Jun 152012
 
Virginia Vineyards

View from the top of Tranquility Vineyards, operated by 8 Chains North.

California is the de facto king (or queen) of U.S. wine regions, if by no other measurement than the sheer volume of wine the state produces and the quantity of wineries producing it. It is not, however, the nations only, nor is it the oldest wine region (commercially speaking). Long before the Mondavis, Beringers, and Sebastianis made California wine famous on the West Coast, there had been may attempts (and a few successes) at making wine on the East Coast.

The history of winemaking east of the Mississippi finds it’s origin in early colonial times. Thomas Jefferson was an acknowledged francophile and loved French wines. It’s well documented that he tried to plant his own vineyards at Monticello, but ultimately proved unsuccessful at the attempt. There were several reason, not least of which was the then unknown presence of Phylloxera in that particular part of the country.  Jefferson was not the only one to experiment with growing wine grapes in Virginia. As author Todd Kliman points out in his book The Wild Vine, Dr. Daniel Norton was ultimately successful at hybridizing grapes that could produce commercially viable wines. Since then, as a wine producing area, Virginia has proven to be an area where a little bit of luck and hard work can really pay off. Richard Leahy, in his recent book Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, documents the successes (and failures) of Virginia wine producers quite extensively.

Boxwood Winery

Boxwood Winery is one of the better producers of quality wines in Virginia.

So it was, this spring I found myself in the company of several dozen wine writers and bloggers at the 2012 edition of Taste Camp East in Northern Virginia, experiencing the region for myself. This had not been my first adventure to the area on a wine visit, but I was impressed none-the-less. They are making some really fine wine in Virginia. Like any region, there are hits and misses (Don’t let anyone try to tell you that all California wine producers are good). But, as a group, the quality of Virginia wines is good and continues to improve. My personal observation is that the area excels in producing distinctive wines from Viognier and Cabernet Franc, but they also make good wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Pinot Gris, and Petit Manseng.

I was fortunate enough to have tasted over 100 different wines from Virginia. Of those, below are examples (in alphabetical order by winery) I felt were worth sharing. I’ve included very brief tasting notes with each, which definitely would not pass a WSET exam, but accurately reflect my thoughts at the time.

