Virginia’s Forgotten Winery: Belmont Vineyards

Virginia prides itself as the birthplace of American wine. The first chapter of Virginia’s viticultural history started in 1619 when settlers at Jamestown were instructed to plant grape vines. This story is usually followed by how Thomas Jefferson repeatedly tried but failed to make wine using vinifera (grapes from the Mediterranean region) at his estate in Monticello. But the narrative usually jumps from Jefferson to the 1970s when Barboursville Vineyards and others started making local wine for the first time since prohibition.

Not nearly as well known is the century between these benchmarks, including how in 1880 Virginia was the 5th largest wine producer in the United States. Norton, an American variety discovered in the early-1800s, was the state’s main grape. It was so popular a Norton from the Monticello Wine Company won gold at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873 and silver in Paris in 1878. At the start of the 20th century Charlottesville was calling itself the “Capital of the Wine Belt in Virginia,” although vineyards dotted the entire state.

One of these vineyards was Belmont, located not far from the northern entrance to what is now Shenandoah National Park. Once reaching over 100 acres of vines, at its peak Belmont may have been the largest vineyard in the state.

Belmont wine label. Source: Dr. Carole Nash

Belmont was founded by Marcus Blakemore Buck (1816-1881), a member of a prominent Front Royal family. In 1847, Marcus purchased nearly 2,000 acres in the mountains just outside the city. Half he subsequently sold, but the remaining land he turned into his farm.

According to research by archeologist Dr. Carole Nash of James Madison University, by 1863 the business included 80 acres of vines and 10 acres of sugar cane, farmed by slaves. The end of slavery and destruction of the local rail network led Marcus to diversify his business, adding a distillery that sold whiskey to local pharmacies.

Belmont homestead. Source: Shenandoah National Park

In 1875, Marcus fell on hard times, resulting in the sale of Belmont to his cousin T. A. Ashby, who brought the farm back to prosperity. Virginia cartographer Jed Hotchkiss included Belmont in his 1884 science and business journal, saying, “The Belmont Vineyard, on the Blue Ridge near Front Royal, Warren co., Va., is … probably the largest vineyard in the state, as it has over 100 acres in grapes of various kinds.”

By the 1880s Belmont was producing as much as 20,000 gallons of sweet red wine, port, and dry red. It was also a nursery, selling vines to other vineyards. Newspapers referenced Ashby growing over a dozen grape varieties including Catawba, Concord, Delaware, and Norton.

Belmont wine bottle. Source: Shenandoah National Park

These wines were sold throughout the U.S. According to letters republished in the Front Royal Sentinel, “The reputation of the Belmont wines is attested to the fact that during the last year 6,000 gallons of them were shipped to Minnesota alone, besides large quantities to Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, and other states.”

Belmont’s success was also in part due to of good timing. France’s own wine industry was still recovering from the ravages of phylloxera, and the recent completion of the Transcontinental railroad hadn’t yet transformed the American economy. Virginia vineyards had unprecedented market access that allowed them to grow.

These good times couldn’t last forever. By 1900 the business had folded, likely a victim of competition from California wine, economic depression, and the state’s nascent prohibition movement.

Belmont’s remnants were lost to history until a Park Ranger discovered grape vines growing along Dicky Ridge, not far off Skyline Drive. The Park contacted Dr. Nash to investigate further.

Nash and her students explored the farm using advanced geospatial technology as well as old-fashioned fieldwork. Their discoveries included a pair of underground wine cellars, several farmsteads, a road system, and multiple stone walls that marked the vineyard’s boundaries.

LiDAR map of Belmont. Red dotted lines indicate Dicky Ridge Trail, while the yellow lines indicate Skyline Drive. Source: Shenandoah National Park

Her team was also able to trace the outline of several fields. Even over a century later, Belmont’s grapes can be found growing in the wild.

Potential explorers should be warned; this is not an easy hike and its remains are protected under law. The Park Service tore down the remaining buildings in the 1950s. Only stone walls, flattened land, a large pit, and the corner of a building are visible to the naked eye.

