I’ve always been proud to call myself a Kentucky winemaker. I’ve made a lot of beautiful wine in this state, using grapes grown in this state that has been my home, and my family’s home for 5 generations.
It is a source of pride for me that the first commercial winery in the USA was in Kentucky. It is a source of pride for me to have taken my wine making skills (and heritage) and bring them to America’s distilling heartland – Kentucky – but to follow the fruit, to go somewhat against the grain, and distill American Brandy.
I love the look on everyone’s face when I tell them that brandy is actually the oldest spirit in America, with the first documented distillation in 1640, and that in the late 1800’s there were over 400 brandy distilleries in Kentucky (not including about a 100 more who made both brandy and whiskey).
So every year when we distill our annual Kentucky vintage brandy, I feel that flush of excitement, that flash of the pioneer, and just a little hint of the prodigal.
2017 grape harvest in Kentucky, we continue to add to our Vidal Blanc catalog.
Every Fall, the production crew gets ready for an intense distilling season. Distillery operations turn towards apples and grapes and we settle into the rhythm of very early mornings and late evenings. Just before the pace intensifies, we set-off into the foot hills of the mountains for some Kentucky grapes and our annual Vidal harvest.
For one day, the buzz and hum of Butchertown is behind us and Travis, Matt and I take in the early October atmosphere of a small Mt. Sterling vineyard. These days, it hosts only a few acres of well-loved grapes, but it’s a beautiful farm owned by some of my most cherished vineyard friends. As a group, we have learned to love these days to their fullest. A Kentucky harvest may not be as big as a California grape or Michigan apple harvest, but its importance to an American brandy distiller has a weighty impact.
I grew up on a similar farm in Kentucky. The aromas and textures of the vineyard serve as a lovely reminder of times gone by. The fruits of an autumn harvest bring me back to days spent honing an early childhood interest in the craft of horticulture and a great love of all things outdoors. It is my view that no person should go through life without experiencing a grape harvest at least once. There is really something to it, I find the process invigorating. That is why I get so excited to share this with my Copper & Kings crew.
From hand-picking the ripe golden clusters straight from the vines, to ushering the grapes into the crusher and tasting the freshly-pressed juice, and fermenting it into a beautiful Kentucky wine, the crew moved through every step along the way.
It’s also interesting to ponder and mull over how every element will impact the taste and balance of our future distillate. The rains of early spring have an impact on the fruit. If not carefully managed, Kentucky grapes can fall victim to disease pressure. Most fatal diseases start in the spring but do not show full impact until the fall, when it is far too late. This year, like so many others in this state, leave us thankful for responsible and proactive farming practices.
The harvest-time grape clusters were loose and slightly elongated. This suggests that the few days of flowering were windy and the early summer climate was a bit cooler and cloudier than normal. Not ideal, but definitely not a worst-case scenario either. This autumn, 4.2 tons of grapes were harvested with a brix of 24 and pH of 3.36. I would have liked to have seen both numbers a little lower for a crisper wine. However, as with many other things out of my control, this is what mother nature settled upon.
The fermentation ran very well. The end result is awesome, a slightly fruity, floral forward wine. And just like life, this year’s wine has proven to be very different from years past, but just as complex and interesting. I can’t really ask for more than that
We stripped (first distillation) on Magdalena and then ran three doubling runs on Sara. The low wines were silky, and full of flavors ranging from pineapple and banana, to hibiscus flowers.
When doubled the final spirit came over lovely and clean, and very true to the fruit. Smooth from start to finish, buttery mid-palate is extremely long lasting and melts into refreshing, light spring water finish.
I would have had no problem serving this spirit as Eau de Vie but I am extremely excited for its barrel maturation potential. Kelvin Cooperage made a 60-gallon #2 char New American Oak barrel for the project that would give the classic new barrel notes but also allow the spirit to be polished with more surface area and a lighter char, and not overpower the quite delicate spirit. I also wanted entry proof to be a little lower than my usual and decided on 126, but chose to cut it with its own original first distillation low wine to lend extra fruit notes to the final product.
So, there it is, another harvest in the books. 2017. Full of laughs, drinks and memories.
For the last 2 years it’s honestly one of the things that I look forward to throughout the entire distilling season, and there’s something to be said about being able to create a true representation of a Kentucky harvest.
Over the course of about 3 days we harvested roughly 8000 pounds worth of grapes, pressed those grapes into a fantastic wine, and then distilled it down to yield one truly special Barrel.
This work is not easy, but the reward is a product that is an experience in itself. We arrived at the farm of Mr. Donohew at about 1pm in the afternoon, with the harvest already well underway.
Mr. Donohew’s Farm is a spectacle in of itself. It’s sits on about 20 acres of land about an hour and a half East of Lexington, Kentucky, and if you didn’t know where you were going, you would probably drive right past it. The views of the Appalchians are beautiful. Working with the vines that Brandon help plant himself, Mr. Donohew curates now just this one variety of Vidal Blanc. He told me that this was his dream when he was young and teaching at UK, and to be able to be out there with his vines was one of the truest forms of happiness he has found in his lifetime. His passion shows.
Once we loaded the grapes on the truck, it was time to transport to Wight Meyer. There we were able to press the grapes into about 600 gallons of wine. To say that I’m excited about this product is a bit of an understatement.
ABOUT VIDAL BLANC
Here’s a nice Wikipedia post which gives some detail as to the parentage of Vidal and its characteristics for those interested.