Tasting Report from the Wine Trail: Keswick, Stinson and Mountfair

May 12

I recently enjoyed tasting wines at Keswick Vineyards east of Charlottesville and two wineries on the new “Appellation Trail”, Stinson and Mountfair.

At Keswick, winemaker Stephen Barnard is proud of his new program with 500 liter puncheons, about twice the size of a normal oak barrel. The larger surface ratio of wine to oak means less oak flavor and more fruit-dominated flavors. He uses the puncheons for his reserve chardonnay and viognier as well as for his reds, and even for a touriga nacional rose.

Especially memorable are the (not yet released) 2012 reserve viognier and chardonnay, with richness from lees contact and gentle oak hints but avoid a sense of vulgar over-indulgence common in oak reserve whites.

The red cask samples from the puncheons likewise had depth of fruit and just enough but not too much oak. My favorite red sample was the 2012 norton, fermented with a high malic acid-consuming yeast (norton has four times the malic to tartaric acid ratio of vinifera red grapes). As a result, the wine had deep plush ripe fruit but lacked the acid edge of most nortons, and it will be a joy for norton fans when finished.

The most original wines at Keswick were the “V squared”, a 50/50 blend of verdejo and early-picked viognier; and a touriga rose. The “V2″  had lots of white grapefruit and pear aromas and flavors with a broad mid-palate and fresh finish. The use of early-picked viognier meant a minimum of the lily-floral quality and tropical fruit frequently found in Virginia viognier, and it blended very well with the verdejo. An elegant fun and original blend, it will be great for matching with seafood or enjoying pre-dinner through the hot summer months.

Just as original was the rose of touriga that was aging a 500 liter puncheon. It’s very unusual to age rose wine in barrel, but this one really worked, partly because of the big fruitiness of the grape and partly because the oak added complexity without too much oak flavor. Stephen explains that touriga is not a reliable grape for red wine production in Virginia because it often rots before it fully ripens. Instead, he plans to harvest the grape early and process as a rose, keeping bright fresh fruit flavors and avoiding the risk of later season rot. I think he’s really on to something; for any growers out there who haven’t (yet) pulled up your touriga, contact Stephen for his growing regimen.

Stinson Vineyards is a fairly new winery, at the start of the Appellation Trail (heh) in White Hall. Opened in 2011, Stinson features an eclectic blend of the “usual suspects” type of wines and some very original wines made by a father/daughter winemaking team, Scott and Rachel Stinson, focusing on “premium wines in the French style.”

The basic white and red “Sugar Hollow” blends are elegantly balanced and surprisingly high quality for basic wines from the difficult 2011 vintage. The white is vidal, with citrus flavors and bright acidity and just a hint of sweetness. The red is a whole berry-fermented red Bordeaux blend with definite oak but drinking well now.

My favorite Stinson wines were both whites, very French in style. The 2012 sauvignon blanc is classic Loire Valley style, with aromas of lemon grass, a hint of dill and flint. On the palate, lemon and green garden herb flavors dominate, with a firm acid grip in the finish and a flinty clean finish. This is as close to Pouilly Fume as I’ve seen outside that AOC in the Loire Valley and is very promising.

The 2012 Rose is 100% mourvedre (grown by Horton Vineyards), and bears a striking resemblance to the mourvedre-based roses of the Bandol AOC in Provence, especially Domaine Tempier. Even though the color is pale, the wine is bursting with fresh strawberries on the nose and palate, with a hint of clean earth in the finish and fine acidity that makes it a classic French-style, food-friendly rose.

The 2009 La Tour d’Afton, vinted by Turk Mountain Vineyards in nearby Afton, is a deep purple, rich wine fermented with native yeast featuring 40% petit verdot, 20% cabernet franc, 20% merlot, and 20% malbec. The wine has intriguing aromas of herb, spice and black fruits, with a plush texture and like flavors. Winemaker Rachel explains that (like many other ’09 reds I’ve observed), this wine has become much more accessible in recent months. The malbec seems to add some exotic black fruit and spice notes not otherwise found in Virginia red Bordeaux blends.

Stinson also makes two sweet wines that, like the “French style”, are not too sweet but balanced. A 2011 late-harvest petit manseng at 6% residual sugar has fresh honey and pineapple notes and is easy to sip but not cloying, while the 100% tannat “Imperialis” port-style wine is bursting with ripe black fruits and smooth tannins and easy to quaff without restraint, a brilliant match for dark chocolate.

Up the road in Mountfair, the red Bordeaux blend specialists of the same name have added four new blends to their existing portfolio, all from the 2011 vintage. Two are cabernet franc-based (“Blended Family” and “Commitment”) and two are merlot-based (“Serendipitous” and “Jilted”).

My favorites were the Serendipitous and the Blended Family.

The Serendipitous 2011 (green label) is 50% merlot, 19% cabernet franc, 15% cabernet sauvignon and 16% petit verdot.  A light, subtle nose with cedar hints is followed on the palate by more dimension; lots of spice and palate weight, and would drink better by early fall, worth waiting for and pretty stylish for 2011.

The Blended Family 2011 (dark blue label) is 44% cabernet franc, 29% merlot, 18% cabernet sauvignon and 9% petit verdot. This wine has  more assertive nose, with classic cabernet franc black pepper. On the palate, the wine is smooth showing the influence of lush petit verdot. While the wine will develop in the next year it is drinking well now and a good choice for summer-style Virginia red while we wait for the 2010s to come around.

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