The Virginia Sauvignon Blanc Showdown

Sauvignon Blanc is probably my favorite white wine. Given it’s the 8th most planted wine grape in the world (and 3rd most planted white), it’s not just me either.

It’s also a grape that shows stylistic differences depending on where it’s grown. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are probably the easiest to guess, since the grassy aroma just jumps out of the grass. California SBs may be found oaked (thank Robert Mondavi for that). French SBs are more full bodied, especially if they have a dash of Semillon. Sancerre wines are possibly my favorite white wines of all.

But what about Virginia? Where does Jefferson’s birthplace fall in this roster?

Overall, my observation is Virginia Sauvignon Blancs tend towards Old World style, but honestly I’ve never tested that hypothesis. And if every winery makes them slightly differently, which one will be my favorite? So I gathered some friends and did some experimenting. You know, for science!

We picked nine separate Sauvignon Blancs from around the state, almost all from the 2019 vintage – one which Luca Paschina of Barboursville called it an “excellent-outstanding”.  By doing this as a vintage-specific tasting, I figured we’d be able to make this comparison as fair as possible.

  1. 2019 Doukénie Winery (Northern Virginia)
  2. 2019 Glen Manor (Shenandoah)
  3. 2019 King Family (Charlottesville)
  4. 2016 Linden Avenius (Northern Virginia)
  5. 2019 Linden Hardscrabble (also 12% Semillon) (Northern Virginia)
  6. 2019 Maggie Malick (Northern Virginia)
  7. 2019 Michael Shaps
  8. 2019 Stinson (Charlottesville)
  9. 2019 Walsh Family Wine Bethany Ridge (Northern Virginia)
The competitors (and several judges)

The challenge was to identify our favorite Sauv Blanc of the night. To do that, we blind-tasted all nine wines over three flights, with a separate flight at the end of the winners of each round.

Flight 1:

  • Wine 1 (Michael Shaps 2019 SB): Grassy notes on the nose but on the palate everything seemed up front. A few didn’t like this one initially but it more than grew on us as it opened up. Slight citrus notes. 5 votes
  • Wine 2 (Linden Hardscrabble 2019 SB): More weight, rounder, orange peel on the nose (PS – this was my favorite of the night, and arguably the toughest challenge of the entire evening). We felt this would have been scored better if we paired it with food. We went back and forth between liking this one or #1 better. 3 votes.
  • Wine 3 (King Family 2019 SB): Some grassy notes but not quite New Zealand-style grassiness. Some detected orange zest, other said it had an almost-sweet quality to it. Rounder. Maybe some buttercream notes, caused by oak? Zero votes.

Flight 2:

  • Wine 4 (Doukénie 2019 SB): Hits the mid palate but it died off. Big nose; started with a ‘creamed corn’ aroma although that dissipated over time. We liked it more as it opened up but still zero votes.
  • Wine 5 (Stinson 2019 SB): Classic grassy nose. Some detected some sweetness on the nose as well as pink grapefruit on the nose and palate. Very refreshing and indicative of what you want a Sauv Blanc to be. 6 votes.
  • Wine 6 (Linden 2016 Avenius): Lighter nose. Zingy, pleasant, Lime and light butter on the palate. Hot note; maybe higher alcohol? Some tartness came out later in the tasting. 2 votes.

Flight 3

  • Wine 7 (Maggie Malick 2019 SB): Grassy, traditional ‘Sauv Blanc’ nose. Lighter on the palate, didn’t need food. Sipper wine. Very pleasant all around. 7 votes
  • Wine 8 (Glen Manor 2019 SB): Cat pee on the nose (believe it or not, this is actually a positive aroma descriptor for higher quality SBs). Higher acid, bold. We later said we felt this needed time to open up, but we didn’t give it a tremendous amount of time. Zero votes.
  • Wine 9 (Walsh Family Wine 2019 SB): Grassy/boxwood notes. Passion fruit on the palate. We felt this was food wine that seemed indicative of classic Virginia Sauvignon Blancs. 1 vote.

