Discover Virginia’s Newest Wineries – Wine and Country Life

My newest article – and first contribution for Wine and Country Life – has now been published!

Over a dozen wineries opened in 2021. I couldn’t list them all, so I focused on my favorites including Ecco Adesso, Firefly Cellars, Hazy Mountain Vineyard, Merrie Mill Farm, Sunshine Ridge Farm, and Williams Gap Vineyard.

When It Comes to Cider, What’s Old is New Again

I’m thrilled with how this article came out. I drink cider but never delved into how cider is made until I came up with the idea of a Cider Week-themed article.

Many thanks to the many cider makers who took time to educate me on how cider is made and marketed, especially Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider, Philip Carter Strother of Valley View Farm – Craft Beverages, Pickyourown Orchards & Farm Market, Emily Belcher of Coyote Hole Ciderworks, Tristan Wright of Lost Boy Cider, Will Hodges of Troddenvale Cider, Courtney Mailey of Blue Bee Cider, Don Whitaker of Castle Hill Cider, and the VA Wine Marketing Board.

Old Westminster Winery

I visited Old Westminster Winery back to back with Black Ankle Vineyards. Both were on my list of ‘must visit’ Maryland wineries, although for different reasons. While Black Ankle makes wine in a more traditional style Old Westminster leans heavy into experimentation; specifically the production of ‘natural wine’.

Natural wine isn’t well defined but most agree it’s a style of winemaking that utilizes natural yeast fermentation, limited to no sulfites, and doesn’t use filtering for clarification (or some combination of these and other methods). It’s an ancient style that’s come back into vogue due to its emphasis on sustainable agriculture (and perceived health benefits, although those are more debatable). While some wineries have a pétillant natural (pet-nat) sparkling or claim their focus on ‘minimal intervention’ Old Westminster takes its ‘natural’ approach to a whole new level.

Personally I find natural wine a love-it-or-hate-it style. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of natural wine out there that’s quite yummy and I would totally recommend visiting Old Westminster to try for yourself. But they can taste ‘funky’ for lack of a better term (although not in a bad way), and the wine itself can look cloudy due to its lack of filtering. Cloudy wine isn’t in any way faulted, but its best to keep an open mind for any visit.

Right now they have 10 acres planted – mostly Muscat. On top of this they have a vineyard at Burnt Hill Farm (also called the Burnt Hill Project) which promises more estate fruit. Otherwise they source fruit from Maryland.

Another cool thing is they have a number of food options available, including several styles of pizza. Some are traditional margarita-style pies, others are (like the wine) on the experimental side. I chose a personal pizza topped off with beats (of all things) but really enjoyed it. They also have Sunday brunch.

As for the wine – a number flight options are available, both for reds, whites, and sparklings. Not wanting to miss anything I did a good cross-section. My server was also kind enough to swap out a few items for others I was more keen on sampling. They also have canned wine (didn’t I mention they were experimental?). Extra points for having tasting notes with QR codes you could scan to get a quick video of the winemaker chatting about the wine.

2020 Albariño: Saline, peach notes on palate. Pineapple and peach on the nose,

2020 Sauvignon Blanc: About as opposite a New Zealand SB as you can get. Neither high acid or perfume-y. I detected some melon notes.

2020 Trio: Chardonnay heavy white blend

2019 Muscat: Apricot all the way. Apparently there is some residual sugar but I couldn’t detect it. No filtering so it has an interesting cloudiness (which is totally healthy)

Frank Fizz: Interesting; 100% Cab Franc pet-nat sparkling. A ‘rustic’ sparking.

Rev 7th Edition: Cedar/Oak. “Molassas” is on the sheet but I can’t confirm it since I don’t know what it tastes like!

Solera Batch 3: A port-style wine. Spicy, with Christmas-y notes. Not sure if I loved it but it was very interesting.

I can’t remember which it was, but one of the wines I tasted has ‘tastes like beet juice” in my notes!

