The sweet smelling substance pours slowly from the steel tap, filling the small glass decanter held beneath it. As it’s lifted towards the ceiling, the pale yellow liquid catches the light, setting it aglow like flaming amber. “Isn’t that beautiful?” asks Alex McLennan, studying his handy-work. “Just like the sun on a Carolina beach”
As owner operator of Ventosa Plantation Vineyard and Winery, McLennan has reason to wax eloquent about his creation. Located in a remote corner of Scotland Neck on Clark Canal Road, the winery, which has been in operation a scant two years, is already producing blends of a quality well above the average, highly sweetened brands found at the local grocer. McLennan said his wines, both whites and reds, are aimed at those 30 and over who have a taste for something sharper with a bit of bite, or as he explains it, “I like to say it’s the difference between filet mignon and pork chops.”
As anyone who spends time with McLennan will be quick to learn, the process of wine making is as much art as science, as much poetry as planning. There are as many different formulas for wine making as there are wine makers. “People make wine according to the vineyard, the type of grape, and, I swear, their mood. It’s true. The process will often be the same, but the numbers will be different.”
That process begins in the vineyard, in McLennan’s case 16 acres of fertile Halifax County soil carved out of the nearly 5,000 acre farm owned by his father, the senior Alex McLennan, who provides the majority of financing for his son’s venture. Looking over the rows of vine covered wires running the length of the fields, McLennan’s pride is evident as he inspects the lush green plants teeming with small grapes, a result of years of preparation and hard work. “I don’t mean to brag, but this vineyard’s doing really well,” he said, lifting a leafy branch to reveal a stem covered in small, green pods.
The vineyard grows Muscadine grape plants of four varieties: Magnolias, a densely fruited plant used for white wines; Triumphs, which are much like the Magnolias, but not as productive; Nobles, a red wine grape, which grow quickly and produce a heavy fruit; and Carlos, McLennan’s favorite, which produces the largest grapes and thickest foliage of the four.
According to McLennan, the Muscadine branch is famed for its high antioxidant content. Recently, it’s gained favor among celebrities due to it supposed anti aging properties.
The vineyard is a labor intensive enterprise said McLennan, explaining that the majority of the work falls on his shoulders. “It can be murder trying to do this by myself,” he said warily, explaining that the 200 vines currently in use can take up to one day a piece to properly prune.
McLennan said a number of factors affect the quality of the harvest, including weather and the type of treatment the farmer gives the plants. Diseases, both viral and bacterial, also play their part. Pointing to a damaged area around the base of one plant, McLennan said the cause is a common disease known as Crown Gall, which forms around any type of injury the vine may receive. “It’s basically cancer of the plant,” he added. Another cause for concern is the dreaded Japanese Beetle, which McLennan said can strip a vineyard bare within a week.
The grapes are harvested during a narrow 7-8 day period in August or September. Using a mechanical harvester outfitted with a conveyer belt, the grapes are knocked off the stems by way of a series of metal arms in the machine’s center, which passes directly over the plants. The grapes are then loaded into a stainless steel harvest wagon before being placed into a crusher and de-stemmer, which separates leaves, stems and other trash from the grape and then crushes it into juice and pulp, known as must.
From there, the pre-wine product goes into a holding tank, where it is tested for acidity (pH levels) before being introduced to the winery.
Three stainless steel tanks rise from the floor, giving the room a distinctly sci-fi atmosphere. But there’s nothing remotely alien about the processes going on in the tanks innards, a process that McLennan said goes back to the dawn of recorded history. “It’s an ancient process. People have been doing this forever. I mean people have been making it in their garages for 100 years or better.”
The chemistry and variables involved are enough to make even the most educated winery boss nervous. Beginning with a fine-tuned combination of sugar and yeast additives to control sweetness and begin the fermentation process, the wine is constantly monitored to ensure proper temperature control.
