Some of My Favorite (Small) Wineries in the Monticello AVA
I’ve heard complaints from some that many of the headlines recently generated on Virginia wine focus on large wineries with a large PR footprint.
Accordingly, for Drink Local Wine’s Regional Wine Week - as well as October Virginia Wine Month, I’m going to focus on small (> 2,000 case production) but original and impressive wineries in Central Virginia, mostly in the Monticello AVA and most of which are only a year or two old.
Wineries of the Appellation Trail
A new wine trail of six wineries close to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Appalachian Trail is making a clever turn of phrase by calling itself The Appellation Trail. The oldest winery is White Hall Vineyards, a consistently fine producer. Most members are fairly new wineries; Stinson Vineyards, Grace Estate and Moss Vineyards just opened in the last year. Each winery feels miles away from big city life (and even Charlottesville), and visiting two or three on an afternoon makes it feel like you’ve dived into a treasure buried in the back roads of northern Albemarle county.
Starting just south of the wee Wyant’s Store where Garth Rd. meets Rt. 810 which makes a right-angle turn north, is the Mt. Juliet Vineyards and the newly bonded and opened Grace Estate Winery, with the former winemaker of Pollak Vineyards Jake Busching as winemaker and general manager.
In a state where “breathtaking views” have a become a cliché for describing wineries, the grand manor house/tasting room and its expansive view east across Albemarle County to the Southwestern Mountain is truly in a class of its own. Friday evenings this summer and September featured bands, food trucks and corn hole pitches, along with the breathtaking views. Wine highlights include one of the best viogniers of the 2012 vintage to an elderberry-scented 2011 tannat, to a rich but smooth 2010 cabernet sauvignon. Jake is also one of the three winemakers in the “3” collaboration, and the 2012 white “3” is an intriguing blend of viognier, chardonnay and petit manseng.
Returning up Rt. 810 to White Hall, turn left, then right following Rt. 810, and the next right is the entrance to Stinson Vineyards, a tiny but impressive operation of a father/daughter team of Scott and Rachel Stinson; Scott is the vineyard manager and Rachel is the winemaker. The house style is French-inspired, dry and elegant.
Some examples are the original mourvedre-based rosé (a nod to Provence), lightly oaked chardonnay, and a zesty Loire Valley-like sauvignon blanc. Tannat plays an important role in differentiating the product line, with a varietal label and a delightful “Imperialis” port-style wine that is spicy, rich and full. Also featured is the mature 2009 “La Tour de Afton”, a petit verdot-dominated red Bordeaux blend from the Turk Mountain Vineyard (not open to the public) that is one of the most elegantly fruity and deeply smooth Virginia reds I’ve ever had.
Moving north, the next winery on the trail is White Hall Vineyards, which built a reputation on Loire Valley-like cabernet franc, elegant chardonnay, and impressively Alsatian pinot gris and gewürztraminer, along with being an early Virginia producer of cryo-extraction dessert wine called “Soliterre”. A “Cuvee de Champs” Bordeaux-style blend has lots of finesse, and the petit verdot is finely fruity. Avoiding obvious, heavy oak is a house style which has won many friends as well as fair pricing.
Continuing north on Rt. 810, the next winery on the trail is Mountfair, a tiny winery with a modest tasting room and a specialty for red Bordeaux blends with proprietary names and ratios varying from year to year. Currently on offer are “Intertwined” 2012 (a cabernet sauvignon-dominated blend), “Bubba” 2012 (a near-even split of the cabernets plus petit verdot and merlot), “Commitment” 2011 (50% cabernet franc with lesser amounts of merlot, petit verdot and cabernet sauvignon) and “Jilted” (a Virginia-style blend of 55% Merlot, 20% Petit Verdot, 15% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon). The understatement of the facility and the simple ridge line logo on the label allows the elegance of the wines to be the real brand for these dedicated specialist.
