Virginia’s 2019 Growing Season – The Hype Is Real!

2019 was a great year for Virginia wine. Given how disastrously wet 2018 was, even an ‘average’ summer would have been a blessing. But this summer seemed intent on making up for last year’s non-stop rain and cloudiness, resulting in what many places are calling one of Virginia’s best vintages…EVER.

“Ever”, they say? When I first heard that, I thought it sounded like a lot of hype – not to mention a huge generalization for a state as big as Virginia. No two vineyard are identical, and Virginia’s 300-ish wineries can’t all have a perfect year at the same time. So I asked around…and found the hype may be warranted.

In most parts of the state bud break came on time or a bit early, and the lack of an early frost coupled with plentiful rains enabled good fruit set. But the real boost came in mid-summer when drought set in and the heat spiked. After than it seemed to be a race as multiple varietals often became ready for harvest at nearly the same time.

Vineyards in the Northern and Central Virginia AVAs seem to have benefited the most from this season; the term ‘the best year ever’ was utilized by several places, including some who have been growing since the mid-2000s. While wineries the Southern or Shenandoah AVAs somewhat less inclined to use such hyperbole, all were very pleased.

This is great news, but the goodness doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the adjective that was most-often used describing this harvest is ‘clean’. Mild humidity resulted in greatly reduced disease pressure across most vineyards. Wine making is never easy in Virginia, but this came close.

There’s still work to be done in the cellar, so many winemakers were reluctant to ‘make a call’ regarding the vintage. But even those who have been wine growing for 10+ years are lauding the quality of the fruit. When the debate is mostly between “Is this a great year” vs. “Is this our BEST year”, you know you’re in for something special.

In researching this topic I contacted around 30 x wineries across the state so I could get a good cross-section of opinions. I took the liberty of paraphrasing these conversations for brevity, but kept the comments in their entirety whenever possible.

Northern Virginia:

  • Doug Fabbioli/Fabbioli Cellars: A bit cold over the winter. There was some winter kill on sensitive varietals. A bit wet in the spring. It wasn’t until late spring that we felt our wet pattern from last year had shifted. Lots of heat. The acids seemed good at harvest but seemed to crumble a bit in the fermenter. The wines are solid but some will need an acid addition. I think each vintage is a little different. Our job as winemakers is to absorb those variables and finish our wines in a way that we have some consistency. We will be up to the task.
  • Jordan Harris/Tarara Winery: Easily the most balanced and “perfect” vintage I have seen since I arrived in 2007. Very efficient ripening with limited disease pressures.  Fruit set was decent as it was fairly dry by then, shoot growth was slow but steady being fairly dry and berry weights were small. The result was balanced vines and balanced grapes of great concentration and heavy skin to juice ratios for the reds
  • Katie DeSouza Henley/Casanel Vineyard: Every vital phase necessary for what we consider a successful growing season (i.e., bud break, bloom, veraison, etc.) left us happier than most of the milestones in previous vintages. We are at or above benchmarks that we have set in previous historical vintages.
  • Mark Malick/Maggie Malick Wine Caves: Spectacular year – almost no rot. Chemistry was great, compares well to 2010 and 2017. 2018 rains threw off the vineyard a bit. Bud break normal. 1-2 week earlier than normal harvest.
  • Roxanne Moosher/Winery 32: This was our best harvest yet. We had minimal disease and insect pressure. Our fruit had excellent brix and pH. Flavor, color and aroma are outstanding. 

Central Virginia:

