2016 was a very good year for my wine tasting adventures. These are over 40 of my favorite wines tasted last year. The ones with double diamonds are especially outstanding. Hats off to Dr. Frank Vinifera Cellars on Keuka Lake in New York for the highest number of outstanding wines, including a meritage. While Finger Lakes dominated in white wines, they also made some impressive red wines (Dr. Frank meritage 2012, Atwater syrah and “Big Blend” 2013), while Virginia had fine wines in white, rose, red and dessert categories.
You can now find some Finger Lakes wines at Wegmans stores in Virginia including Dr. Frank and Fox Run brands, and of course you can order online from the wineries direct.
♦♦Chateau Frank Blanc de Noirs 2009 Finger Lakes: 100% pinot noir, five years en tirage. Nose: bright lemon and yeast with light cherry notes. Palate: creamy smooth, great finesse, firm acid but rich red fruits balanced with creamy lemon. Very vibrant, lively and stylish.
Barboursville Vineyards Fiano Reserve 2015: This debut release from two-year old vines revealed a complex and waxy wine with lots of dimension and texture to complement a range of foods. The nose had a fascinating lemon/citrus fruitiness mingled with mineral, followed by spicy pear and ginger notes. On the palate, there was medium-plus weight, as with a gewürztraminer or Alsatian pinot gris, rich and layered but finishing with firm acidity. There was an oak component on the palate as well (neutral) which integrated well with the pear/ginger flavors, ending with a flinty minerality. A hefty white wine, good for fall/winter cuisine featuring winter squash, such as with Thanksgiving. Daniele says that the use of neutral oak barrels were a fluke due to lack of stainless tank space, but this white did not suffer from the oak. Original and stylish.
The reserve “library” tasting room at Barboursville Vineyards
Dr. Konstantin Frank Riesling Reserve 2001 Finger Lakes: This wine is an excellent argument for laying down top Finger Lakes rieslings for 15 years or more. This wine won a gold medal in its youth, but was lean and tight; a good sign for a long-distance runner. I’ve written before on the virtues of laying down fine rieslings from classic regions (Alsace, Austria, Finger Lakes, Oregon, Michigan and Washington) and how the aging curve is “U”-shaped, going into a decline on fruitiness after the first two years, then emerging after ten years plus with a renewed fruitiness, complemented by tertiary aging characteristics like mellowing of acidity and petrol.
This wine, admirably, has almost no petrol on the nose, but fresh lemon/lime zest, white flowers and some ripe apple; there’s a hint of petrol in the background which grows gradually. On the palate, light, fresh, lively and surprisingly young, with finely integrated zesty acid and ripe apple and citrus fruit, and a long lingering freshness on the finish. Who would guess this was 15 years old? Interestingly Meaghan Frank, fourth generation descendant of Konstantin and current winery general manager, gave me a bottle of the 2008 dry riesling a few months ago. It was developing well but I told her I thought it needed more time; it was barely waking up from a long slumber. This 2001 reserve is singing sweetly.
Fox Run Riesling Reserve 2011 Finger Lakes: Fox Run occasionally makes a Reserve riesling label in exceptional years that has received consistently high reviews. This one is indeed exceptional and received 94 points in the Wine Enthusiast. Nose: fascinating, a nice evolution of lemon and minerality like Grand Cru Alsatian riesling, with white flowers ripe peach and red apple. On the palate, the wine is juicy with citrus and red apple, also tangerine and mineral. Even at five years when most rieslings’ fruit is fading, this has evolved well and will continue to do so for another decade.
Rockbridge Vineyards De Chiel Viognier 2015 (VA): This is the debut release of this premier Virginia white wine from Rockbridge, from a local grower, and it’s my favorite of the vintage for that grape so far. The nose is subtle, then intense with white flowers, white fruits, and lively acid to balance on the palate. If you like a viognier that isn’t all honeysuckle and is good with food, this is it. Great way to debut!
