Cabernet Franc Challenges

Cabernet Franc panel

I attended the Paso Robles Cab Collective “Cabs of Distinction” program at the Allegretto Vineyard Resort in Paso Robles. One session was about the other Cabernet focusing on Cabernet Franc. The panel included four winemakers and a moderator. Included on the panel were Bob Barth from Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Jeremy Weintraub, winemaker at Adelaide Cellars, Damian Grindley, winemaker at Brecon Estate, Anthony Riboli, winemaker at San Antonio Winery and Michael Mooney, winemaker at Chateau Margene.

During the panel discussion and tasting of the wines, major challenges to growing and making wine from Cabernet Franc were revealed. One challenge for this nobel grape that is a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon is that many consumers associate certain characteristics with Cabernet Franc. These traits include herbal and vegetative notes. Bob Barth was quick to point out that these characteristics are not associated with Cabernet Franc they are associated with underripe Cabernet Franc. These vegetative and herbal characteristics are caused by methoxy-pyrazine and to a certain degree can be reduced in the vineyard with certain practices. The winemakers on the panel made it known that they did not like these characteristics in underripe Cabernet Franc.

They are not alone. Living on the east coast, I’ve had the opportunity to taste many 100% Cabernet Francs that were easily very herbal and vegetative. The usual comment was that those traits was a common component of the grape. As a result, I did not use Cabernet Franc in a 2014 Bordeaux-style blend that Kathy and I have in barrel aging. I too do not like the pyrazine characteristics. I did taste one Cabernet Franc in souther Virginia that did not profile pyrazine characteristics, instead the most notable description was that of plums. So Cabernet Franc can achieve ripeness in some areas.

Wine tasting of Cabernet Francs

The panel discussed the need for Cabernet Franc to be planted in the best vineyard plot, a need that would probably cause the vineyardist to pull out Cabernet Sauvignon. This is unlikely to happen. There is an economic impact and Cabernet Sauvignon brings in more revenue both from the vineyard and in the winery. Cabernet Sauvignon fetches a higher price and demand than Cabernet Franc. The economics of planting Cabernet Franc and making wine with it is another challenge for this nobel grape.

A third challenge was how to market Cabernet Franc. One of the panelists simply said he pours it in the tasting room. However it is easier to sell other wines than Cabernet Franc. There are a few people that like the grape and are asking for it. But this is a small group.

The audience asked about a comparison between Cabernet Franc grown in Napa and Paso Robles. The panel took a position that there are good Cabernet Francs grown in each area as well as Cabernet Francs with the herbal vegetative characteristics.

What are you feelings about growing or making wine with Cabernet Franc?


Ancient World Winemaking in Maryland

Early spring marks the time when a white wine made in a buried qvevri is opened. This week we opened our 2015 Rkatsiteli after macerating on the skins and a few stems for six months. For a bit of a recap. We sourced the grapes from a Virginia winery in September. Fermentation was robust overflowing the qvevri opening until I started punching down every three hours.

I placed a temporary lid with an airlock over the qvevri opening from October through December. At the end of December, I replaced the temporary lid with a glass lid without an airlock. Moist clay was used between the glass lid and the opening rim of the qvevri. Eight inches of sand covered the qvevri with a marble slab covering the sand. I used the marble to cover the sand so that no one or animals would step on or dig in the sand.

For three months the wine in the qvevri rested. During that time the seeds dropped to the bottom as did some of the skins. I was not entirely sure of what I would get upon opening the qvevri. In 2015, when Kathy and I opened the qvevri, the skins were at the top. I had to rack the wine to a carboy and let it settle for a few days, which it did very quickly. It seems that the wine in the qvevri was in a vortex all winter. This year there was a bit of a difference.

Some winemakers from the country Georgia suggested that I add stems to the must. The stems would help to cause the skins to settle and we should have a relatively clear wine at the top of the qvevri. In Georgian, Rkatsiteli means red stems, we put some of the redder colored stems into the qvevri when we filled it with grapes last September.