While Belmont Vineyards is long gone, it left a legacy that was taken up by future generations.

According to Shenandoah National Park Cultural Resource Program Manager Dr. Brinnen Carter, “I think Belmont showed you that Virginia can do industrial scale production of wine.” During its peak, Belmont produced the equivalent of 8,000 cases of wine a year. That number is even more impressive when Virgina’s population in 1880 was only 1/5th of what it is today.

While vinifera grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay make up over 80% of today’s Virginia vineyards, hybrid varieties such as Vidal Blanc and Traminette are widely used, primarily to produce sweet wines. And Marcus Buck would be proud to know that Norton is thriving in Virginia today, with over 100 acres planted.

Chrysalis Vineyards is by far the largest producer, but DuCard Vineyards and others are also making red wines with outstanding character using the Norton grape.

Hybrid and American grapes have an important place in the overall Virginia vineyard industry due to their hardiness, an important trait as climate change causes increasingly extreme weather patterns. Their ability to thrive without requiring the same degree of pesticides and anti-fungal spraying also makes them better suited for sustainable agriculture and organic winemaking.

To learn more about the history of Virginia wine, look up The Birthplace of American Wine: The Untold Story behind Virginia’s Vines – Virginia’s Travel Blog.

Women Take Top Honors in Maryland and Virginia

My latest article of the Old Town Crier is now published.

I had the opportunity to chat with the top-winning winemakers in both states; Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards and Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown Winery. Both won their state’s most recent top-wine awards, with Melanie earning the Virginia Governor’s Cup in March and Lauren winning both the 2021 Maryland Governor’s Cup and 2022 Comptroller’s Cup.

For Virginia, it was the first time a female has ever been awarded the Virginia Governor’s Cup in the event’s 40-year history. For Maryland, it was Lauren’s second win of the Maryland Governor’s Cup.

One last fact-oid; only around 15% of Virginia winemakers and 20% of Maryland Winemakers are female.

https://oldtowncrier.com/2022/05/01/women-take-top-honors-in-maryland-and-virginia/

Virginia Governor’s Cup Wrap Up

A compilation of all Gold Medal and Governors Case winners in the Virginia Governor’s Cup, 2012-2022.

Blends are listed when the composition is known.

Don’t forget to follow my Facebook page at: Wine Trails and Wanderlust | Facebook

Or my Instagram Matthew Fitzsimmons (@winetrailsandwanderlust) • Instagram photos and videos

Mixing It Up With Locally Crafted Vermouth

Saying Virginia is known for its craft beverages is an understatement. The state hosts almost 300 wineries, over 200 breweries, roughly 40 distilleries, at least 30 cideries, and nearly a dozen meaderies. But did you know we make our own vermouth as well?

If there was ever a beverage that’s misunderstood, it’s vermouth. It’s not quite a wine, but not quite a spirit either. Most people think of it as a cocktail mixer (think Negronis and Martinis) or aperitif, but vermouth can be enjoyed on its own.

Even defining vermouth is becoming difficult as American producers become more creative in their choice of botanicals. Virginia vermouths are equally diverse.

So What’s A Vermouth?

Put simply, vermouth is an aromatized (flavored with spices, herbs, or other florals) fortified wine. It likely started as a medicinal tonic, as the beverage’s botanical qualities made the medicine go down more easily. The alchemists who made the first vermouths must have realized they were on to something, so a trend began.

Modern vermouth includes a wine base, bittering agent, spirit for fortification, and a sweetener. While traditionally made with wormwood (vermouth is actually the French pronunciation of the word wermut, the German name for this herb), the term vermouth is increasingly applied to any aromatized wine. However, purists would argue that without wormwood, it may be an aromatized wine but it’s not a vermouth.