Black Ankle Vineyards

While several Maryland wineries are about as close to me as Virginia ones, unfortunately I’ve never visited them as often. I’ve heard from friends the Maryland wine industry is maybe a decade behind Virginia – but they are catching up fast.

But in asking around, a handful of names came up as ‘must visit’ locations. Black Ankle Vineyards was one of them. Since they were just over an hour away from me, further investigation was in order.

As a smaller state Maryland wineries have less flexibility in sourcing local fruit, so it’s not unusual to find their wine labeled as “American” rather than “Maryland”. Fortunately at 56 acres of vines this location doesn’t seem to have a problem with having estate fruit.

I was quick to discover Black Ankle was at least the equal to any I’ve visited in Virginia (or just about anywhere) both in service and in wine. They even took the difficult path of only growing vinifera, including Albariño (increasingly a Maryland favorite) and Syrah (which is hard to find anywhere on the east coast).

The tasting room is pretty, with lots of outdoor sitting and great views. It’s also dog & children friendly (at least outdoors for the later), and you can bring your own food. They even have a Telsa charger and nice glassware. Black Ankle checked off lots of boxes before I even had my first tasting.

I didn’t have a reservation but it was early so I snuck in anyway. My server Kody was on the spot during my hour-long visit – and she was very kind to let me sample a few bottles not on the tasting menu but happened to be open. I’m thankful for that, because several turned out to be favorites.

Black Ankle seems to have an affinity for Albariño because they had three different versions from three different tracts – and they all expressed themselves differently. But the real treat was the sample of their Black Ankle Estate, which really blew me away. The only thing I didn’t love were the price points were on the higher side, with whites going from $38-50.

All flights were accompanied with tasting notes, although I tended to use my own descriptors.

  • 2019 Chardonnay: Some butter notes. Not necessarily California style but it was somewhat reminiscent of one.
  • 2020 Grüner: Light, lots of mineral notes. Hard to compare since I see so little of this variety locally.
  • 2020 Albariño Verjeo: Aromatic. Heavier than I expected. At first I thought I detected citrus but probably more leaning towards pear.
  • 2020 Albariño Sur: More citrusy than the first, and definitely with some mineral notes.
  • 2020 Albariño Norte: Definitely citrusy and softer than the rest.
  • 2020 Passeggiata (red): A super soft summer red, meant to be chilled. Not sure what the blend was.
  • 2019 Crumbling Rock (Bordeaux blend but leaning towards Cab Franc): Wonderful aromatics!!!
  • 2016 Black Ankle Estate (Bordeaux blend but leaning towards Cab Sauv): Heavier Bordeaux blend. Earthy and dark cherry; a definite winner.

All in all, Black Ankle was a great experience. This place really blew away my expectations for Maryland wine, so I’ll happily go back.

The Jim Law & Friends Blind Tasting

This weekend I did a vertical blind tasting of several of the most famous Virginia wineries, plus a Bordeaux for comparison. It was one of the most enjoyable (and most expensive) tastings I’ve ever done. While Virginia wine is rarely famous outside the state, these three are among the few wineries that have name brand recognition with critics everywhere.

I could argue it was for the sake of education. Or for science. Or to test the price point of different wines. But in truth it was all about curiosity; what it’s like to taste some of the best wines in the state at once in a blind tasting.

Jim Law of Linden Vineyards is said to have a “kind of this Eastern philosophy of sit on the porch until I invite you in mentality”. Potential students must not only prove their seriousness in pursuing viticulture, but also promise to contribute to the Virginia wine industry for at least two years after their apprenticeship. Perhaps his two greatest students were Jeff White of Glen Manor and Rutger de Vink of RdV.

I called this event “Jim Law & Friends” because it includes wines from all three. Even today they maintain strong ties, providing advice on weather and growing conditions. I’ve also heard stories of how Jim hosts a recurring wine dinner with these friends to taste the great wines of the world (no I haven’t been invited and I’m a little cross about that).

