Wine Matching Holiday Food on the Monticello Trail

Dec 22

The week before Thanksgiving, Blue Ridge Wine Excursions (URL) hosted a media tour with myself and participating bloggers Dezel Quillan (http://vinespot.blogspot.com/) and Frank Morgan (http://drinkwhatyoulike.wordpress.com), and Mary Ann Dancisin of the Virginia Wine Gazette (http://studioecs.com/vwg/).  We visited three Monticello AVA wineries; Blenheim Vineyards, Montdomaine Cellars and Well Hung Vineyards (the last two of which are closed to the public but open to Blue Ridge Wine Excursions’ “Virginia Wine Expert Tour”). We were in search of wines that would pair especially well with turkey and traditional trimmings.

We met to carpool in Charlottesville, and departed in extreme comfort in a Cadillac Escalade SUV. Our first stop was Blenheim Vineyards (close by the now-defunct Kluge Vineyards). Owned by Charlottesville native rock star Dave Matthews, the Blenheim winery is a sustainably-designed winery with gravity-flow processing for energy savings and gentle wine processing, cathedral ceilings, and no obvious trumpeting of its famous owner, a rare example of low-key celebrity in today’s hyper-celebrity culture.

By coincidence, the day we visited there were parking attendants on duty and far more than the usual number of cars even though it was only noon; the Dave Matthews Band was performing at JPJ Arena in nearby Charlottesville that night and the winery was well-prepared for the crowds. (Blenheim usually gets some 300 visitors on the weekend; this time they got some 1500).

Winemaker Kirsty Harmon met us outside to avoid the tasting room crowd, and poured the wines for us while quickly describing them. She describes her house style as “fruit-forward, dry, ready to drink and consumer-friendly”. There is a consistent purity of fruit expression in all the wines. The quality of the 2009 vintage for Virginia white wines was evident; I liked the viognier particularly (rated 87 by the Wine Spectator). My favorite though was the top-of-the-line “Painted White”, which will be a proprietary blend varying each year depending on vintage conditions and available grapes. The 2009 version is completely made of white Rhone Valley grape varieties grown in Virginia; some 62% viognier but also with Roussanne and Marsanne. The wine has a rich texture and a spicy prickly pear quality dominated by these last two grapes, an excellent and exotic food wine.

The 2009 reds are just being released, as the 2008 vintage is starting to sell out. There were two real standouts for me with Blenheim’s reds; the amazingly prototypical syrah ’09 (actually including Grenache and mourvedre), and a juicy, rich, yet elegant Meritage; the Painted Red 2009. Much more approachable and juicier than most of the ’09 Virginia reds now coming out on the market, this drinks well now but will get better over the next 1-3 years. Both wines will be a good match for turkey, chicken or beef. A fun part of the Painted wines is that owner Dave Matthews sketched the old farm boots on the label himself.

We escaped Blenheim before it was overrun by rock/wine fans, and drove south just a few miles to Montdomaine Vineyards (not open to the public). The Montdomaine name may be familiar to those who have been following Virginia wine since the 1980s; it was the most consistently performing label for vinifera wines in the mid to late 1980s, and the 1987 vintage of reserve merlot and cabernet sauvignon were highlights of the early years of Virginia red wines. The chardonnay vines, the first ones planted on the property off Rt. 20, were the first in Albemarle County; the 1985 vintage of same was served at a White House dinner under the first George Bush.

Proprietor Michael Bowles and his gracious wife Lorie met us at their house, with a large picture window view of the chardonnay vines below. Loree served homemade hors d’ouevres brilliantly paired with the wines. He doesn’t make the wines himself; they’re made by Michael Shaps at neighboring Virginia Wine Works. We tasted the ’09 chardonnay (brilliant and resembling petit Chablis, with no obvious oak, lime peel and lots of minerality), then the ’08 viognier (fruit from a vineyard near Bedford) which was as complex and mineral-like as any viognier I’ve tasted outside Condrieu. This is one of the few Virginia viogniers of the ’08 vintage that is not only holding but getting better; a great match for chicken or turkey.

We tasted the current release of ’08 merlot, which was very Right Bank (St. Emilion/Pomerol)-like; subtle, black fruits combined with earth and sage/herb hints, smooth and supple yet dry and crisp. A great match for dark turkey or beef for those who like red wine on an Old World model without gobs of vanilla or oak. We were then treated to a pre-release taste of the brand new label for Montdomaine; the reserve (black label) cabernet sauvignon 2009.

