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.