I’m really happy how this article came out. The best articles are one where I learn something in my research.
I still think Ben Jordan of Early Mountain Vineyards explained it best, “It seems to me that the market accepts something as natural when a wine checks most of those boxes, and when the character of the wine fits the overall ethos, but since there is no certification, there are no hard and fast rules.
Special thanks to Arterra Wines, Rock Roadhouse, and Briedé Family Vineyard.
Saying you’re a fan of RdV is basically Virginia wine code for “Yes, I have a taste for very luxurious bottles – and I’m not ashamed to say it”.
Many would argue RdV is Virginia’s most famous winery; it’s certainly the most expensive. But put this into context; RdV provides a curated experience with wines that easily match up to very expensive bottles from Bordeaux or California, so you’re getting what you paid for.
RdV also has an amazing lineage, since owner Rutger de Vink was mentored by Jim Law of Linden Vineyards – one of the few acceptable alternatives for those who don’t point to RdV as the best winery in the state.
“How I found my vineyard”
Rutger comes from a well-heeled Dutch family but in his younger days apparently felt the need for some personal direction – so he joined the U.S. Marines and became a member of their Force Reconnaissance element (the Marine equivalent of the Navy SEALs or Army Special Forces). This background (that, plus an MBA and experience in a tech company) explains his devotion to methodical planning, which no doubt paid off here.
RdV also has perhaps the most famous “How I found my vineyard” story in Virginia. As the legend is told, he was driving on a back road in search of a vineyard site when his car was halted by some sheep crossing the road. After pausing he looked around, only to realize the hills around him seemed to have all the things he needed.
Turns out the property belong to a sheep farmer who only used this location for grazing as it was too barren for farming. Initially this gent wasn’t interested in selling, but not long afterwards the farmer realized his kids weren’t interested in keeping the land so he called Rutger asking for an offer. The rest is history.
Rutger must have gone ALL IN when designing this place; the winery is one of the most picturesque in Virginia. But it isn’t just about looks; a lot of thought went into the design, be it the long underground passageway or the tower/lightwell in the middle of the building. These are just a few of the details that come together perfectly.
I’d visited before, but that was before I learned to appreciate Virginia wine in the way I do now. At $75 a person, you aren’t just signing up for a tasting – you sign up for an education.
You start with a personal tour of the building, while the guide explained why this location is so special for viticulture. Put simply – it comes down to rock. Lots of very, very hard rock.
The winery sits on a big hunk of granite. This is actually perfect for a vineyard; granite minimizes water retention and soil nutrients, forcing the vines to struggle. It’s a counter-intuitive way to farm; ‘happy’ vines don’t produce good wine grapes, but vines that struggle put all their effort into ripening their grapes –which results in great wine.
The tour continues through an underground tunnel which doubles as their long-term storage and barrel aging area. The most interesting part of this walk is the bare rock face. While it may have been planned more for show, RdV realized this wall serves a useful purpose – it shows how deeply rainfall has penetrated the ground. That’s the type of info that vineyard managers love, so ‘art’ here serves a purpose.
After that, you finished with a stop by the bottling line and chemistry lab then moved upstairs for a tasting.
RdV is known for two wines; it’s Rendezvous (right bank, Merlot-heavy blend) and Lost Mountain (left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy blend). No white grapes are grown; their 16 acres of vines is entirely composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc (no Malbec either).
RdV does make several other wines, although those aren’t typically sold to the public. The best known is their somewhat cheaper Friends and Family red blend found at wine stores and restaurants – made from grapes that aren’t used for the two main wines. But on rare occasions RdV also makes a single-varietal wine (I’ve had their “Outlier” Petit Verdot at Field & Main restaurant) and even a dry Rosé they serve to club members.
Their blending master is Eric Boissenot. I admit I didn’t know the name, but wine snobs likely do – he decides the blends for 4 out of 5 of France’s “First Growth” wineries. RdV is his only American client – that’s how fancy this place is.