Vermouth’s popularity is in large part due to its versatility. It provides cocktails an array of flavor profiles without requiring the bartender to add more ingredients. When you narrow it down, there are three major types of vermouth; sweet (red), dry (white), and blanc.

Sweet vermouths are usually paired with richer drinks like bourbon or rum and are a component of Manhattans and Negronis. Dry vermouth goes with lighter spirits. Blanc vermouths are typically a half-way point between the red and white versions, and may be sipped straight.

Virginia Vermouths Gaining Traction

Only a handful of vermouths are made in Virginia, usually by local winemakers. This small scale production means local ingredients play a prominent role, giving mixologists something new and exciting to play with. Virginia vermouth-makers can also boast that these are craft products, with a quality and complexity that allows them to be enjoyed on their own or used in a cocktail.

Kelly Allen and Andrew Napier of Artemisia Farm and Vineyard are amongst this small group of vermouth-makers. Kelly explained, “We want to capture Virginia’s terroir as an abstract essence.” While Artemisia’s current focus is their CSA farm, making bitters, sparkling, and vermouth is a growing project. Members of their Paetreon even receive a small sample of what’s to come.

Vermouth wasn’t one of the products in Rosemont Vineyards & Winery‘s original business plan, but Justin Rose loved the idea of making something new.

“It was really our distributor’s idea. We had some white wine we hadn’t used. But our distributor asked us to make one so we jumped at the idea. We’ve partnered with Capitoline, which has the expertise on the botanicals we should use and how.

Ours is a little different. We use birch bark instead of wormwood as a bittering agent. Traditionally the botanicals are infused into the wine, but we use the botanicals in the brandy first then blend it. We also use local honey instead of sugar as a sweetener, which gives it a nice aromatic profile. So we’ve tried to keep it regional and local.

It’s something that we’re ramping up from a fun little side project to something that now has turned into a bigger project. We’ve used it on the rocks as an aperitif, or occasionally as a gin and tonic.”

For Flying Fox Vineyard, vermouth fits into the winery’s profile as a place for winemaker Emily Pelton to test her more experimental ideas. Their vermouth was inspired by Emily’s exploratory trip to Portugal where she noticed how many people were enjoying it as a drink as opposed to a mixer.

Co-owner George Hodson said that led to a focus on developing a more sippable drink, where the intensity was dialed back so not to be as sweet or bitter, but more in the middle. ”Local botanicals are the key,” George explained. “It was lots of trial and error; especially learning when we add these bittering agents.” Even the brandy is derived from their own grapes.

Flying Fox Vineyards, Sarah Hauser photo credit

Emily’s formula was a hit. While a large portion goes to the local bar scene, over half of their production is sold at the winery. George explained this format, “fundamentally flips the vermouth world. More people are getting used to sipping it on its own.”

Flying Fox makes four vermouths, each with its own seasonal flavor profile. While they make over 1000 bottles a year, they’ve continually ramped up production to meet growing demand.

Dr. Joy Ting is no stranger to experimentation. As the head enologist of the Winemaker’s Research Exchange, she works with winemakers from around the state to identify areas of practical research. She also makes a number of small-batch wines under her own eponymous label, and recently partnered with the Wool Factory to produce a vermouth for their restaurant, Broadcloth.

In explaining how she got into making vermouth, she exclaimed, “It’s a hidden gem! As a winemaker we often don’t get to try multiple things but with vermouth we get to play around with it.” Her vermouth uses brandy from a local distillery, made in a dryer style but with some sugar to offset the bitterness.

Broadcloth was a natural partner because of their bar program and focus on using local, seasonal Virginia ingredients. But her take as to why Virginia vermouth is taking off is due to how Virginia winemakers are by nature focused on small batch, craft creations where they can focus on the small details.

For more local vermouths, also try out Mt. Defiance Distillery in Middleburg, and look out for Walsh Family Wine which is coming out with their own.

Sweet Vines Make Fine Wines

For Black History Month I drew upon a very informative discussion on one of my favorite Facebook groups concerning how to make Virginia wineries more welcoming to Black patrons.

