Those of you who follow the Virginia wine scene remember that a brand new, very small production winery high in Amherst County caused a stir at the Wine Blogger’s Conference in the scorching heat wave a year ago when both Dave McIntyre and Jancis Robinson were impressed with their pinot noir. Pinot is not only notoriously difficult to get done well anywhere, but ESPECIALLY so in hot, humid Virginia, so when someone nails it on their FIRST attempt, it’s worth taking note.
An Inspiring Site
Ankida Ridge vineyard and winery are perched on a steep mountainside high in Amherst County. Their production is about 1000 cases and will top out at 1,500. Their tiny winery (cut into bedrock granite) will open (by appointment only) in about a month, at the end of July. The floorboards, tasting room table, and tasting bar are all reclaimed antique wood. For those who like Stone Mountain’s breathtaking deck and view, this is similar only with a view of a distant mountain ridge instead of a valley, and much smaller but cozy and dream-like.
The winery is at 1,700 ft. elevation and the vineyard (2 acres of vines, 2/3 pinot noir and 1/3 chardonnay) is 100 feet higher, right at the altitude limit recommended by state viticulturist Dr. Tony Wolf.
The winery is owned by Christine and Dennis Vrooman and their son Nathan is the winemaker, with Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards as consultant.
The name “Ankida” explains Christine, comes from the ancient Sumerian and means “place where heaven and earth join” and Christine confesses she fell in love with the word before they even found the property. “When we first came out here,” she says, “the place was so filled with fireflies, I couldn’t tell where they ended and the stars began,” so she found a way for Ankida to be used appropriately. On the winery’s label there are four stars, one for each of her and Denny’s children.
A Slippery Slope
Christine explains that the couple bought the property with no thought of a winery in mind but as a getaway. Once two acres of land had been cleared on a ridge below where their house was sited, they pondered what to do with the land. Viticulture consultant Lucie Morton was a friend; she dug some soil pits and examined the soil which was degraded granite and schist, fine vineyard soil, and she recommended pinot noir and chardonnay, planted in tight spacing and cane pruned, her normal recommendation.
An Example of Integrated Pest Management
Christine takes an integrated and green approach to viticulture. The day of my visit in late June Denny had delivered four hens and a clutch of guinea hens, which would be used to remove climbing cutworms and bugs, with dogs to protect them, cats to prey on the voles and other rodents, swallows to eat flying insects via a purple martin house; she laughingly calls it “The peaceable kingdom goes to war!” In fact, Christine is preparing a presentation on her IPM program for the Virginia Vineyards Association, which is working on a sustainable vineyard certification.
Burgundian Style and Quality in the Blue Ridge
The model for the winery’s wine style is Burgundy, although they will release other wines on a second label. Currently, wine quantities are tiny. The initial 2010 chardonnay only had 48 cases made, or less than one barrel, although quantity almost doubled to 86 cases with the 2011 vintage.
The 2010 chardonnay and pinot noir are surprising not just for quality on a first go, but on balancing fruit and elegance in a big, warm vintage. The 2010 Ankida Ridge chardonnay is a blend of purchased fruit and estate fruit (from a small-berry, low-vigor clone from Tablas Creek named “La Vineuse”) and was fermented in neutral French oak with one half only going through malolactic fermentation. On the nose and palate it is rich and ripe but still restrained and elegant, with hints of hazelnut and butterscotch on the nose and palate, a lush round mid-palate, and a fresh finish. This is a chardonnay that will please almost everyone, with complexity from barrel and MLF treatment but enough restraint and acidity to make it very versatile, with alcohol only at 13%. On the American scale of chardonnays, this is very Burgundian without being too austere. With only 48 cases made, better grab it while you can. Actually this wine is drinking well now and will be at its best through Thanksgiving (hint).
The 2010 Ankida Ridge pinot noir: Nathan explains that this was a blend of estate fruit and purchased fruit of higher Brix, but the blend works well in a New World style suited to Virginia, only with moderate (13.7) alcohol and no planky oak. The nose was a brilliant mix of red and black cherry with some exotic spices; cardamom and anise with a hint of pepper. On the palate, intensely bright and vivid flavors of cherry mixed with the spice elements, and a vibrant crisp acidity, crucial to any successful pinot emulating a Burgundian style. The fruit and palate dimension were full but the finish was fresh and long. Stylistically, this was close to the Marlborough style of pinot noir from New Zealand, i.e. fully ripe but with lots of vibrant acidity to balance. This wine is still coming together and will be well-knit by mid-fall; definitely a must for pinot fanatics who have given up on Virginia or the East Coast in general to deliver the goods.
Ankida Ridge 2011 chardonnay: I was surprised with this wine, as with others from the lousy 2011 vintage, how good it was and how much like the 2010, accounting for vintage variation. The fruit was 50% estate, 50% Albemarle County, and produced in the same way except with a higher proportion of stainless steel. On the nose there are hints of mineral green apple, then hazelnut/butterscotch. On the palate, the wine is surprisingly like the 2010, with a richly layered texture from the neutral oak and malolactic influences, but finishes with a lively green apple crispness like a good white Burgundy.
This chardonnay is the one that you’ll love to drink as this summer scorches out the temperature records, and has the chemistry to last another few years if you can keep your hands off it. Until October I recommend decanting it (chilled) before drinking for 10 minutes. Remember, only 86 cases made, and if you want elegance and finesse in Virginia chardonnay, here’s one you don’t want to miss.
The Burgundian flagship chardonnay and pinot noir from Ankida Ridge will be the only wines under that label, says Nathan. Meanwhile, they have in barrel a couple of other noteworthy wines that will carry a second label.
Unnamed Red Bordeaux Blend 2011 (barrel tasting), blend of vineyards in Bedford and Albemarle Counties.
Attractive violet hue for a difficult vintage. Nose: like high-end St. Emilion without garagiste oak; lavendar, violets, cassis, all floral and herbal with red fruits. On the palate, the wine is nicely layered, with fresh firm but lively fruit and no hard green notes. Stylish for a difficult year and will drink well by late fall.
Chambourcin port 2011 (barrel tasting)‘
Nose: lively plum and spice notes with a hint of clean earth and white pepper. Palate: still young and coarse (but this is normal), needs time but will integrate well and meet an enthusiastic audience in six months or so when winter is upon us. Promising and has surprisingly port-like fruit and mineral/oak elements for such a young wine.
So if Ankida means “Where the earth and sky meet”, where does the term “The Jewel of Amherst County” come from? Well, if you don’t know by now…