This fall I’ve been around Virginia, visiting wineries and moderating a seminar on the future of Virginia wine at the American Wine Society conference, and showing Decanter columnist Andrew Jefford around the Monticello wineries at harvest. I even made wine with generously donated grapes or juice.
Vintage Report: 2015
A wet cool spring brought fungal disease pressure but by mid-summer the weather dried out and the whites and a few early reds that were picked before Hurricane Joaquin were in very good condition. The deluge from the hurricane meant some reds were picked a little early but fruit was clean. Late-ripening petit verdot and tannat that could hang was left to ripen in a dry fall. Quality will be variable in the cabernet franc and merlot that didn’t get picked before the rain or was under-ripe if picked beforehand, but overall it should be a good vintage especially for whites and late reds.
The star grape of the vintage was viognier, which for the last two vintages was way under on its crop levels. This year, the vines made up for lost time and there was a bumper crop statewide, which was harvested in nice dry weather. One winery even had an “extra” 8 tons they had to find a buyer for when they harvested it.
Vintage Report: 2014
It’s been rewarding to taste the new 2014 wines. The whites are fresh, bright and lively, with lots of fruit character. I mis-judged a chardonnay once thinking it had to be a riesling! Also, the reds, especially cabernet franc, will have that same lively fresh and fruity character. You can enjoy them soon after release, while waiting for the 2013 reds to mature. One of my favorite 2014 Virginia wines was the viognier from Michael Shaps Wineworks which I tasted in early March (!) when it won Best White Wine in the Monticello Wine Competition. This was a delicate, unoaked version pear, white blossoms and white peach on the nose and palate, and with fresh lively acidity.
Decanter Columnist Andrew Jefford Visits, Blogs On Virginia Wines
In early November Andrew Jefford visited Virginia on a trip set up by the Wine Marketing Office to catch up on the industry and see what (and who) was hot. Jefford attended the “Virginia Wine Experience in London”, a landmark tasting in Vinopolis for the trade and media in May 2007, and wrote about the wines in the Financial Times on September 1st of that year. He visited wineries in Loudoun and Fauquier before coming to the Charlottesville area.
Mini-Vertical Tastings at Barboursville and the 2014 Vermentino
We began with General Manager Luca Paschina at Barboursville Vineyards. Luca had set up some interesting comparative tastings with mini-vertical pairings. We contrasted a ripe and complex, but well-balanced 2010 viognier with a lean, fresh and riesling-like 2013 viognier, a classic Loire-style 2013 cabernet franc with a rich, ripe and solid 2007 cabernet franc. Nebbiolo 2012 was contrasted with 2010 (both with classic roses and earth but the 2010 with massive tannins, still young), then Octagon 2012 also contrasted with the 2010. While the 2012 is elegant it’s a bit backward and needs time, while the opulent, ripe 2010 has huge red and black fruits and tannin on the palate; rich and unctuous, a real keeper. The rich but mature, complex Malvaxia 2008 was paired with a fat, broad and round Paxito 2010.
Luca wanted to show how vintage variation expresses in the wines, but each example was also fine in its own right. At lunch at Palladio, my all-around favorite was the 2014 vermentino. This grape is native to Sardinia and favors Virginia’s climate. The nose showed bright citrus and passion fruit, while on the palate, it was round and juicy with fine fruit/acid balance and elegant minerality in the finish. This is like a pinot grigio made by Lamborghini; there’s more “there” there, and a lot more style, but still in a fresh, food-friendly white.
King Family Vineyards
We met winemaker Matthieu Finot at the new winery facility, with impressive equipment including conical concrete fermentation tanks. He took us out to the vineyard where we found everything picked except for the petit manseng which was hanging plentiful and clean, with no visible fungal damage from the recent Hurricane Joaquin. He explained he could hang these thick-skinned grapes as long as he liked (he was aiming for 27° brix) to concentrate the sugars for KFV dessert wine, “Lorelei”.
Back in the winery, he showed us a barrel with petit manseng grapes soaking on their skins, an unusual procedure for white grapes, but Matthieu is one of a small but dedicated group of petit manseng enthusiasts who are pushing the envelope to define styles for this grape in Virginia. One example of his experimentation is his use of acacia wood barrels, instead of oak, for aging petit manseng. Those in the industry who are intrigued are invited to come to the Eastern Winery Exposition on March 10th to the session titled “Oak and barrel alternatives”; Matthieu will pour samples of his wine with acacia used for both viognier and petit manseng.