  • Ben Jordan/Early Mountain: 2019 was an excellent vintage with balanced whites and reds with ripe intensity and richness.  Moderately early bud break.  While this notably early start to the vintage was psychologically challenging, the fruit was well-balanced. It is understandable to compare 2019 to 2017, however yields were more typical and balanced in 2019, compared to high yielding 2017. 
  • Luca Paschina/Barboursville: Considering “Outstanding” as my highest score, 2019 was “Excellent-Outstanding”. By comparison, 2010 was as Excellent (hot dry season) and 2017 Excellent-Outstanding (a bit cooler than 2010 and with more mid-summer rains). I am indeed among those which would have preferred a slightly cooler season as we had in 1997-2007 2009.
  • Rachael Stinson Vrooman/Stinson Vineyard: We will see some beautiful wines come out of 2019. It was a challenging vintage in the vineyard, but the fruit was clean and super concentrated. We had quite a bit of downy mildew and drought stress in the vineyard – which sounds antithetical, but early morning dew was just enough to keep disease pressure on the leaves. Canopies started to brown and drop their leaves by early September, forcing an early harvest for most varietals. Luckily, sugar levels were high from the raisining and flavors were ripe and generous.
  • Jake Busching/Jake Busching Wines: 2019 was a challenging year for the state from the late drought perspective. No frost, good ground water presence, and a ‘normal’ spring got the vineyards up and fruiting and then it went dry mid-summer.  I think the excessive heat was the real issue; if folks didn’t see it coming and curtail leaf pulling a bit I think they may have burned some fruit. For those of us tuned into maturity I think 2019 is the best vintage we’ve had since 2009. 

Shenandoah Valley:

  • Robert Muse/Muse Vineyard: It certainly was a large vintage. Whether it will rival ’10 and ’17 in terms of quality remains to be seen. Over time we’ll see what the effect, if any, was of an exceedingly hot September that produced accelerated sugar accumulations and therefore early harvests.
  • Krista Foster/North Mountain: Harvest was plentiful; well balanced. Best harvest in 10 years.
  • Lee Hartman/Bluestone: We were really pleased with everything that came in.  I think in the Shenandoah Valley we are able to find good balance in the fruit due to cooler temperatures, day and night, as well as having lower rainfall.  We might have harvested a little early, but not as early as I would have thought closer to veraison.

Southern Virginia:

  • Virginia Hamlet/Hamlet Vineyard: I’ll just start with WOW! Hot dry July but enough water to keep things moving. No disease pressure – I mean NONE. Prettiest canopy we’ve ever had. Has anyone checked the charts of the stars because those babies aligned this year!
  • Sandy McPherson/Hunting Creek Vineyard: Our growers had a banner year! I can only hope these wines will come close to the 2010 vintage. I think 2019 in general is similar but slightly better for us in Southern VA than 2017 in terms of difficult varieties like Viognier doing very well.
  • Justin Rose/Rosemont Vineyard: We had a very wet June (the most rain we have seen in one singular month ever since we started tracking in 2005). Luckily August and September were very dry and the reds were able to concentrate and we had lower sugar levels than normal. The white wines and reds have a little less acid then I would like but not a huge deal. Therefore with the weaker acid profiles and the larger berries this year may not rank the best ever but it was very, very good.
  • Robert Schenkel/Altilo Vineyard: There was plenty of rain here during spring and early summer.  The dry weather later was perfect for us even though the heat lowered acid and raised PH.  Yields may have been less than 2017 but the quality was far superior.  2019 should be a very good vintage for Virginia wine.

October One Vineyard

Pssst…I have a secret. Would you like to know about a winery that’s the definition of a hidden gem? Since word is starting to get out, I may as well spill the beans.

I encountered October One about a year ago while having lunch at The Wine Kitchen in Leesburg. Always a fan of drinking local, I perused its Virginia wine list and saw a Cabernet Sauvignon from a place called “October One Vineyard” and was surprised – there’s a Virginia winery that’s escaped my radar! After a glass I excitedly texted a friend exclaiming “Have you heard of this place!?! This Cab is outstanding!”.

Despite that epiphany, finding their wine again proved to be difficult. Unlike most other wineries, October One doesn’t have a tasting room; you can only find them at special events, select restaurants, or a few Leesburg area farmer’s markets. As co-owner and winegrower Bob Rupy says, it’s a “winery without walls”, with its publicity primary driven by word of mouth.

But that ‘word of mouth’ is getting louder. This past October the Loudoun Wineries Association awarded Bob with its Chairman’s Grand Award for his 2018 Viognier. That’s an especially outstanding achievement given what a tough growing year 2018 was. After hearing that news, I decided it was time to track this wine down.