While this article is focused on winemaker Sadie Armstrong and her winery Sweet Vines Farm, it is more broadly about the limited number of Black wine professionals in the industry and some of the experienced faced by Black wine patrons that I wouldn’t have thought about until they voiced those incidents here.

Small Batch Wines Pushing Virginia’s Creative Boundaries

Virginia is ranked #7 in the nation in terms of number of wineries, with over 300 in the state. While this is an impressive figure, it actually undercounts the number of brands available to wine lovers. For those willing to try something more experimental, try one of the state’s small batch wines.

Defining a ‘small batch’ wine can be difficult, especially in a state where few wineries make more than 3,000 cases a year. Many of these operations are colloquially referred to as ‘side hustles’, although that encompasses only part of this trend. However, as a ballpark definition, I’d broadly define ‘small batch’ as smaller brands whose wines are designed to be stylistically ‘different’ in some way.

Being different is something of a hallmark in the Virginia wine scene. As a young wine region, many vintners are still experimenting to find the styles and grapes that work best. While they usually draw more inspiration from the Old World than California, the reality is that only by experimenting will they move the industry forward. These small batch wines are the wine industry’s proverbial front line.

It’s a broad category for sure. Some are made in tiny lots by owners who lack a production facility or tasting room so they make & market their wines wherever they can. Others are crafted by winemakers at established locations who use a private label to play with different techniques or use fruit from a different terroir.

Visit to Midland’s home at Mt. Airy, in the upper Shenandoah Valley

Established wineries are tapping into this trend as well, including Horton Vineyards’ “Gears and Lace” series and Gabriele Rausse Winery’s “Vino dal Bosco” lineup. Both feature wines that are labeled & marketed separately, usually featuring different blends or production methods. In discussing her Pinotage rosé and Tannat sparkling, Caitlin Horton stated, “This is my personality in a glass. Some people see the Steampunk-themed artwork and based on that alone say ‘That’s what I want.’”

All of these ventures have one thing in common; they are creative. Many use different styles of winemaking or natural yeast fermentation. A few use blends that are rarely seen elsewhere. The use of hardy grapes such as Petit Manseng or hybrids that grow well in Virginia are recurring themes. While some of these products are sold at the winery they are made, you are more likely to find these labels at local wine stores.

Odd Birds Make Great Wine

If there was ever a wine where necessity became the mother of invention, it’s Bluestone Vineyard’s “Odd Bird”. “2020 was a bad frost year, so we had less quantity and ripening was shortened by 1.5 months,” said winemaker Lee Hartman. Since weather precluded him from making a traditional Bordeaux-blend, Lee looked outside the box.

Bluestone Vineyard’s “Odd Bird” wine

His solution was to whole cluster press the fruit. Although 93% of the wine came from red Bordeaux grapes, this process allowed Lee to leave the red pigments behind. The result is a fat but balanced white wine, with a citrusy nose and notes of orange and nectarine on the palate.

Working within the scope of their size and budget forced Guide Wine and Quartzwood Farm down a similar path. The final result showed what they lack in quantity they made up for in creativity.

Guide Wine’s “Field Blend” is made with Petit Manseng and Viognier that were picked and fermented together. According to winemaker Rich Sullivan, “My thought was to do something a little different. I chose those two grapes specifically because Viognier is softer and would complement the Petit Manseng by softening the edge of its acid”.

Guide Wine from Ben Seldins

For Ben Sedlins and Sarah Searle of Quartzwood, making wine in a sustainable way is an important component of their business. Sarah explained, “We’ve been long nagged by a sense that Virginia wine shouldn’t only be growing finicky European grapes that might not be suited for many sites nor our climate, and that there are likely some beautiful ferments to be created by stepping outside a narrow conception of what is ‘typical’ or ‘serious.’”