Some friends and I had some 2015s available and felt it was a good vintage to do a comparison. The numbers correspond to the bag number; everything was done blind. The Bordeaux was added for comparison.

We tasted these wines over the course of almost 3 hours, which allowed us to follow their evolution as they opened up. Each winemaker had strong connections to the other, but the Virginia wines were still very distinct. While these wines also trend ‘Old World’ style, the Bordeaux was definitely the outlier.

  • 2015 Lost Mountain $150 (RdV, 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Cab Franc, 3% Merlot). This wine had a distinct black pepper note that persisted over the course of the evening.
  • 2015 Hardscrabble $65 (Linden, 46% Cabernet Sauvignon/35% Merlot/19% Cab Franc). The lightest and smoothest of the evening, likely because it was the least Cab-heavy. Some earth and fruit notes in equal proportion.
  • 2015 Chateau Giscours $75 (Margaux, 3rd Growth Bordeaux, 70% Cabernet Sauvignon 25% Merlot, 5% Cab Franc). The mustiness of this wine was very noticeable when we first opened it up. It started as one of our least favorites, but as time passed and it opened up we liked it more and more, perhaps surpassing some of the others.
  • 2015 Hodder Hill $50 (Glen Manor, 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot). Slight must on the nose, and an earthy undertone.

Which leads us to the big question – which was our favorite?

Well…there’s no easy answer to this one. I tasted with 3 friends, and we were all over the map in terms of favorite. I took three polls at 30 minute intervals until we unveiled them. I assigned a ‘point’ for each vote.

  • Trevor: Trevor was the most consistent. He voted for wine #4 (Hodder Hill) all three times. So Glen Manor 3 points.
  • Matt: I was torn between wines 2 & 3 (Linden and the Bordeaux). I actually disliked the pepperiness of wine #1. While I liked wine #4, it wasn’t quite as smooth as the other two. My first vote was for wine #2, then #3, then back to #2. Linden 2 points and Bordeaux 1 point.
  • Ryan: Ryan felt the wines hadn’t opened up sufficiently to vote in the first round. Overall he seemed to favor wines #1 and #3 the most. He felt there was a lot of potential for the Bordeaux, but it needed more time than what we had for it to reach its full potential. But he did vote for wine #1 once and split his vote between wines #1 and #3 in his last vote. RdV 1.5 points, Bordeaux .5 point.
  • Dan: Dan was all about wine #2. He picked a favorite early on and stuck with it, although he did like the others. He stopped drinking early on but he did vote for wine #2 twice. Linden 2 points.

So the tally was this: Linden 4 points, Glen Manor 3 points, RdV 1.5 points, Bordeaux 1.5 points.

On paper you might say that Linden was the favorite. But perhaps a better question is this: When was each wine a favorite. Because time made a huge difference.

I suspect had we let these wines breathe for several hours in advance, our scores would have been very different. On the second and third votes I was torn between Linden and the Chateau Giscours, and only narrowly chose Linden on the 3rd. Ryan likewise felt that the Bordeaux was peaking late, while the Linden peaked much earlier. Perhaps being the most ‘blended’ helped its scores?

It’s also important to admit that given an extra hour or two, I’m fairly certain I would have favored the Bordeaux. While I didn’t enjoy the black pepper notes of the RdV, that is simply a stylistic preference of my own that in no way implies I didn’t like it or it wasn’t an excellent wine.

So does this mean Linden was the ‘best’ wine of the night? Absolutely not! Given a few extra visitors the final scores would almost certainly been different.

But hey – if anyone wants to break out their fancy wine, I’d happily help you drink it!

Rockbridge Vineyard & Brewery

Rockbridge is conveniently located not far off I-64 in the southern Shenandoah. I was in the area visiting some of their new neighbors but dropped by since it had been a long time. It helped I was on a mission to buy as many Gold Medal winners from the Virginia’s Governor’s Cup as I could, and Rockbridge’s 2017 V d’Or was on the list.