Normally I go into long tasting descriptions of the wine; but here I won’t. Suffice to say, RdV wine is world-class. I tried the 2017 vintages of the Rendezvous and Lost Mountain and both were amazing – although I actually leaned more towards the right bank style than the left bank one (much to my wallet’s relief). I’m actually in deep regret not getting more bottles – it was that good.
Your tasting is accompanied by a small charcuterie board and a serving of Dom Pérignon.
Some would say that this event is overpriced. My response – it depends what you are looking for. If you just want to drink some wine, skip the tour and buy a bottle. But if you enjoy being feted and receiving a full on wine education (that I enjoyed almost as much as the wine), make a visit. You’ll walk away with confidence that Virginia really can make wine on par with the best in the world.
Another Virginia winemaker recently called Jim Law “The guru on the hill”, who’s dedication has elevated the entire Virginia wine industry. The roster of those who’ve worked for him at Linden is something of a who’s-who of Virginia wine royalty, including (but certainly not limited to) Rutger de Vink of RdV Vineyards and Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards. Two of Jim’s Chardonnays received 94 points from Robert Parker – the highest score he’s given any Virginia wine. So when the guru speaks – you listen.
I’d been a member for several years, so when Jim announced he would be releasing his 2017 vintages I rushed to get my tickets. In a very socially-distanced event, Jim introduced 3 x Chardonnays, 4 x Bordeaux blends, plus a desert wine. He also treated us to a long discussion about his wine and winemaking philosophy in general.
For background, Linden draws from three vineyards; Hardscrabble, Avenius, and Boisseau. Hardscrabble is their 20 acre estate vineyard located at the winery, primarily growing Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (although less Cabernet and more Chardonnay than it used to have) but home to several other varietals. Avenius a cooler 5 acre site down the road with soil composed of shale, granite and greenstone; they have a mix of vinifera but the largest planting is 1.5 acres of Sauvignon Blanc. Boisseau is the warmest site near Front Royal, its 4 acres likewise a mix. Many of his wines are bottled according the vineyard they came from; it’s not uncommon to have vertical flights of the same varietal but from different vineyards.
Although most Virginia wineries designate their red blends as their flagship wines, Jim’s first love is Chardonnay so his Hardscrabble Chardonnay is the wine he’s often proudest of. In my opinion, this is the best Chardonnay in Virginia – and I dare anyone to show me otherwise.
Jim explained that 2017 was a great vintage for both reds and whites, which is an unusual combination – usually it’s one or the other. Fortunately they were blessed with cool nights and warm days, particularly in September/October. He actually likes his 2017s better than his 2019s, mostly because the weather in 2017 was more even.
He also discussed climate change and his vineyard replanting project. Regarding the former, he has a small experimental vineyard where he’s planted several hybrids and Italian varietals, and discussed how unpredictable Virginia’s weather has become. Jim even installed several huge solar panels outdoors, in an effort to not be a contributor to the problem of global warming that has beset his own vineyards.
As for his replanting his vineyards, right now Jim is on ‘year 20 of his 15 year plan’. He freely admits to undergoing a long period of education which resulted him in revising his methodology for planting vineyards, and how water retention is the single most important factor in planting vines in Virginia.
He spoke at length about his Chardonnay planting from decades ago; right now there’s only around 10% of the original vines. While he enjoys the freshness that younger Chardonnay vines offer his wines, they lack the depth and character of older vines.
Usually I try to take my own notes for tastings – but the descriptors Jim provided were so dead-on that I decided to use them.
What I tried:
2017 “Village” Chardonnay: Jim’s “Village” is a mixture of all three vineyards, but this year drawing heavily from Hardscrabble. “Creamy” was the optional word. He said this wine will improve over several years but damn, this was easy to drink now. This was also my favorite wine of the day (which I was rather grateful for, since it was one of the cheapest).
