Washington vineyardists charting new ground
Italian varietals require heavy thinning, are sensitive to sunburn, and are picked later than most wine grape varieties.
Sangiovese, a very fruitful Italian varietal, is challenging to grow, requiring lots of wires for canopy support and heavy thinning.
Though there’s not a huge winery demand for Italian varietals, a few wine grape growers and winemakers are finding success with a handful of red Italian varieties and the super-Tuscan style of wines.
The food-friendly Italian wine grape varieties are creating interest in the Pacific Northwest. Several growers and winemakers have taken on the challenge of working with the varietals that are new to the region.
A panel of Washington vineyardists and vintners gathered at a statewide wine convention to share their growing and winemaking experiences with Italian varietals like Sangiovese, Barbera, and Dolcetto. This article highlights the growers’ experiences with the varietals.
Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington, has grown the Grosso clone of Sangiovese for more than ten years. Sangiovese is best known as the grape behind Italian Chianti wines.
“There are viticultural challenges that come with growing Sangiovese,” he said. “It’s vigorous no matter where it is planted. It is heavy yielding no matter how tight you prune, wanting to produce a six- to seven-ton crop.”
He adds that the variety is light sensitive and sunburns easily. Timing on leafing and thinning is important to minimize sunburn. Berries are large and clusters are tight, characteristics that are conducive to mildew if rains come late in the season.
Figgins works to minimize berry size to improve grape quality and discourage mildew potential.
While there are challenges to growing the winter-tender variety, he pointed out that it has several advantages. Yields are good, even if it’s planted in a low-vigor site, and the variety is drought-tolerant. The vine has an open growth habit. Fruit quality seems to improve with the age of the vineyard. The variety has consistently fetched high prices.
Also, the variety is attractive and pleasing to the eye. “It’s one of my favorite vines to work with,” he said, adding that the canes are a light, shiny green color and the “clusters look like table grapes.”
At the Leonetti vineyards, they prune Sangiovese at a wide spur spacing and manage the crop load to yield no more than three tons per acre. “We found that if we push it to 3.5 tons, then we lose quality.”
Thinning the crop, in which about two-thirds is typically removed, is achieved with multiple passes. Leafing, or leaf removal, is done on the morning side of the vine, with care to keep some leaves to shade the fruit. In later-ripening sites, Figgins denudes the fruiting zone of leaves so that his “bare-naked ladies” can receive sunlight to polish off color.
They also remove individual berries from the clusters while the fruit is on the vine.
John Farmer, of Winemakers, LLC, and manager at Alder Ridge Vineyards, has had similar experiences with Sangiovese. Clones 2 and 3 are planted at the Alder Ridge location. He hasn’t observed many differences between the two clones, nor have his winemakers.
When pruning, they target cluster weights to be .45 pound each, with typical cluster weights averaging .37 to .47 pound per cluster. They thin the crop to achieve 3.5 tons per acre.
“The variety wants to be very fruitful,” Farmer said. “We take three-quarters of the crop off, and later on, it’s all back again. At harvest, you wonder where all the grapes came from.”
The variety is difficult to grow and is more work, he acknowledges. They have “lots of wire” on the sun side of the canopy to provide extra protection from sunburn. Sangiovese seems to do well with their regulated deficit irrigation regime.
Dick Bouchey, Grandview, first got excited about Sangiovese when he tasted some super-Tuscan wines. “I told myself, ‘I want to grow this stuff.’ But the cold, hard reality of growing Italian varietals then hit. If you want a challenge, plant Sangiovese or Barbera.” Sangiovese is a light, thin-skinned grape that can be hard to color. The fruit sunburns and shrivels easily, and fruit can “quickly turn into grape nuts, shriveling down to nothing.”
Determining maturity can be challenging because the variety has high acid, low pH, and sometimes high sugar. Taste is very important to determining maturity, he said.
Bouchey has Clones 2 and 3 of the Grosso clone and has planted them to a 9 feet by 6 feet row spacing on a vertical shoot positioned trellis with a bilateral cordon. He uses two catch wires on the west side of the vine to help shade fruit. A second block planted to the Geneva double curtain trellis system is doing well.
“I do clip the wings on a lot of cluster shoulders,” he said. “But I don’t like to do it, because it’s labor-intensive.”
Bill den Hoed of Vigneron Management, LLC, Grandview, has 17 acres of Sangiovese, first planting Piccolo and Grosso clones of the variety in 1999 at their Wallula Gap vineyard and in 2000 in Yakima Valley blocks. The Sangiovese is on a vertical shoot positioned trellis with movable catch wires.
Row orientation is important to help protect fruit from sunburn. The fruit with the best color is on the east-west rows. “Sunburn washes the color out,” he noted.
With soil depths in his vineyards ranging from 8 to 20 inches, den Hoed has observed that soil depth can affect the growth habits and cluster characteristics of Sangiovese. Their Wallula site is rocky and shallow and must be irrigated at high frequencies, which can plump up the berry size. But on sites with deeper soils, he has better control of berry size and canopy.
Den Hoed hasn’t noted any differences between the two Sangiovese clones they have planted.
At Alder Ridge Vineyards, Farmer said that they also have Clone 2 of Barbera planted, which is an Italian wine grape variety known for its bright red color and low tannins. As with Sangiovese, sunburn can be a problem, therefore, they designed the canopy architecture to provide dappled sunlight to the fruiting zone. They also take care to keep clusters from touching each other.
With Barbera, he has observed that clusters and berries are large, with berries averaging 2.7 grams compared to the Merlot average at 1.7 grams. Uneven ripening problems result in green berries within the clusters.
“We hope that reducing the cluster size will improve the uniformity of ripening.”
Barbera is a vigorous grower and also the earliest variety to break bud on the farm, he said, adding that they have the variety planted near the Columbia River where it is well protected from spring frosts.
“We’ve seen it to be more winter-sensitive than Sangiovese,” Farmer said. “And because it is high yielding, you need to attack it aggressively with fruit thinning and go through the vineyard more than once.”
Den Hoed has a small amount of Barbera Clone 2 planted at their Wallula vineyard. It is planted directly into the wind to minimize sunburn issues. He has found that the variety can be vigorous, but that it has a “lazy canopy” that droops out and requires several wires to contain it.
Bouchey, who has a small amount of Barbera planted, noted that the grapes are high sugar, high acid, low pH, and with good flavors.
Den Hoed also planted a small amount of another Italian red wine grape variety, Dolcetto, in 2001 in both the Yakima Valley and at Wallula. He is trying different trellis designs and targeting one to two clusters per vine to achieve smaller berries. The Dolcetto variety is planted on a tight 9 feet by 6 feet spacing, with two trunks head trained and pruned to leave one to two bud spurs.
“In the Yakima Valley, even on a 9 by 6 feet spacing, it’s the most prolific producer of any variety that I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It could hang a 12- to 15-ton crop if you let it.”
They thin Dolcetto shoots aggressively and thin clusters as well, pinching off one-third of the cluster shoulder. Yet, they still get clusters that weigh three-quarters of a pound.
Den Hoed has found that Dolcetto is not as apt to sunburn as Sangiovese and Barbera, but to get good color, moveable wires are needed.
“You have to be careful because you don’t want to thin too aggressively too early, or you will get a huge explosion in berry sizes.”