Several days and some Instagram-messages later, I met Bob and his wife Loree at a Leesburg farmers market and he gave me the background on October One. Bob actually helped set up Bluemont Vineyards some years back before starting this new venture. October One’s vineyard is actually on the same slope as Bluemont.

Right now they have 10 acres under vine and make around 500 cases/year (100% estate) – making for a VERY limited distribution. Currently their wine is made by Nate Walsh of Walsh Family Wine. Nate’s an awesome winemaker so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the 2018 Viognier came from him.

What I tried:

2018 Albariño: Very bright; pretty darn good for a 2018 vintage.

2018 Cabernet Franc Rose: Fuller body than I’d expect of a Rose; made in a dry style.

2018 Merlot Rose: Fantastic color! Heck, it was almost too pretty to drink.

2017 Cabernet Sauvignon: Medium body; fruity and easy drinking. Drinkable now but another year of aging wouldn’t hurt.

2016 Merlot: Strong black cherry notes.

Sadly the 2018 Viognier wasn’t for sale, as they have to hoard the remaining stock to qualify for the 2020 Governor’s Cup wine competition. But I’m sure Bob is going to save me a bottle. Right Bob? Right?

So there you are; you can consider yourself to be ‘in the know’.

Eagletree Farm Vineyards

Eagletree isn’t your typical winery experience. Whereas most wineries have charcuterie plates & baguettes, perhaps paninis or pizza, this place is a full service restaurant with cuisine made by a guy with a culinary degree (who doubles as the winemaker). Think of it as a restaurant which happens to have home-made wine as opposed to a taste-and-go winery, because EVERYTHING here revolves around food.

As they say in real estate – it’s all about LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION. Although the farm is in a somewhat residential nook north of Leesburg, it’s surrounded by other wineries with Hidden Brook, Lost Creek, Winery 32 and Fabbioli just minutes away. Suffice to say, you won’t go hungry OR thirsty in these parts.

While the vineyard has around since 1999, the restaurant is a new edition. Owners Jeff Judge and Lori McKeever previously ran McKeever’s Pub in McLean, but decided they wanted to work closer to home. Since they had plenty of available land, opening a restaurant/tasting room seemed a natural choice.

Today Eagletree has 6.5 acres under vine – so except for some upcoming Merlot all their wines are 100% estate. They even have (when in season) blueberries you can pick on your own. As Lori explained, grape vines and blueberries are a good way to help your property pay for itself, so it looked like their planning paid off.

Dining is as much about the experience as the food – and this place delivers. Eagletree feels like a mix of quaint French country cuisine meets your home dining room. When I said this to Lori she gave me a big smile because that’s exactly the vibe they were hoping for.

The oven-made pizza is very popular, but there are other options as well. I was deliberating between the Bahn Mi Thit and French onion soup until Jeff convinced me to go with the later, and ended up adding a pear & pistachio salad as well.

And yes – of course they have wine! But again, things are different here. I suppose you COULD visit for only a wine tasting…but you wouldn’t want to. These wines are designed to complement their dishes, so come hungry. When I visited, a Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Tannat and red-blend were all available (their Viognier wasn’t available on this trip). My favorite was the peppery Cabernet Franc, although I suspect their Chardonnay would have been an equally good pairing with my salad.

I enjoyed the wine, but this was definitely a culinary experience first and foremost. If you’re ever looking for a place to eat while winery-hoping in the Leesburg area, skip the cheese plates or food trucks and visit here instead!

Sunset Hills Vineyard

Sunset Hills is one of the most recognizable wineries in Loudoun. After all, how many places have tasting rooms based on a 150 year old barn, renovated by Amish craftsmen?

As one of the larger and more established wineries in the region, it’s also one of the busier ones. Lucky for me, I was able to visit on a Friday when things were relatively slow. I originally arranged a chat with tasting room manager Kevin Donley, but as luck would have it co-owner Mike Canney was around so he sat down with me as well.

Sunset planted its first vines in 1999, with 2005 being their first vintage. Doug Fabbioli was their first winemaker but now that title goes to Corry Craighill – recent winner of the 2019 Loudoun County winemaker of the year. Mike was exceptionally proud how Sunset is an ‘all woman managed winery’, specifically referring to their general manager, vineyard manager, and winemaker. Mike might add his wife Diane to that mix, although the two of them seem to take a hands-off approach to day to day operations.