While 2009 was generally a lean vintage in Virginia for reds (especially disappointing for cabernet franc), the late-ripening cabernet sauvignon fared much better. This example was very smooth; not much flavor in its young state, but with firm and smooth tannins, and hints of cassis and spice. Naturally it’s very young now, but surprisingly smooth, supple and accessible, but still firm. It will open nicely over the next year, and provide fine Left Bank (Medoc) drinking pleasure over the next 5-7 years.

We were especially honored and excited to be served a bottle from Michael’s library, a reserve cabernet sauvignon from the legendary 1987 vintage. It was very Bordeaux-like; a bouquet of classic Bordeaux markers like tea leaves, cigar box, cedar and sweet cassis, and smooth tannins with a crisp finish. This isn’t available retail, but shows you what could happen with cabernets from the fine 2007 or 2010 vintage laid down for 20 years or so. It was inspiring to see that this veteran Virginia wine grower is making cabernet sauvignon today as good (probably better) than it was made 33 years ago.

Heading west of Charlottesville, we ended the tour at the Well Hung Vineyards (it was hard to tell; the grapes had already been harvested). Proprietors Bill and Amy Steers met us at their house, located on a ridge running east/west, with the late autumn sun setting over the Blue Ridge Mountains. They are both medical professionals (Amy is a nurse and Bill is also Dr. Steers at the UVA Health Sciences Center; the joke with the name of the vineyard is that he is also head of the Urology Department), and Amy is also the vineyard manager of their five acres of chardonnay and cabernet franc.

They also use Virginia Wine Works’ custom crush services to make their wines. Like Michael Bowles, they are French classicists; the chardonnay (there are two labels) is more Burgundian than West Coast (the regular is like Macon; the “very well hung” is more like Meursault), and the cabernet franc is very Loire Valley-like. The petit verdot/merlot from the ’09 vintage is deep, smooth and rich but still very young. These are very much wines in the European tradition; fresh fruit, bright flavors and crisp acidity to complement food. The petit verdot/merlot wine really seems to epitomize the Virginia wine experience; midway between the West Coast and the Old World, with a blending model you don’t see in that way in either of those places. The ’08 Private Select (only just now released after 2 years in oak) is a ripe, full bodied, rich and ready to drink blend of cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot that is robust yet still elegant; another fine interpretation of Virginia balancing the best of East and West.

I recommend the “Very Well Hung” chardonnay ’09 with turkey or chicken, and the reds with any beef dish or vegetarian with the same kind of sauce/seasoning. The ’09 petit verdot/cabernet franc especially needs to be decanted for half an hour at least to let it evolve and open up but should be more ready by early spring.

We finished tasting the Well Hung wines as the sun set over the Blue Ridge, and took the time to admire the view over a taste of their fine wines as our media tour of wine and food matchings from select Monticello AVA wineries ended.

Here are the tour members thoughts on the best wines for holiday fare:

Mary Ann Dancisin: “My favorite red as a holiday food wine was Blenheim Vineyards Syrah 2009. This crisp, cherry-drenched wine was accented with generous notes of white pepper, making it a great choice for both sweet and savory holiday menus.

For a unique white wine, Montdomaine’s Viognier showed more character and complexity than one usually finds in today’s fashionably easy-to-drink expressions of this grape. Overlapping sensations of apricot, honeysuckle, and melon are balanced by suble almond notes and a minerally tinge that leads into an ultralong, stylish finish. Versatile, and NOT bland!”

Dezel Quillan:”Wines from our trip that I think will work best with holiday fare (ham, poultry, turkey, etc) are as follow:

Blenheim: The Red Table Wine (NV) and Cabernet Franc 2009 are both light and bright with good food friendly acidity and fruit flavors that would compliment holiday dinner fare and not overwhelm. I recommend these wines with anything from poultry, ham, as well as vegetarian dishes.

Montdomaine: The 2008 Merlot has nice up front complex fruit with a silky mid palate and smooth tannins that follow through for a nice clean finish. This wine is well-balanced, very approachable, and its brightness makes it a perfect match for a number of food dishes.

Well Hung: The Cabernet Franc 2009 is a medium bodied wine with moderate acidity that offers dark cherry, spice, and violet notes with raspberry streaks. The palate is round and smooth and would compliment dark meats (turkey) and game dishes.

Here are links to some of the writers/bloggers on this tour and their impressions: http://vinespot.blogspot.com/2010/11/thanksgiving-wine-find-with-blue-ridge.html; http://drinkwhatyoulike.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/on-the-value-of-local-expertise/.

To experience this tour yourself (in case you’re wondering how “well hung” these grapes were), visit http://albemarlevintagelimousine.com/in-the-news/ for more information on how to book a “Virginia Wine Expert” tour for you and your friends.

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