Currently Quartzwood makes three wines; a Noriet pét-nat, a Vidal-heavy pét-nat, and a soon to be released semi-carbonic Tannat. While they don’t use the phrase ‘natural wine’ (which is hard enough to define) to describe their creations, the use of hybrid grapes and limited intervention is in line with that concept. Both Quartzwood and Guide Wine are sold at Walsh Family Wine.

Side Hustles Arriving At Center Stage

Nearly a half-dozen Virginia winemakers have side hustles to various degrees, but Ben Jordan is perhaps Virginia’s king of side hustles. In addition to being head winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards he’s part of two smaller ventures, Lightwell Survey and his family-operated Midland Wine. Both brands emphasize limited intervention and unusual blends, including a Riesling/Petit Manseng named “Riesl-ing”, a Cabernet Franc/Blaufränkisch combo called “Cabernet Frankisch”, and a Cabernet Franc spiced with Petit Manseng named “The Weird Ones are Wolves.” The blends (and names) get weirder from there.

Both brands have received critical acclaim, but Ben isn’t the only winemaker whose side hustles are getting noticed. Wine Advocate recently rated the 2017 “F8” from Hark winemaker Jake Busching’s Jake Busching Wines as one of their favorites in a recent review of Virginia.

One of my favorite wines in Virginia!

The list goes on. King Family’s Matthieu Finot makes wine for Turk Mountain Vineyard and his own Domaine Finot, which includes a Malbec made using carbonic maceration. Enologist Dr. Joy Ting has her eponymous label Joy Ting Wine, where she experiments with whole-cluster fermentation. Maya Hood White, associate winemaker at Early Mountain, makes a Petit Manseng-based appassimento-style wine named R.A.H. More brands are likely to follow as winemakers flex their creative freedom.

But it’s not just about creative freedom – it’s about collaboration. Jake is a big fan of working with his fellow winemakers and winegrowers. He’s also made a few one-off wines, including a Cabernet Franc/Petit Manseng blend named Orphan #3. In explaining the idea behind Orphan, Jake stated, “It speaks to the idea that we always have a barrel of something sitting around. The goal of a collaboration is to experiment”.

Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail Celebrates Its 3rd Shenandoah Cup

Thank you to the Shenandoah Wine Trail for the invite to this event! It was great to see so many faces I hadn’t seen in a long time.

It’s hardly a secret that the Shenandoah Valley is my favorite wine trail in Virginia. Heck, it’s one of my favorite places in Virginia, even without the wine.

The 2021 Virginia Winery Review

As 2021 closes Virginia has (by my count) 258 winery tasting rooms, plus 31 cideries and 11 meaderies. It also has over 20 businesses that sell their wine/cider/mead to the public but lack a physical tasting room.

17 wineries, 3 cideries, and 1 mead tasting room opened or were rebranded in 2021, a metric on par with the past several years. While Loudoun County, the southern Shenandoah/Staunton, and greater Charlottesville areas saw the greatest growth, Virginia had winery openings in nearly every corner of the state.

8 wineries formally closed. Considering some of these closures were actually rebrandings as new owners came in, the Virginia wine scene grew by a larger margin than it shrunk in 2021.

2021’s Honorable Mentions:

Sweet Vines Farm’s Seidah Armstrong became Virginia’s first Black, female winemaker. She and her husband are also the owners, making Sweet Vines one of the very few Black-owned wineries in the state. In an industry with limited diversity in winery ownership and winemaker positions & skews heavily male, this is welcome news.

Hazy Mountain Vineyard now likely has the largest indoor tasting area in the state, complete with a restaurant and brewery. With nearly 100 acres of vines (including a 60-acre vineyard in the Shenandoah) they are starting off strong. I love how a Charlottesville winery is taking advantage of land in the Shenandoah Valley; it’s a great place to grow wine and I’m hopeful more wineries will set up satellite vineyards there.