We tasted some just-finished juice from the tanks in the winery, then went to the tasting room/barrel cellar. 2014 produced some excellent wines at King Family; the viognier was one of my favorite whites of 2015, and I also liked their cabernet franc of that vintage a lot. On the nose, the viognier had fresh apricot and peach nuances. The palate had an amazing texture (30% malolactic fermentation) that had HUGE fruit, was round and rich, with lots of peach, nectarine and a fresh finish. Winemaker Matthieu Finot says it’s his favorite viognier so far.
The 2014 KFV cabernet franc (both wines Monticello AVA) had a great nose with pure, clean blackberry and black cherry, with hints of pencil lead. The palate was juicy and clean, with lovely ripe mid-palate brambleberry fruit, and a crisp finish. Classic and fruit-driven.
The “vin paille” or “straw wine” made from late harvest petit manseng was original and intriguing. Half awas fermented in acacia (black locust) wood, the other half in oak. On the nose there was a gentle smoky minerality from the acacia wood, ripe pineapple from the petit manseng, and on the palate, crème brulee with lots of caramel and nutmeg, cinnamon and pineapple. A rich and complex wine but with fine acid and balance.
At nearby Veritas Vineyards, who have developed a reputation for viognier, I enjoyed the 2013 vintage, with juicy ripe peach flavors and firm acidity which, although still young, will hold awhile. At dinner with the Hodsons we were treated to the first cabernet franc reserve, a library selection from 2002. A hot, dry vintage was given more new oak than usual in the Veritas style, but the wine is still balanced between rich oak and loads of ripe cherry fruit finishing with fine spice notes. I was also taken with the 2010 petit verdot which had a touch of earthiness but was well-integrated into ripe black fruits and smooth, long tannins. This wine is still young and needs time but will reward patient cellaring.
Veritas winemaker Emily Pelton shows Decanter wine columnist Andrew Jefford one of her wines
Next we drove south on Rt. 29 and visited Lovingston Winery where winemaker Riaan Rossouw gave us a variety of samples of the 2015 seyval blanc that had just finished fermenting. The first (regular) had huge white grapefruit on the nose, then huge pink grapefruit on the palate with high acid. The carbonic maceration sample had a cider-like nose, and a palate of round, juicy apple flavors with much lower acid. The third sample from grapes dehydrated on the vine was like a blend of the first two, with citrus and apple notes and plump grapefruit. A fourth sample had this same third wine fermenting in new acacia wood. The nose had definite dark smokiness from the acacia, and the palate was rich, round and complex. It’s exciting to see a small craft winery putting so much experimentation and effort into a French hybrid grape.
We tasted the 2014 Lovingston wines, and Riaan explained that they are now doing a cooler fermentation that’s fresher and less extracted for reds, using all neutral oak. The 2014 Lovingston cabernet franc Monticello had a fresh cranberry and red cherry nose, with juicy, fresh red fruits on the palate and a lively fresh finish. Pinotage is a house specialty thanks to Riaan’s South African heritage, and the 2014 Lovingston pinotage had a nose of spicy red fruits with a Rhone-like smoky earth quality. On the palate the wine was syrah-like with ripe, smoky red cherries.
The Lovingston 2011 Josie’s Knoll merlot was especially impressive due to the difficulty of the vintage, and this was one of my favorite reds of 2015. The nose was fresh, clean, and lively. The palate was clean, with fresh red and black fruits; a fantastic job in a very challenging vintage.
We drove back towards Charlottesville, stopping at the Michael Shaps Wineworks to taste through current a few library wines with owner Michael Shaps. Another favorite wine of 2015 was his Wild Meadow Vineyard chardonnay 2008. Made from Dijon clone 96 planted in a vineyard in Loudoun County, the wine was fermented in 50% new French oak with partial malolactic fermentation. On the nose there was no obvious oak, but ripe pear and apple fruit. The palate was rich and dense with fine layered fruit and fine fresh acidity. Amazingly fresh and vibrant but complex. The 2013 vintage of the same wine (a similar style vintage) has the same traits in a younger wine, and it will improve another 5-6 years at least.
Another impressive library white was the Michael Shaps Wineworks 2009 Viognier. White peach notes on the nose were followed by peach and nectarine flavors on the palate, with long acid on the finish, making for a stylish and elegant wine.
Andrew Jefford is bullish on petit manseng and says the grape “could do for Virginia what sauvignon blanc did for New Zealand.” The (dry) Michael Shaps petit manseng Honah Lee Vineyard 2012 was barrel fermented in one third new oak. Shaps explains that barrel fermentation helps cut the impact of the grape’s high acidity. The nose has light but elegant pineapple notes; on the palate, bright tropical fruity and acid but even at 14% alcohol the wine works as a dry food wine, stylish and bright. The 2013 vintage was much the same.
