Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir 2011 (!) Beats 1er Cru Volnay, 2010 Version Impresses OR Pinot-philes

Nov 16

If you told people you were planting a commercial vineyard in Eastern North America to just chardonnay and pinot noir, you could expect people to laugh in your face. With high seasonal humidity and frequent late season tropical storms, the thin-skinned pinot noir tends to rot before it ripens in the East.

Gung-ho pinot-philes in New York’s Finger Lakes started a pinot noir guild to share wines and best practices, with the goal of making a name for the region’s pinot noir as had been done for its rieslings, but it was disbanded. I asked guild founder Bob Madill (general manager of Sheldrake Point Vineyards on Cayuga Lake) why. He said that the main problem for the Finger Lakes versus Oregon, Burgundy or New Zealand was the high average levels of rainfall during the month of harvest, and the consequent difficulty of maintaining crop quality. Indeed, I had been cellaring Finger Lakes pinot noirs going back to 1997, and none of them held up for more than three years in the bottle.

Finger Lakes average humidity is usually lower than what we have in Virginia, and we also have more frequent tropical storms in late summer. It’s not impossible to find decent pinot noir in Virginia; Shep Rouse has made a consistently good one, and the relatively new Cross Keys Vineyards and Ox Eye Vineyards (note: also in the Shenandoah Valley) have also done a surprisingly good job (the Valley has less humidity and rainfall than the Piedmont east of the Blue Ridge).

However, making a decent Virginia pinot noir seems hardly worth the hassle, risks and low yields compared to the easier results with thicker-skinned red Bordeaux varieties, so I was surprised to learn of Ankida Ridge Vineyards just off the George Washington National Forest high in Amherst County, growing Dijon clone chardonnay and pinot noir on a ridge saddle of 1,800 feet. When I heard the vineyard consultant was Lucie Morton (she was the one who suggested these varieties), I figured the Vroomans (the owners) had their act together.

At the national Wine Bloggers Conference in 2011, I tasted Ankida Ridge’s 2010 pinot noir, which immediately impressed me with its spice notes and rich cherry fruit (over 14% alcohol). This was the first harvest from the vineyard blended with high Brix fruit from another vineyard, so the wine was rich, but not hot, and the purity of the cherry fruit (and absence of visual browning typical in Eastern pinot) showed this was a new generation of pinot noir in Virginia.

If I told you that in the wretched 2011 vintage, Ankida Ridge made an even better pinot noir than it did in the hot 2010 vintage, and that it beat a premier cru Volnay in a blind judging, you might be skeptical. In, fact, this is the case. Before a month and a half of rains hit Virginia last September, there was a hot spell, and since pinot noir ripens early in here, Ankida Ridge got the fruit in clean before the rains came. Ironically the best wine in the state made in a wet harvest could be this pinot noir! It was the first full yield from the vineyard (planted in 2008 to Dijon clones  115, 667, 777, and vcr18) so the purity of fruit, terroir and wine chemistry was even better than in 2010.

Winemaking regimen according to winemaker Nathan Vrooman: “We chill fruit, destem with no crush to achieve whole berry fermentation. Then cold soak for approximately 3 days. We do two Punchdowns daily, use two different yeast strains, press when dry, age in all french oak (25% new medium toast barrels), 100% MLF, bottled with premium cork after aging 10 months in barrel.”

Here’s my tasting note: Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir 2011, Virginia (all estate fruit).

Color: transparent but darkly hued ruby, no browning. Nose: complex and very Burgundian, with spicy red cherry, some strawberry in the background, and an almost flinty minerality; reminiscent of Chambolle Musigny, but showing depth and potential for evolution.
Palate: very bright and freshly tart with racy acidity, bursting with tangy cherries. The texture is just as impressive, dominated by fruit and acid, with noticeably low alcohol (12.8%) for a wine of such ripe flavors. The texture is also free of heavy oak, and the wine finishes with the same vibrant, dancing cherry flavors and acidity that began on the nose. After being open half an hour, the nose begins to show clean earth and truffle notes.
The wine is very young but is better than most Burgundies I’ve had (i.e. been able to afford); in the East, the only pinot noir I’ve had this good was the 2007 Le Clos Jordanne from the high-end Burgundian specialist of that name in the town of Jordan on the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario, which is darned good company to be in.

This wine was placed in the “Judgment of Virginia” tasting at the R.R. Smith art museum in Staunton in October, where seven sets of Virginia wine were tasted blind against French equivalents, and this pinot noir clearly beat a 2009 Louis Latour Volnay En Chevret Premier Cru (complete details on my blog; www.richardleahy.com)

Even the ripe but not as sophisticated 2010 vintage of Ankida Ridge pinot noir impressed Oregon pinot noir fans and industry members. Neal Hulkower Ph.D. who writes on the Oregon wine scene recently tasted the 2010 vintage with some Oregon pinots and industry friends. “Bottom line:  the Ankida Ridge pleasantly surprised a small group of diehard Oregon pinot fans (including one who is a general manager of a Dundee Hills winery and another who is in the industry).  After a promising first vintage, we look forward to seeing how the winery progresses over the years.

Ankida Ridge Vineyards also makes an elegantly Burgundian chardonnay, but this piece is about the pinot. Just released on 11/14, this pinot noir will last a decade if well cellared, and retails for $42. It drinks like the price; if you think about how much you’ve spent for spurious Burgundies or over-oaked and high-alcohol West Coast pinot noirs, this is the real deal. I’m told you can purchase online or can pickup at Ankida Ridge’s  Dec 1 Fete de Noel or at one of their future tasting events.  Check website for dates; www.ankidaridge.com. Also, the wine can be purchased at Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison where they are a partner in their “Best of Virginia” program (generously featuring fine wines from wineries around the state).

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