This is my annual list of my favorite wines of 2019. I tasted maybe a hundred or more wines from around the East (Virginia, Finger Lakes and SW Michigan) and liked even more than these, but had to limit this list to the two and three star wines…and just a very few four star wines. There are about 60 wines from two stars and higher here. Here is my rating scale:
** = very good, *** = exceptional **** = outstanding, world-class.
I decided to list the wines (except for my favorite, a four-star wine which is also $95.00) in a random order, because there are only 3-4 four-star wines, and most of the rest are two-star wines, and I don’t want them to get overlooked. I want readers to have to hunt for them, as I did tasting dozens of wines, looking for gems in tasting rooms. I’ve done the hard work; all you have to do is enjoy the random order and geographic range back and forth; I think that will help you keep a more open mind.
Most of my readers can order these lines online for direct shipment if they don’t live near the winery, so if you like my tasting notes, go look up the wineries and order some; I also encourage you to visit the wine country(ies) they are found in. In 2020 and beyond you’re bound to discover your own favorites, once the 2017 reds and 2019 whites come online. Meanwhile, despite the disappointment of 2018 reds, there’s a wealth of wonderful regional wines out there.
I don’t give numeric scores to my wines, since anyone who likes Italian shoes and is a buddy of magazine publishers who smoke cigars in restaurants can tour the country giving 90+ scores to everything, and become an instant wine “celebrity”. I give a simple four-star rating system but sometimes I like wines that don’t even earn stars.
More important than numbers are the words I use to describe the wines. There’s a disciplined methodology to a wine description and rating, and I’ve spent decades developing these skills. As Sebastien LeSeurre says, “Who wants to drink numbers?”
And so, enjoy reading how I enjoyed myself in 2019 tasting these wines. Also, by spring this year I’ll have published the third revision of Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, the complete guide to Virginia wine since 1619 but focusing on the last two decades; stay tuned. Meanwhile, let’s try to forget the state of the world 2019 left us in by enjoying my Favorite Wines of 2019:
Favorite Wine of 2019: Early Mountain Vineyards “Rise” 2015 (red Meritage style blend)
**** Early Mountain Vineyard “Rise” 2015, VA. Rise is Early Mountain’s term for the French phrase “grand vin.” Based on 57% old vine Merlot from the Quaker Mountain vineyard in northwestern Madison County, the balance is an even trio of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Tannat, all from mountain vineyards, with inclusion of stems in the fermentation for complexity. The ’15 inaugural vintage had a nose of black fruits, nuts and spices. On the palate, the volume was very high, with rich, dense, ripe fruit, velvety texture, but a fresh finish. For a four year-old wine, it’s both mature and young, with years ahead of it. If this wine were music, it would be a composition by Gustav Mahler, with both power and finesse. Retail: $95.00.
***»****Linden Vineyards Hardscrabble (Meritage-style blend) 2017 60% Cabernet Sauvignon. Tasted from a barrel sample in mid-2019, released 8/19. Nose: red cassis, subtle herbal tea and tobacco notes. Palate: firm, solid tannins and bright red fruits, great structure, but also finesse, balance and all the spice of oak without too much heaviness on the texture. Young but elegant and integrated, with classic Bordeaux/Haut Medoc hallmarks, you could drink it now (***) but I recommend cellaring it until it’s at least 10 years old, when it will evolve more complexity (****).
****Linden Hardscrabble Chardonnay 2015, VA: Nose: subtle but complex Burgundian hints, slight oxidation and lots of lemon/lime with a hint of cream and vanilla. Palate: layered Burgundian texture and flavors; crusty limestone and lemons. Vibrant, young, needs time, reminds me of a “petit” version of Corton Charlemagne only not quite as intense. Still needs 3+ years, top quality.