Dr. Frank Pinot Gris 2015 Finger Lakes: Nose has HUGE spicy pear, classic for the “gris” varietal style. Palate: broad, round texture with bright spicy pear flavors. Very stylish!
Dr. Frank Eugenia 2014 Riesling dry: very Saar-like, tastes like a blue-green shade of color, with smoky shale hints. Palate: dry but smooth and delicate, like the music of Chopin, with flavors of white peach and pear. Plump texture, round and smooth to balance firm acid. Very fine, can be enjoyed now or age for a decade.
Dr. Frank Margrit 2014 Riesling dry: barrel fermented in four year old French oak. Nose: delicate, elegant yellow apple, some honey, and a hint of pineapple. Palate: smoky honey and yellow apple. Young but promising and richly textured, a unique style with the oak influence.
Dr. Frank Semi-dry Riesling 2015 Finger Lakes: fermentation stopped in the German style, instead of back-sweetened, at 2.6% residual sugar. All Seneca Lake fruit. Nose: nice German Rhine fruitiness of red apple, apricot and peach. Palate: juicy, with lots of ripe fruit! Well-balanced with a lively finish.
Dr. Frank Gewurztraminer 2014 Finger Lakes: was on the skins for 48 hours pre-fermentation. Nose: spicy with lychee and rose. On the palate, great spiciness, clean with a nice hint of bitterness to balance the lack of acidity on the finish. Less than 1% residual sugar. A fine versatile food wine.
Boundary Breaks Dry Riesling Clone #239: ripe peach, petrol and flowers on the nose. The palate has solid red apple and nectarine flavors, white peach and huge fruit/acid volume. 0.9% r.s.
Boundary Breaks Riesling Reserve 2014 Clone #198: The nose is closed, then lots of flowers, pineapple and peach, a hint of sulfur. Palate: juicy, with huge fruit volume of apple, pineapple, peach and lively acid. Young, with lots of promise.
Early Mountain Five Forks 2015: a new product, named after a town in Madison County but which also has five grape varieties. Packaged like the rose with silk screened graphics and a screw cap closure, this is a proprietary off-dry aromatic blend with viognier as the dominant grape, and by and large drinks like viognier but with brighter fruit and firmer acidity. The blend is 44% viognier, 22% petit manseng, 13% sauvignon blanc, 11% muscat, and 10% pinot gris. Nose: wonderfully fragrant and aromatic, with white flowers and peach, then very floral muscat with oranges and tropical fruit. On the palate, lively acid with fine balance of all elements. Almost dry (0.17% residual sugar), fruity but vibrant. Elegant and original, will please viognier fans and anyone who likes dry but fruity and aromatic white wines, and will be a fun, versatile food wine.
Effingham Manor Dry Rosé 2015 (Prince William Co., VA): this dry chambourcin rose is zesty with lots of strawberry and cranberry and refreshingly dry.
Sharpe Hill Rosé of St. Croix 2014 (CT).The grape is a Swenson hybrid that’s much like gamay, only very cold hardy and even fruitier. Winemaker Howard Bursen makes a blush and a dry oak-aged red from it, but I love this dry, very assertively fruity and full-bodied rosé. The color is just a shade darker than Provençal style, but the aromatics are large; ripe cherry and strawberry. On the palate, flavor volume is large too, huge cherry and strawberry with ample acidity to match and a clean, zesty finish.
♦♦ Dr. Frank Meritage 2012 Finger Lakes This label is a selection of the best barrels from the warmest vintages, only sold in the tasting room. Nose: again, like the music of Chopin: elegant, with ripe red fruits and perfumed spice reminiscent of Margaux. Excellent balance of oak and fruit. Palate: smooth, ripe, round, firm tannins, great finesse and integration. Young but well-knit. 13.5% alc. Interestingly, this wine is 40% petit verdot, the red Bordeaux grape that is changing the meritage equation in Virginia. I had thought this grape wouldn’t ripen or over-winter well in the Finger Lakes, but then Meaghan told me this is grown in southeast Seneca Lake, the region’s “banana belt.” Other grapes: 20% each both cabernets and merlot. Only two barrels. Not just stylish but world-class.