I was surprised to learn their production of 10,000 cases/year is 100% estate; for a winery this size you’d think they’d need to purchase fruit. But with 5 separate vineyards scattered across the state they are actually in a position to sell fruit. Sunset’s production also covers sister winery 50 West, not far away in Middleburg. Although Corry makes wines from both locations using the same vineyards, she keeps the two wineries stylistically different from one another, to the point that certain grape varietals may only go to one or the other.

After I told Mike I had just come from Creek’s Edge, he explained my current surroundings should seem familiar; after all, Sunset’s barn was refurbished by the same Amish crew that built Creek’s Edge. As I looked from the 2nd floor loft it was impossible not to admire their handiwork; the high vaulted ceilings created sense of spaciousness, even when it was busy. They even had food options in the form of paninis and lighter fare.

The grounds outside are equally spacious; in good weather they have an outdoor tasting barn with a covered fire pit. Mike also gave me a quick tour of their barrel room.

Almost all the wines were made in a dry style, with a few off-dry exceptions. Sadly no Tannat or Petit Verdot on today’s menu!

2017 Chardonnay: Fermented half in steel and half in the barrel. Soft with some creaminess.

NV “Sunset White”: Blend of 50% Traminette, with smaller portions of Viognier, Vidal, and a splash of Albariño. It has less than 1% sugar but it could probably fool a sweet drinker.

2018 Sunset Rose: Surprising complexity for a Rose; 45% Merlot but also Cabernet Franc and some Cab Sauv.

NV Sunset Red: The first of their Bordeaux-blends, but made in a light, easy drinking style.

2016 Cabernet Franc: Kinda fruity with some pepper to it.

2015 Mosaic: Their flagship wine. The nose advertised its complexity before I even had a taste of it. Needless to say this was my favorite.

2014 Dusk: Chambourcin-based port style. Up until this point I thought the Mosaic had the best nose of the bunch, but this definitely came close.

Creek’s Edge Winery

Creek’s Edge is the result of mixing together a bunch of Amish craftsman, a chef, and an up and coming winemaker. Located only 15 minutes away from other wineries in the Leesburg cluster, it makes a great book-end (or the start) of a wine day trip. It’s also one of the most physically stunning tasting rooms anywhere in Virginia.

Jeremy Ligon has been their winemaker since 2015, not long after they opened. Ironically I learned about him during an interview with his family, who own Hunting Creek Vineyard (way down in southern Virginia). If that isn’t enough, none other than Jason Murray of Arterra Wines (perhaps my favorite winemaker in the state) helped convince Jeremy to take the path of a winemaker. Small world!

We started with a discussion of my favorite part of any winery – the vineyard. Creek’s Edge has 34 acres under vine; 4 on site and the rest at a vineyard just down the road. As of 2019 they were making around 4000 cases/year, with 80% of their grapes estate-grown. They previously used some out of state grapes to augment their harvest, but have been gradually weening themselves off of that for several years. While some older bottles are labeled as “American wine” (due to the use of these out of state grapes), Jeremy explained that even back then, this comprised only a small portion of the juice.

Jeremy treated me to an impromptu barrel tasting of juice from the 2019 vines. This year’s crop had turned out great and he was psyched about the quality of his future wines. And joining us on this tasting was none other than Boone, the winery wonder dog! Have I mentioned I’m totally a dog person? Heck, I should have an Instagram dedicated to winery pets.

As we ascended the stairs to the main tasting room, it was impossible not to admire the architecture. The tower-like stairwell is the signature structure of the building, but everything is a marvel to behold. The tasting area is huge, buttressed by the fireplace on one end and the tasting bar at the other. The tables were made of black walnut taken from the property. The entire room felt like a cross between an Amish barn and a dream hunting cabin, complete with what looked like a chandelier made of antlers.

Jeremy had to depart early, but not before he went over what’s cooking in the kitchen. As the General Manager, he was especially proud of the food options. While most wineries have your standard baguettes and charcuterie plates, Creek’s Edge went all out with a full-fledged kitchen. Before we left, a friend & I ended up feasted on pork shoulder and deviled eggs near the fireplace while enjoying some glasses.