After removing the marble cover and scooping out a wheelbarrow-size load of sand, it was time to open the qvevri and discover this year’s wine’s birth. I noticed that the sand was quite wet, the further I dug to the surface of the qvevri opening. We asked our friend Nina K., who was born in the country Georgia, to open the qvevri. It took awhile to break the seal between the glass lid and the qvevri. The clay between the glass and the qvevri was still wet. It did not harden or crack during the last few months. After lifting the lid, we observed the wine in the qvevri. We could see the stems and skins; however, unlike last year, the skins were a few inches below a relatively clear yellow colored wine.

Marble covering over sand


Several inches of wet sand cover the qvevri.


Qvevri glass lid and clay attached to the qvevri

Using a measuring cup, I scooped out some wine for a tasting. The Rkatsiteli was floral with hints of jammy yellow fruits. The mouthfeel was silky, everyone seemed to like that. The aftertaste had layers of floral and cooked jammy fruits. Actually, I was impressed with the wine and how it turned out in the qvevri. The next task was to rack the wine into a carboy. I do not have a press so I was only able to get three gallons of wine from the qvevri. We did take some of the pomace and let it drip for a night. We had enough liquid to make wine jelly.

Nina opening the qvevri


Kathy removing the clay, notice the wine over the skins in the qvevri


Tasting the qvevri wine

I’ll let the wine in the carboy rest for a few days. It is already clearing with sediment falling to the bottom. My plans are to rack the wine from one carboy to another, then filter it before bottling. The ancient winemaking process of crafting wines in a qvevri is fascinating. It has been done for thousands of years and is the only winemaking process on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. We brought our 24-liter qvevri from Georgia. There is a qvevri maker in the United States who went to Georgia to learn from the few masters left. Billy Ray Mangham makes qvevris in Texas. You can learn about them and the qvevri winemaking that is being done in Texas at The Qvevri Project.


Evaluating my 2015 Winemaking Resolutions

Cloudy wine and skins at the top of the qvevri while racking to a carboy, a 2015 winemaking resolution fulfilled.

Sometimes making New Year’s resolutions is easy to do in January, but circumstances are fluid and may alter your hopes. That was certainly true with my 2015 winemaking resolutions. At best, I was one for three.

A year ago, my first resolution was to make grappa. This was based on travel for a family wedding. The wedding did not happen and I did not have an opportunity to make grappa. My second resolution for the year did not fare any better. I was suppose to bottle my second run wine. Call it being lazy or just not getting around to it, that wine is still in a carboy. Actually, that is the wine I’d like to turn into grappa.

I did accomplish my third resolution that dealt with qvevri winemaking. I did discover what my 2014 wine fermented and aged in a buried qvevri turned out like. There were a few surprises. The first is that the cap was still on the top and the wine under the cap was very cloudy. I racked the wine to a carboy and within a couple days it cleared. There was another racking and filtering before bottling the wine. I was worried about oxidation, but spending the winter in a vortex helped to deter oxidation with the dead yeast cells releasing carbon dioxide.

The second part of last year’s third resolution was to source Rkatsiteli grapes and make the wine in the qvevri. I also wanted to begin a month earlier than in 2014. I did accomplish this. I was able to get the grapes from a Virginia winery and had them going through primary fermentation a month earlier than the 2014 wine. Although I sealed the qvevri in November in 2014, in 2015 the qvevri was not sealed until the last day of the year. We had above average November and December temperatures, so I just let the temporary seal with an airlock in a lid suffice for the autumn months.

I’ll have to be a bit more realistic setting 2016 winemaking resolutions.


Sealing Qvevri for a Long Winter’s Nap

Sealed with a glass top, with a sample of the qvevri wine

I waited to the last day of December to seal the qvevri and cover the area with several inches of sand. We had a very warm December with 29 of 31 days recording above average temperatures. Ten of those days, temperatures were in the 60s and 70s (15º -21º C). Previously, the qvevri was sealed with a plexiglass top with an airlock in the top.

Removing the temporary top I noticed a couple inches of wine over the cap. I decided to sample the wine. The wine had a yellow to gold color and was crystal clear. The aroma was very floral, reminding me of spring floral bouquets. There were floral hints on the taste, but most striking were the jammy yellow fruits including nectarines, peaches and yellow raisins. The wine was crisp with just a hint of tannins. I wouldn’t mind filtering and bottling now, but I want to follow the traditional Georgian protocol from the Kakheti wine region and leave it in the qvevri until March or April. It will be interesting to note the differences two to three months will have with the wine in the qvevri buried underground.