2017 Avenius Chardonnay: This had an almost Sauv Blanc quality to it. Higher acid and mineral notes. Has lots of personality.
2017 Hardscrabble Chardonnay: His flagship wine. Some newer oak to give it some toastiness, which is unusual since he’s usually a fan of neutral oak. Apple notes and long finish.
2017 Claret: Usually half of Linden’s reds are Claret but the 2017 vintage was so great he used most of his fruit for his site-specific vintages. I got currant notes, although his tasting sheet said red fruit (close enough).
2017 Boisseau: Fresh, not as heavy as I would have expected from a Petit Verdot/Cabernet heavy blend.
2017 Avenius: Black fruit notes and the acidity was on the higher side.
2017 Hardscrabble (red): “Rose pedals” was the tasting note. I’d keep this one for a few years though.
2020 was a chaotic year in Virginia wine, with records good and bad. On the positive side Virginia saw a near-unprecedented number of winery/cidery/meaderies opening all across the state. Many locations – especially those further away from Coronavirus hotspots or were able to provide ample outdoor seating – saw record breaking summer sales, largely driven by new customers fleeing to the countryside. As 2020 draws to a close, it currently has a total of 264 wineries, 26 cideries, and 11 meaderies of various sizes and business models, with more on the way.
The downside is this came at a huge emotional and financial cost, especially in the early days when the industry was reduced to curb-side sales and online events. For large parts of Virginia, these woes were compounded by an unprecedented Mother’s Day frost which wiped out their vineyards. Unruly customers who refused to conform to social distancing regulations didn’t help.
“Pivot” was the key theme for dealing with these challenges. Outdoor seating, virtual events, shipping deals and self-guided wine flights (often in disposable cups) became the norm. A number of locations shifted to a reservation-only policy. As the weather became cooler, fire pits and outdoor plastic ‘bubbles’ also became customary.
While the dust from 2020’s tectonic shift hasn’t settled, many of these trends are here to stay. For several years there has been growing demand in the U.S. for lower-alcohol, more diverse, ‘healthier’ beverages; this movement is now easily visible in the Virginia wine scene. Online events are also now the norm; some wineries openly wondered why they didn’t think of doing them sooner.
Here’s my take of the key consumer trends that impacted Virginia wineries in 2020:
1.Virginia’s Sparkling Wine Market Continues to Grow: Veritas Winery / The Virginia Sparkling Company deserves a lot of credit for this trend, as their opening of a major sparkling wine facility in Charlottesville has enabled other wineries to make sparkling using their own fruit without the high start-up cost of bottling on site. In northern Virginia alone, roughly a dozen wineries have bubbly on the menu, usually in partnership with Veritas or Michael Shaps.
But it’s not just Veritas. There has been a growing number of wineries doing pét–nats or other casual sparkling wines, and Casanel, Rappahannock Cellars and others are killing it with sparklings that range from ‘fun to drink’ to downright ‘serious’ Champagne-like bubbly.
2. Cideries & Meaderies Gaining Steam: Cider and mead consumption has likewise grown, in line with consumer demand for lighter, fresher beverages. Out of the 23 new ‘wineries’ to open in 2020, 1/3rd of them were cideries or meaderies. In addition to these, many wineries are offering ‘guest’ ciders, or a house cider to complement their wine.
3. Growing number of ‘Multi-Beverage’ Wineries: The number of wineries that serve beer has grown by leaps and bounds, sparked by a 2015 change in what ABC qualifies as a ‘farm enterprise’. Quattro Goomba and Barrel Oak helped pioneer this concept, but now there are at least 18 x wineries that have taprooms as well.
Likewise, the number of wineries that serve spirits is about to double. Davis Valley, Old House, Rappahannock, and Vincent’s Vineyard will soon be joined by distilleries at Abingdon, Iron Heart, and Triple V. Add cider, mead, and sparkling to the equation, and Virginia’s wineries have never had such a diverse lineup.
