined the natural phlloxera resistance of the American vines with the superior wine quality of the European vines. The problem was later resolved by grafting European vines onto American rooststocks. An unintentional feature of these hybrids though, was much hardier cold tolerance. You see Vitis Vinifera requires a long warm growing season and winter lows not colder than say 0 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit. I researched the record low in my area and found it to be -28 degrees Fahrenheit. Not good for me. This is where Cornell University came in to play. I learned about varieties like Chambourcin, Chancellor and Marechal Foch. These grapes could handle the cold, were planted widely in the Finger Lakes and Canada, and made into commercial wines.

Next I went out to local wine stores and found these wines. I tasted and became depressed. I just didn't like them nearly as much as Cab's and Zin's. I tried really hard to like them cause I really wanted to grow wine grapes in my yard. The only one I seemed to be able get a little excited about was Marechal Foch. That, in a huge nutshell is was what led me to select it as one of the varieties I first planted. Every year so far, the grapes have ripened nicely and come in with good sugar and acid levels for wine making. The problem for me has been that if you try to make wine with these grapes like you would make Cabernet Sauvinon or other vinifera grapes, it tastes funky. So I have spent the past 5 years trying to figure out how to make the best wine possible with these grapes and I think this year may be the year. It really helps that the weather was great and the fruit that came in from my Foch vines was just perfect as the above pictures show. For you winemakers here are the harvest details:
Harvest Date: 9/26/2007
Brix: 24.2
TA: .6
PH: 3.59
These numbers coupled with the taste and condition of the fruit, have me very excited about the wine potential. So far the early results are super promising. I'll keep you posted along the way.

Harvest -Finally!!

Harvest is now complete and the grapes are safely in the cellar being turned into wine. This post is long, long overdue, but that just reflects the demanding nature of viticulture. Harvest is a very demanding time of year (seems like I say that about every phase of grape growing) because of the delicate balance between the ripening grapes and the weather. I grow four different varietals and they all ripen at different times during the fall. This requires that you be ready to harvest them on the exact date that they are ready. The problem this presents here in the Northeast United States is that it is by no means an exact science. Each year different weather factors and growing conditions effect the life cycle of that particular year's crop. For example, the weather in the month of April will determine when budbreak will occur. Warmer weather will cause buds to break sooner while cooler weather means a later budbreak. Each variety has a required number of "growing days" to harvest. My varieties; Cabernet Franc, Riesling, Regent and Marechal Foch range from approximately 150 to 180 growing days to harvest. Of course, the weather can have a huge impact on those numbers. Especially does the fall weather influence grape ripening and quality. The more warm sunny weather you get in September and early October, the better quality your grapes will be. My previous post expands on this subject. I'm happy to report that this year's harvest was the best in the 8 year history of my vineyard! I will compose four posts to follow that will highlight the harvest details of each of my four varietals. But let's just say that I have super high hopes for the 2007 vintage wines. Depending on how the wine making process goes, I may even enter some of them into some amateur wine making competitions. That's a big step for me, one I have yet to take after 15 years of winemaking and 8 years of grape growing.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Let the Sun Shine!

During and after verasion a winegrower becomes neurotically aware of the sunshine. My wife can't stand it because this time of year my moods are actually influenced by the weather report. When the forecast calls for warm sunny days, she loves me. If the dreaded cloudy, or worse yet rainy forecast is called for, however, she plans to spend time away from me! You see, this is the time of year when you need as much sunshine as possible to raise the brix(sugar content) of your grapes to adequate levels for wine making. For red grapes that is generally 22-24 brix and for white wine 20-23 brix will usually be sufficient. The sun does more than build sugar levels though. The sun shining on the clusters themselves actually contributes to something called phenolic ripeness. This means that not only do the grapes have sufficient sugar for wine making, but they are physiologically ripe. There are no vegetal flavors, harsh, green tannins are gone. Fruit flavors are at a maximum and the grapes will make delicious wine. It is entirely possible for grapes to have enough sugar, but still be unripe. That's where hang time comes into play. That is the difficult and subjective period when the grapes have achieved a fairly good level of ripeness but they are not quite ready to pick, so they must hang for days or weeks longer until they reach phenolic ripeness. During this time the birds, bees, deer and lots of other pests would love to get their greedy paws(beaks, antennae, whatever) on your precious crop. Again, this is where watching the weather is crucial. Nicely ripened grapes that are just about ready can be ruined by a soaking rain. The grapes will soak up the water and become diluted. They may swell and split open only to become infected by gray mold, sour rot or unwanted botrytis. This time period is so important and it's really exciting. The whole vintage comes down to these final weeks and you continue to hope for the best and try to avoid the worst. The most important decision is still more than a month away for me, that is the day to begin the harvest. It will be different for each grape variety since they all ripen at different rates. It's all so stressful! And to think: I do this in my spare time for relaxation and pleasure? I need my head examined.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Verasion -A Test of Patience