Jeremy passed me over to Mercedes, who guided me through a very extensive tasting of Jeremy’s wines. What we tried:

Sparkling Viognier: I swear this was cider! The nose and taste was dead on as cider.

2017 Vidal: Although Vidal us usually sweet this was at best off-dry; I found melon notes and it had some weight to it.

2018 Rose: Orange-colored, reminded me of a Provenance-style Rose. Strong notes of rose water.

2017 Viognier: Dark lemon color and fresh honey nose.

2017 Chardonnay: 60/40 split between fermented in steel tanks and neutral oak. Crisp and light apple notes. I liked this a lot.

2017 Water’s Edge: A Vidal that Jeremy called a ‘starter wine’, mostly because it was less than 1% sugar.

2017 Estate Cabernet Franc: Tiny bit of fruit up front, with cherry notes. But no pepper and spice notes which I often find in other Cab Francs.

2017 Reserve Cabernet Franc: Bramble fruit notes, and this time I found those spice notes.

2016 Petit Verdot: Nice nose! Medium-full body, nice pepper notes. I ended up with a glass of this.

2016 Vintner’s Blend: The black cherry notes came on strong; I swear I found strong acid or tannin as well.

2018 Sweet Caroline: A Vidal desert wine to satisfy those with a sweet tooth; it has 5% sugar!

2015 Hunting Hull: Chambourcin port-style that I liked, even though it was on the sweeter side.

Fifty-Third Winery and Vineyard

The opportunity to visit Fifty-Third (formerly known as Cooper Vineyards) poised an interesting question for me; if a winery rebrands, does it count as a ‘new’ winery on my checklist? I’d been to (and enjoyed) Cooper years back, but hadn’t revisited since they changed names in 2017. As I’m on a quest to visit every winery in Virginia, the opportunity to add another check-mark on my roster was irresistible.

Fifty-Third is so named because – wait for it – it was the 53rd farm winery in the state, planted back in 1999. David and Susan Drillock purchased the winery in 2015 and gradually made it their own. The rebranding was slowly rolled out, and even now their website and Facebook advertises them as Cooper Vineyard.

A new name wasn’t their only adjustment, as around that time the Drillocks hired Chelsey Belvins as their assistant wine maker. A former ‘cellar rat’ who started in the wine industry by cleaning tanks, Chelsey’s resume includes being a former Wine Librarian at Barboursville (which has to be the best library job ever) to recently becoming head wine maker at Fifty-Third.

The change of ownership brought other benefits as well. David and Susan brought with them a 23 acre vineyard in the Monticello AVA, most of which is vinifera. Coupled with the 20 acres on site, they have enough to produce 5000 cases/year of mostly estate wine.

Marie guided me through my tasting. I must have that ‘wine geek’ look about me, because she waived me over as soon as I walked in. The tasting room was PACKED, but we found an empty corner to tell me not only about the wine, but the building itself.

See, their tasting room isn’t just fancy; it’s one of the most eco-friendly tasting rooms on the east coast. We went over the checklist that certified them as “LEED Platinum” and it was impressive; solar panels, geothermal heating-cooling, pellet stoves, recycled wood, the whole shebang. And it looks good!

But time to talk wine!

The tasting menu gives you a tremendous biggest bang-for-your-buck, and the funny thing is she didn’t pour anything that wasn’t already open. I’m glad I didn’t have any follow on events to attend to, as this was more than enough for a day.

We started with 8 white wines, plus a rose. There was something here for every palate, be it the 2018 Albarino with strong lemon notes, the light 2017 Chardonnel, dry 2017 Chardonnay, or 2018 Vidal with orange peel and apricot notes. Rounding out the whites was the Shannon Hill white blend with a nice vanilla nose, and the 2017 Rose made with Chardonnel. All the wines were very wallet-friendly as well.

I was particularly taken by the 2017 Viognier/Chardonnay blend, which had just enough oak to give it some nice mouthfeel. My ‘runner up’ was the 2017 Petit Manseng which was heavy on the tongue and had lots of tropical fruit.