Winners Round:

By this time we had some bites of food so maybe our palates had changed. We enjoyed all 3 of them, but the real showdown was between wines 5 and 7 (Stinson and Maggie). It was a very tight vote but in the end – and by a hair – we declared Wine #5 to be our favorite, and after the unveiling discovered it was Stinson 2019 SB.

  • Wine 1: Michael Shaps 2019 SB: Light on the palate, lemon lime, very pleasant. 1 vote.
  • Wine 5: Stinson 2019 SB: We felt this was a classic expression of what a Sauv Blanc should be, especially on the nose. Maybe there was some oak notes? Fruit-sweet but nice complexity. 4 votes
  • Wine 7 Maggie Malick 2019 SB: Lighter, jucier. Lower acid. Lemon lime but not punch in the face. 3 votes.

I did some research after the fact and learned it was NOT made in oak, but rather made in a combination of steel and concrete egg. Otherwise our tasting notes seemed to be right on.

I have to make an admission up front; I really though Linden and Glen Manor would have done better here. These two have a reputation as some of the best wines – especially Sauvignon Blancs – on the east coast. In fact, I deliberately put them in separate flights so they wouldn’t compete against one another. And to everyone’s surprise…none made it to the second round. That was truly a shocker to us.

I also do have to admit one small mistake here. I….accidentally used the 2016 Linden Avenius vs the 2019. It wasn’t until we unveiled them all did I realize it. But honestly, I don’t think it would have made a difference (I still popped open a 2019 Avenius….for scientific testing…). But after pouring it with the group, I still think the winners would have stayed the same, because they were THAT GOOD.

One thing I learned is that although this was all Virginia, and nearly all the same vintage, all the Sauv Blancs were markedly different. Several trended towards a more ‘traditional’ approach and many had fair to strong grassy nose, but you could tell the differences in all of them. This was a major departure from a very similar Malbec event, where all the Malbecs trended towards stronger similarities despite different countries and years.

After some deliberation, I recognized something else. This tasting was entirely the product of this group and this particular time, hence doesn’t necessarily prove or disprove anything at all. If anything, that’s the real lesson of the night. Any wine can be your favorite wine in the right circumstances. I’m certain had we done another round the better wines would likely have made it to the top tier, but the winner – even a big name like Linden or Glen Manor – is never a guarantee.

Looking at how we did this competition, had we done these in a separate order, done them more spaced apart, or done them with food pairings, I’m pretty sure we would have gotten at least slightly different results (I remain adamant the Hardscrabble would have killed it with a creamy dish to the side). I also found it curious that the top-scoring wines were all stylistically similar to one another; the most traditionally ‘Sauv-Blanc-y” of the bunch.

All that said, I want to give lots of kudos to Rachel Stinson Vrooman of Stinson Vineyards and Maggie Malick of Maggie Malick Wine Caves for having the #1 and #2 wines of the evening. We loved them the best, which says a lot given they were next to some truly world-class wines.

Linden Vineyards 2017 Wine Release

Another Virginia winemaker recently called Jim Law “The guru on the hill”, who’s dedication has elevated the entire Virginia wine industry. The roster of those who’ve worked for him at Linden is something of a who’s-who of Virginia wine royalty, including (but certainly not limited to) Rutger de Vink of RdV Vineyards and Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards. Two of Jim’s Chardonnays received 94 points from Robert Parker – the highest score he’s given any Virginia wine. So when the guru speaks – you listen.

I’d been a member for several years, so when Jim announced he would be releasing his 2017 vintages I rushed to get my tickets. In a very socially-distanced event, Jim introduced 3 x Chardonnays, 4 x Bordeaux blends, plus a dessert wine. He also treated us to a long discussion about his wine and winemaking philosophy in general.

For background, Linden draws from three vineyards; Hardscrabble, Avenius, and Boisseau. Hardscrabble is their 20 acre estate vineyard located at the winery, primarily growing Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (although less Cabernet and more Chardonnay than it used to have) but home to several other varietals. Avenius a cooler 5 acre site down the road with soil composed of shale, granite and greenstone; they have a mix of vinifera but the largest planting is 1.5 acres of Sauvignon Blanc. Boisseau is the warmest site near Front Royal, its 4 acres likewise a mix. Many of his wines are bottled according the vineyard they came from; it’s not uncommon to have vertical flights of the same varietal but from different vineyards.