Second only to the last few months of winter, the most difficult waiting period for a wine grower is the time just prior to verasion (when the grapes soften and change color). In the preceding weeks you have been waging a seemingly endless war against fungus and insects, keeping the canopy healthy and open, as well as making sure the grapes are exposed to a good deal of sunlight. You have watched the grapes reach full size, and it just seems as if nothing else is ever going to happen. Every day you inspect the bunches and check for the slightest change in color and still nothing. Is something wrong, you begin to wonder, they were changing by this time last year. What's going on here! Then finally one day, you notice something on a few of of the berries. Is it black rot? Anthracnose? Some downy Mildew that you've missed? No, wait a minute these grapes are turning! It's here it's finally here, verasion. What seemed like it was never going to happen has begun, the grapes are ripening. It's a wonderful sign of good things ahead. Now I just have to get the nets up to keep the birds away. You gotta love it!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Long Road to a New Vintage

It's amazing each year just how quickly the trellis fills with new growth. Once budbreak begins, it almost seems to happen overnight. You just wake up one morning, walk outside and Viola! It's full. In actuality, it took roughly two months, all of May and June for the trellis to fill up. Of course weather plays a big part in new shoot growth. Keeping up with suckering and spraying is always challenge for me between work and family responsibilities. This year, fruit set was rather poor especially on my Cabernet Franc and Riesling. I'm not quite sure why, but I believe I sprayed too close to bloom. I know that rain, cold, or damp weather can cause this, but that was not the case this year. So to compensate for the lack of berries in many clusters, I will not do as much cluster thinning or "green harvest" as it is called. This removing of perfectly fine clusters of grapes prior to, or just after verasion ensures that the vine's crop load will not be too heavy and thus cause a reduction in ripening and grape quality. Every year really does present it's challenges and these are reflected in the different wines produced from the same vines and same grape varieties each year. Hence that is why vintages will vary from year to year. One thing that never changes with each vintage, is how much I love to go out in my vineyard in the evening and just sit with a good glass of wine (Preferably made from my own grapes of a previous vintage). As dusk sets in and the birds settle into their nests, everything starts to quiet down. The crickets begin their hypnotic chant and a warm breeze rustles through the vines. A waft of oak, cherry, and tobacco rises from my glass and then: a sip of good wine. There are not many things as peaceful as this.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Budbreak -A time of new beginnings and WORK!

The vines broke bud back in May and from that point on they screamed ATTENTION, NOW!! I had sincerely intended on writing this post by mid-May, but my vines would just not have it. Like little children awakening from a nap, they began to cry for my constant attention and care. I began "changing" them weekly, that is spraying them with sulfur and copper to protect them from the onslaught of fungal diseases like powdery mildew and black rot. Then of course they need "discipline" and "training". You see grapevines love to push the limits as they grow, sprawling up and out, here and there, wanting to grow their shoots long. I, as any good grower would, need to keep them in line by setting limits. That is, by tying them to the trellis and keeping them looking neat by trimming their suckers and water shoots. Oh they fight, but eventually they settle down and when the trellis is full of a new healthy canopy of green, they have shown me that they still love me. Now, if only they'll cooperate right up till harvest. Well it is a labor of love you know and after all, they are still my babies.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Pruning, Vineyard Prep and more Waiting...

Well May is upon us and the vineyard is pruned and ready for this year's growth. I have my vines planted at very close spacings; 3.5x5 feet to be exact. I do this in an effort to maximize grape quality by limiting crop load. At these spacings I can only allow about 10-14 buds per vine using the Double Guyot pruning system, as it is called in France. Basically it consists of two short canes(last year's shoots) tied down to the bottom trellis wire. (see below)

