May 15th was an ideal day to do most anything outdoors. Near Charlottesville, it was an ideal day to avoid the crowds near the University and visit wineries, especially since the CDC had OK’d not wearing masks when in groups outdoors. Wineries were serving outdoors (flights, bottles and glasses), with ample tables and umbrellas. Everyone was happy to be tasting wine in the lovely Albemarle countryside and not having to wear masks doing it.
The Appellation Trail
Cleverly named for being near the Appalachian Trail, this is a group of wineries in northwestern Albemarle County where the views are lovely and the cool sites grow grapes with fresh acidity. I decided to go “wiking” (hiking, then wine tasting) at a few of these wineries, eager to try 2020 whites and 2019 reds.
Behind the right-angle right turn of Rt. 810 in White Hall is Stinson Vineyards, a small family vineyard and winery (father Scott is the vineyard manager; daughter Rachel is the winemaker). Highlights:
- **+Stinson Chardonnay ’17:
It’s unusual to find a Chardonnay with this much age as a current release, but Scott’s inspiration is white Burgundy, so the wine is aged in neutral French oak and then matured in bottle. The naturally high acidity of the grapes (cool site) combined with restrained and elegant winemaking shows what’s possible with Chardonnay in Virginia. Nose: subtle, notes of lemon and custard. Palate: mature and round texture, well-integrated lemon and pear flavors, nice malolactic creaminess, fresh finish. A stylish French interpretation.
- ***Stinson Tannat Rose’ ’20
very pale color. Nose: racy minerality, like a “pink” Loire Sauvignon Blanc with a hint of cherry blossom. Palate: bright, vivid red cherry flavors, fresh with round texture, acidity balanced by smooth red cherry fruit. Stylish, original and elegant!
- ***Stinson Cabernet Franc ’19:
Nose: vividly fresh fruit typical of the vintage, red cherry with nice oak spice notes in the background. Palate: solid black fruits followed by firm tannins. Still young, nice fruit/oak integration. A large style, full-bodied and flavorful. Hold until this fall, but can drink over the rest of this decade (see my previous entry on Childress Cabernet Franc 2004 as the “Wine of the Week.”) Stylish, a fine local interpretation of this grape that does so well in the East.
White Hall Vineyards
Just about a mile to the north on Rt. 810 (a quarter mile on that road and then the rest on Breakheart Road on the left) is White Hall Vineyards, the oldest winery on the Appellation Trail (est. 1994). Another small family winery owned by Tony and Edie Champ and run by daughter Lisa, White Hall was one of the first Virginia wineries to bottle a varietal Cabernet Franc (and package it in a Loire Valley-style bottle).
I was also pleased to see their prices still remain among the most reasonable in the state for wine quality ($22 for Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, and $15 for rose’). Plus, they give a 10% discount incentive for three bottles or more. These two were the only ones I tasted for the sake of sobriety.
- **+White Hall Vineyards Cabernet Franc ’17:
The fine 2017 vintage is getting scarce and being distracted by the pandemic, I overlooked stocking up until recently, so I was glad to find this wine, and to find that it not only represents the vintage well, but is much the same style White Hall has had since they began. Nose: black cherry with some vanilla and even mocha notes, with clean earth hints. Palate: fresh, lively black cherry flavors with mineral/earth hints, fruit-driven with a fresh clean finish. A classic Virginia interpretation of this grape in the Loire Valley style.
- ***+White Hall Vineyards Petit Verdot ’19:
Color very dark. Nose: vibrant briar fruits like a lower alcohol Zinfandel. Floral notes like briar rose. Palate: zesty, fresh, vivid bright briar fruits, ripe but smooth tannins, a cooler climate style, fruit-driven. Still young, this will drink well while young. Very stylish in the White Hall way of fresh, fruit-forward wines.
Hark Vineyards is the newest winery on the Appellation Trail. Caroline and Aaron Hark moved to the area in 2005, and ten years later found their ideal site to start their vineyard and winery operation, at the intersection of Davis Shop and Markwood Roads in Earlysville. They planted their first vines in 2016, got their first small crop in 2017, and completed their winery production building in 2019. Industry veteran Jake Busching is their winemaker and they offer a few of his own-label wines as well as the Hark label. Highlights:
- **Hark Vineyards Virginia Verde ’20:
Made with Vidal blanc, this is a fresh and skillfully made interpretation of Vinho Verde in Virginia. Nose: light, with mineral and lime notes. Palate: zesty, fresh with lively lemon/lime flavors, very true to the model, refreshing and vibrant.
- **Jake Busching Rose’ ’20 (50% Cabernet Franc, 38% Merlot, 12% Malbec).
Pale color and still-closed nose. Palate: pink grapefruit, zesty acidity, vibrant and fresh, a great summertime aperitif. Young, best to wait until July for it to come together, then enjoy when it’s hot! This will be even better in a year’s time.
- **+Hark Vineyards Chardonnay ’18:
I’m generally not a fan of the poor 2018 vintage but this Chardonnay was surprisingly good. Nose: clean, hints of light oak, vanilla and pear. Palate: round, with lemon and pear flavors, firm acidity but balanced by lees contact. Needs time to integrate; another year would be ideal, but promising.
- ***Hark Vineyards Spark ’17 (57% Cabernet Franc, 29% Merlot, 14% Petit Verdot). Nose: elegant red and black fruits, clean earth and a hint of vanilla/spice, good expression of the vintage. Palate: vibrant briar fruits, black cherry, ripe smooth tannins, deep black fruits with spice tones and a fresh finish. Stylish and skillfully blended. Drink now or hold the next five or more years. Will be better by next winter.
- ***Hark Vineyards Petit Verdot ’17:
Nose: subdued hints of briar fruit. Palate: lovely concentrated ripe briar fruits, smooth and ripe tannins with a hint of oak and spice. Young, needs time but stylish and promising.
- ***Jake Busching “FB” ’16 (50/50 Tannat/Petit Verdot):
Nose: nice blend of spice and black fruits, still fairly closed and needs time. Palate: smooth, well-knit black fruits and ripe tannins. Best in 2-3 years time. Elegant, worth waiting for.
- ****Hark Vineyards Cabernet Franc ’19:
Nose: fragrantly fruity, typical of the vintage. with raspberry and red cherry notes, almost has the intensity of a Petit Verdot. Palate: like a mixed berry compote, juicy and smooth, like a cool-climate Zinfandel, and ripe smooth tannins with a hint of spice. The label states that the wine was aged in 100% neutral oak. A fine expression both of the vintage and this Northern Albemarle vineyard.
Rating scale: * = good, ** = very good, *** = impressive, **** = outstanding.