♦♦ Hart Winery Reserve Syrah 2013, Temecula Valley, Volcanic Ridge Vineyard: This was my favorite Hart wine despite how much I liked the others. The vineyard is located “on a sea breeze-swept 2400 elevation ridge virtually within view of the Pacific ocean.” On the nose, complex but typical varietal syrah markers; smoky red fruits, bacon fat and exotic spice. On the palate… WOW!! Amazing concentration of fruit, plush, smooth texture, lots of zesty exotic spices on the finish. I also like that it’s fruit and spice driven and I don’t even notice the oak. How does it get better than this? The alc. is 14.6% but the wine isn’t hot at all.
♦♦Muse Vineyards 2010 “Clio” Shenandoah Valley: An even four-way blend of the two cabernets, merlot and petit verdot. The 2009 vintage of this wine won the 2015 Governor’s Cup, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this wine won in 2016 or 2017. It’s a very different style from that wine though to match the ripe, rich and warm character of the 2010 vintage. Opaque, almost black in color, the nose is complex with ripe black fruits, rich oak tones, and hints of herbs, pepper and clove. On the palate, the wine has huge volume (14.4% alcohol), but is ripe and smooth, with loads of smooth tannins to match an opulently rich blend of black fruits. This blend of Muse (four equal ratios of the two cabernets, merlot and petit verdot) has worked brilliantly two years in a row in very different vintage conditions, and could be a model others learn from. This is my favorite red wine of the year and is on a par with any other Virginia red wine I’ve tasted.
Keswick Vineyards Estate Reserve 2014 (Monticello, VA) This won the Virginia Governor’s Cup award in 2016. Nose: complex aromas of black fruits, sage, basil and bay leaf with a hint of oak in the background. On the palate, the wine had big dimension and volume for a cabernet franc; solid black fruits, vibrant acidity, and elegant herbal tones. This is a lovely food wine and a fine example of first-class varietal Virginia cabernet franc.
Dr. Frank Cabernet Franc 2013 Finger Lakes: Nose: amazing spice and bright red fruits, very stylish. Palate: ripe red fruits, crisp finish, smooth tannins and fine oak integration. A classic example of fine and elegant cabernet franc.
Dr. Frank Saperavi 2013 Finger Lakes: the second varietally labeled Dr. Frank vintage of this giant of Georgian red grapes. Color: very dark. Nose: smoky plum, black fruits and truffles. Palate: black cherry and plum, big volume from smooth ripe tannins, original and stylish. Can be enjoyed this fall or laid down for 5-10 years.
Chateau Lafayette Reneau Cabernet Sauvignon Proprietor’s Reserve 2012: The nose shows ripe plum and cassis with some cigar box spice. On the palate, it is silky smooth at first, then suddenly a punch of dry tannins on the mid-palate with cassis and spice. Rich and smooth with loads of ripe black fruits, will age for decades.
Atwater “Big Blend” 2013, Finger Lakes: (syrah, cabernets sauvignon and franc, merlot, lemberger/blaufrankisch): Dark and dense. On the nose—Wow! Briar fruits and dark chocolate! The palate is driven by lemberger/ blaufrankisch, syrah and cabernet franc fruit, with lots of lively fresh briar fruits with zesty acidity. Who says the Finger Lakes can’t make a big sexy red blend? Alcohol refreshingly moderate at 13%.
Atwater Syrah 2013, Finger Lakes: Atwater was one of the first Finger Lakes wineries to make varietal syrah and with its warm location it makes a consistently fine one, in a Rhone style instead of West Coast or Aussie. Nose: classic white pepper and solid black cherry notes. On the palate, zesty and lively with fresh black cherry flavor and fine spicy finish; stylish and classic.
Jump Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Shenandoah Valley: 100% varietal. Dark opaque ruby color. Nose: solid ripe red cassis, cedar and smoke; seems classic for the grape and the vintage in Virginia. Palate: huge volume, ripe red fruits and cedar/spice, firm but ripe tannins. Young but stylish, will age well. Can drink well from this fall.