Although most Virginia wineries designate their red blends as their flagship wines, Jim’s first love is Chardonnay so his Hardscrabble Chardonnay is the wine he’s often proudest of. In my opinion, this is the best Chardonnay in Virginia – and I dare anyone to show me otherwise.

Jim explained that 2017 was a great vintage for both reds and whites, which is an unusual combination – usually it’s one or the other. Fortunately they were blessed with cool nights and warm days, particularly in September/October. He actually likes his 2017s better than his 2019s, mostly because the weather in 2017 was more even.

He also discussed climate change and his vineyard replanting project. Regarding the former, he has a small experimental vineyard where he’s planted several hybrids and Italian varietals, and discussed how unpredictable Virginia’s weather has become. Jim even installed several huge solar panels outdoors, in an effort to not be a contributor to the problem of global warming that has beset his own vineyards.

As for his replanting his vineyards, right now Jim is on ‘year 20 of his 15 year plan’. He freely admits to undergoing a long period of education which resulted him in revising his methodology for planting vineyards, and how water retention is the single most important factor in planting vines in Virginia.

He spoke at length about his Chardonnay planting from decades ago; right now there’s only around 10% of the original vines. While he enjoys the freshness that younger Chardonnay vines offer his wines, they lack the depth and character of older vines.

Usually I try to take my own notes for tastings – but the descriptors Jim provided were so dead-on that I decided to use them.

What I tried:

2017 “Village” Chardonnay: Jim’s “Village” is a mixture of all three vineyards, but this year drawing heavily from Hardscrabble. “Creamy” was the optional word.  He said this wine will improve over several years but damn, this was easy to drink now. This was also my favorite wine of the day (which I was rather grateful for, since it was one of the cheapest).

2017 Avenius Chardonnay: This had an almost Sauv Blanc quality to it. Higher acid and mineral notes. Has lots of personality.

2017 Hardscrabble Chardonnay: His flagship wine. Some newer oak to give it some toastiness, which is unusual since he’s usually a fan of neutral oak. Apple notes and long finish.

2017 Claret: Usually half of Linden’s reds are Claret but the 2017 vintage was so great he used most of his fruit for his site-specific vintages. I got currant notes, although his tasting sheet said red fruit (close enough).

2017 Boisseau: Fresh, not as heavy as I would have expected from a Petit Verdot/Cabernet heavy blend.

2017 Avenius: Black fruit notes and the acidity was on the higher side.

2017 Hardscrabble (red): “Rose pedals” was the tasting note. I’d keep this one for a few years though.

Chateau O’Brien and the 2014 Northpoint Red

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.

Howard O’Brien behind the tasting bar (pre-Covid)

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.

Sampling the 2014 Northpoint Red

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.

2016 Cabernet Franc, 2014 Northpoint Red, and 2018 Tannat Rosé

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 Chateau O’Brien wine night!

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.

Blind tasting the 2013 RdV Lost Mountain vs the 2014 Northpoint Red

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.

The results:

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.

The 2014 Northpoint Red

Cabernet Franc Blind Tasting Showdown

You might say that Cabernet Franc is a grape that ‘gets around’ in more ways than one.

First off, it’s the most planted wine grape in Virginia. Just over 1,000 acres of Cabernet Franc is grown in the state – slightly more than Chardonnay and leaps and bounds more acreage than any other red varietal.

Second, Cabernet Franc is one of the parents Cabernet Sauvignon. Back in the 17th century, Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc got feisty in a French vineyard and produced an offspring which took parts of both parents’ names. Now, Cabernet Sauvignon is the world’s most popular grape varietal.

Internationally, Cabernet Franc is better known as a supporting player in red blends; often paired with any combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot or sometimes Malbec (aka; the five Noble Grapes of Bordeaux). Bordeaux particularly relies on it during cool weather vintages when Cabernet Sauvignon fails to fully ripen. Added to a blend, Cabernet Franc adds pepper notes, color, and complexity.

