To kick off October Virginia Wine Month I accepted an invitation to attend the Powhatan Festival of the Grape southwest of Richmond, now in its 15th year. I had seen names of many wineries I hadn’t visited yet and was looking forward to tasting their wines.

I haven’t attended a wine festival in years, and so was reminded of why. Even at noon, the wine tents were mobbed, but a depressing new addition (at least for me) was the “wine slushie”, rather an oxymoron for drinkers of fine wine, but a big hit apparently with vendors and customers. I had first seen the wine slushie at the New York State Fair in Syracuse some five years ago, and thought it was a regional curiosity, but it not anymore.

I managed to snag some tastes at the tents and kept asking for their dry wines, but they kept saying “We didn’t bring them.” One woman told me “I’ve been working this festival for 14 years. Look at this crowd. I can’t sell them dry wines.” With all the wine slushies around, I guess I couldn’t argue with that, but it was a shame that wineries making dry wines didn’t think it worth bringing them.

Here are the (few) tasting highlights I managed to find:

Davis Valley Winery (Rural Retreat)

Chardonnay – aged in French oak. Full-bodied, but good varietal character.

Vidal – sweet, but with outstanding fruit/acid balance, like a late harvest riesling, a good match with cheese.

Bright Meadows Farm (Halifax Co.)

They are a sustainable farm, growing natives and hybrids.

Burley Red: chambourcin. Good and dry, robust and tannic, a little coarse in the finish but good varietal character and honestly dry.

Blackberry wine: surprisingly pale in color, but again, honestly dry; fresh and vibrant. They recommend it with Thanksgiving.

I left the festival in search of local wineries serving wines and not slushies, and spent some time trying to find Skipper’s Creek Vineyard, a tiny operation south of Powhatan. When I arrived however, I found they were closed…having gone to the festival. As I was leaving another car pulled in with three women all of the same mind as I was, but alas, we left disappointed. They assured me it was worth coming…when they were open, or when you could get through the festival crowd.

Returning to Charlottesville, I stopped first at a winery where the first sign I saw was for “slushie of the day”, so I turned around and left. Then I came to Byrd Cellars (not to be confused with Byrd Vineyard in California) on Rt. 6, which was notable so far, for being open and for serving wines in addition to slushies. The tasting room is a nice, airy but cozy alpine chalet style. The two open whites were undistinguished but the dry (non-vintage) reds were impressive.

Cabernet Sauvignon – Nose of dusty dry red cassis and new oak. Palate: solid red fruit core, lots of new oak, chewy tannins, young, needs time, but solid quality and style.

Norton Nose: fresh, clean, fruity red plum. Palate: also fresh and clean with solid plum, spice and pepper notes, no “twang” often found in norton, typical high acid on the finish. Needs time but a solid varietal character, good ambassador for Virginia norton.

Also impressive was “Meadowsweet”, a finely made apple/strawberry wine with very fragrant strawberry and apple aromas, freshly fruity palate and skillful fruit/acid balance.

In Fluvanna County West of Scottsville on Rt. 6 you’ll find Thistle Gate Vineyard, which farms most of the grapes they use, now in their seventh harvest with 1,000 cases produced a year by the Cushnies, a husband-wife team.

I was most impressed with the reds and port-style wines, although their Thistle White 2016, vidal blanc finished with 2.5% residual sugar. The palate shows firm acid, solid apple fruit, and excellent fruit/acid balance keeping it fresh and not too sweet, a versatile, easy-sipping wine.

Also impressive in their whites was the Thistle Blush 2016. A skillful blend of chambourcin and chardonnay, this off-dry (1% r.s.) blush has nice red cherry fruit on the nose followed by bright citrus fruit and brisk acidity on the finish. This could be marketed either as a blush or rosé due to its bright fruit and fresh balance.

The star for me was their Thistle Red 2015**, a 50/50 blend of petit verdot and merlot. The nose showed dark red and black fruits with some garden herbs from the merlot and lavender notes from the petit verdot. On the palate, the wine was smoky, with some gun flint, then concentrated black fruits, reminiscent of a wine from Priorat in Spain, finishing with the garden herbs and lavender/spice duet that the nose introduced. An intriguing and original wine.

Interestingly, Thistle Gate makes three variations on fortified red wines. The first is Batteau Red 2016, a dry chambourcin with 25% of Highland Red (port-style) blended in. At 14%, the wine is not too hot or sweet, but a nice and original halfway point between dry red and port. On the nose, juicy red and black cherry, with some nice vanilla and spice tones in the background. On the palate, fresh cherry fruit is augmented with spice and vanilla and warmth from a bit higher than usual alcohol. A great wine for sipping in fall waiting for real port weather (if it ever arrives).

Tartan Red 2012:  Late-harvest chambourcin grapes are fortified with brandy made from chambourcin, and aged in whisky barrels for three years, 18% alc. The color is classic ruby port; dark ruby with a hint of brown/amber at the rim. Nose: smoky dried cherry with whisky notes, clean, no harsh edges. The palate is generous and round, spirit but balanced and fruit-dominated. The fortified component is gentle, subtle and classy.

In conclusion, I was given a taste of Thistle Gate’s own sangria blend, using their red chambourcin “St. George” wine as a base. It had nice dried citrus and baking spices, and turned out to be much better than I expected; fresh, not too sweet, juicy but balanced and fun.