Qvevri covered under several inches of sand

After placing a coil of clay around the opening of the qvevri, I sealed the qvevri with a permanent glass disk by pressing it down into the clay. Looking through the glass, I observed the clay pressing up against the glass. I made sure that the clay pressed against the glass around the circumference. Afterwards I covered it with several bags of sand. Then I placed a marble block over the opening. Just to be on the safe side, I covered the area with a tarp. The qvevri and wine will now rest for the winter. Depending on our weather, I will either open the qvevri at the end of March or beginning of April. Since I had the grapes in the qvevri a month earlier this year than in 2014, I may open the qvevri in March. That will allow the grapes and wine six months in the qvevri.


grape: Rkatsiteli
sourced from:
Horton Vineyards, Virginia by way of Bluemont Vineyards
Primary fermentation: September 28th – October 8th
Qvevri sealed: December 31st.


Primary Fermentation Completed

The primary fermentation in the qvevri completed a few days ago. Yesterday I took the specific gravity reading and it measured below 1.000. After cleaning the qvevri’s lip and a few inches down with a paper towel and a bit of potassium metabisulfite, I sealed the qvevri with a ring of clay and a lid I made for the autumn months. For the winter months, I use a solid glass lid. For the autumn months, I use a plexiglass lid with a hole in the middle. In this hole I placed an airlock. I did taste the wine yesterday – very citrus and acidic. I’m hoping that natural malolactic fermentation will take place over the next few months to soften the acid.


This year’s fermentation went well. After dealing with the qvevri overflowing during fermentation, our next challenge was the area around the qvevri flooding. We had a multi-day nor’easter last week that caused run-off water to fill around the qvevri. I had to soak it up a few times. I did place tarps around and over the qvevri, but water still found its way in. The top of the qvevri is surrounded by bricks and mortar and is eight inches below the ground level. I did reset some on the ground level brickwork so that water would drain away from the qvevri. We had so much rain with the storm that if we get another like it, I expect that water around the qvevri will happen.

Another challenge was the low brix level of the grapes. At harvest the brix level measured 17º Brix and a hydrometer reading of 1.070. It is hard to second guess mother nature. A day after we received the grapes, it rained. Then it rained again. Then came the nor’easter. In retrospect, the vineyard manager made the right call, narrowly missing a tearful sky. I did chaptalize a bit raising the brix level to 20º Brix with a specific gravity reading of 1.080. I’ll be happy with a wine between 11% and 12% alcohol.

Future Plans

I’ll leave the wine in the qvevri alone for now. Prior to Thanksgiving, I’ll remove the present lid and replace the clay ring with new clay and place a solid glass lid on the qvevri. We will then fill the space above the qvevri with sand to ground level and the cover with soil and tarps. Depending on the weather next March, I’ll open the qvevri and rack the wine into a carboy to clarify for a few days. Last year the wine did not clarify in the qvevri but did clarify after I racked into a carboy. The vortex thing occurred in the qvevri and kept some of the smaller particles suspended in the wine. After a few days those particles settled and I was able to filter and bottle.


3:00 AM Punchdown – Not Very Romantic

Candle light and a barrel room provide a romantic setting.

Some people associate wine and winemaking with romanticism. It is not difficult to imagine why a romantic vision is painted on people’s minds. Picture a candlelit barrel room. A small table with white linen has two red wine glasses with a dark ruby colored red wine. A single lit candle is on the table. Filled wine barrels surround the table and chairs for two. This is a romantic setting. However, winemaking is not very romantic especially at 3:00 AM.

When we first made a barrel of wine at Tin Lizzie Wineworks in Clarksville, Maryland we wanted to become fully involved with the day-to-day winemaking tasks. Our first activity at the winery was to get on our hands and knees and scrub the floor. Later, once the floor dried, we painted it. This was not at all romantic. However, we enjoyed being a part of the total winemaking experience. Someone has said that more time is spent extensively cleaning at a winery than in actually producing the wine.

