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 Saperavi (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.

Tannat Night at Maggie Malick Wine Caves: 2021 Edition

In late July we conducted our second Tannat Night, hosted by Mark and Maggie Malick. It was a different crowd from last year but nevertheless included around a dozen experienced wine professionals to ‘talk Tannat’, including winemakers or other representatives from Barrel Oak Winery, Bluemont Vineyard, Delaplane Cellars, Fabbioli Cellars, Effingham Manor, and our host Maggie Malick Wine Caves.

This time we had a wider assortment of Virginia wine, especially in terms of vintage year. The outstanding 2017 vintage was especially well represented. We had several 2017s at our last event but often felt they were on the younger side. 17 months made a difference in smoothing these tannins out.

Our Tannat crew

For those unfamiliar with the variety, Tannat is a high tannin & acid grape originally from the Madiran region of France. While Madiran is its spiritual home Tannat is now better known as the national grape of Uruguay. Small plantings also exist in California, Argentina and Australia.

But Tannat is a good fit for Virginia’s terroir as our hotter summers makes us suitable for high acid wines, as the heat reduces their acidity to more manageable levels. While it currently constitutes just over 2% of Virginia’s vinifera plantings, over the past decade local growers have doubled their acreage from around 20 acres in 2009 to almost 50 in 2019. Its main drawback is its vines are susceptible to cold damage, an occasional problem given Virginia’s variable winters.

Mark pruning his Tannat vines, guarded by the flag of Uruguay

Tannat can definitely fill the ‘big red’ category for Virginia that Cabernet Sauvignon holds for California. It’s inky and big and will blow you away. Mark Malick calls it a ‘go big or go home’ wine. A number of Virginia wineries use it as a blending grape to give their reds color and structure. Many of these – especially in Charlottesville and Northern Virginia – also produce single-varietal bottles.

In deciding the lineup I did my best to compare a Virginia wine vs. another example in every round, although we eventually ran out of non-Virginia wines for 1-1 comparisons. I also started us off with several of our best wines, on the assumption that over time tasting would become…more difficult.

Having a loud, opinionated crowd made it a fun night – although sometimes we seemed to forget to talk about the wine right in front of us. To top it all off Mark made us cassoulet, which we enjoyed after the 4th round. All tasting descriptors listed here are what was I was able to glean from different participants, as well as my own notes.

Mark and his cassoulet

Round 1

2017 Maggie Malick (Virginia): This wine won the 2021 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (SFCWC) for best Tannat in class, beating three other double gold winners. “Rich” was our immediate byword. Its American oak was noticeable on the nose. This wine had lots of structure, with obvious cherry and raspberry notes and a lingering finish. We felt this was one of the best of the night (more than a few would say it was the best).

2017 Kerrville Hills (Texas): This also won double gold at the 2021 SFCWC, and was graciously gifted to us by Kerrville for this tasting event. The crowd immediately detected a lighter nose than what we were expecting. Participants voiced different perceptions of its tannin level, ranging from lighter to heavier tannin structure. It was fruit forward, although not as much as some of our following wines. We noted an interesting contrast in that it was darker in color but had a lighter mouthfeel. “Sharp” tannin structure. Everyone really enjoyed this bottle.

Round 2

2018 Effingham (Virginia): The night’s third double gold winner at the 2021 SFCWC competition (right below the Kerrville wine). These three double golds couldn’t be more different. The Effingham was a softer, less intense Tannat, representative of Virginia’s rainy 2018 season. 14 months in Virginia oak. Some detected a “warm-sweet” note to it. All around we enjoyed it.

2017 Pizzorno (Uruguay): Our first Uruguay Tannat of the evening. “Funky” was the key adjective. This wine had some weight to it. Some participants detected a little brett (aka Brettanomyces yeast) but not the ‘bad’ kind of brett that winemakers guard against. All around, I think people didn’t love but it but we still generally liked it.

Round 3

2014 Maggie Malick (Virginia): Our 2nd best in class/double gold of the evening, this time from the 2017 San Francisco International Wine Competition. This wine spent 2-3 years in barrel. Coco on the finish. Subtle oak, grippier tannins. Another hit from Maggie.

2010 Barrel Oak (Virginia): One of our oldest vintages of the evening. This was a lower acid, higher alcohol wine that ‘tastes great…for an 11 year old wine’. Considering its vintage it still aged well; the fruit may have been on the decline but we felt it had some fruit notes left. Doug Fabbioli commented this wine disproves comments from those critics who claimed the 2010 vintage wouldn’t stand the test of time.