***»****RdV Rendezvous 2017 Meritage-style blend (from barrel sample. 60% Merlot). Nose: bright, tight red fruits, some herbs but very concentrated. Palate: vivid ripe red fruits, taut acidity, ripe firm tannins, young and concentrated, zesty and intense, fruit-driven. Will improve with cellaring but could be enjoyed with decanting by next fall.
***»****RdV Lost Mountain 2017 Meritage-style blend (from barrel sample, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon had a nose that was more closed than the Rendezvous, with ripe cassis and black fruits, and a hint of smoke. The palate was full-bodied, spicy and lively with black and red fruits, ripe tannins, and only moderate alcohol. Oak was evident but only as a textural element, with no actual flavors of vanilla etc. Classically Cabernet and stylish.
***Barboursville Vineyards Octagon 2017 (tank sample). Nose: scented briar fruits, cherries. Strong purple fruit and garden herbs, oak and lavender. Palate: solid ripe black fruits, lots of flavor, good grip, oak fruit and tannins in fine balance, forward and juicy, well-balanced, empty glass is fragrantly scented.
***»****Barboursville Vineyards White Reserve 2018 (barrel sample). In 2018 they fermented four barrels of Viognier separately and blended with Falaghnina and Vermentino, classic Italian white grapes, in 600 gallon neutral Austrian oak, and aged the wine very slowly. The blend is 80% Viognier, 14% Vermentino, 6% Falaghnina. It will age at least one year in wood, another six months in stainless. Nose: complex, with prickly pear, pineapple, and orange blossom hints, and orange citrus fruits like kumquat with hints of yeast. Palate: wow! Tightly knit, firm acidity, racy and focused, lots of orange citrus fruits like tangerine and kumquat, reminiscent of a fine Riesling with lingering orange, peach and apricot notes. Stylish, original and promising.
***King Family 2016 Mountain Plains, Monticello This wine, which earlier won a spot in the 2019 Governor’s Case (the top twelve wines in the Governor’s Cup Competition), is a blend of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes. I was reminded of a high-end California Zinfandel such as the Ridge Geyserville by this wine. On the nose it was full of ripe black briar fruits and oak and spice, but was integrated, with ripe fruits, rich and smooth tannins on the palate, with a long finish.
***Fox Run Vineyards Reserve Riesling 2008 (Seneca Lake, New York AVA). Color: medium gold. Nose: petrol and mineral at first, but then ripe, fruity red apple and yellow peach. Palate: forward, juicy ripe apple and peach, matched with brilliant fresh acidity. Vibrant and youthful and a perfect balance of ripe fruit with firm acidity. Alcohol 13%, proving you can ripen Riesling to almost 24 Brix, ferment dry, and still have a perfectly balanced wine that can age. Worth waiting for but could also have been enjoyed young.
***Chateau Grand Traverse Botrytis Riesling 2007, Old Mission Peninsula AVA, Michigan. These grapes were picked at 30 Brix (very high) but the wine was fermented to 13.5%, leaving 7.4% residual sugar. Color: medium gold. Nose: vivid dried apricots. Palate: first, dried apricots, then ripe, juicy/bursting yellow peach, then, vivid balancing acidity, with a fresh finish. As with the Fox Run Reserve, the decision to ferment to 13.5% alcohol gave a balanced wine. This has intensity of fruit balanced with acidity, but the higher alcohol means a reasonable residual sugar level that you can match with a pear tart (as I did) or with a ripe cheese, and at 12 years of age, everything is in balance. Nice glycerol viscosity on the palate but acidity balances; resembles a Tokaij Aszu in texture.
***Keswick Vineyards Signature Reserve Cabernet Franc 2017: (tasted decanted). Nose: deep ripe varietally true fruit, black cherries and exotic baking spices, then oak–hints of vanilla, almond and spice but in the background. Palate: mouth-filling but still has the fresh crisp finish typical of the variety on the finish. Young, but lots of finesse, excellent integration of ripe fruit, tannin, oak and drinks so elegantly for a “large” style red! For an as-yet unreleased reserve, tops.