  • 8 Chains North 2008 Furnace Mountain Red – coffee, blackberry, smoke, balanced acid, med+ tannin, long, good
  • 8 Chains North 2009 Furnace Mountain Red – red fruit, talc, oak, chocolate, med body, elevated acid, very good
  • Ankida Ridge 2010 Chardonnay – Fresh, barrel aged, some vanilla but mostly apple, full body, finishes flat, good
  • Ankida Ridge 2010 Pinot Noir – classic, underbrush, cherry cola, ripe tannins, long, very good
  • Annefield Vineyards 2010 Viognier – sweet-tart candy, off-dry, good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2010 Viognier – perfume, phenolic, sweet mouth, full body, but great acid, very good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2002 Viognier – caramel, oxidized, fish sauce, lively, long finish, good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2009 Cabernet Franc – bell pepper, leather, brett(horse), good fruit concentration, firm tannin, good
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2009 Octagon – blakberry, cola, sassafras, good fruit concentration, good acid, long, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2011 Rose – bright, fresh, great salmon color, a bit lean, but refreshing, good
  • Boxwood Winery 2007 Topiary – nice savory age character, chocolate, black olive, shiitake, black plum, nice depth, long finish, very good+
  • Boxwood Winery 2007 Boxwood- blackberry, earth, chocolate, dark cherry, decent mid-plate, dusty tannins, good length, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2010 Trellis – deep berry, intense fruit character, a bit warm, long finish, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2010 Topiary – earth, savory, smoky, good body, very good
  • Boxwood Winery 2010 Boxwood – fruit, firm, blackberry, spice, firm tannin, long, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2010 Viognier – honey, smoke, sweet entry, some RS, a bit bitter on finish, fresh, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2010 Jennifer’s Jambalaya – floral, fruit salad, fresh, lively, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2002 Reserve Merlot – cigar box, soy, savory, tobacco, great body, balanced acidity, long, outstanding
  • Breaux Vineyards 2011 Rose – strawberry, cherry, some sweetness, finishes dry, good acid, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc Reserve – deep color, black cherry, green bean, pencil lead, high extraction, a bit sweet, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon – cola, black cherry, cocoa, artichoke, hay, full body, high alc, better balanced than Franc, long, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2001 Nebbiolo – tar, roses, pencil shavings, crisp acid, soft tannins, cherry cola, long, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2002 Nebbilo – chocolate, cherries, cola, soy, leather, pepper, fuller body, soft tannins, balanced acid, medium, very good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2005 Nebbiolo – black pepper!, cola, cherry, leather, firm tannins, crisp acid, medium-long, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2007 Nebbiolo (barrel sample) – wood shavings, cherries, cola, spicy, full body, high tannin, high acid, good
  • Breaux Vineyards 2006 Soleil – apricot, lanolin, honey, beeswax, sweet, nutty, good acid, long, outstanding
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2010 Apple Wine – apples, cinnamon, off dry, unique, very good
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2010 Amber Creek Chamborcin – cherry, leather, tart, good
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2009 Hunters Run Red – earthy, plum, good acid, firm tannins, good
  • Corcoran Vineyards 2008 Cello – lemonade, full body, sweet, very good
  • Gadino Cellars 2011 Pinot Grigio – fresh, slight floral, apple, crisp, dry, good
  • Gadino Cellars 2010 Cabernet Franc – boysenberry, blackberry, cola, nice structure, great acid, very good
  • Gadino Cellars 2009 Petit Verdot – dark berry, granite, good fruit conc, good acid, very good
  • Glass House Winery 2010 Viongier – tropical, strong phenolics, good acid, full body, good
  • Glass House Winery 2011 Pinot Gris – fruity, refreshing, great acid, long length, very good
  • Glass House Winery 2010 Barbera – Brett, dried berry, earth, savory, cherry, good
  • Glass House Twenty-first NV red wine – soil, nice fruit and acid, raisin on finish, good
  • Hume Vineyards 2011 Seyval Blanc – refreshing, grassy, gooseberry, good acid, dry, good
  • Hume Vineyards 2011 Viognier – fruit, refreshing, good acid, very good
  • Pearmund Cellars 2011 Petit Manseng – baked bread, vinous, sweet mouth, good acid, some phenolic, good
  • Pearmund Cellars 2009 Ameritage – savory, red berry, leather, good
  • Philip Carter Winery 2010 Chardonnay – fresh, citrus, refreshing, bright, very good
  • Philip Carter Winery 2010 Cabernet Franc – red cherry, cola, tart cherry, needs time, good
  • Philip Carter Winery 2010 Meritage – plum, mint, cola, full body, good acid, med tannins, med finish, good+
  • Rappahannock Cellars 2011 Viognier – peach, sweet mouth, good acid, very good
  • Rappahannock Cellars 2009 Meritage – Red berry, pronounced, great concentration, great acid, long, very good
  • Rappahannock Cellars 2010 Cabernet Franc Reserve – big, bold, rich, red berry, warm, dark berry on finish, long, very good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2011 Sauvignon Blanc – fresh, lively, lemon, lime, ice acid, fresh finish, very good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2010 Rose – earthy, smokey, strawberry, good avid, lacking some fruit on palate, good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2010 Cabernet Franc – chocolate, cherry, tobacco, sweet entry, vanilla, bell pepper, pepper, very good
  • Stinson Vineyards 2010 Meritage – black cherry, tobacco, cola, root beer, firm tannin, good acid, long, very good
  • Tarara Winery 2011 Petit Mansang – pineapple, lime, phenolic extrat, some RS, good
  • Tarara Winery 2011 Boneyard White – green, lean, lemon, lime, off dry, good
  • Tarara Winery 2010 Leap XII – chocolate, cola, spice, pepper, tobacco, leather, full body, ripe tannin, long, very good
  • Tarara Winery 2010 Cabernet Franc – sassafras, blackberry, bell pepper, chocolate, vanilla, smoke, med-plus body, very good
  • Tarara Winery 2010 Boneyard Red- cherry, leather, dry, firm tannin, good
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2011 Sauvignon Blanc – gooseberry, lime, great fruit conc, some sweetness, very good+
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2011 Viognier – tropical, apple, full body, good acid, especially on finish, refreshing, very good
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2010 Vintners Reserve Meritage – bell pepper, red berry, spice, good avid, ripe tannin, long, very good
  • Veritas Vineyard & Winery 2010 Petit Verdot – earth, blackberry, plum, good acid, long, very good
  • Vint Hill Craft Winery 2010 Rose – chambercin, light, refreshing, sweet mouth, great acid, lovely, very good+
  • Vint Hill 2009 Chambourone – Amarone from Chambercin – raisin, full body, deep flavor, firm tannin, long, interesting
  • White Hall Vineyards 2011 Viognier – fresh, lively, floral, good phenolics, good body, decent acid, good
  • White Hall Vineyards 2010 Petite Verdot – smoky, dark berry, good fruit concentration, good acid, and long finish, very good