More recently, I am fermenting Rkatsiteli grapes in a buried qvevri. I did use a commercial yeast. The fermentation took off and there was quite a bit of foam. The cap formed at the top of the qvevri and I had to punch down every three hours so that grapes and juice/wine would not spill out of the qvevri. That meant punching down at 12:00 AM, 3:00 AM and 6:00 AM as well as throughout the day.  Getting up in the middle of the night to punch down the cap is not an example of a romantic setting. It was quiet and peaceful though, but not romantic.

I needed to punch down the cap every three hours.

When it comes to winemaking, I spend most of my time cleaning and sanitizing. Another practice that is not romantic. The tool we use to punch the cap down has to be cleaned after a punchdown and sanitized before the next punchdown. Potassium metabisulfite, used to sanitize, is not romantic. Neither is washing and cleaning in the middle of the night. Then, using a paper towel sprayed with potassium metabisulfite, I wipe down the top lip of the qvevri.

There is no doubt that wine certainly has its place in romantic notions. Winemaking is not part of that romantic thought. At 3:00 AM, thought centers on getting the task finished and getting back to bed.



This morning the grapes rose to the top of the qvevri. Punch downs were every three hours.

I wrote yesterday that we filled the qvevri to within two inches of the top or surface of the marani. Big mistake! In going to punch down early Saturday morning, I discovered that the fermentation was rather robust and juice and a few grapes escaped from the qvevri. Actually it was quite a bit of juice. The grapes had massed at the surface of the qvevri and after punching down, I had about four inches of space. We lost about 51/2 cups (1.3 liters) of juice. Minutes after punching down, the grapes rose up again gaining back two of the four inches after the punch down.

After punchdown.

I should have known better. One of the Georgian winemakers commented that his grapes had overflown the qvevri during fermentation. A half hour after punching down, I had to punch down again since the grapes had risen to the surface of the qvevri. The next idea was to rack a litre of juice out of the qvevri and place in a small glass container with an air lock. We noticed that it was fermenting in the glass container. Once fermentation slows down, this will be returned to the qvevri.


Removing some of the juice helped. Initially the punch downs were five hours apart. That changed last evening. I had to punch down every three hours. Sunday morning arrived and I punched down at 3:00 am, 6:00 am and 9:00 am. At least I know it is fermenting and I am not loosing any more juice/wine.


Qvevri Winemaking in Maryland

Kathy and I acquired some Rkatsiteli grapes yesterday from our friends at Bluemont Vineyards in Bluemont, Virginia. Arriving home, we began to process the grapes and prepare the qvevri. Qvevri winemaking is an ancient winemaking method and the only winemaking process on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Cleaning the Qvevri

I had learned to clean a qvevri while at Twins Wine Celler in Napareuli in the Kakheti wine region of the country Georgia. The basic process is to pour clean water into the qvevri, and using a brush, scrub the sides. Remove the water and observe the color. Repeat the process until the water is clear once removed. The first time I added water to our qvevri and scrubbed the interior wall of the qvevri, the water was cloudy and opaque. By the fourth bucket of clean water the water had just a touch of cloudiness and was translucent. After the fifth cleaning the water was clear. This paralleled the process that was done to the qvevri we made wine in at Twins Wine Celler.

Water droplets beading up on the wall of the qvevri

To sanitize the qvevri, I sprayed potassium metabisulfite on the interior and soaked up the extra liquid that collected at the qvevri’s base. I did not add another coating of beeswax to the interior of the qvevri. Asking Georgian winemakers how often they coat the interior of the qvevri with beeswax produced a plethora of answers. The answers ranged from reciting yearly to once every several hundred years. I prefer the later response. I noticed while cleaning, that water beaded up on the sides of the qvevri like water beads on a recently waxed car. The beeswax I applied before burying the qvevri last year is doing its job and does not need to be reapplied

Preparing the Grapes

Since our qvevri is small, just 23 liters, we were not working with a lot of grapes. We destemmed by hand and gently crushed the grapes before adding to the qvevri. This did take us hours and caused us to wonder about how much faster it would be with a destemmer/crusher. On the other hand, we would only use the machine once a year. Just like last year we sorted the grapes as we pulled them off their jacks. Unlike last year I collected some of the stems to put into the qvevri with the grapes.