4. Virtual Events & Online Sales: This is one of the better things to come out of COVID; being able to enjoy a winery event from the comforts of your own home. Walsh Family Wine and Keswick still host weekly or bi-weekly virtual tasting events; other wineries hold similar events periodically. Barboursville and Chateau O’Brien also conduct weekly customer outreach events where the owner or manager takes 10 minutes or so to do a ‘behind the scenes’ look at their winery or taste some wines.
These events usually feature wine deals that range from new releases, library wines, to ‘guest wines’ from Virginia or abroad. It’s a fun way of doing comparative tastings of the same varietals from different locations or vintages, or expose consumers to new wines they may not have otherwise tried.
Wineries that closed in 2020
That a number of wineries closed in 2020 is hardly surprising; the entire food & entertainment industry took a huge hit. While it would be easy to blame COVID for these closings, many closings were either planned prior to the pandemic, were due to the retirements/deaths/illnesses of their owners. Fortunately, Winery 32 looks like it will reopen in March, so it’s not on this list.
Desert Rose Winery
Mountain View Vineyard
San Soucey Vineyards
Vault Fields Vineyard
Weston Farm Vineyard
Winding Road Cellars
Wineries that opened in 2020
Fortunately the roster of wineries that opened far exceeded the number that closed. Several more planned to open, but deferred to 2021 due to the pandemic. Even so, 23 new openings in a year is likely close to a record, especially considering the years of growth that preceded it.
Altheling Meadworks (Roanoke)
Backporch Vineyard (Northern Neck)
Bleu Frog Vineyards (Leesburg)
The Capital Hive Meadery (Leesburg)
Carriage House Wineworks (Waterford)
Chapelle Charlemagne Vineyard (soft opening; Front Royal)
The Cider Lab (Sumerduck)
Great Valley Farm Brewery and Winery (Natural Bridge)
Honey & Hops Brew Works (Front Royal)
Iron Will Winery & Vineyard (no tasting room but selling their first vintage, Waterford)
Jolene Family Winery (Richmond)
Mount Alto (no tasting room but selling their first vintage, south of Charlottesville)
Nicewonder Farm & Vineyard (opened tasting room early 2020, Bristol)
Reserve (tasting room for VinoWine) (Lynchburg)
Rivah Vineyard at the Grove (Northern Neck)
Rock Roadhouse Winery (Hot Springs)
Saga Meadery (Front Royal)
Sugar Hill Cidery (Norton)
The Estate at White Hall Vineyard (Northern Neck)
Three Creeks Winery (Hamilton)
Triple V Farm (Northern Neck)
Tumbling Creek Cidery (Abingdon)
Woodbine Vineyards (Buffalo Junction)
Some of these wineries have firm opening dates; other are in various stages of being built.
I started exploring the world Virginia wine in 2013, mostly as a social experience. Don’t get me wrong – during this time I found wine that I liked, but only seldom did I find one that I loved.
That changed after visiting about a dozen locations and I found Chateau O’Brien. After sampling several wines on their tasting menu, my friends and I looked at one another and were like ‘Waaaait a minute…this place isn’t like the others’.
I’m not certain what bottle I loved the best; probably the Tannat (talk with owner Howard O’Brien and he’ll happily explain his love for this grape) but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was his Petit Verdot or Vintner’s Reserve. Whatever it was, it was super smooth – certainly more balanced and integrated than anything I’d found in Virginia thus far.
This is due to how Howard’s reds don’t go on the tasting menu until they’ve been aged at least 2 years in the barrel, then usually stay in the cellar another 3-4 years. With aged reds like that, no matter when I’ve visited I’ve found an ‘average’ tasting at Chateau O’Brien tends to be the equivalent of a special library tasting anywhere else.
Although he’s best known for his Tannat, Howard offers a full range of single-varietal wines and Bordeaux blends. So when he told me about an extra special wine he wanted me to try, needless to say I was intrigued.
