When I started down this path to grape grower and wine maker about 15 years ago, I didn’t know where I was going with it. It was fun and I just wanted to have a few vines in my backyard. A guy named, Jeff Jernegan got ahold of me and showed me this abandoned vineyard on the southern end of Maury Island. My eyes got big and I dove in. (Jeff died a couple of years back from brain cancer way too young at about 55 years old)
Initially, we wanted to stay with the grapes that had been growing around the Puget Sound for a few years. Namely Madeleine Angevine, Muller-Thurgau, Siegerrebe and Pinot Noir. So, we planted a 1/2 acre of Pinot Noir to start, but we carved out space for our experimental block. In this area we were going to plant vines that had never been planted in these parts. Jeff like to drink big red wines (at this point in my life, I could barely tell the difference between Pinot and Cabernet). Part of that research effort was to find the “Holy Grail” of grapes for our region. A grape that would ripen early and give us higher sugar levels and basically make a full bodied red wine.
Just as we were starting Maury Island Vineyards (MIV), Gary Moulton at the WSU Research Station at Mt. Vernon, WA put together a rescue mission to British Columbia to retrieve dozens of vines that were going to be ripped out of a BC agricultural research station. In the winter of 1998, Gary basically gave all the local growers, that wanted them, vines for research.
Jeff and I snagged many different varieties with names like St. Laurent, Zweigelt, Dornfelder, Agria, Regent, Garanoir. Along with those, we also got from other sources, Pinot Meunier, Gamay Noir and several Pinot Noir clones. From my research, all of these vines were supposed to be earlier than our standard Pinot Noir Pommard clone.
We planted them, grew them for a couple of years. They all make excellent wine. I just wish I had 40 acres so I could grow all of these vines in large enough quantities to make a couple of barrels of each. The problem is that none of them really ripen earlier than Pinot Noir Pommard in our climate. We ended up picking them all at the same time, they just had different brix and acids.
In our trials, Regent was clearly ahead on the charts. Agria ripened the same time, but had low brix and low acids. We didn’t have Garanoir to full maturity, but from Gary’s trials it might be a winner. We didn’t have Pinot Noir Precoce (aka Fruhburgunder) at that time. It was imported a couple of years later and it has shown promise of ripening earlier than regular clones of Pinot but seems to have issues with fruit set and weak growth.
I’m not sure where I’m going to go with these grapes. I have a few cases of Dornfelder I made from Mt. Vernon grapes and it’s a big wine. Regent also makes a big wine. St. Laurent and Zweigelt make slightly bigger wines than Pinot Noir. Agria makes a dark, tannic wine, but didn’t have much mouth feel. Some of the new Pinot Noir clones ripened to higher brix, especially on rootstock.
Blending might actually be the holy grail as we move forward. I made a barrel of a special blend in 2009 that we called Joyeuse (Joyful in French). It was 70% Pinot Noir, 20% Regent and 10% Agria. It was so good that the venerable Herbfarm restaurant bought 13 cases of it!
There are other grapes out there that are supposed to ripen earlier, like Rondo and Leon Millot. But what needs to happen from a grower perspective is to settle on a couple of these grapes and go from there…
What I have found is that there is no silver bullet in grape growing. It’s a constant state of experimentation. We keep fiddling with things because we are never satisfied. This is a good thing! It means a superior product in the end!