Round 4

2017 Effingham (Virginia): This wine left everyone impressed, and was a group favorite alongside the 2017 Maggie Tannat. Notes of coco, bramble fruit, raspberry and leather. Well balanced and spicy.

2016 Domaine Du Moulie (Madiran, France). This was a very different wine than what we’ve had so far. No wood characteristics, lots of fruit. Tasting notes included mint & eucalyptuses on the palate, perhaps some spice. But overall, the tannins were muted – a trait we felt was due to Madiran’s growing conditions.

Round 5

2016 Jake Busching (Virginia): Good acid and fruit. Nicely balanced & good finish. Some described ‘sweet fruit’ notes up front. The oak was well integrated. It was a little vegetal but this is one of the few times I don’t think of that descriptor as a negative.

2013 Michael David “Inkblot” (Lodi, California): At 14.8% alcohol it was ‘hot’. Coco characteristics, dusty tannin. Overly ripe fruit. Our only California wine of the evening. We were surprised we didn’t like it more…maybe we all have too much of a Virginia palate?

Round 6

2017 Delaplane Cellars (Virginia): Gold medal in the Virginia Governor’s Cup. Made in new Hungarian oak. It was lingering and accessible. It was well received although I didn’t get a clear profile of the wine.

2020 Pizzorno (Uruguay): One of the more divisive wines of the night, as it was made using carbonic maceration. Bright fruit notes. Maggie noted it was meant to be served chilled, so what was in our glass may not have been its best representation. While few of us enjoyed it, we acknowledged that it shouldn’t be judged in the same way as our other wines as it was a different way of making Tannat.

Round 7

2009 Fabbioli Cellars (Virginia): Oldest vintage and richest nose of any bottle that evening. Fruit was on the decline but we could tell it was a good wine, the “Sofia Loren of wines” for that evening if you will. Herb and sweet liquorish on the nose.

2016 Garzon (Uruguay): Put it this way – it was good for $20. It was obviously not an ‘artisanal’ wine, but instead mass produced to satisfy a large audience. Doug had some funny analogies to describe his opinion of a mass produced yet satisfying wine.

Round 8

2017 Hiddencroft (Virginia): We felt this wine was fruit forward, with more prominent wood (at least compared to the others). It also seemed a younger wine, as the tannins seems ‘green’.

2017 Bluemont (Virginia): Made in neutral barrels. Maybe mild lavender on the nose. On the palate, comments varied from tobacco and chocolate nibs. Well balanced but young.

Round 9

2017 Walsh Family Wine (Virginia): Tasting notes were difficult by this point, which may not be fair to Walsh since I’ve had it before and always enjoyed it. Some detected heavier oak. It had intensity but not as much fruit as the others. “Dark” and “big’ were the key adjectives.

2019 Briedé Family Vineyards (Virginia): Sweet, bright, young. Those are the only tasting notes you get after you’ve tried 18 Tannats in an evening.

In summary – the two favorites were the 2017 Maggie and the 2017 Effingham, which shouldn’t be a surprise given what a strong year that was. After those two it seemed we enjoyed a broad grouping, including (in no particular order), the 2016 Texas Kerrville, 2014 Maggie, 2016 Jake Busching, 2017 Delaplane, and 2017 Bluemont.

Two of the best of the night!

What did I learn?

Most importantly, I think we demonstrated that Tannats from different states and countries had distinct stylistic differences. I’d go even further in saying the examples from Virginia were most diverse of the lineup, which shouldn’t be surprising given the different growing conditions in the state.

Some Virginia Tannats were more tannin & earth-driven, while others were richer & fruitier. By contrast, the examples from Uruguay and France were uniformly fruit forward. The major outlier was Texas, which was closer in style to Virginia than either Uruguay or France.

Sadly we only had one example (but an excellent one) from the Lone Star State. I believe Texas Tannats are worthy of more sampling…for the sake of science of course.   I fully acknowledge given how many of us have a “Virginia palate” we may be biased in choosing our favorites. That said, I do think the Virginia Tannats we enjoyed that evening were more complex and balanced than the Uruguay and French examples. As Virginia summers become even warmer, perhaps we’ll see even more of Tannat in the upcoming years.

Our Tannat lineup