***Horton Vineyards Syrah Barrel Select 2016
Color: vivid crimson. Nose: vibrant ripe red cherry, with smoke and pepper notes. Palate: concentrated and intense; red cherries, smoke and a clean gamey note. Vibrant fruit/acid balance and vivid varietal flavor, all fruit-driven (despite the “barrel select”). A must for any Rhone/Syrah fan, and the first Syrah from the East that I can really believe in. Also, I like the moderate (12%) alcohol. Even at three years old, it should be decanted before drinking, and probably best cellared another 2-3 years. $45.00 at the winery only.
***Michael Shaps Cabernet Franc 2010, Monticello, VA. I opened the, on Dec. 7th, and was glad I’d waited this long. The wine was mature but still holding well, and demonstrated what can be done with high quality Cabernet Franc fruit in a great vintage.The color was deep ruby going into garnet . The nose had dried red cherry and plum aromas with flinty pencil lead hints, together with baking spices. Palate: the wine is full-bodied but beautifully balanced between ripe fruit, spicy oak and tannin/acid, and all is well-integrated, with a pleasing crisp finish typical of the varietal. Fans of Cabernet Franc and Virginia wine will find this a great example of what can be done with the varietal in a fine vintage.
***Moss Vineyards “Architectura” 2014 Monticello, VA HUGE volume, depth, very clean, long black fruits, smooth mature tannins, very fresh clean finish. Drinks like the Dvorak cello concerto.
***Cardinal Point Petit Verdot 2017, Monticello, VA. The nose shows violets and black briar fruits, strawberries and black raspberries. On the palate, flavors of wild strawberry and black raspberry are offset by lively, fresh acidity on the finish.
***Stinson Vineyards Meritage Estate 2014, Monticello, VA. (mostly Merlot); aromas of dried flowers and cherries, and flavors of fresh cherry and spice flavors with a chocolate-cherry finish.
**»***King Family ‘17 Meritage, Monticello, VA (tasted from a barrel sample in early 2019) showed an impressive integration, spice and red and black fruits on the nose. On the palate, bright red and black fruits are followed by loads of spice and fresh acidity on the finish. For fans of this wine, you’ll have to wait until the ’18 vintage is released in spring of 2020 before the ’17 Meritage will be released.
*** King Family Meritage Whole Cluster ’17, Monticello, VA of Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Merlot (barrel sample). The color is dark ruby. Nose: dried garden herbs, then aromas of red and black fruits. On the palate, flavors of blueberry, alcohol a bit high, then wild brambleberry fruits. Yes! Wait until it’s released…
***Early Mountain Eluvium 2017, 71% Merlot, 25% Petit Verdot and just 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. The old vine Quaker Run Merlot is the backbone. Nose: amazing concentration of dark Merlot fruits, fragrant floral/herb notes from Petit Verdot, and rich, bright, explosive dark fruits, herbs, licorice and violets on the palate; a keeper!
***Glass House Cabernet Franc 2017 I tasted was so good I featured it in a seminar at the Society for Wine Educators on benchmark Virginia wines. The Cabernet Franc is aged in large 1400 liter neutral oak to keep the delicate varietal fruit fresh The nose was subtle, with scented cherries with a rich, viscous palate and plump velvety tannins.
***Glass House Tannat Honah Lee Vineyard 2017 had a nose of fresh graphite and black fruits, and on the palate, huge ripe smooth tannins and a plush texture; will last for years.
Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir, 2017-19
The infant ’19 barrel sample was amazingly fresh and vibrant, with wild briar fruits with sage and rosemary herbs. On the palate, it was lively with ripe tannins and plump fresh cherry and strawberry fruit, with excellent fruit/acid balance. **>***
The ’18 barrel sample was the most forward and hedonistic; everyone agreed this is what they’d prefer to drink now, despite the lousy reputation of the vintage. Christine explained that their site avoided a lot of rain that others got, and since Pinot Noir ripens early, they brought it in before the fall rains. The nose had very bright maraschino cherry notes at first, then cherry and strawberry plus exotic baking spices. On the palate, it was fresh, clean and elegant; great quality for the vintage, with a pleasing mocha finish. **>***
The (bottled) ’17 Pinot Noir had a fruity, juicy cherry/berry aroma, with fine fruit/acid balance on the palate, zesty tingling acidity and firm black cherry flavors with a crisp texture. This wine was fermented with 10% whole clusters, to add tannin and complexity. **>***
***,Rosemont 2017 Kilravock, VA, their signature red blend, is 58% Cabernet Franc with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Tannat; only 200-300 case production. The nose was complex, with loads of black fruits and smoke, earth and a hint of oak. On the palate, a definite “wow” factor; loads of black fruits, fine balancing acidity and tannin, and a bit of minty herb spice. Young but promising.
**Hermit Woods Strawberry Rhubarb NH, NV.This is a brilliant blend of sexy, fresh juicy strawberry with the racy acidity of a Finger Lakes riesling, thanks to the rhubarb. Even though it’s just off-dry, it drinks clean and fresh, and can pair well with goat cheese or the things you’d have with dry rose. Vibrant, fresh and zesty; how does strawberry wine get better than this? This could be called the “Glen Miller” of fruit wine, if you get my drift….
**Afton Mountain Vineyards 2014 Petit Verdot Estate Reserve, Monticello. The name is appropriate, because the wine (from a fine, balanced vintage) was aged in oak for two years, then in the bottle for two years; as with fine reserve red wines in Europe. The nose reminds me of the Geyserville field blend by Ridge; mostly Zinfandel (74%) with Rhone and Mediterranean varieties making up the rest and providing needed tannin. There was a bouquet of ripe black fruits, herbs, violets and new American oak. On the palate, there were more solid ripe black fruits, firm tannins, and vanilla, with a long lingering finish. It’s still a young wine at five years, a great varietal example of a reserve style with Petit Verdot in a good vintage.
**Pollak Meritage 2015 Monticello (45% Cab Franc, 40% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot). Varietal lots fermented and aged for 12 months separately then blended. Nose: mature, pretty with dried red fruits, smoke, autumnal forest floor. Palate: sandlewood, dried flowers and red fruits, forest floor. Stylish, ready to drink.
**Pollak Petit Verdot ’15 Petit Verdot Monticello had a nose still a bit closed with hints of ripe black fruits, no obvious oak. Palate: fruit-driven, solid black fruits, silky texture, well-balanced, ready to drink.
**Montezuma Reserve Dry Riesling 2018: The nose is mostly still closed but clean. Palate: dry, with lemon/citrus and mineral notes. Dense, rich texture (2-3 months in neutral French oak,some lees used to top up barrels). Great balance, finesse and length.
**Silver Thread Vineyards Blackbird STV Estate 2016 Finger Lakes, NY: (33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 66% Cabernet Franc, 1% Merlot). Nose: lovely fruit-forward scented, floral varietal fruit plus smoky earth undertones. Palate: vibrant acidity, loads of bright red cherry, strawberry, fresh ripe tannins, but wonderful fragrant red fruits.
***Boundary Breaks Riesling Icewine 2018 Finger Lakes, NY (18.7% R.S.) This is legal icewine, picked frozen on the vine at 15° F. Nose: WOW! Impressed with the freshness, delicacy and finesse. Aromas of fresh apricot and nectarines. Palate: rich, juicy, LOADS of ripe tropical fruit, acidity shows only on the finish, just hedonistic and sexy as hell, but also elegant. Drinks like the Chopin nocturne in E flat.
