Tag Archives: Zinfandel

Challenging Personalities: Exploring the Tough to Grow Varieties*

Over the years, multiple varieties have made the news for one reason or another.  Some, like Gewurztraminer, suffer from difficult to pronounce names.  Others suffer from identity challenges. Chardonnay anyone?  Still more are actually difficult to get to a bottle in once piece without the high involvement of the dedicated growers to make quality wine.  Here are a few of those challenging personalities and how much work needs to be done behind the scenes to create our favorite wines.

Zinfandel – The Indecisive One

Zinfandel has a tough issue.  Is it a rose or is it a serious red?  Is it going to be high alcohol or more moderate? Consumers are often not sure because, inherently, this variety is naturally indecisive. It tends to ripen extremely unevenly so you can have huge spans of ripeness within the same cluster.  This makes picking calls very tough since the Brix can vary so much from cluster to cluster.  Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Company says he has seen clusters with 21 Brix berries and 28 Brix berries. “Part of the trick of growing Zinfandel is that you have to be comfortable with lack of some uniformity.”

Zinfandel also has very tight clusters and thin skins which makes it prone to rot. Twain-Peterson sees issues with this as well.  “The biggest year to year issue I see is the potential for botrytis where the wing lies on top of the main cluster. It ripens a little behind and can be heavy, […] weighing down on the rest of the cluster.” This pressure on the thin skins can cause the berries to burst and introduce botrytis into the clusters. “We battle this by almost always dropping wings on vineyards with higher historical botrytis pressure.”

Pinot Noir – The Drama Queen                                                                         

Pinot Noir has always had a reputation for being tough to grow.  You can look at it wrong and it will rot.  It is prone to diseases, sunburn, berry splitting, and nutrient issues.  Making high quality Pinot Noir is a labor of love but those growers who have taken it on have found ways to make it work for them.  In upstate NY, with high humidity and cool growing conditions Pinot Noir can be especially challenging. Thirsty Owl Wine Company winemaker and vineyard manager, Shawn Kime states “Intense canopy management and a prudent spray program are needed throughout the season long to allow grapes to reach their full potential. Vine balance is also extremely important. This doesn’t just mean not over cropping, but also not under cropping. Under cropped vines have too much vegetative growth and can be more susceptible to berry splitting and late season rot.”

Carneros Grower, Jennifer Thomson of Thomson Vineyards states “genetically many Pinot Noir clones display thin skins, tight clusters and compact berry formation which is a haven for pests and makes Integrated Pest Management essential for growing high quality Pinot Noir.” Grape berry moth, Mealy bug, and a host of other pests love Pinot Noir for its nooks and crannies in which to hide.  She tries to achieve “a balance between location, clone and seasonal characteristics” in order to grow great Pinot Noir.

Petit Verdot – The Goth

Envision walking into a vineyard that is otherwise happy and healthy except for one block which looks yellow, stressed, and spindly. Chances are that block is Petit Verdot.  It has a high propensity for over-cropping and generally doesn’t make very high quality wine unless it looks stressed.  Robert Mondavi Winery Vineyard Manager, Matt Ashby, points to extreme crop thinning to maintain quality.  “It will regularly grow 4 clusters per shoot, and it is a low vigor variety [with] very light pruning weights, so it will be out of balance for high quality wine if it is not thinned aggressively.  For Mondavi this means 1 cluster per shoot.” Another grower who chose to remain anonymous says “It’s a grey variety.  It always looks a little depressed when you are growing it properly.”

Rhone Whites – The Clique

This group of varieties tend to run in packs, meaning they are grown in similar locations, and they all have their own quirks. Viognier is an irregular setting variety which tends to only develop flavors towards the high end of the Brix scale and dump acid like last week’s leftovers anywhere outside of the Northern Rhone.  When asked about the challenges of Viognier, Stuart Bewley of Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino, CA, replied “The variety is prone to get mildew so you have to be on top of your spray or dust program.” Then he said he would not classify Viognier as the most difficult to grow. According to Bewley, Rousanne is far more challenging to grow.  “It shatters at set, it gets both mildew and botrytis and it is very hard to ripen.  It always comes in after Viognier or Marsanne.  Even Picpoul is easier to grow.”  Marsanne tends to set a heavy crop leading Bewley to come back and thin. “We must go through the blocks and cut off 50% to 75% of the fruit to make great wines.  The great thing is that these varieties make wonderful wines if cropped at a low yield.”

There are so many varieties in the world, it would be impossible to name all the difficult ones at one time. Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, and the Rhone Whites tend to have the greatest reputation for being finicky but there will always be growers out there willing to deal with their challenging personalities.

* This article was originally written by me and published on Snooth.com however I also really wanted to share it with my readers that may not have had the chance to see it there. This version is the un-edited original sent to Snooth.com and does not contain any omissions or editing from their version.