Merrie Mill Farm & Vineyard is perhaps Virginia’s the best decorated winery. If you haven’t visited at least check out the photos – it could easy double as an art gallery. While they aren’t yet serving estate wine, I expect great things given Emily Pelton of Veritas is their winemaker and they share the same granite soil as nearby Keswick Vineyards, which is known for their Cabernet Sauvignon.

Key Industry Trends

1. New wineries getting bigger & bigger. Hazy is actually part of a trend that new Virginia wineries have a bigger physical footprint (acreage of the property, larger vineyards, bigger tasting rooms) than ever before. While not every location can start with a grand tasting building, it’s apparent this newest generation of wineries are entering the industry with a higher level of investment capital and winemaking know-how than most of their predecessors had even a decade ago.

While part of me will miss the tiny mom & pop vibe that Virginia wineries are known for, overall this is a welcome trend. Larger wineries are able to benefit from economy of scale, which hopefully will allow the Virginia wine industry to grow. New wineries are also becoming smarter about their starting locations, choosing vineyard sites based on terroir as opposed to accessibility to the public. The main downside is a few have encountered local communities which are opposed to large-scale wineries in their proverbial backyard.

2. Guided tastings a thing of the past? The combination of COVID and staffing shortages have made stand-up, in-person tastings a rarity – and this trend likely won’t be reversed. Some patrons embrace this change, while others miss the days when you can stand at a tasting bar and chat ad-nauseum with an owner or winemaker.

This trend isn’t true across all locations, and some wineries may relax this rule on a day-by-day basis depending on how busy they are. But overall, winery patrons should expect take-away flights to be the norm.

3. Virginia Peninsula American Viticultural Area (AVA), which stretches from Hampton Roads to outside Richmond, is Virginia’s newest AVA (#9, if you count the Appalachian High Country AVA). It currently includes 5 wineries.

The utility of AVAs is a polarizing issue. Some look at them as a great method of promoting regional wine. Others see at them as a marketing ploy that only has a limited overlap with terroir. Wineries located in Virginia’s other AVAs have a hit-or-miss track record for promoting the AVA they are situated in, so hopefully these locations will use this opportunity to educate their patrons on what makes their terroir unique.

Tasting rooms that opened in 2021:

  1. Above Ground Winery (Shenandoah)
  2. Chiswell Farm & Winery (Afton)
  3. Ciders from Mars (Shenandoah)
  4. Ecco Adesso Vineyards (Shenandoah)
  5. Endhardt Vineyards (Loudoun)
  6. Fables & Feathers Winery (Goodview)
  7. Firefly Cellars (Loudoun; rebranded from Hunter’s Run)
  8. Hardware Hills Vineyard and Winery (Scottsville; rebranded from Thistle Gate)
  9. Hazy Mountain Vineyards and Brewery (Afton)
  10. Lightwell Survey (Wayneboro) (Note – this is just for the tasting room, which now has fairly regular hours)
  11. Merrie Mill Farm & Vineyard (Keswick)
  12. Old Farm Winery at Hartland (Loudoun)
  13. Old Town Cidery (Winchester)
  14. Southern Revere Cellar
  15. Stoney Brook Vineyard (Roanoke)
  16. Sweet Vines Farm (Unionville)
  17. The Winery At Sunshine Ridge Farm (Prince William County)
  18. Troddenvale at Oakley Farm (Hot Springs) (Tasting room only; cider has been sold for several years in stores)
  19. Williams Gap Vineyard (Loudoun)
  20. Wind Vineyard at Laurel Grove (Tappahannock)
  21. Windchaser Meadery (Hampton Roads)

Burnbrae Vineyards, Caihailian Vineyard, and Teaghlaigh Vineyard/Son of a Bear Ciders are also opened for sales, although they don’t yet have tasting rooms.