The wine he was referring to was his latest Northpoint Red. This was his premium red blend, made only in 2007, 2009 and 2014. He used all five Bordeaux grapes, fermented separately for 24 months before being co-blended and given further barrel time. Bordeaux blends are common in Virginia but finding one with all five grapes aged for this duration is practically unheard of, so I knew this was something special.
I’d heard about this blend during previous visits but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to sample it. Only 75 cases of his 2014 vintage were made, priced at $218 a bottle. This price point didn’t surprise me; when he released his 2007 Northpoint, at the time it was the first Virginia wine to be sold at more than $100.
Howard explained that 2014 was a ‘perfect year’ for him. Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec are especially difficult grapes to grow in Virginia, so you need perfect conditions for them to make great wine. Fortunately Howard has excellent locations for his vineyards, so he’s one of the few Virginia wineries that can usually grow these grapes to full ripeness.
Since this was a special bottle, it needed to be opened for a special event. So I broke out a few bottles from the wine fridge and decided to throw an O’Brien-themed wine dinner, accompanied by his 2016 Cabernet Franc and 2018 Tannat Rosè.
My tasting notes:
2018 Tannat Rosé: Very dry; softer and less fruit-forward than I thought it would be. Tannat Rosés are rare in Virginia, partially because you don’t see a lot of this grape and it’s also hugely tannic. But while this rosé had power, it was still easy-drinking. Lighter fruit notes, mostly strawberry I think.
2016 Cabernet Franc: Howard introduced me to his 2014 Cabernet Franc at an earlier tasting, so I bought his 2016 Cabernet Franc on trust alone. I was well rewarded because I used this in a subsequent blind tasting lineup of six Virginia Cabernet Francs and this was my favorite of the bunch.
This Cabernet Franc had a pale ruby color, and on the nose I detected a tad bit of mustiness that I often associate with older vintages. Nice fruit notes on the palate. But more than anything I thought this wine had an excellent balance of fruit notes, acid, and body.
2014 Northpoint Red: The big gun of the night. The nose started off as reserved despite over an hour of decanting. Long finish, lots of complexity and depth, yet I could still detect a moderate amount of fruit notes. Zero oak; Howard used neutral French barrels to start with but whatever oak notes were once there are now fully integrated. This was a wine that was hitting full stride.
This is not your typical Virginia Bordeaux blend. The great majority of them tend to stay maybe 12 months in barrel and served two years after bottling, so the Northpoint was clearly in a different classification than what I’m accustomed to. There was only one other Virginia wine that I could think of that would be comparable, and my curiosity got the better of me how they compared.
So I pulled out my 2013 RdV Lost Mountain (left-bank style Bordeaux blend with 4 grapes, minus Malbec) and my trusty Coravin and did a blind tasting of the two.
For background, RdV is one of the most famous – and certainly most expensive – wineries in the entire state. When the big-league wine critics visit Virginia, they inevitably visit RdV. RdV even utilizes the same French blending master who blends four of the five Premier Grand Cru Chateaux in Bordeaux. This was what I was putting the Northpoint up against.
To make things fair, I marked two sets of glasses (for my date and I) and we poured the other’s wines. Neither of us knew what was in our glass when we tasted them side by side.
Round 1: Wine #1 had a bit more fruit, while wine #2 was more concentrated – but otherwise they were evenly matched. But my palate chose wine #1, and the winner was Chateau O’Brien.
Round 2: I still couldn’t get away from the fruit notes that I loved the first time, although both had great complexity and lingering finishes. Ironically, the favorite that round was RdV.
Round 3: Last and final round. I allowed myself a healthy pour to finish off the bottle (and let’s face it; these were two awesome wines). The winner? Chateau O’Brien.