Founded in 1988 this is one of the oldest wineries in Virginia; in fact their winemaker Shepard (Shep) Rouse is the 3rd oldest tenured winemaker in the state. I suspect he was also one of the early proponents of hybrids, which make more than half of their 17 acres of vines. They also have an assortment of vinifera, including 2 acres of Pinot Noir and some Riesling.

Rockbridge made the leap to becoming a winery/brewery combination several years ago. The barn-styled building is divided between the two operations, with more space outside. According to tasting room manager Dianna Rankin, it’s not unusual for husbands to head to one side of the building for beer while wives stay on the other side. The brewery was closed when I visited but I did peruse their very considerable beer list.

While their wine list is exceptionally long and varied, Rockbridge’s most famous creation is arguably their V d’Or dessert wine, an ice-style wine made from Vidal, Vignoles and Traminette. The V d’Or is especially noteworthy because it was twice selected for the Governor’s Case in the past decade.

Dianna set me up with a generous selection of wine tastings. I immediately noticed that across the board bottle prices are very affordable, even by the standards of the Shenandoah area. I’m accustomed to prices in NOVA and Maryland where whites set you back almost $30 and reds are even more expensive. So it was shocking to see most of Rockbridge’s wines were around $15 and the most expensive ones were $25. They also have a deep bench of library wines available for sale.

For their wines I especially liked the Chardonnay, of which they had several vintages. The 2019 Rockbridge Chardonnay was my favorite; made in steel but using a whole cluster press process to give it more structure and tannin. Despite that process I found it light & easy drinking.

Also very good were the Rieslings. While I’m not often a fan of off-dry wines I’ll make an exception here. One of the best was their 2015 Riesling, which had body and complexity along with 2% residual sugar. I had several stars in my notes so I must have liked it a lot.

After the reds was their 2017 Rosé, made with Chambourcin. It had a Jolly Rancher strawberry/watermelon flavor to it.

Next up were several reds, including a very spicy 2015 Syrah and a Cab Franc which was all smoke & spice.

But the crown goes to the 2017 V d’Or. No tasting notes here, but I know I need to save this for a special occasion.

Above Ground Winery

Above Ground might be a familiar name for those who have spent years visiting Loudoun wineries. Owners Matt and Mary Barbagallo formerly had a tasting room in Purcellville before moving to the Shenandoah. Not only is vineyard acreage cheaper there, they wanted a nice place in the countryside to retire. The Shenandoah offers both. So they planted several years ago and (re)opened this summer.

While nearly all Virginia wineries advertise themselves as a ‘Farm Winery’, this place definitely emphasizes the ‘Farm’ part of that phrase. That’s partially due to their remote location, about halfway between Staunton and Lexington. But it’s also because the Barbagallos put nearly all their effort into the vineyard as opposed to a fancy tasting room.

Don’t get me wrong – you’ll love the drive here and the view from the top of the vineyard is lovely (and yes, they do plan a new tasting area to take advantage of it). But mostly, visitors are here for the wine.

Matt took me on a tour of the vineyard to better explain why they picked this location. With an elevation of 2100 feet and a rain shadow from the surrounding mountains, this is a great place for vines. It helps they planted on Frederick-Christian soil, which offers great drainage with mixes of limestone and other minerals. I admit – I’m a geek when it comes to checking out vineyards, so I was more than happy to test my skills at trying to identify which vines were riesling vs pinot noir (PS – I still stink at guessing).

Right now Above Ground has 7 acres of vines, including several Bordeaux reds, Chardonnay, Riesling, and some Pinot Noir. The last two I’m especially excited about, since Virginia has so little of it.

Above Ground crafts most of their wine according to the local palate, so you won’t find anything fancy. Most of their current lineup is either blended with fruit or made into lighter, juicier styles. People who style themselves wine snobs may wonder about the relative lack of dry wines. But I enjoyed the entire lineup – especially the Chardonnay.