I suppose the true measurement of any wine region is whether or not one would go out of their way to seek out these wines. Would I? Definitely! Being that I live in California wine country, it’s unlikely that I will be able to find these wines on a local store shelf just yet, but many are available for purchase online. So, next time you are thinking of trying something new, reach for a bottle of wine from Virginia.

Jun 122012
 
Concrete Eggs

Photo Credit: Sonoma Cast Stone - concretewinetanks.com

California is known to be on the cutting edge of new ideas. We are “Mikey” in the Life cereal commercial, willing to try things first.

But sometimes what is new is really, really old in the wine industry. Asked recently what current techniques they are using to make their premium wines, a group of Napa Valley winemakers listed off things such as native yeast, not filtering and fining, whole cluster fermentation, and using concrete tanks among other things. These are certainly not new ideas, none of them. But what became apparent in the discussion is that these techniques are new again to some of the Napa Valley’s producers.

Experimentation continues even today in the industry. Where a winery might have bought all manner of commercial yeasts-ones that brought out flavors in wine, ones that played well with the vineyard’s soil, and who knows –maybe ones that did jumps and twirls with batons-now they are trying the native yeasts that lie around their cellar or vineyard. Where once, the winery fired up every slick new filtering system on the market, they are now learning what their wine tastes like and how it matures without filtration. And some of those who believed stainless steel was the mecca for its grapes, are now trying large wooden vats or concrete tanks. It appears that Napa Valley winery owners and winemakers-despite their successes and the incredible brand recognition of Napa Valley-are continually striving to improve on their wines.

Concrete fermenters in particular are coming out of hiding. When the temperature controlled stainless steel tank burst onto the scene, the concrete tank was relegated to the lowliest of statuses. They became a cause of embarrassment on winery tours where the guide would try to circumvent visitors quickly past them. If you mentioned them, they would always, ALWAYS–no matter how clean and ready for harvest they looked-say that the tanks were no longer used. But times they are a ‘changing.

Numerous wineries have old square-ish concrete tanks hidden deep, deep in their cellars and they are no longer embarrassing to use. A new shape has also gained popularity– the concrete egg (looking quite like an overblown, modern version of the amphorae used by the Romans in winemaking). Rudd Winery and Viader Napa Valley were the first to use these eggs in Napa Valley, sharing the costs of a shipment from France’s Nomblot manufacturer in 2003. The local company, Sonoma Cast Stone, has worked with numerous California wineries and is now producing concrete tanks in the U.S.

Proponents of concrete eggs say the benefits are numerous. The concrete keeps a steady temperature during fermentation without the need for heating/ cooling coils. The egg shape in particular ensures there are no dead corners so there is better uniformity of the juice. The material that the concrete fermenters are made from is porous so the vessel breathes as wood does. This reduces off odors which can come when a wine has no air, and it also imparts a rounder, richer mouth feel in the wine. It does this without imparting oak flavors on the wine while maintaining fresh fruit flavors. Its detractors say they are hard to clean, although that is argued by its proponents.

Regardless, this old vessel is new again, and you are sure to see at least one of the elongated egg fermenters on a future winery tour. Perhaps it will be the stainless steel that causes an embarrassing blush in the future? We don’t think so, but we welcome back the concrete fermenter into the Napa Valley family fold.