My companion was an even bigger fan of the Northpoint than I was; she picked the Northpoint three out of four times (although I disqualified the first time, since fresh from the wine fridge the temperature of the RdV glass was cooler thus identifiable so it wasn’t a 100% ‘blind’ tasting that round).
So there you have it – the 2014 Northpoint Red is the best wine I’ve had all year.
You might say that Cabernet Franc is a grape that ‘gets around’ in more ways than one.
First off, it’s the most planted wine grape in Virginia. Just over 1,000 acres of Cabernet Franc is grown in the state – slightly more than Chardonnay and leaps and bounds more acreage than any other red varietal.
Second, Cabernet Franc is one of the parents Cabernet Sauvignon. Back in the 17th century, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc got feisty in a French vineyard and produced an offspring which took parts of both parents’ names. Now, Cabernet Sauvignon is the world’s most popular grape varietal.
Internationally, Cabernet Franc is better known as a supporting player in red blends; often paired with any combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot or sometimes Malbec (aka; the five Noble Grapes of Bordeaux). Bordeaux particularly relies on it during cool weather vintages when Cabernet Sauvignon fails to fully ripen. Added to a blend, Cabernet Franc adds pepper notes, color, and complexity.
But on the eastern coast and particularly in Virginia, Cabernet Franc is increasingly viewed less as a blending grape and more the main event. Since 2016 Cabernet Franc has earned over 10% of the gold medals awarded at the Virginia Governors Cup – more than any other single varietal shown at the competition.
The rational is understandable – Cabernet Franc possesses a lot of great qualities yet shows them in moderation, including good but not high tannin and acidity, medium body and alcohol, and a floral aroma. This makes it a versatile wine able to be paired with a variety of food options or enjoyed on its own. It’s also a hardy grape in the vineyard, able to ripen in cooler weather and offer good disease resistance.
As a Virginia wine aficionado I’ve tried Cab Francs from basically every winery in the state (that’s not an exaggeration – I’ve visited every tasting room in Virginia and nearly all of them have Cab Franc as a varietal or in a blend). During this time I found many were beset with overly-strong bell pepper notes – a problem caused by poor ripening. I admittedly almost gave up on this varietal, resigned my future tastings would routinely include a wine that I would deem “OK” but never truly love.
Well, recent vintages caused me to revisit my less than stellar opinion of this grape. So in an effort to narrow down the qualities enjoyed the most, I embarked upon an experiment.
I picked out 6 x wines from different years and geographic regions from some of my favorite Virginia producers. Cab Franc strongly reflects the local terroir, so this cross-section would allow me to experience a variety of expressions.
2016 Chateau O’Brien: Located in Markham, just off of I-66 on the way to Front Royale. Owner and vigneron Howard O’Brien isn’t the winemaker but he’s closely involved in the winemaking process, including choosing the final blends (I keep offering to help but he hasn’t accepted so far). O’Brien is best known for his Tannat, but his reds in general are outstanding. I got hooked on his 2014 Cabernet Franc, so on blind trust I bought his 2016 and included it in the contest.
2017 DuCard Vineyards: DuCard is not far from Old Rag Mountain, on the slopes of Shenandoah National Park. DuCard has unique microclimate and an excellent winemaker in Julien Durantie, who makes some of my favorite Petit Verdots. I tried his Cabernet Franc on a whim and found it to have an exceptional amount of depth and tannin – qualities I rarely find in Virginia Cabernet Francs.
2017 Hark Vineyard: Hark is a newer winery but winemaker Jake Busching has worked all over the state until (proverbially) setting down here. Hark is on the slopes of the Blue Ridge, in the woods west of Charlottesville. He told me he was particularly proud of his 2017 vintage; so much that I bought a pair of bottles at his suggestion. He was right – I finished one on election night and it made the evening go…much smoother….
