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The largest planting in the US of this rare grape is here in Loudoun wine country

Hillsborough Vineyards winemaker Kerem Baki produces around 350 cases annually of Bloodstone, composed predominantly from the fer servadou grape. Times-Mirror/Trevor Baratko
“I have to be honest with you, it's been awhile since I've thought about fer servadou,” said Dr. Tony Wolf, a Virginia Tech viticulturist and long-time researcher for the state's wine industry.

“I can’t say much about fer. It’s a pretty obscure varietal used mainly in blends down in southwest France,” Master Sommelier Andy Myers, the wine director of Chef José Andrés ThinkFoodGroup, explained. “I’ve had it in a handful of blends over the years, but haven’t seen a single varietal version before … at present I can’t speak with any authority on the varietal ...”

“How do you spell it again?” asked John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

F … e … r …

Fer servadou. As Myers said, it's an obscure red wine grape best known in southwest France, where it's featured in wines from small communes like Marcillac, Entraygues, Estaing and others. Across several French Appellations d'Origine Contrôlée, or controlled wine regions, the grape is known as Mansois, Pinenc, Brocol and a slew of other synonyms, lending to its mystique.

Yet, while wine experts who have traveled the world over studying grapes, climates and growing conditions struggle to speak at length about fer servadou, two Loudoun County winemakers recognized its allure more than a decade ago.

“To my knowledge, I have the largest fer servadou planting in the United States,” Kerem Baki, the vintner at Hillsborough Vineyards, said during an interview overlooking his divine western Loudoun property.

Fer servadou is the star of Hillsborough's distinctive Bloodstone, a medium-bodied red flaunting a rustic earthiness, white pepper, truffles and dried cherry. Baki produces about 350 cases of Bloodstone annually, and while it's one of the boutique winery's best-sellers, many patrons have no idea the grape they're sipping on.

It's understandable why.

“We are not allowed to put fer servadou on the label because the Tax and Trade Bureau does not recognize it as a commercial grape,” Baki said. “We petitioned the TTB a few times with the help of Wine America. They rejected it because not enough people grow it.”

Fer servadou possesses a thick skin. The vines grow firm and high. Times-Mirror/Trevor Baratko

Hillsborough's four-acre planting of the rare fer – currently a tall, lush plot with red-speckled leaves – is located at the northern end of the property, in a soil blend of loam and silt.

“Fer servadou is very suitable for our climate conditions and our soil conditions,” Baki noted, a statement backed up by Wolf.

Fer's arrival in Virginia was more than a decade in the making.

Wolf says it started around the late 1980s, when he was studying Virginia homoclimes, or areas with similar climates. Looking into southwest France, which, like Virginia, has significant rainfall during the growing season, Wolf explored fer servadou along with other French varietals like tannat, malbec and petit manseng, a white grape that has gained wine-geek fandom in recent years.

Wolf's research eventually led Chrysalis Vineyards' Jennifer McCloud to plant slightly less than an acre of fer at her Middleburg winery in the late 1990s. That's where Baki collected his clippings, including thousands of buds, grafted them onto rootstock suitable for Virginia and, finally, planted his four acres in 2003.

With nearly five acres of fer between Hillsborough and Chrysalis, Loudoun County could well be considered – playfully, mind you – the “fer servadou capital of America.”

Over the past 10 days or so, local winemakers and grape growers have begun harvesting the 2016 vintage, starting with white grapes and moving on to reds in late September and October.

Fer servadou, though, with its thick skin, will stay on the vine until late October or early November, Baki said, making it the final varietal he picks.

“We like to pick it when the skins are nice and soft, and that typically doesn't occur until after the first or second frost,” the winemaker said. “It's all about grape physiology. A different grape is like a different human being. It has its own biological clock. It has its own physiology. It has its own life.”

For fer, it's a life few appreciate.

“The American consumer is still very fixated on well-known varietals,” Wolf said. “Fer servadou is a little bit out there.”

The 2015 vintage of fer servadou awaits bottling in Hillsborough Vineyards' winery. Times-Mirror/Trevor Baratko


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