I don’t know what it is about wine tasting, but wine always seems to taste better when the owner is pouring it. Do the stories make it taste better? The setting? Or just the idea you’re getting some kind of special treatment? Well, all of the above was true when I did the cellar tasting at Chateau O’Brien.
Owner Howard O’Brien takes a very hands-on approach to his winery, from blending trials to bottling the wine. But one of his favorite parts of the job is doing cellar tastings, all of which he leads personally. Howard is also a big proponent of my all-time favorite grape in the world – Tannat.
I’d like to think Howard’s Tannat wines helped put this grape on the Virginia wine map. Of the 40-something acres planted in the state, 8 belong to Chateau O’Brien. Not coincidentally, his Tannat won Gold at Uruguay’s Concurso Internacional Tannat Al Mundo wine competition – the only American wine to do so. If you’re going to compete against other Tannat wines, the country whose national grape is Tannat is the place to win.
Located in a refurbished farmhouse with views of the hills of the Blue Ridge, the tasting room has exactly the rustic feel that I look for in a Virginia winery. Although they hold events (I’m especially partial to his St. Patty’s Day celebrations), parties aren’t the centerpiece here – O’Brien is one of the most wine-centric locations I know.
For starters, the wines on the tasting menu are aged longer than possibly any other place in the state. When most Virginia wineries are serving red wines that are 2-3 years old, O’Brien is serving wines that are 7-8 years old. Their ‘average’ upstairs tasting is the equivalent to a special reserve tasting at most places. To top things off, they serve their wines in Riedel glasses – a touch I rarely see elsewhere in Virginia.
While most of my visits are spent tasting his selection of reds, this time I sampled Howard’s whites and roses. I really enjoyed the easy-drinking 2017 Northpoint White (Chardonnay) and Tannat Rosé, but my favorite this time around was April’s Apple Rosé – one of the most complex roses I’ve had in a while. Rounding out the white tasting was the Apple Ice Wine, an Apple/Blueberry, and a Petit Manseng.
Then off to the reds! But to make this visit special I wasn’t here for regular tasting; today was a visit to the cellar.
It’s not just the wines that make cellar tastings special. I love the intimacy – and the stories. Howard is a real character who’s owned a number of businesses before opening this winery in 2006. As he pours he tells you about the winery and the particular vintages you’re tasting.
You can tell he has an excellent growing location because the fruit profiles of his reds tend towards exceptional ripeness, even varietals like Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon that aren’t great producers in Virginia. Cellar tastings include at least four wines, although occasionally he throws in a surprise.
2013 Malbec: Excellent! Fruity and complex at the same time. O’Brien is one of the few places in Virginia that consistently produces full-flavored Malbec.
Luigi’s Luscious Red (NV?): I didn’t get the varietals, but my suspicion is its Cab Franc heavy with lots of Bordeaux friends. Spice notes on the nose and palate.
2012 Vintner’s Reserve (Tannat/Petit Verdot/Malbec): Super smooth with a long finish. I mean, George Clooney smooth. It was that good.
2012 Tannat: I’d say ‘save the best for last’ although this was up there with the Vintner’s. Long, long finish, full bodied. You could sense the tannin, but the age allowed them to smooth out.
The Staff (Desert style, Norton/Apple wine blend): This was not part of the cellar tasting but I’ll mention it anyway, since I got it as a treat upstairs. Caveat: I’m not a big fan of Norton. But this was unlike any Norton-based wine I’ve had. It isn’t fortified but it’s exceptionally strong.