Rebecca Martinez – ROVING REPORTER
FISHERSVILLE — Winemaker Pauline Dubier rolled the final barrel and let the pulpy lees sediment spill to the floor, splattering on her rubber boots.
Two weeks after the harvest at Barren Ridge Vineyards, Dubier, 25, spent Monday afternoon clarifying the Petit Manseng, a sweet white wine the vineyard has incorporated into its blends at her recommendation.
“It’s the first year that we make Petit Manseng,” said the French-born Dubier. “It grows very well in Virginia.”
She became the head winemaker at Barren Ridge last October and recently signed a new contract to lead winemaking operations there for the next three years.
Dubier was raised by wine lovers in the south of France and has worked on vineyards in California and New Zealand. She said Virginia is a new frontier, and it’s still working to determine it’s own style.
“We have a lot of possibilities,” she said.
Part of that is because each wine region has its own terroir, a French word Dubier has a difficult time explaining.
Literally, it means “land,” but in winemaking, it sums up the combination of natural elements beyond human control that affect the quality of the grapes, including climate, soil and terrain.
She said the same grapes from different regions or different years could never taste the same, requiring her to constantly adapt to her work.
“It’s always surprising. You never know what will happen,” Dubier said. “It change everyday, so you’re never bored.”
Unfortunately, the terroir in Fishersville doesn’t support Syrah or Muscat grapes — varieties she loves — but Cabernet Franc, Viognet and Petit Verdot thrive there.
Part chemist, part biologist, part farmer and part artisan, Dubier slipped into wine jargon more frequently than French Monday afternoon, talking about the aromatic potential and phenolic compounds without a second thought.
Vineyard Owner John Higgs said he was immediately impressed by Dubier’s work.
“Her level of competence was so great and her work ethic is phenomenal,” said Higgs, who hired Dubier’s friend, a fellow French winemaker named Amandine Fabre, help her during this year’s harvest.
“What I like most of her is her insistence that things be just right,” he said.
Dubier is strict about hygiene and temperature control in the barrel room, but Higgs said she also takes initiative and care with the grapes.
This fall, Dubier and Fabre crushed a high quality harvest of Cabernet Franc grapes the old-fashioned way — with their bare feet. Higgs said those grapes received more gentle treatment than the rest, which were crushed mechanically.
Dubier is the second foreign-born winemaker to make her mark on Barren Ridge, after Christof Weibler of Stuttgart, Germany, helped cultivate the grapes that went into the vineyards 2007 Meritage, which won Best in Show in the 2009 Virginia State Fair Wine Competition.
France’s rich vinous history and strict rules put French-born winemakers in high demand around the world, from India to China to the US.
Higgs believes that France’s strict winemaking regulations — like limiting the number of vintages that can be grown on a single vineyard — encourages young winemakers to experiment in burgeoning regions like the Shenandoah Valley.
Dubier is not the first winemaker to take the helm of a Virginia winery, but more have been coming to the Commonwealth, which is gaining credit for producing world-class wines after years of international skepticism.
“I know some French winemakers here and that’s why, they like the challenge,” Dubier said, adding that there’s work to be done before Shenandoah Valley vineyards pinpoint the grapes and technique that will allow the region to join the league of Burgundy or the Napa Valley.
“They can create their own style and reputation,” she said. “I’d be glad to (be) helpful with that.”
Eventually, she hopes to settle back in the South of France and grow Petit Manseng on her own vineyard.