  • “Exit Strategy” 2020 Chardonnay: This was mostly steel and a little bit of oak. Clean, with a nice mouthfeel. I bought a bottle of this to take home.
  • “Dividing Ridge White”: A light white wine/fruit wine blend, made with riesling and apples. This is more of a picnic, porch-sipping wine.
  • “Karma” (Merlot/Cabernet Franc): Light and juicy.
  • “Wild River Red”: Sweet wine made with elderberries and west coast fruit. Definitely a porch sipper.
  • “Dividing Ridge” Red: Blend of raspberries and grapes (Cab Franc?)

Above Ground reminds me the type of tasting experiences that used to be common elsewhere in Virginia but are increasingly rare, where the owners/winemaker pours for you while shooting the breeze. If you’re looking for a laid back, unpretentious experience, definitely visit.

Ecco Adesso Vineyards

New wineries are like magnets to me – as soon as I hear a rumor of one I rush to visit. So it’s no surprise I visited Ecco Adesso during its soft opening in late July. Located in the southern (or upper) Shenandoah Valley near Lexington, its Virginia’s newest winery.

The name is an Italian phrase which means “Here Now”. Owners Cierra & Michael Weatherly explained it was inspired by the idea that when with family, one should avoid distractions and live ‘there’ in the moment. It’s seems a good adage to live by.

The Weatherly’s love of Italy played a big role in the winery’s backstory. Pre-COVID they’d visit Italy yearly and were no doubt inspired by its wine. Unfortunately, COVID caused their 2020 plans to be postponed. The good news for us is that gave them time to think of new ventures, including opening what became Ecco Adesso.

Ecco is a huge property – around 350 acres in total, at an elevation of 1800 feet. You drive down a long driveway to what looks like an alpine chalet. It was once a private residence but the new owners have since converted it into a tasting room. Now Ecco is all decked out for visitors – using wood harvested from the property. There’s even three Airbnbs on the property as well.

GM Janine Aquino gave me a quick tour of the grounds, pointing out their casual hiking trail, future tasting room, and an events area. Put simply, the Weatherly’s picked a great site. The only (temporary) downside is since they planted in late 2020, Ecco won’t have estate wine for several years.

That said, what’s planted is very exciting. They currently have 6 acres of vines (with 5 more planned) including Saparavi (a high acid grape from Georgia), Lagrein (a high-elevation red found in Italy) and Sauvignon Ketos (a hybrid of Sauv Blanc). None of these varieties are common to Virginia, but winemaker/grower Tim Jordan is something of a rebel. He felt given their soil and high elevation, these varieties are good choices for Ecco. I’m stoked to see what he does with them.

Grapes aren’t the only things planted. Ecco produces apples, plumbs, apricots and paw paws (a fruit indigenous to the mid-west/east coast). But the coolest item was their “Vets First” garden.

To understand Vets First, you have to understand the Weatherly’s. I’ve met a lot of winery owners who do good work for charities, but few seem to embrace it as deeply as Cierra & Michael. The Vets First garden is run entirely by military veterans, and the bounty is donated to the local food bank.

While they won’t have their own wine for another year, they do serve a mixture of bottles from Early Mountain, several Shenandoah wineries, and Italy. I even spotted Midland Construction, grown on the Jordan family farm. I sipped a flight on their porch overlooking the vineyard.

The Weatherly’s and Janine were very hospitable and excited about this venture. If you visit them, tell them Matt from Winetrails and Wanderlust sent you!

The Doggie Dozen: Pet friendly wineries in Virginia

Please check out my latest article on dog-friendly wineries for the Old Town Crier.

Truthfully there are far too many wineries to list, since Virginia wineries typically allow dogs on the property. I tried to narrow it down to locations that allow dogs in the tasting room, but even so there are far too many to list.