(click on pictures to enlarge)
This system allows for VSP(vertical shot positioning) of this year's growth, and thus the maximum exposure to sunlight. There are many opinions and theories as to what will accomplish this best, but for me this is what has worked best after eight years of experimentation. The French have also made quality wines in this way for hundreds of years and many vineyards here in USA use the same method. Each vineyard though, must experiment and come up with the best system for your individual scenario. The buds are very swollen and about to break, budbdreak is arriving a bit late this year due to a cool spring. The forecast is calling for lot's of sunshine and warm temps for the upcoming week and this should get things rolling! It's a very exciting time of the year for a grower. The first variety to break bud in my vineyard is the French-American hybrid Marechal Foch. Followed closely by my Vinifera varieties Cabernet Franc and Riesling. My most recent addition, a German variety called Regent will be making it's first budbreak for me this year, so we shall see when it happens. I'll be adding some pictures of budbreak and early growth in the next week or so. We're off and running toward another vintage, hopefully a great one!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Wine Cellar Fever!

It's March 8th and I'm so frustrated with our weather report which is calling for the coldest weather of the year so far. A bone chilling -4 F is predicted for tonight accompanied by howling winds. These temperatures are far below the normal averages for this time of year, so much for global warming. It's definitely that time of year in the Northeast when you can't take the weather anymore. Everyone has "cabin fever". But for wine growers who would love to be outdoors tending the vines now, it's even worse. You've been spending all of your free time in the cellar racking, fining and bottling wines that are aging. You look out the window and see your vines buried under a layer of snow, the winds whipping and you just wonder why you live here. Out west and in the temperate parts of the country and world, pruning is well underway or long finished. Thoughts of a mild April breeze carrying the smells of spring fill our minds now. The feeling of the warm spring sun on your face, the smell of earth, grass and the fragrance of early spring flowers filling your nose as you prune away. We live for days like these. The vineyard looks so clean, open and neat after you prune. As the sun begins to go down and the spring air takes on a chill, that's the perfect time to get a fire going and start tossing in the pruned canes. Warming yourself by the fire with the sweet smoke from the burning canes in the air, is the perfect way to end a long awaited spring day such as this. Except maybe for the glass of wine that awaits you back inside. Oh well, those days will be here soon, just not soon enough for me!

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Welcome to Backyard Vineyard & Winery!

My name is David Ruzzo. I have been making wine with my best friend Rich Schell for more than 15 years. I have loved wine as long as I can remember. My grandfather (Papa), an Italian immigrant used to make wine in the "traditional Italian" way every year. back in 1991 my friend Rich noticed a heavily laden concord grape vine that ran between my yard and my neighbors. I never paid the vine much attention, but one September day he said "we should make wine with those." Thus began the quest, how to begin, how to do it and so on. My grandfather had been dead for years and my father viewed wine making as a chore since he was forced to help Papa each year when as a teenager he would have rather been playing basketball with his friends. So Rich and I bought books, picked minds and did everything one could do in the days before the Internet, to find out how to make wine, and we did. We turned those Concord grapes into the worst batch of whatever we had ever tasted! That was just the beginning, we learned about varietals and started purchasing classic varieties imported from California and have made many vintages during our yearly ritual. When my father's oldest brother heard about my endeavors, he called and asked if I wanted Papa's Torcietti(winepress) and other equipment, since it was sitting in his basement gathering dust. I never knew it existed, but Rich and I immediately went and picked it up and we've used it ever since. It stands 5' tall and works great. It's my tribute to Papa and reminds me that my winemaking is genetic. Upon purchasing a fixer-upper home in 1999 I was surprised to find out that an overgrown extra plot of land came with it. I eventually cleared up the thickets and planted a nice large tomato garden. One day as I stood looking at my garden noticing just how much sun it received, when it suddenly hit me. I thought to myself "I think I'll plant a few grapevines here to make wine from." Little did I understand the implications of that statement. Living in the Northeast in upstate New York, I had no idea about what varieties grew and where. What types of wine were made form which grapes, and the word terroir, huh? As I began to research viticulture, I slowly realized I had bitten off more than I could chew. Nevertheless, I persisted and successfully planted 40 vines in the spring of 2001. "VillaRuzzo Vineyards" was officially underway. Since then I've added 50 more vines, removed two of the original 4 varieties, and learned the challenges of growing vinifera grapes in cold climates. I learned a lot and lost a lot, but I have realized my dream of making wine from my own grapes. It's getting better with each vintage and I continue to get excited with each budbreak and harvest. I have a lot to share, but a lot more to learn and that's what I hope to accomplish by means of this blog. I hope to create a place where home grapegrowers and winemakers can share their failures successes and tasting notes. Hope you'll share yours with me!