Wines from Domaine LeSeurre, Keuka Lake, NY
**Riesling “Terroir d’ Excellence 2017: Grapes all from one 1971-planted vineyard. Nose: bright smoky shale with a hint of brine; intriguing and terroir-driven. Palate: Wow: chewy but zesty lime/shale, smoke, round, flavors of green and yellow apple. Great finesse and integration, also fine match with food. The lees were stirred once per month. Can age but drinks well now.
**Chardonnay Barrel 02 2015: Nose: mature spice/nutmeg, still rich pear/apple and cream. Palate: Wow; rich, huge volume, fresh finish. A very stylish Meursault-like wine from a single barrel.
**Pinot Noir 2016: only made in superior vintages, 22 months in French oak, three week skin contact. Nose: wow—fresh bright red cherries. Palate: the same flavors, with firm bright acidity. A fine Finger Lakes interpretation.
**Cabernet Franc Barrel Select 2015: 20 days skin contact, picked with an eye to ripe seeds, 22 months in oak. Nose: fragrant red and black cherries scented with baking spices. Palate: rich, round texture, solid cherry flavors, ripe tannins, very stylish and fine varietal style.
***Late Harvest Riesling 2017: picked 12/20. Nose: loads of passion fruit and grapefruit. Palate: Wow! Such finesse and integration; fruit-driven passion fruit and apricot melts on the tongue, outstanding fruit/acid balance. Will age but yummy now; makes me think of things that couldn’t be printed in detail.
Wines from Weis Vineyard, Keuka Lake, NY
**Winzer Select A 2018 Riesling : (“A” is for Auslese or selectively picked). Nose: elegant Middle Mosel floral/peach and apple notes. Palate: juicy, ripe peach/apricot, zesty and classic Mosel-style Auslese (9.5% alcohol, residual sugar 6.4%)
**Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Nose: fresh, clean black cassis Palate: Wow! Classy, fruit-driven, ripe tannins, lively finish. Impressive for Finger Lakes.
***Riesling Icewine 2017: A natural icewine from frozen-picked grapes. Nose: crème brulee, apricot marmalade, nutmeg and peach. Palate: layered peach, apricot, crème brulee, weighty and juicy with a fresh finish, not coarse. Great balance and finesse.
**White Pine Winery Reserve Riesling 2017, MI (semi-dry) Nose: WOW! Ripe peach and apricot. Palate: zesty ripe peach and apricot with great fruit/acid balance; juicy and fresh! Very hedonistic.
**White Pine Winery Lady Slipper 2017 (dry Chambourcin rosé). Color: vivid dark pink. Nose: a party! Fresh cherry and strawberry! Palate: fresh, vibrant, clean, white/red cherry, watermelon, PERFECT summer sipping or food dry rosé.
**Tabor Hill Pinot Noir 2017 Lake Michigan Shore: Nose: baking spices, black cherry and forest floor. Palate: chewy, solid black cherry fruit, a big volume, firm tannins, great fruit/acid balance, crisp fresh finish. Impressive.
**Hickory Creek Winery Chambourcin 2017 Lake Michigan Shore: Nose: lifted plum and blackberry aromas. Palate: rich, spicy black fruits, more spice and concentration “like Syrah” says Adam; a serious, brooding full-bodied Chambourcin that has and handles new French oak; to me it drank like a cool region (Mendocino?) Zinfandel. He says it’s his most popular wine.
** Hickory Creek Winery Merlot 2017 Lake Michigan Shore: Bright medium garnet color. Nose: fragrant red and black fruits, mostly cherries. Palate: VERY lively red cherries, bursting with flavor and acidity, exceptional fruit/acid balance, fresh clean finish.
**Lemon Creek Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz Lake Michigan Shore 2017: (60% C.S., 40% Shiraz). Nose: Wow; big New World style of ripe black fruits; spicy black cherry and black cassis; a party in a glass! Palate: Peppery! Big, juicy dry, spicy, bold, but not over-oaked (Jeff used 1 new barrel for each grape). A double gold medal winner.