Returning to Rt. 810/Simmons Gap Road, continue north to the far reaches of northwestern Albemarle County, arriving just before the hamlet of Nortonsville at Moss Vineyards (take a long winding road through the woods to finally emerge into the vineyard, then the winery with an award-winning vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Greene County.
Owner Barry Moss is a practicing architect, and the winery, while not loud or brash, shows finesse and elegance of thoughtful design, with windows facing the vista to the north over the vineyard.
Cabernet sauvignon has a justified reputation as a poor performer in Virginia, but the subsoil at Moss Vineyards is decomposed granite, which cabernet performs well on, which shows in the wines. Moss is weighted towards red wines and the cabernet sauvignon is obvious in the two proprietary blends; “vino rosso” and the top-notch (and priced as same) “architettura.” The character of the cabernet here is highly concentrated red cassis with vivid fruit and acidity. White wines include 2012 viognier and a fine rosé. The product line has vertical depth to 2010 in the red blends. This is the winery to bring a picnic lunch and sip a glass while drinking in the vista.
Returning from the winery to Rt. 810, turn right and continue north past Nortonsville until the next four-way intersection. Instead of following Rt. 810, turn right on Rt. 664/Markwood Rd., then right on Rt. 671/Davis Shop Rd. then left on Rt. 601/Free Union Rd. The final winery will be on the right (total distance from Moss Vineyard @ Rt. 810 of 3.5 miles).
Glass House Winery, in concept and architecture, is the most unique of the Appellation Trail wineries and among the most unique in the state. Owners Jeff and Michelle Sanders lived in Honduras, and at the winery, have brought some of it to life in a glass-enclosed tropical conservatory including specialty banana trees. Glass is the theme, and the wine bottles all feature film (transparent) labels, as well as glass stoppers.
The product line is nicely balanced between white, red, sweet and dry wines. Michelle is a chocolatier and in addition to her truffles which you can buy at the tasting room, you can taste the cocoa powder in the proprietary chocolate port-style wine “Ancora Meglio”, one of the best chocolate wines because it contains the real stuff and not just liquid concentrate.
Other highlights include a juicy, rich but lively pinot gris, a juicy, aromatic semi-sweet traminette, the “C-villian”, a vibrant fruit/acid blend of mostly chambourcin, and a passito-style estate-grown barbera, which is dry and higher alcohol than table wine, but resembling amarone, with truffle and earth tones and fine long acidity with a touch of bitterness. The grapes are carefully selected and then dried in a greenhouse to concentrate the sugars which also greatly reduces the volume. The wine has become a hit and the wine club gets first dibs. The 2012 will be released this fall.
Glass House has tables set up in the arboretum where sometimes live music is performed and guests bring their own food enjoy Glass House wine with the food and music. A balcony extends from the tasting room with fine views of nearby Buck Mountain and a pond below. If you walk the property you’ll find odd-looking vines which turn out to be several varieties of kiwi plants!
That concludes the wineries of the Appellation Trail in northwest Albemarle County, but another winery deserves to be included here (although I can’t include them all), and that’s Lovingston Winery just south of that Nelson County town and still in the Monticello AVA. Also small and humble in features, “it’s all about the wine” here and with the brilliant Riaan Roussow as head winemaker, there’s lots of variety, originality and fine wine; this last week the Lovingston pinotage 2011 won a 90 point rating from Wine Enthusiast magazine! Also, the 2007 Estate Reserve won placement in the Governor’s Case of the top 12 Virginia wines in 2013.
Personally, I’ve always been a fan of the Lovingston seyval blanc for its racy, brilliant Loire Valley-like acidity and grapefruit flavors, as well as its petit manseng for pineapple intensity balancing fruit, acid and residual sugar. I wrote about the 2010 Lovingston cabernet franc on this site once as the Wine of the Week and one of my favorite red wines of that outstanding vintage. This Saturday 10/12 the winery will have a vertical tasting of its pinotage wines including the recent 90-point winner.
There’s lots going on around the state for October Virginia Wine Month.