Jun 082012
 

Napa Wine CountryNapa Valley is a different world. Yesterday, I was riding my bike through town and got a flat tire. I pulled over into a church parking lot to fix the tire, and noticed four young girls, about 11 years old, racing around on a collection of scooters, bikes, and roller skates. As they raced past me, they waved and said “hi.” I returned the greeting. And as they rode off into the sunset, I heard one of the girls say: “You can’t call it Champagne if you make it outside of France. Then you have to call it sparkling wine.”

Eleven years old. Gotta love it.

Jun 042012
 

As most guys will tell you (or at least those less well endowed), bigger isn’t always better. This is true. Take, for example, Danish potatoes. These pint-sized spuds are much more flavorful than their super-sized Idaho cousins. But, the converse shouldn’t be that big is necessarily evil. In coordinating wine selections for a New Zealand-themed event, my client wanted to shy away from the Villa Maria option I proposed feeling that it, “…seems like a large operation that gets grapes from wherever available.” I quickly assured him that, while yes, Villa Maria is a large company; it is at the forefront of pushing sustainable viticulture in the region.

In fact, having spent more than three hours with their head viticulturist driving from vineyard to vineyard to vineyard, many of which they do own, but also many they don’t, the message was loud and clear. They are getting the growers with whom they contract to implement better, more sustainable, practices in the vineyard.  And, closer to home, they are implementing organic practices in nearly a third of their owned sites.

Even before this visit, I have always liked Villa Maria. I’m not sure what first drew me to the brand, but (aside from the obvious observation that I liked the wines), they won my heart with their reliability, providing wines that are consistently good value and both varietally and regionally correct. If you’re looking for a Sancerre look-alike you’re out of luck, but if you want a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – they deliver. This latter point is especially important to a wine educator often sourcing class wines sight unseen (or rather, more worrisome, untasted). Consequently, I often feature the aforementioned wine in my Savvy about Sauvignon Blanc class.

With this favorable brand experience, I was thrilled to be introduced to Villa Maria’s owner, George Fistonich, at a trade tasting in September 2010. Meeting Sir George (he was knighted in 2009) for the first time, he was full of grace and warmth. Not only did he seem equally pleased to meet me, but, upon learning that we would be visiting his home country a few months later, invited us to come stay at his place (admittedly he knew that I was a wine educator and not just a general wine consumer, but still, I was both touched and impressed).

In this circumstance, his “place” was the company’s Marlborough-based winery, which includes a lovely guest apartment located atop the tasting room, complete with a combination washer-dryer (which we somehow managed to overflow our first night) and a cook’s kitchen outfitted with nearly everything we might want. Arriving on a Sunday night as the only guests in the multi-roomed unit, we chose the largest room for ourselves and enjoyed having space in which to spread out. (Sometimes, bigger actually can be better.)

I haven’t asked George Fistonich his opinion on whether size matters, but I can tell you that he probably never expected his venture to grow to such proportions when he first leased two hectares back in 1961. Now, with vineyards located throughout New Zealand’s numerous regions and three wineries (the two others are in Auckland and Hawkes Bay) one might say he is at the head of a full-fledged empire.

Although George was not present at his Marlborough estate during our sojourn, our paths crossed again the following year. This time I had the pleasure of sitting next to him during a lunch held in celebration of his 50th vintage. We talked about a lot of things, including wine, of course, but, he was not as one-dimensional as that. And, we obviously discussed my trip to New Zealand and my impressions of his country.

About half-way through lunch, George made a few remarks. Among other statements, George was keen to announce to all assembled that the flight to New Zealand was quite easy – suggesting that one board a plane on the west coast, have dinner, and then go to sleep, awakening in time for breakfast and an early arrival in the capital city of Auckland. [I think he may have also suggested the use of sleeping pills, but having just had an extremely negative experience in that regard —inclusive of fainting onto a fellow passenger while attempting to access the loo— I’ll suggest that you simply rely on a glass of New Zealand wine (presuming you’re flying Air New Zealand) and a pair of eyeshades.]

Returning to my side, George resumed our conversation, which now turned to travel. Adding to his aerial advice, George admitted that flying first class was relatively new to him and that he had previously helped to ease the discomfort of sitting in coach by using the meditative techniques he had studied years ago. Of course, he didn’t seem to have any complaints about the much roomier seats he now enjoys, proving once again that bigger may not always be better, but it certainly isn’t bad.