2018 Rock Roadhouse: This was an odd selection that I threw in for variety, from all the way west in Bath County (past the Shenandoah). 2018 was an exceptionally wet and truthfully I didn’t find many reds I loved from that year. But Rock Roadhouse does things differently. They make ‘natural wines’; that is, wines with minimal intervention and little to no sulfites, which is made possible by an exceptionally long fermentation process. I visited them in October 2020 and was surprised how much I enjoyed this style, so I purchased a bottle on trust alone.
2019 Stinson: Stinson Vineyard is in the Crozet area of Charlottesville, and part of one of the Virginia’s best wine trails. Winemaker Rachael Stinson Vrooman has been their winemaker since 2010, and I’ve always loved her Tannat, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnays. This was another bottle I picked up on trust alone.
2019 Carriage House: Carriage House Wineworks is Loudon County’s newest winery, not far from Leesburg. Winemaker Mike Fritze was a long-time amateur winemaker before he made the leap with a friend who’s a grape grower to open their own place. When I sat down with a tasting with him I remember enjoying everything on the menu, but his fruity, savory Cab Franc was especially a standout.
Blind Tasting My Favorites:
To keep it honest I tasted these wines blind using my trusty Coravin, poured into a marked glass. After pouring, I randomly moved the glasses around as much as I could without spilling so I couldn’t track which glass was which (PS – be careful when grabbing a Riedel glass!). I did a re-taste of them all to double-check my palate and found my notes were still dead-on.
Wine #1 (later identified as the 2017 DuCard): Muted nose, medium purple color. Notes of raw strawberries. After sampling it I had to wait a few seconds before the fruit came out, but when it did it hit me. Medium plus acid. Solid overall wine that especially benefited from aeration, although in this case it didn’t reach my top picks.
Wine #2 (later identified as the 2017 Hark): Medium purpose color, some jammy notes on the nose. It tasted lighter and more delicate than I was expecting. On my second try I detected some raspberry notes. I really liked this wine; not my favorite of the night but it was up there.
Wine #3 (later identified as the 2018 Rock Roadhouse): Pale ruby, almost garnet. Strawberry notes on the nose. On the palate it felt fuller and fruitier than the other wines. There was also something less identifiable about it that I couldn’t place (I later realized this quality as likely an after-effect of the ‘natural wine’ winemaking process). Definitely a winner; tied with the Hark.
Wine #4 (later identified as the 2016 Chateau O’Brien): Pale ruby color. I detected a tad bit of mustiness that I often associate with older vintages. Nice fruit notes on the palate, although I couldn’t identify any particular fruit. But more than anything else it had an excellent balance of fruit notes, acid, and body. Outstanding!
Wine #5 (2019 Stinson): A bit of pepper and strawberry on the nose. On the plate it was lighter, more elegant, and a tad less fruit-forward than my other options. It was also notably younger; while 2019 was a great year in Virginia wine I was initially worried this may have the bell pepper or other ‘youthful’ characteristics that I noticed elsewhere. So I was pleasantly surprised when this had none of those. Definitely an easy-drinking wine.
Wine #6 (2019 Carriage House): Pale ruby color, a bit more intense on the nose by comparison but by no means aromatic. Pomegranate maybe? I should have picked this out because I detected the savory elements immediately, but not as fruit-driven as I would have expected a younger vintage. I did get the tiniest hint of bell pepper on the finish, but by no means did it undermine my enjoyment.
I did one last sampling and made my decision. To my delight, the 2016 Chateau O’Brien turned out to be my new favorite Cabernet Franc in Virginia!
What did I learn? For one, bottle age matters. I don’t think of Cabernet Franc as a hugely age-worthy wine, but I did suspect that this was hitting peak at 4 years – while some of the others hasn’t yet reached that potential. Even being a year older works to its advantage.
I also was surprised by how complex Cab Franc can potentially be. I’d grown so accustomed to wines that were either just black or bell pepper, maybe with some fruity notes. But in 2020 I’d found expressions ranging from earth-driven Cabernet Francs from Glen Manor, fruit driven options from Gabriele Rausse, relatively tannic ones from Charlottesville, and light and peppery Cab Francs from basically all over.