Wineries that closed in 2021:

  1. Bodie Vineyards
  2. Hammerstone Cellars
  3. Hinston Ford Cider & Mead
  4. Hunter’s Run (rebranded as Firefly Cellars)
  5. Rural Retreat (closing by the end of 2021)
  6. Tarara Winery (effectively closed in 2020 but formally closed in 2021; event space still open)
  7. Thistle Gate (rebranded as Hardware Hills)
  8. Winery 32 (reopening under a new brand in 2022)

Upcoming wineries & tasting rooms:

  1. Blevins Family Vineyard
  2. Bluemont Station Farm Winery
  3. Burnbrae Vineyards
  4. Caihailian Vineyard
  5. Crimson Lane
  6. Domaine Fortier Vineyard
  7. Seven Lady Vineyards at Dover Hall
  8. Everleigh Vineyard
  9. Lake Front Winery
  10. Nokesville Winery
  11. Pig Whistle Cidery
  12. Stag and Thistle Meadery
  13. Teaghlaigh Vineyard
  14. Webster C Hall Vineyard

Discover Virginia’s Newest Wineries – Wine and Country Life

My newest article – and first contribution for Wine and Country Life – has now been published!

Over a dozen wineries opened in 2021. I couldn’t list them all, so I focused on my favorites including Ecco Adesso, Firefly Cellars, Hazy Mountain Vineyard, Merrie Mill Farm, Sunshine Ridge Farm, and Williams Gap Vineyard.

https://wineandcountrylife.com/discover-virginias-newest-wineries/

When It Comes to Cider, What’s Old is New Again

Virginia will soon celebrate Cider Week, which runs from November 12-21. This event is an opportunity to heed Benjamin Franklin’s advice that, “It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all into cider.”

Cider makers must have listened because sales of Virginia hard cider have skyrocketed in the last decade. Virginia now has over 30 cideries, most of which opened in the past 4 years alone. According to the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office, in fiscal year 2020, approximately 55% of all hard cider sold in Virginia was Virginia-made.

Critics have taken notice. The Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition now uses dedicated cider judges for its cider entries, with Lost Boy Cidery’s “Comeback Kid” taking the win in 2021. Fellow cider professionals have also heard the buzz because CiderCon®, the world’s largest professional cider conference, is coming to Richmond in February 2022.

More Complex Than Most People Realize

For both business and stylistic reasons, some cideries model themselves after wineries with a focus on beverages that reflect conditions in the orchard, while others draw more inspiration from breweries by experimenting with new flavors. It gets even more complicated if you add in perrys (cider made from pears) and specialty ciders, including those made with hops, spices, or other fruit.

This split parallels cider’s two main categories; Heritage and Modern ciders.

Heritage ciders are usually made from apples traditionally associated with cider making, including Kingston Black (bittersharp), Roxbury Russet (American heirloom), and Wickson (crab). These beverages are usually drier, emphasize the flavor profile of the varietal it’s made from, and served in wine bottles.

Modern ciders are primarily made from apples you find in the grocery store including McIntosh, Golden Delicious, or Gala. They also offer a dizzying array of flavors not usually associated with cider, such as pumpkin, cherry, even habanero. The need for carbonation means they are usually served on tap or in cans.

Coyote Hole Cidery

Both styles are found in Virginia but few are as passionate about Heritage ciders as Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cider, one of the pioneers of the Virginia cider movement. Foggy Ridge was the state’s first cidery, which Diane modeled after an estate vineyard with an eye towards ‘orchard focused cider’.

While Foggy Ridge Cider’s last call was several years ago she still grows apples and advocates for Virginia cider, especially those that reflect the orchards they come from. In explaining her hopes for the future of the industry, Diane said, “We need locations that are willing to invest the time to make great cider. What (Foggy Ridge) did is focus on what the site gives you for flavor, not any additives.”

That said, the line between Modern and Heritage cider is sometimes fuzzy. Many cider makers treat their Modern ciders as artisanal beverages, while the term ‘Heritage cider’ may seem something of an oxymoron since they are made using very modern techniques.

Don Whitaker of Castle Hill Cider makes both styles, explaining, “Our Heritage line pays tribute to the apple, while our craft line is more fun and accessible. But it doesn’t matter which line it is, we still want to showcase the apple.”