Granite Heights “Evening Serenade” 2010 was a compellingly brilliant interpretation of classic St. Emilion Grand Cru. An 80/20 blend of merlot and cabernet franc, this richly elegant wine had aromatics of red and black fruits and herbs with bass notes of clean earth. On the palate, it was richly layered, with red and black fruits followed by herbal notes then mocha and clean earth with smooth rich tannins. A class act!
Barboursville Vineyards Cabernet Franc Reserve 2014: Nice dark color. On the nose, WOW! Great Loire Valley black cherry and black pepper notes, very lively and characteristic of the vintage. On the palate, the wine had huge black fruits, well-ripened, juicy and with lively acid, finishing with huge black pepper. Great varietal and vintage style.
Keuka Lake Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2014 Finger Lakes: Nose: mature, ripe and fragrant perfumed black cherry. Palate: lively, fresh, fruit-driven varietally correct. A great Finger Lakes interpretation with great fruit/acid balance.
Stone Tower Wind Swept Hill 2013, VA: a “Right Bank” Bordeaux-style blend of merlot and cabernet franc. The color is compelling; very dark and opaque for the vintage. Nose: I was sure the wine had petit verdot as a major component from the ripe blackberry and smoky richness of the bouquet, clean and ripe black fruits. Palate: opulent, ripe black fruits yet fresh and lively acidity as well. A nice Right Bank herbal touch; vibrant, fresh and juicy. Lots of complexity and contrast, but integration and vivacity. People will focus on the Hogback Mountain which (deservedly) got in the Governor’s Case, but this wine was just as good in its own way. It had more mystery and depth of black fruit, and I was surprised that it had no petit verdot in it; pretty impressive for just merlot and cabernet franc.
The elegant cellars at Stone Tower Vineyards
Stone Tower Hogback Mountain 2013, VA: Their gold medal-winning (Governor’s Case) wine in 2015, this “Left Bank” Bordeaux blend is both New World and stylish _without_ being “Left Coast” in any way. Grape ratio: 69% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot, the balance cabernet franc and petit verdot. Like the Wind Swept, the color is very dark, but the nose is fresh and lively with lots of red cassis (without gobs of vanilla or coconut, I might add). On the palate, fine, ripe smooth cabernet tannins with zesty bright acidity, refreshing to see ripe cabernet where you can taste the fruit without the oak messing it up. This is such a fresh and fruit-driven wine it drinks like a Bach Brandenburg Concerto (I prefer #5 for this one). I’d wager there are California cabernet fans who haven’t even tasted fresh cabernet sauvignon without obvious new oak like this one. Easy to see why this got in the Governor’s Case but the Wind Swept is just as good and made in the same manner.
Willowcroft Assemblage 2013 (VA): (50% cabernet sauvignon, 33% petit verdot, 9% cabernet franc, 8% merlot). Nose: lovely rose and violet nuances, with bright red fruits (mostly cassis). Palate: solid red fruits, firm tannins, fresh crisp finish, like a young Margaux. Excellent Left Bank style (despite the 33% petit verdot), with lots of finesse and integration. Elegant and stylish; hats off!
Gray Ghost Petit Verdot 2013 (VA)
This grape is difficult to do as a straight varietal; it’s often two-dimensional and you can lose the fruit for the tannins or over-oaked treatment. I love when you find Virginia petit verdot with compelling terroir character, and this is definitely one. This wine is complex and I recommend decanting for 15 minutes first to get the best evolution. Nose: gingerbread! Like the fresh dough! Very original. Palate: fresh, clean, smooth and lively, with anise and ginger spice up front and ripe black fruits beneath. I love the tingling fresh acidity on the finish matched with smooth chocolately tannins. It reminds me of high-quality wines from Herault in the Midi near Provence (think Mas de Daumas Gassac). Original, elegant with lots of finesse; a wine that waltzes in a class where many of the others do the polka.