So once again, Chateau O’Brien has one of my favorite wines!
Have I mentioned how much I love ‘researching’ new articles? This was another back-breaking article that required loads and loads of sampling.
When people think of sparkling wine they usually think of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. But Virginia’s terroir requires a different route, so many local wineries opt for hybrids instead. It’s actually a great fit – hybrids are popular here, and their naturally high acidity makes a great match for sparkling wine.
For years I’ve passed what is now Bleu Frog vineyards while on my way to Fabbioli and other local wineries. From the road you can see it’s a pretty location, and once vines appeared on the hills I assumed a winery would be in their future. So when I got word this place was officially open, needless to say I was stoked.
Owners Jan and Joe Kernan bought the property in 2016, not long after Joe retired after a 30 year career in the US Navy. In fact, the name “Bleu Frog” is a nod to his former career as a Navy SEAL. On most days you’ll also find their daughter Shannon running operations at their tasting area.
It always puzzles me when people seek to buy a farm as part of their ‘retirement’. Farming is a tough business and viticulture especially so. But I suppose when you’re already accustomed to the military life, ‘taking it easy’ is tough to do. Plus, the Kernans knew this property was special and wanted to find a way to share it. Before long, they planted vines and had their first crop in 2019.
Right now Bleu Frog is primarily setup for an outdoors-only experience – although there are plans to build a barn in 2021. Fortunately winter firepits are coming, so being outdoors (hopefully) won’t be a big deal.
One thing that I felt really sets them apart from other local wineries is you get a feeling you’re ‘in the vineyard’. Their tables and buildings are literally on the edge of the vines – 9 acres in all, including Vidal, Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. This is a sharp contrast to some of the other vineyards I visit, which have a plethora of signs prohibiting people from wandering amongst the vines.
Speaking of wine – I was thrilled when Shannon told me that Doug Fabbioli was their winemaker. But we shouldn’t give all the credit to Doug; Jan is a chef, so the wines are more of a collaboration with Doug.
Right now they only have four wines. I really liked the Vidal, which reminded me of a nice Sauvignon Blanc. But my Rosè loving girlfriend told me their Rosè is the best anywhere in Virginia. Given how much Rosè she’s bought, that should tell you something.
Zoll brings a lot to the table, both proverbially and literally. Since I was spending the weekend in the area I had to opportunity to swing by and visit for the first time.
Owner Frank Zoll moved from Boston to Virginia in 2017 and opened his winery not long afterward. But Frank was a chef before he was a winemaker, and opened this winery to utilize both talents.
While not part of the Northern Neck / George Washington Birthplace AVA (which is just north of here) Zoll vineyards shares many of the same conditions, including a large number of frost-free days and sandy soils. Vinifera can grow here, although you have to be smart about what you plant. Right now they have 16 acres of vines in total including Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Franc, Pinot Grigio, Sauv Blanc, Albariño, and Traminette. They also grow their own fruit for their mead.
The tasting room is an old school building (they plan on holding events as well). I admit – drinking in a cafeteria that serves wine, cider and mead gave me giggles. I suppose if you ever wanted to tell people you had wine at school – this is your chance.
By far, the hardest part of my visit was…deciding what to eat! Savory and sweet options were available, as well as farm-to-table food and wine pairing options. I tried several dishes, but my favorites were the smoked salmon cream cheese pinwheel paired with rose, and the s’mores for desert. Heck, I’m pretty sure I could eat the s’mores by itself.
I ended up trying a good number of their wines, but only have notes for these:
Little Tart Fresh Apple Cider: The tartness lives up to its name
Hibiscus Sangria: Made with Chardonnay and hibiscus flowers (Frank called it a girly drink)
Cranberry Cider: Made with heirloom apples
Mariners Blend: “Tastes like Pecan Pie” is a great descriptor.