But on the eastern coast and particularly in Virginia, Cabernet Franc is increasingly viewed less as a blending grape and more the main event. Since 2016 Cabernet Franc has earned over 10% of the gold medals awarded at the Virginia Governors Cup – more than any other single varietal shown at the competition.

The rational is understandable – Cabernet Franc possesses a lot of great qualities yet shows them in moderation, including good but not high tannin and acidity, medium body and alcohol, and a floral aroma. This makes it a versatile wine able to be paired with a variety of food options or enjoyed on its own. It’s also a hardy grape in the vineyard, able to ripen in cooler weather and offer good disease resistance.

As a Virginia wine aficionado I’ve tried Cab Francs from basically every winery in the state (that’s not an exaggeration – I’ve visited every tasting room in Virginia and nearly all of them have Cab Franc as a varietal or in a blend). During this time I found many were beset with overly-strong bell pepper notes – a problem caused by poor ripening. I admittedly almost gave up on this varietal, resigned my future tastings would routinely include a wine that I would deem “OK” but never truly love.

Well, recent vintages caused me to revisit my less than stellar opinion of this grape. So in an effort to narrow down the qualities enjoyed the most, I embarked upon an experiment.

The Contestants:

I picked out 6 x wines from different years and geographic regions from some of my favorite Virginia producers. Cab Franc strongly reflects the local terroir, so this cross-section would allow me to experience a variety of expressions.

2016 Chateau O’Brien: Located in Markham, just off of I-66 on the way to Front Royale. Owner and vigneron Howard O’Brien isn’t the winemaker but he’s closely involved in the winemaking process, including choosing the final blends (I keep offering to help but he hasn’t accepted so far). O’Brien is best known for his Tannat, but his reds in general are outstanding. I got hooked on his 2014 Cabernet Franc, so on blind trust I bought his 2016 and included it in the contest.

2017 DuCard Vineyards: DuCard is not far from Old Rag Mountain, on the slopes of Shenandoah National Park. DuCard has unique microclimate and an excellent winemaker in Julien Durantie, who makes some of my favorite Petit Verdots. I tried his Cabernet Franc on a whim and found it to have an exceptional amount of depth and tannin – qualities I rarely find in Virginia Cabernet Francs.

2017 Hark Vineyard: Hark is a newer winery but winemaker Jake Busching has worked all over the state until (proverbially) setting down here. Hark is on the slopes of the Blue Ridge, in the woods west of Charlottesville. He told me he was particularly proud of his 2017 vintage; so much that I bought a pair of bottles at his suggestion. He was right – I finished one on election night and it made the evening go…much smoother….

2018 Rock Roadhouse: This was an odd selection that I threw in for variety, from all the way west in Bath County (past the Shenandoah). 2018 was an exceptionally wet year and truthfully I didn’t find many reds I loved from that year. But Rock Roadhouse does things differently. They make ‘natural wines’; that is, wines with minimal intervention and little to no sulfites, which is made possible by an exceptionally long fermentation process. I visited them in October 2020 and was surprised how much I enjoyed this style, so I purchased a bottle on trust alone.

2019 Stinson: Stinson Vineyard is in the Crozet area of Charlottesville, and part of one of Virginia’s best wine trails. Winemaker Rachael Stinson Vrooman has been their winemaker since 2010, and I’ve always loved her Tannat, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnays. This was another bottle I picked up on trust alone.

2019 Carriage House: Carriage House Wineworks is Loudon County’s newest winery, not far from Leesburg. Winemaker Mike Fritze was a long-time amateur winemaker before he made the leap with a friend who’s a grape grower to open their own place. When I sat down with a tasting with him I remember enjoying everything on the menu, but his fruity, savory Cab Franc was especially a standout.

Blind Tasting My Favorites:

To keep it honest I tasted these wines blind using my trusty Coravin, poured into a marked glass. After pouring, I randomly moved the glasses around as much as I could without spilling so I couldn’t track which glass was which (PS – be careful when grabbing a Riedel glass!). I did a re-taste of them all to double-check my palate and found my notes were still dead-on.