Primary fermentation lasts 3-7 days, after which the wine is removed and put into a clean tank. During this stage the wines temperature must remain in the mid-60’s, which helps the wine to retain the character of the fruit. McLennan said this is made possible by what he called “cold jackets,” bands around the tops of the tanks which can be chilled to lower the wine’s temperature.
Secondary fermentation takes anywhere from 2-3 weeks. The process is halted through the use of a large chiller condenser, which lowers the tanks temperature to around 32 degrees. McLennan said he finds this the most irritating point of the process, as the tank around the cold jacket tends to sweat condensation, leading to wet floors and long hours of mopping.
After secondary fermentation is halted, the wine is allowed to age for nine-10 months. Temperatures are kept cold to inhibit yeast growth. During this time, said McLennan, the wine will loose much if its acidity, which he prefers to keep around the 3.4-3.6 level to allow the wine to have a somewhat sharper bite. Afterwards, the final product is bottled and allowed to set for a time.
According to McLennan, who trained for three months at a technical school in Dobson, the process can be daunting even after several years of experience. Or as he puts it, “I know just enough to know I don’t know squat.”
“It requires a lot of experimentation and a lot of luck,” he offered. “I read everything I can and talk to everyone. There’s always more to find out.”
McLennan said he’s learned several lessons the hard way, producing one batch of wine that was nearly undrinkable during his first year. “The acidity levels are crucial,” he said. “If you get that wrong it can make for some very unpleasant wine.”
Another hazard McLennan mentioned is something known as “bottle shock,” a little understood phenomenon that causes wine to develop a foul taste for a time shortly after being bottled, only to return to normal after it sets for an indeterminate length of time. “It tastes terrible and then, for whatever reason, it’s fine again. Some people don’t believe it, but it’s absolutely real,” he said, with a slightly baffled air.
Red and white wine each have their own peculiarities as well. While white wine must have no contact with oxygen after fermentation, grapes used for red wine skip the de-stemmer process, undergoing what’s known as “fermentation on the skin,” whereby the entire grape is placed in the tank as the yeast is added. Red wine is also aged longer than its white counterpart.
I’m always trying something new,” said the lanky, tattooed farmer’s son, as he raised a glass of Noble wine fresh from the tank. As he drank, he lowered the glass and smiled. “This isn’t quite ready…just a little raw. But it’s still nice.”
McLennan’s ties to the farm go back to the early days of pre-Revolutionary War America, when his ancestors first settled in the area some 300 years ago. His immediate family has worked the land for the last 31 years.
Discussing a memoir written by one of those ancestors, William Clark, who once lived on the farm, McLennan recalled the former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice’s description of sitting on his front porch, watching as “40 slaves pulled 40 plows.”
“There used to be slave houses all along the edge of these fields,” he said, describing an aerial photo he’s seen from the 1940’s.
Other historical factors also influenced his eventual career choice. According to McLennan, one of the first wineries in America was located in Halifax County, at Medoc Mountain.
Though he’d been working the land beside his father since he was 10, McLennan said he was determined to cut his own path. “I was sick to death of cotton, which is our main cash crop. I wanted to do something where you weren’t constantly replanting.”
Inheriting what he describes as “one of the finest pieces of agricultural land in the state,” McLennan said he and his father both decided to try the no-till method of farming several years ago, a decision he couldn’t be happier with. “Tilling the land is for dummies. Down here we have the hardest, tightest soil you could ever work. You can make mistakes and the land will let you get away with it.”
McLennan said anyone thinking of following in his footsteps should understand that “the winery business isn’t a short term proposition. You have to be in it for the long haul. It takes time, but you have to stick with it”
“This vineyard will outlive me; it will outlive my children and probably their children,” offered McLennan, when asked about the legacy he hopes to leave future generations. “It’s a little patch of paradise, that’s why I want to hang on to it.”
Scanning the deep green fields one last time before climbing in his truck and heading back to the winery, McLennan summed up the philosophy that’s kept him moving forward, in search of the perfect grape for the perfect wine. “I love working outdoors, but the depth of history surrounding this place is what drives me. If I’m going to make my mark, this is how I’ll do it.”