Hermit Woods Winery “Red Scare Oak” (NV, 375 ml) was 14.5% red oak aged wine. On the nose, it was legal nose candy that will make your eyes bug out. At first, it was like a St. Emilion on steroids; ripe briar fruits and lots of garden herbs like rosemary, basil and sage. Then, after time, the briar fruits emerge like the blue bulbs on a Christmas tree; blueberry, blackberry and raspberry, also very floral rose aromas with undertones of honey. On the palate, the wine has excellent fruit/acid balance, leading with ripe, plush briar fruits and rose petal, elegantly balanced. You can drink this wine at room temperature be impressed with its finesse, then be shocked to realize it is a dry fruit wine (a fruit mead or melomel with blueberry, blackberry and raspberry) that doesn’t need any residual sugar. Brilliant!
Boundary Breaks Riesling Icewine 2016: Yes, this was made from grapes frozen on the vine, and is a true icewine. Normally I’d be hesitant to review an icewine that is so young since riesling icewines, typical of the grape, have high acid levels. This very elegant wine was a pleasant surprise. Nose: peach, vanilla, and crème brulée along with some smoky peachy petrol. On the palate, the wine is bright and lively with lemon and peach, with creamy sweet but with a fine acid finish. $60/half bottle but priced with others in this category and surprisingly elegant for such a young wine.
King Family Vineyards Loreley 2014, Monticello (VA): A “vin de paille” or straw wine made from dried petit manseng grapes, this drinks most like a Sauternes-style dessert wine made from a much fruitier grape than semillon. Lots of pineapple, apricot and marmalade on the nose and palate, with bright firm citrus acidity to balance, so it doesn’t seem so sweet. Can be enjoyed with crème brulee, fresh fruit, shortbread and cream in the near future or will improve with age for years if well-cellared.
Frank Late Harvest Riesling Finger Lakes 2013 12% alcohol, 28% sugar at harvest. Nose: layered apple and apricot aromas. Palate: Wow-juicy, rich, layered peach/apricot. Rich but still elegant.
Stinson Vineyards Petit Manseng 2013, Monticello (VA): the 2012 version won Best Sweet Wine in the Monticello Cup last year and this is just as good. The nose is complex, Sauternes-like with honey, butterscotch and orange marmalade. On the palate, zesty citrus seems almost dry (3% residual sugar, 13% alc.) with flavors of tangerine, peach and pineapple; excellent fruit/acid balance.
Linden Vineyards Late Harvest Petit Manseng 2011 (half bottle): Nose of brilliant pineapple. Palate: big pineapple but nice smooth creamy lees and a smoky flinty finish. A real Virginia classic interpretation of European dessert wine. Aspiring sommeliers and locavores should be all over this (12.9% residual sugar, 12.6% alc.)
Elk Run Lord Baltimore Maryland Port of Cabernet Sauvignon 2008: Sure, it’s pretty pricey at over $27/half bottle, but if you’re a port fan and want to support local wine, you need to try this. It’s only made every 3 years or so in exceptional years with long, warm growing seasons. Technically it would compare to a “colheita” in Portugal. Even though it’s a single vintage wine, it’s aged for three years in old oak and has tawny character. The color has a hint of orange. The nose is bright and spirit, with dried red fruits in a clean tawny style. On the palate, the wine is rich and spicy, dominated by dried red fruits. Firm and dry on the palate with a long finish. Very classy.
Glass House Winery Bellezza. Port-style; 75% norton, 12.5% chambourcin, 12.5% cabernet franc. 17.5% alc. Monticello, VA. Nose: touriga-like spice and plum, with toffee and caramel hints on the palate and firm acid balancing rich ripe fruit and heady spirits. A candidate for the best of Virginia’s growing class of norton-based ports. Very stylish.
“Imperialis” NV:Very popular in the tasting room, this 100% tannat-based port-style wine is much as I described the table wine above, only sweeter and with a lot more spice and rich black fruit with lots of smooth tannin, which makes me think of dark chocolate and black cherries, and some other things I can’t describe here. J