The results:

Wine #1 (later identified as the 2017 DuCard): Muted nose, medium purple color. Notes of raw strawberries. After sampling it I had to wait a few seconds before the fruit came out, but when it did it hit me. Medium plus acid. Solid overall wine that especially benefited from aeration, although in this case it didn’t reach my top picks.

Wine #2 (later identified as the 2017 Hark): Medium purpose color, some jammy notes on the nose. It tasted lighter and more delicate than I was expecting. On my second try I detected some raspberry notes. I really liked this wine; not my favorite of the night but it was up there.

Wine #3 (later identified as the 2018 Rock Roadhouse): Pale ruby, almost garnet. Strawberry notes on the nose. On the palate it felt fuller and fruitier than the other wines. There was also something less identifiable about it that I couldn’t place (I later realized this quality as likely an after-effect of the ‘natural wine’ winemaking process). Definitely a winner; tied with the Hark.

Wine #4 (later identified as the 2016 Chateau O’Brien): Pale ruby color. I detected a tad bit of mustiness that I often associate with older vintages. Nice fruit notes on the palate, although I couldn’t identify any particular fruit. But more than anything else it had an excellent balance of fruit notes, acid, and body. Outstanding!

Wine #5 (2019 Stinson): A bit of pepper and strawberry on the nose. On the plate it was lighter, more elegant, and a tad less fruit-forward than my other options. It was also notably younger; while 2019 was a great year in Virginia wine I was initially worried this may have the bell pepper or other ‘youthful’ characteristics that I noticed elsewhere. So I was pleasantly surprised when this had none of those. Definitely an easy-drinking wine.

Wine #6 (2019 Carriage House): Pale ruby color, a bit more intense on the nose by comparison but by no means aromatic. Pomegranate maybe? I should have picked this out because I detected the savory elements immediately, but not as fruit-driven as I would have expected a younger vintage. I did get the tiniest hint of bell pepper on the finish, but by no means did it undermine my enjoyment.

I did one last sampling and made my decision. To my delight, the 2016 Chateau O’Brien turned out to be my new favorite Cabernet Franc in Virginia!

What did I learn? For one, bottle age matters. I don’t think of Cabernet Franc as a hugely age-worthy wine, but I did suspect that this was hitting peak at 4 years – while some of the others hasn’t yet reached that potential. Even being a year older works to its advantage.

I also was surprised by how complex Cab Franc can potentially be. I’d grown so accustomed to wines that were either just black or bell pepper, maybe with some fruity notes. But in 2020 I’d found expressions ranging from earth-driven Cabernet Francs from Glen Manor, fruit driven options from Gabriele Rausse, relatively tannic ones from Charlottesville, and light and peppery Cab Francs from basically all over.

So once again, Chateau O’Brien has one of my favorite wines!

The 2020 Tannat / Petit Verdot Challenge

Tannat and Petit Verdot are my two favorite red grapes. So when you put these high tannin, high acid grapes together, it’s like magic for me.

I first discovered this blend at Maggie Malick, although I’d likely unknowingly sampled it before. I once asked winemaker Jake Busching what is it about the blending of these two grapes that makes it so good, and he explained that there’s something about how both have different but complimentary tannins. Don’t ask me the science behind it – all I know is I love it!

The idea for a Tannat/Petit Verdot party came to me while tasting the Maggie Malick Fortissimo and the Paradise Springs PVT side-by-side. They had near identical blends, but were very different wines. Since I wanted to do something special for my birthday, I went on a hunt for as many similar blends as I could find.

It turns out Tannat / PV blends more popular than I realized! All competitors primarily used Tannat and Petit Verdot, but some wines added in a little extra (like Syrah for the Arterra Crooked Run, Merlot of the Fortissimo, or Fer Servadou for the Hillsborough Ruby).

I ultimately collected 8 wines and invited some friends over for a blind tasting. The five of us tasted two at a time, using a bracket system with the semi-finalists moving on to the next round until there was a winner.