A sample of the 2015 Shaps petit manseng was also impressive. On the nose, loads of pineapple and tropical fruit are followed by juicy, clean peach and pineapple fruit with vibrant acidity.
Moving to reds, we started with the Michael Shaps cabernet franc 2010 Monticello from the Carter’s Mountain vineyard. The nose was taut and lean. On the palate, the wine was tannic, with ripe black fruits, and a huge volume and depth. Needs until 2020.
Also from 2010, I liked the Michael Shaps Meritage, mostly merlot but containing all five red Bordeaux varieties. The nose had ripe black fruits with tobacco notes. The palate had ripe and juicy black fruits but fine acid with a bright finish; stylish.
My favorite Shaps red was the 2012 Michael Shaps tannat. The nose was clean but closed. The palate was surprisingly elegant for a varietal from a rustic grape, layered ripe and fine tannins, not harsh. This wine is rich and young needing time but will reward the patient. Cellar for another 3-5 years.
Following Wineworks, I visited Monticello with Mr. Jefford and then he continued his tour of Virginia wineries with Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office. To read his comments in Decanter in about Virginia wine based on this tour, visit
The American Wine Society Conference in Tyson’s Corner
In early November, the American Wine Society held its annual conference in Tyson’s Corner, Northern Virginia, close to a new Silver Line metro stop. Virginia wine was a major theme in the conference; the opening reception Thursday night was dominated by Virginia wine, and many attendees I spoke with told me how impressed they were with them. There were a number of seminar sessions on Virginia wine (this writer presented “The Future of Virginia Wine”), including one of the most fascinating sessions I’ve ever attended, which was “The Evolution of Site Selection in Virginia” given by winegrower Jim Law of Linden Vineyards.
Jim poured and discussed three whites and four reds, which shared common grape varieties but different vineyard sites. Although the word was not in the seminar title, it was to me a compelling illustration of the French concept of terroir, the idea of the synergy of grape variety, vineyard site, and climate.
Although the four chardonnay wines poured were from the same vintage and fermented/processed in the same way, they showed distinctly different styles which Jim characterized as the “Chablis style” (Avenius Vineyard), “Macon style” (Boisseau Vineyard) and “Puligny style” (Harscrabble Vineyard). One saw a similar pattern with the red Bordeaux wines from the same vineyards (2012 vintage) although they were made from a blend of grapes. Jim ascribed the different styles to the differing subsoils in each vineyard, all of which are within a few miles of each other.
Wines I presented at the “Future of Virginia Wine” seminar were: the Barrel Oak Winery 2014 estate chardonnay, Michael Shaps Wineworks 2014 rosé in a 3L Bag-in-Box format, all from red Bordeaux grapes and costing under $10/750ml), the Muse Vineyards 2010 Clio Meritage, Shenandoah Valley (see “Favorite wines of 2015”), and the dry norton port Dry Dock 2012, Bluestone Vineyards.
Tasting Notes from Fauquier County
Following the AWS conference, I drove west and visited Linden Vineyards and neighboring wineries. At Linden, I was fortunate to walk in as Jim Law was passing by the tasting room, and he invited me to join him in a private tasting.
Linden fans will be pleased to hear of the debut of the 2015 estate sauvignon blanc. The wine has a light, restrained and elegant style in contrast to the big New Zealand style. The nose was like Sancerre and the palate like white Bordeaux (there is a touch of semillon). The 2013 Hardscrabble (estate) chardonnay referenced in the site selection tasting above had a fascinating nose with crème brulee with lemon zest. The wine was on the lees for 10-16 months with minimal battonage to keep the wine fresh. On the palate, there were vivid pear/apple fruit with firm zesty acidity. The wine is young and stylish and capable of aging a decade or more if well cellared.
The 2011 vintage separated the casual from the serious winemakers (and growers) in Virginia. I was quite impressed with the Linden 2011 Red (declassified estate blend). The nose had vibrant red fruits with a touch of truffle. The palate was vibrant and fresh and fun, surprisingly good and still young.
Next, the Linden 2012 Claret (43% merlot, 26% cabernet sauvignon, 16% petit verdot, 15% cabernet franc): the nose was complex, a bit closed but an elegant Right Bank style interpreted in the New World. Palate: rich, ripe red fruits, chewy and solid. Great for a de-classified “claret” blend.
Linden 2012 Petit Verdot (10% cabernet sauvignon, 10% carmenere): Nose of dark purple black fruits, smoke and tobacco; like a cello sonata. Palate: high acid, dark black fruits. Needs time, intriguing.