“But some of our friends (in the cider industry) want to take cider making as far as they can go with new flavors. It’s all up to the imagination and the market.”

Castle Hill Cidery

Explaining Cider’s Newfound Popularity

According to several cidery owners, direct sales are roughly split between men and women and skews towards a younger demographic. When asked why cider sales have seen such growth, Philip Carter Strother of Valley View Farm had a straightforward explanation.

“The truth is hard cider is delicious, but it’s been overshadowed by beer. Hundreds of years ago cider was just as popular as beer. But a lot of effort has been made to make cider approachable to a larger audience, and a larger audience drinks beer.”

Valley View Farm

Emulating the marketing and distribution of craft beer has allowed cider sales to soar. Last year 63% of Virginia cider was sold via distribution and the remainder in direct sales. While this ratio favors modern ciders that are packaged and sold like beer, growing recognition has helped heritage cider sales as well.

This popularity has pushed a number of Virginia wineries to get in on the action. Wineries recognize cider fills a niche for lighter, fresher beverages, and their ability to step up is eased by how much of the equipment and licensing is the same. Several make their cider in-house, while others use an outside partner.

Cider’s status as a lower-alcohol, gluten-free beverage is another selling point. While no alcoholic beverage can ever truly be called ‘healthy’, cider compares relatively well to beer. In his description of Comeback Kid, Tristan Wright of Lost Boy Cider explained how the cider’s name was in part a tribute to his own health comeback when he discovered his allergies to gluten and soy.

Even though hard cider is unlikely to ever be considered a health drink, it has one additional advantage over other options. “Nobody has sentimental feelings about barley. But everyone has a connection to apples” enthused Will Hodges of Troddenvale Cider. “People just have a pull to it; it’s a very American beverage.”

Troddenvale Cider

Ciders You Should Try

Cideries can be found in every corner of Virginia, ranging from urban tasting rooms in Alexandria and Richmond, rural businesses in the Blue Ridge Mountains, to wineries and breweries serving cider alongside their own beverages.

Don’t wait for CiderCon; start sampling Virginia’s cider today.

Blue Bee Aragon: Blue Bee is Richmond’s first urban cidery, located in an old stable and carriage house. Aragon is their best seller; an off-dry blend of modern and heirloom apple varieties that provide a light, crisp mouthfeel.

Castle Hill Cider’s Celestial: Located south of Charlottesville, Castle Hill’s Celestial has strong fruit aromas, bright acidity, and a clean taste. While you can drink this anywhere, their tasting room is stunning – and beverages always taste better when sampled in the place they were made.

Coyote Hole Ciderwork’s Apparition: Coyote Hole kicks off Halloween with a cider that brings all the cozy flavors of fall in one drink. The perfect balance of cider and pumpkin, Apparition has all the comforting notes of traditional pumpkin pie with a hint of spices.

Lost Boy Cider’s Comeback Kid: The first beverage to win the cider award at the Virginia’s Governor’s Cup, Comeback Kid is Lost Boy’s bestselling cider for good reason. Made with Shenandoah apples, it’s light, dry and unfiltered. While heritage ciders boast about their complexity and tastiness, this cider could give them a run for their money.

Troddenvale at Oakley Farm’s House Cider: One of the most ‘wine-like’ ciders on the list, this heritage-style cider is made with a blend of eight apples. Its use of lees during fermentation provides a fuller mouthfeel and greater complexity. It’s then bottled like a sparkling via the “traditional method” until disgorged before release.

Valley View Farm’s Noble Pome: Noble Pome benefits from aging on the lees, which gives it a texture and body somewhere between a white wine and a beer, and contributes yeasty flavors and toasted notes. Bone dry and crisp, it tastes strongly of the Stayman apples used to make it. An excellent accompaniment to food, particularly with barbeque and pork dishes.

https://oldtowncrier.com/2021/11/01/when-it-comes-to-cider-whats-old-is-new-again/