While in Georgia, we were told that “Rkatsiteli” means red stem. Some of the stems had begun to turn red and those were the ones I added to the qvevri. In total, the stems only accounted for a small percentage of the must. Kathy and I used up all the grapes and finally had the qvevri filled to within two inches of the surface. We did add yeast, Lalvin D21. In Georgia, the winemakers use the natural yeast on the grapes. They have been making wine there for 8,000 years and the yeasts have figured things out. I did not want to risk using natural yeast so I went with a commercial yeast. After pitching the yeast, I placed a lid on the qvevri that has an airlock in the center. It is fall after all and if I let the qvevri open things would fall into it.

“Rkatsiteli” means red stem. I added more than pictured to the must in the qvevri.

We are now awaiting for the fermentation and daily punchdowns.


My First Qvevri Wine – Not What I Expected

My first qvevri wine is a 2014 Muscat. Fermented and aged in qvevri for six months.

My first qvevri wine made in Maryland is not what I expected; however, it definitely was worth the wait. Besides the color, the wine is great. I did not expect the light yellow color. After all, maceration on the skins for six months should have added some color to the Muscat wine. There was little if any color extraction.

The wine did have its merits. The intense orange aroma and taste of the Muscat was readily available. The velvety mouthfeel was surprising and there was a touch of heat on the finish. There was a long orange aftertaste lasting a few minutes. Otherwise, the wine showcased the Muscat grape perfectly.

I brought the 23 liter qvevri from the country Georgia in 2014. After coating the inside with beeswax to seal the pours, I coated the outside with a lime based mortar. The qvevri was then buried underground. I was in Catalonia, Spain on a winery tour during the critical time to purchase grapes. It wasn’t until the middle of October that I was able to get grapes from a supplier. They looked like the leftovers. Kathy and I sorted and destined the grapes by hand. We chose only the best ones for the qvevri. Fermentation was active by October 18th. For the remainder of October, I punched down the grapes. The qvevri was sealed in November and covered with sand. Throughout the winter months the wine aged with the skins, seeds and lees.

Opening the qvevri in the middle of April, I discovered that the sediment did not settle at the qvevri’s bottom. Instead the wine seemed to be in a constant vortex. I racked the wine into a carboy where the particles did settle. It was bottled in late June.

You learn from the past. This year I hope to acquire grapes by early September and crush the grapes prior to putting them into the qvevri. I also plan to add stems this time, omitting them last autumn. I have not decided on the variety, I will have to see what is available.

One of my major concerns last year was oxidation. The wine is not oxidised. I did burn some sulphur over the wine in the qvevri before sealing it last November. This ancient winemaking method worked well. If one wants to truly make a natural wine that lets the grape express itself, qvevri winemaking is the way to go.


Taste of our First Qvevri Wine

This photo was taken of the wine and the qvevri. The wine spent the last two weeks in a carboy settling.

Two weeks ago Kathy and I racked our wine out of our buried qvevri. The wine was cloudy and the skins had not dropped from the surface. My theory was that the wine was in a constant state of motion while in the qvevri. A day after racking into a three-gallon glass carboy, there was a layer of sediment on the bottom. After two weeks, I decided to rack the wine into a new carboy. The sediment reminded me of dead yeast cells. There were also some very small specks of skin from the grapes. Since I had an extra quart of wine, I was able to rack and full three gallons and had some left over for tasting.

This qvevri wine was made with Muscat grapes sourced from Lodi, California. It was a cloudy yellow color. The aroma was very floral with some orange blossoms. Orange was predominant on the taste. The wine was full bodied, one of the first signs that it spent time (six months) on the skins. Other wines that I have had made with Muscat grapes were lighter bodied than this qvevri wine. There was a faint trace of tannins. The wine had a long aftertaste and a bit of alcohol heat. It has 14% alcohol.

If I were to make this wine again, I would put some stems in the qvevri. I have been told that the stems will help with settling within the qvevri as well as add some tannins to the wine. I enjoy tannins in a wine. My next qvevri wine will be made with whatever grapes I can source locally. I am considering Viognier, but would also investigate if I can get some Rkatsiteli. There is a grower in Virginia growing Rkatsiteli. My reaction to our first qvevri wine is that it is OK, but can be improved. Looking forward to this year’s harvest and some locally sourced grapes.