My visit to Barren Ridge was in no small part an effort to make up for a lost opportunity. A few weeks earlier I received an invite to the 2019 Shenandoah Wine Cup gala, but couldn’t attend as I had other blog opportunities lined up that I didn’t want to miss (rough life, right?). It so happened that Barren Ridge won the competition. I figured that was enough incentive to add them to my next Shenandoah Valley excursion.
Barren Ridge is on west side of Rockfish Gap, which separates the Shenandoah from Charlottesville. Owners John and Shelby Higgs opened it in 2008, right at the beginning of the great Virginia wine boom. While today this area has a great reputation for viticulture (it’s the driest area in the state), the converting of an old orchard to a winery must have seemed quite a risk at the time. But the Higgs were determined to put their family property to work, and so Barren Ridge was born.
As soon as I walked in I was greeted by a nice older lady with the southern drawl. Little did I know this was Shelby, who still introduces herself to her guests and asks if they are enjoying themselves. Chatting her was a real treat, since I got to learn not just about Barren Ridge but a bit about the wine boom that Barren Ridge was part of. For the next 30 minutes I was regaled with a ton of stories, often ending in “Oh, don’t print that” but also immediately followed by “Oh, never mind go ahead!”.
It turns out that Barren Ridge has ties with folks who are the equivalent of rock stars in the Virginia wine industry. Michael Shaps – likely the most award-winning winemaker in the state – initially helped with their wine making. That job has since been taken over by Jesse Gatewood, who studied under “Godfather of the Virginia wine industry” Gabrielle Rausse. Viticulturist Chris Hill still consults here. With names like that I quickly realized I was in for a treat.
Today, Barren Ridge has 12 acres under vine (plus 3 leased) and produces 4500 cases/year. Almost all the wine comes from these vines except their Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Surprisingly they also grow some Touriga Nationale – a rarity in Virginia.
Eventually we found ourselves at the tasting bar. I enjoyed the whites, especially their citrucy 2017 Riesling (although the nutty 2017 Chardonnay was nice as well). Those with a sweeter tooth might prefer the 2018 Harmony white blend, which while tart could fool you into thinking it was actually sweeter than it was. Ending the white flight was an apple wine – a tribute to Barren Ridges’ origin as an orchard.
Transitioning to reds, the 2017 Cab Franc was light and peppery. The 2016 Merlot was earthy, while the 2017 Touriga was especially smokey. Following this was was their 2017 Red Barren, which was sorta an off-dry wine (and 50% Chambourcin), then their port-style.
The highlight was a vertical of their 2014 and 2015 Meritages. The 14 was medium and rounded out nicely, while the 15 somewhat reminded me of that wild rawness you get in strawberries. Although the 15 was the winner of the Shenandoah Cup, I actually liked the 14 better.
Also a special thanks to Nancy, who poured for me at the tasting bar!