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Dear Black Ankle Wine Club Members,
Growing up, I was taught that if you can not say anything nice, you should not say anything at all. This growing season (a long, late winter was followed by heavy spring rains, and heavy summer rains, and heavy fall rains), it has been harder and harder for me to answer questions about how the weather has affected us and still, as they say, listen to my Mamma. I am going to give it a shot here, but don’t be surprised if this ends up being a very short letter…
2018 will go down as the rainiest year in the history of Maryland. From May 1st through September, we have received almost 4 times our normal rainfall total. When we set out to grow wine in the Eastern United States, we signed up willingly for the fact that we would have variability among seasons. The differences that each year bring keep life interesting and give each new vintage some distinctive character. Our California colleagues regularly ask us if we dry-farm (California-speak for farming without irrigation) or if we irrigate our vines. They are usually a bit puzzled at first when I answer, “No and no.” We do not irrigate, but we are not ever “dry-farming” around here – we get natural “irrigation” from the sky and we are prepared for that. Water management is one of the key factors in most of our vineyard development decisions: we have a hilly site, which will catch less initial rainfall, from which rain will run off quickly, and our soil is extremely well-drained and rocky with very limited water holding capacity. The rain that sinks in is dispersed very quickly and we have chosen rootstocks for our vines that are purposely inefficient in their use of water so that the vines are limited in how much rain they can absorb – the list goes on and on and all of these factors have made a huge difference this year. Our vineyards were designed to rise above in vintages like 2018, even though we would prefer more years like 2016 or 2017.
All of this to say that, while this year has been challenging, it has not been disastrous. The biggest impact that this rainy year has had on us, aside from a few grumpy days wishing the sun would finally shine, is that we have a very small crop. Grapevine flowers are extremely delicate and susceptible to rain during the flowering and fruit set period in the late spring/early summer and we had heavy rains during much of that period this year so our vines set a very small crop. As it turns out, that may have been good news in disguise. A small crop means that each vine is trying to ripen less fruit than it otherwise would, so despite the distinct lack of sunshine that this year has brought, the vines have been able to ripen the fruit that remained. We still have a few varieties left to harvest (and yes, we are still rooting for a few more sunny days!), but what we have picked has been surprisingly good, if not plentiful. All in all, we ended up working significantly harder to pick about half the crop we picked in 2017.
On the plus side for us, the last three vintages (2015, 2016 and 2017) were excellent, and we still have a decent number of barrels from those years tucked away in our cellar. As you know, we are not shy about mixing vintages to improve the balance between vintages, so keep an eye out for numbered instead of vintage-marked wines in the next few years as we pull from some older vintages to balance out this one. And since we got all the rain in 2018, there isn’t much left for 2019, right?
So, on to this quarter’s new wines:
The 2017 West Hill Chardonnay is medium-bodied and easy drinking with a lush mouth feel and juicy acidity. Aromas of yellow apple, starfruit, and pear are supported by a palate filled with tropical fruits, citrus zest and hints of creamy custard. Its finish is long and smooth. About 50% of the juice in this wine went through malolactic fermentation, a process in which tart-tasting malic acid (think biting into a granny smith apple) is converted to softer and smoother-tasting lactic acid (acid found in milk), making for a wine that we think has the perfect balance of acidity and structure.
The fourth rendition of Slate (also known as Slate 4) will be released to members only with this quarter’s allotment. It will either be included in your selection or offered as a wine you can add or swap for. It is a rich and balanced, full-bodied Bordeaux-Style blend that demonstrates diverse aromas and flavors of dark fruits, spice, anise, and tobacco leaf. It is clean and smooth but with plenty of verve, making for a complex, elegant and refined wine. As always, this wine demonstrates great ageability but is tasting wonderful and fresh should you choose to drink it sooner rather than later!
Well, so much for my short letter! Never trust an Irish woman who tells you she is going to tell a short story and enjoy your wines!
Sarah (and Ed)