Moving on to the reds, we tried their “Two Springs” red blend, a Cab Franc, Chambourcin, Norton and a Petit Verdot. The PV surprised me as the tannins didn’t overpower the fruit notes, while the Cab Franc was soft for this varietal.  But the biggest surprise was the Norton; ‘Virginia’s most well behaved Norton’ as Marie put it. It was very soft, which she attributes to a splash of Tannat.

Finishing things off were an assortment of sweet/desert wines. At 9% the “Sweet Louisa” was high on sugar and made with some Concord. The “Vida” was an ice-style wine that begs to be paired with desert. The Exodus was a Norton port-style that was super rich – and I liked it a lot. The Red Genesis was another Norton desert wine that had less alcohol content but more sugar.

Last was the bottle that ‘built the new tasting room’, their “Noche” Norton-based chocolate wine. Let me tell you; I’m not a chocolate wine drinker, or a sweet wine drinker in general. In the future I’ll make an exception to this. It was rich and desert-y, kinda like eating a chocolate cheesecake.

Great visit to an exceptional place!

Fox Meadow Winery

A revisit to Fox Meadow had been on my radar for a bit, but good fortune allowed me to get there sooner than I anticipated. Not only were they participating at a high-tier wine tasting at L’auberge Provencale, owners Cheryl and Dan Mortland were the ones pouring. Needless to say I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to schmooze, and an appointment was set for the next morning.

As you drive in the first thing you notice is the scenery. Located around 1700 feet on the Blue Ridge Mountains, it has one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen in the state. I’ve admired it so much that when I set up this blog, I even made it my site’s profile picture. The view is just THAT good.

Look at that view!

When I arrived Dan was seated at a table near one of the windows, busily typing away. I’m not sure how he was able to get any work done since if it was me, I’d have just sat there all day and enjoyed the fall colors. Nevertheless, he greeted me and gave the background on their operation.

Wine making is definitely in the family’s blood; Dan proudly showed me a certificate on the wall detailing how the family was now in its 8th generation in the wine business, with roots going back to Germany. Today, his son Bob manages the business while Tom Payette, a well-known east coast consultant, is the wine maker.

As they say in real estate – it’s all about LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION. I suppose that’s always true, but it’s doubly accurate for vineyards. Fox Meadow produces around 3000 cases/year (mostly estate fruit) using 12.5 acres under vine. Most of the vineyard is composed of French varietals, although they have some Pinto Grigio and Vidal as well. Sadly their Riesling will soon be a thing of the past, as it doesn’t grow well enough to warrant keeping it.

After chit-chatting about the vineyard we delved into the wines. Here, wines are paired with a tiny bite of food to bring out the more subtle flavors of both. My favorite was the Amish cheddar, which accentuated the creaminess of the Chardonnay it was paired with. It’s a nice touch that only a handful of Virginia wineries do.

What I tried:

2018 Pinot Grigio: Bright, with nectar notes. Paired with a Tuscan cheddar which softened the finish.

2018 Chardonnay, made in new-ish French oak. Although 2018 was a horribly wet year this came out very nicely.

2017 Riesling: Made in a semi-sweet style with notes of citrus and flowers.

2017 Chambourcin: Made in American Oak. Full bodied and had a big mouthfeel. Pomegranate notes.

2018 Sunset: Not sure what the grapes were, but I think it was a blend. Reminded me of fruit punch.

2017 Merlot: Not part of the main tasting – but I had an opportunity taste it the night before and I kept going back for refills. A few glasses made the price of admission to an otherwise pricy event well worth it.

We polished off the tasting with a dry rose which had an amazing cherry color.

Dan finished my visit with a visit to the barrel room and bottling line. They had only recently harvested and the wines were just beginning their multi-month fermentation process; periodically we’d hear a ‘glug glug glug’ from the barrels. I was heartened to hear the 2019 growing season was especially awesome here, perhaps the best they’ve ever had in the 14 years they’ve been making wine. While these wines will take another 2-3 years before they’ll be behind the tasting counter, I’m planning on returning a lot sooner than that.