** Dablon Vineyards Pinot Noir Rosé 2017 Lake Michigan Shore 18-hour skin contact, nice med. dark garnet. Nose a: fresh watermelon and strawberry, bright fresh fruit. Palate: dry, bright, vibrant, intense strawberry and red cherry, a food rosé, classy!
**Dablon Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 Lake Michigan Shore: Nice dark garnet color. Nose: a “Left Bank” style of cassis, black fruits and leafy herbal notes. Palate: juicy! Smooth and vibrant cassis, red/black cherry, with nice concentration and ripe tannins, lively zesty finish like a Mozart piano piece. Stylish.
**Dablon Vineyards Syrah 2016 Lake Michigan Shore: Dark garnet color. Nose: brilliant northern Rhone-style: gamey, bacon, white pepper and spicy red cherry. Palate: dry, vibrant with white pepper red cherry and lively fresh finish. Clean and impressive New World interpretation of an Old-World classic.
** Free Run Pinot Meunier Dry Rosé Lake Michigan Shore: Bright watermelon color. Nose: a party! Red cherries, strawberries, watermelon, cranberries and a hint of smoke. Palate: juicy watermelon, strawberry and cherry with bright lively acidity; a winner and a fun way to showcase this overlooked non-tannic red grape.
**Free Run Meritage 2017 Lake Michigan Shore: (mostly Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot, some Cab. Sauv.) Dark ruby color. Nose: large volume; lots of black fruits, some new oak, spice. Palate: Large! Chewy tannins, cherry/chocolate, fresh finish. Stylish!
**Horton Vineyards “Gears & Lace” Pinotage Rosé 2018, Virginia: The color is pretty dark, crimson for a rosé.The nose: very intriguing and full of fun stuff! It’s like a dark rose from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, juicy and smoky as if made from southern Rhone grapes, or a blend of Tannat and Carignane. The aromas resolve into roses, and a riot of red fruits: plums, cherries, strawberries and some rhubarb.Palate: dry but rich (13.5%), round and full-bodied, this rose is juicy and if it were on an online dating site, would be described as “curvy”, even voluptuous, bursting with red fruit flavors (mostly strawberry), and a long finish. This wine is as subtle as Aretha Franklin singing “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, but in the best way.
**Veritas Vineyards Viognier 2018, Monticello, VA. Nose: lovely white flowers, bass notes from new acacia barrel. Palate: great integration and finesse, clean, bright floral and fresh apricot notes.
**Veritas Vineyards Petit Verdot 2017, Monticello, VA (barrel sample). Nose: closed, but hints of blackberry/mocha. Palate: wow—purple velvet, violets, plush, with smooth tannins. Will be a winner when bottled and mature.
**Veritas Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Franc 2017, Monticello, VA: (barrel sample). Darker color than ususal for the variety. Nose: gently spicy, dark cherry fruit. Palate: finesse of texture, like it’s silk: flavors of spices, dried cherries, with great integration. Good now, will improve with bottling and aging.
**King Family Petit Verdot 2017, Monticello, VA (barrel sample). Color and aromas both lovely dark purple. On the palate, smooth black fruits and rich ripe tannins; juicy, even though they call it “Our fullest bodied and most robust red wine.”
**Early Mountain ’17 Quaker Run Chardonnay has aromas of green apple, mineral and complex yeast notes. On the palate, it is viscous, round, and rich; even with full malolactic fermentation it still finishes clean and fresh. The texture is rich and impressive.
** Glass House Barbera 2017 had lovely, fresh roses, cherries and spice on the nose, with scented red cherries and some smoke on the palate.
**Chisholm Vineyards/Adventure Farm Tannat 2015 Monticello: Nose: crushed rose petals and shale, blackberries and black cherries. Palate: lovely finesse, velvety texture, clean earth notes and fresh meat. Concentrated, still young, needs at least another year.
Rating Scale: ** = very good, *** = exceptional **** = outstanding, world-class