On a nasty, rainy Saturday (5/21) I met Lindsey Parris, a fellow judge in the Virginia Wine Governor’s Cup contest (and student in the Master of Wine program) to check out a couple of wineries we thought might be off the beaten path. Given the weather and the month of May, I thought a lot of Northern Virginia outdoorsy professionals would probably opt to find a cozy winery and get—well, even more cozy with some wine, and who could blame them? I wanted to find as few of them as possible.
Our first stop was Stone Tower Winery which only opened last Labor Day, but which made a grand entrance on the Virginia wine scene (as did Muse Vineyards last year) by placing one of their wines in the Governor’s Case this year; the 2013 meritage-style Left Bank blend Hogback Mountain (69% cabernet sauvignon, 24% merlot, the balance cabernet franc and petit verdot). I wrote about this stylish New World Bordeaux blend back in February after the awards ceremony for the Cup, so was pleased to have the chance to explore the new winery and taste their wines. They have nearly 300 acres of property west of Rt. 15 south of Leesburg, 60 of which are now planted to winegrapes (mostly red Bordeaux varieties, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc and semillon).
Wine cellar at Stone Tower
It was interesting to note that they had two tasting room options; a “family”-style option, and an “adults only” option. When we got to the latter, however, we wished they had added a “limo tour for bachelorettes” option in a separate building (for the record, co-founder Kristi Huber says they discourage these types of groups).
Mike and Kristi Huber own a furniture business and have an admirable esthetic for wood décor throughout the ample set of public rooms (private upstairs function room with outdoor fireplace and patio overlooking the vineyards, private function room for weddings and such opening off the cellar to curved panorama of the vineyards to the east, and high-vaulted tasting room with sycamore beams from the estate used in the bar surface). Tuscan arches gracefully frame the entrances in the cellar, and an exotic touch is the use of centuries-old double doors from northern China which add mystic and an air of the exotic.
Aside from the wine, I was most impressed with the way the cellar was outfitted (I could say “hung” but you might get the wrong idea). My eyes were bulging at the sight of 45 hectoliter (45,000 liter) upright oak tanks, with a concrete egg tank in the middle on one side of the winery, with tapered conical stainless tanks (as at RdV Cellars) on the other side. This demonstrates a deep understanding of the influence of processing tools on wine quality as well as the willingness to put one’s money where their aspirations are.
If there are any actual winemakers/cellar rats reading this, here’s something geeky to rock your world: twin slot drains just under the tank valves on either side of the cellar with a gently sloped convex concrete floor in the middle (for the rest of you, except microbiologists, don’t worry about it). The only time I’ve seen a winery floor as clean and dry in the East was at the Premium Wine Guild on Long Island.
If I need to impress you further, let me just say that the Hubers hire Lucie Morton as their viticulturist.
So, you might wonder, what’s beyond all this prelude?
Well, aside from the fact that their first commercial release (2013) placed in the Governor’s Case this year, in a very competitive category, let’s get into tasting notes. Kristi Huber and her daughter Lacy graciously invited me and Lindsey to taste their wine club’s horizontal tasting of 2015 chardonnay and viognier from the barrel, as well as the 2013 Hogback Mountain (Left Bank, cab. sauv.-dominated blend) and the equally worthwhile Right Bank, merlot-dominated Windswept Hill.
Stone Tower 2015 Chardonnay (barrel sample): at this point the wine is still on the fine lees. Nose: ripe apple and pear with mineral notes (1 year old oak). Palate: lovely supple texture, fine earth/mineral tones on the finish. Clean and rich yet elegant. Reminiscent of Pouilly-Fuisse but clean. This is a chardonnay that can please connoisseurs and neophytes alike and that’s a tough act.
Stone Tower 2015 Viognier (barrel sample): Nose: suble but nice varietal notes of white peach and white flowers. Palate: lovely rich round texture, fresh ripe pear, peach and floral flavors, elegant smooth lees notes.
Stone Tower Wind Swept Hill 2013: 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. Wine of the Week #1
Stone Tower Hogback Mountain 2013: 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.
After our most satisfactory visit to Stone Tower, we tried to taste wines at Zephaniah nearby, but we might as well have been invisible; tables were full of people in the middle of tasting wines, but nobody even looked at us, so we decided to leave after several minutes and made it in time to
Willowcroft Vineyards: where a banner proudly reminds you that this is Loudoun County’s oldest winery. Refreshingly for contrast, the winery is still located in a barn as it was in the beginning. While most of the wines are the same labels as have been made for years, proprietor Lew Parker has kept apace with technical developments in Virginia and the wines are all even better than they had been in the past. There are even some new additions, namely two (!) different albariños and varietal traminette, petit verdot and petit manseng.
Willowcroft was one of the first wineries in the state to feature contrasting styles of chardonnay, a regular and a reserve, as well as a varietal seyval blanc. These are all still available, but the seyval has improved, resembling what you see from Rappahannock Cellars or Lovingston Vineyards. The contrast between the Cold Steel Chardonnay and the Reserve Chardonnay is clear, but the reserve is more elegant and restrained than in the past. The cool 2014 vintage gave lively fresh crisp cabernet franc and merlot, but the riper 2013 vintage gave an exquisite Bordeaux-style blend called “Assemblage.”
Seyval 2014: nose of bright lemon zest with apple, a Loire-style wine. Palate: same citrus flavors, high acid and lemon zest with cool clear riesling-like pear and apple flavors. Stylish.
Cold Steel Chardonnay 2014: resembles a “petit Chablis” in Burgundy: lemon and mineral notes on the nose. On the palate, fresh and bright, a good example of the Chablis style of chardonnay.
Chardonnay Reserve 2014: Nose: subtle, no big butter/malolactic going on. Palate: round, rich and smooth, but elegantly balanced. Perhaps some malolactic notes but very well integrated balancing richness and acidity.
Albariño 2014: Nose: white peaches and flinty minerality. Palate: passion fruit and peach, vibrant acidity, stylish.
Albariño Reserve 2014: This wine had careful, strategic oak aging. Nose: white peaches, without the racy minerality of the unoaked version. Palate: HUGE nectarine/peach flavor and fleshiness, with a plump texture that makes up for the lack of edgy acidity; rare and stylish.
Traminette 2014: Nose: vibrant spicy rose/lychee and peach notes. Palate: drier than the nose suggests. Firm acidity balances peachy fruit with a crisp finish that has a nice touch of bitterness balancing the fruitiness. Versatile, juicy but dry.
Petit Manseng 2014: Nose: subtle spicy tropical fruit. Palate: juicy, spicy, much more lively and ripe than the nose suggests with pineapple, mango and peach flavors and firm acid balancing the modest residual sugar (2%) to make this stylish and versatile, seemingly almost dry.
Cabernet Franc 2014: Nose: leafy herbal tones, reminiscent of Loire Valley cabernet franc, plus red cherry. Palate: vibrant acid and fruit/acid balance, bright red cherry flavors, a fine varietal Loire style, good for Virginia in a cool vintage and good for summertime drinking.
Petit Verdot 2014: Nose: gentle subtle plum, some violets and herbs. Palate: smooth tannins but vibrant fresh plum, cherry and spice. Only 12.4% alc. Fresh and stylish, good with red meat on a rainy summer’s night.
Merlot 2013: Nose: scented red fruits and herbs. Palate: juicy but elegant, nice red fruits and spice.
Wine of the Week #2: Willowcroft Assemblage 2013: (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!
Wine of the Week #3: Gray Ghost Petit Verdot 2013 (Fauquier Co.)
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.