Most fun was the conclusion of this unexpectedly delightful tasting; Linden’s two dessert wines, the late harvest vidal 2008 and the late harvest petit manseng 2011. “There are three kinds of wine drinkers,” reflected Jim Law. “First, those who like sweet wines. Second, those who are careful to avoid all sweet wines. Third, those who understand that there is a place for all wines, and enjoy fine dry wines, and also fine sweet wines.” He confided that, having cultivated a connoisseur clientele who loved his terroir-driven dry wines, these same were uneasy with the idea of drinking sweet wines. Despite the lack of demand for his artisanal sweet wines, he continues making them because he likes them, and frankly, his portfolio would be poorer without them.
Linden Late Harvest Vidal 2008 (half bottle): Nose of crème brulee and apple tart. Palate: juicy but fresh, crisp finish and not too sweet (11.2 residual sugar, 10% alc.)
Linden 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.)
Just a few miles to the south, Desert Rose Ranch & Winery has really blossomed in the four years since I first visited. Proprietor Bob Claymier now has VA Vineyards Association president Tom Kelly assisting with the winemaking, and the entire product line has high, consistent quality with an emphasis on Virginia classics like Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Vidal and Norton.
The name Desert Rose evokes Bob’s home in the high desert of Eastern Oregon, and labels of the wines evoke a number of iconic images, from Western-style horses to the high-tension towers of Virginia Power running over his vineyards, to a rather infamous government agency near the town of Langley, VA where Bob used to work (the tasting room bar is festooned with currency from the many countries of his postings, including one featuring the (formerly) contented face of one Sadaam Hussein (!)
However, Desert Rose Ranch is not a gimmick. My tasting notes revealed surprise and admiration. No wines were sub-par, and here are my favorites:
Desert Rose Unhitched chardonnay 2014: Nose of fresh, crisp apple. Palate: nicely fruity evoking a Vouvray style, off-dry and stylish. Easy to sip and even quaff, versatile and seductive.
Sparky Rosé 2014: Nose, elegant cherry. Palate: bright, fresh, lively cherry; stylish!
Cabernet Franc Fiery Run 2013: Nose: clean earth, pinot-like, red/black cherry. Palate: fine cab franc fruit/acid balance and firm tannins, stylish.
Cabernet Franc 2014: Nose: fresh Loire-like red cherry. Palate: round, smooth texture, then BIG fresh bright cherry flavors; impressive.
Dessert Delight 2014 (a white port) Nose: like chenin blanc; very floral and fruity (15.2% alc., 6% residual sugar). Sexy!
Tucked away near Rt. 17 and I-66 was Miracle Valley Vineyard in a cozy tasting room featuring about half a dozen consistently well-made wines. My two favorites: chardonnay 2014: Nose in a fruity Macon style with ripe apple, on the palate, smooth and fresh with a hint of creamy lees. Cabernet sauvignon 2014: Nose of fresh, clean red fruits. Palate: excellent fruit/acid balance with firm, smooth tannins, aged in French oak.
A short drive north on Rt. 17 brought me first to Barrel Oak Winery, where I savored the 2014 estate chardonnay which I poured at the American Wine Society conference, to illustrate the evolution of quality in Virginia chardonnay from a clumsy imitation of West Coast chardonnay 15 years ago, to a much better value than Burgundy today. Nose: a cross of Macon and Puligny styles; fresh green apple and mineral. On the palate, crisp and high acid, no creamy butter or vanilla (some neutral oak and blocked malolactic fermentation). A bit young now, will drink outstandingly with shellfish in the summer of 2016, and could be laid down a couple more years.
Next, to Delaplane Cellars further north. One of the nicest tasting room views in Northern Virginia (much to the chagrin of landed neighbors who don’t appreciate their views being invaded by the public driving in to engage in retail commerce!) I found a consistency of adroitly fine winemaking with nicely original touches throughout the product line. Favorites included:
Delaplane Cellars 2013 barrel fermented chardonnay: nose of elegant, well-integrated apple and hints of butterscotch. Palate: elegant and smooth with medium acidity, round texture without coarse oak tones.
Delaplane Cellars 2013 Duet: 45% merlot, 33% cabernet franc, 11% each cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. Nose: the petit verdot really pops out with scented plums and herbs. Palate: smooth tannins with just enough oak; great balance.
Before leaving the Fourth Quarter Summary, I’d like to give a shout-out to Rockbridge Vineyards for their outstanding job with their V d’Or 2010 (cryo-extraction blend of vidal, vignoles, riesling and traminette), which Nick Passmore of Forbes described as the “Best American Dessert Wine Ever.” A few bottles (375 ml) are still available at $50, at the winery.
Finally, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve posted the second edition (2014) of Beyond Jefferson’s Vines on Kindle, where you can download and read it digitally for only $3.99. For an autographed print version, click on the link on the home page to Beyond Jefferson’s Vines to see a list of participating wineries.