Here are the wines of the night:

2013 Chateau O’Brien Vintner’s Reserve (50/50 Tannat Petit Verdot)

2016 Philip Carter Cleve (50/50 Tannat Petit Verdot)

2015 Maggie Malick Fortisimo (45/45/10 Tannat. Petit Verdot, Merlot)

2016 Chrysalis Papillon (55/45 Tannat Petit Verdot)

2016 Jake Busching F8 (50/50 Tannat Petit Verdot)

2017 Arterra Crooked Run (50/37.5/12.5) Tannat, PV, Petit Syrah)

2015 Paradise Spring PVT (50/50 Tannat Petit Verdot)

2016 Hillsborough Ruby (50% Tannat / 30% Fer Servadou / 20% Petit Verdot)

Round 1 / Bracket 1

Wine #1: 2016 Hillsborough Ruby (50% Tannat / 30% Fer Servadou / 20% Petit Verdot)

Wine #2 2016 Philip Carter Cleve (50/50 Tannat Petit Verdot) (5 votes)

This was an easy one. The Ruby had nice aromatics, but had a sour note to it that made it very different from the other of the night.

The Cleve on the other hand was popular all around. We detected notes of cherry, maybe some raspberry. Not a lot on the nose, though (not uncommon in Tannat)

Winner: Wine #2 – Philip Carter’s Cleve

Round 1 / Bracket 2

Wine #3 2013 Chateau O’Brien Vintner’s Reserve (50/50 Tannat Petit Verdot) (2 votes)

Wine #4 2017 Arterra Crooked Run (50/37.5/12.5) Tannat, PV, Petit Syrah) (3 votes)

This was a tough match, probably the closest of the night. What made it tough is we all really, really liked both of them.

The O’Brien was super smooth; probably the smoothest of the lineup (which was probably due to its age). There were red fruit characteristics there, although I had a hard time identifying any particular one (keep in mind we were also getting tipsy).

The Arterra wine had an earthy nose, but the fruit profile was more pronounced (likely due to the youthfulness). It also had an interesting profile that at the time we couldn’t identify (later identified as the wild yeast fermentation).

Winner: Wine #4 – Arterra’s 2017 Crooked Run

Round 1 / Bracket 3

Wine #5: 2016 Chrysalis Papillon (55/45 Tannat Petit Verdot) (0 votes)

Wine #6: 2015 Paradise Spring PVT (50/50 Tannat Petit Verdot) (4 votes, one abstain)

This was another lopsided matchup. We could tell the Wine #5 was more Tannat heavy based on the higher tannin levels. It was also lighter in color, and had less body. The #5 also had an interesting thin rim which I haven’t seen on any other similar blend. Someone mentioned it had some mineral characteristics, which was likewise unusual.

The PVT had lots of dark fruit and tobacco. We liked it, but maybe not as much as some other blends.

Winner: Wine #6 – Paradise Spring’s PVT

Round 1 / Bracket 4

Wine #7: 2016 Jake Busching F8 (50/50 Tannat Petit Verdot) (3 votes, one abstain)

Wine #8: 2015 Maggie Malick Fortisimo (45/45/10 Tannat. Petit Verdot, Merlot) (1 vote)

This was another great matchup, since we loved both of them. The judges were definitely well past tipsy at this point, so tasting specific flavor profiles was getting more and more…difficult.

Wine #7 (Jake Busching F8) was smooth and had a great complexity to it. Mustiness on the nose and palate.

Wine #8 (Maggie Malick) was probably the closest to a Uruguayan Tannat of the bunch. Musty nose. We all liked it but…tasting was getting to be…difficult.

Winner: Wine #7 – Jake Busching’s F8

Round 2 / Bracket 1

We stopped for food to sop up all that alcohol. I’m not going to pretend I took notes beyond the winners from this point on.

Wine #2 (Philip Carter’s Cleve) vs Wine #4 (Arterra’s Crooked Run)

Winner: Wine #4 / Arterra’s Crooked Run

Round 2 / Bracket 2

Wine #6 (Paradise Springs’s PVT) vs Wine #7 (Jake Busching F8)

Winner: Wine #7 Jake Busching F8

Round 3 and Final:

Wine #4 (Arterra) vs Wine #7 (Jake Busching F8). For 3rd place we put wines #3 (O’Brien) and #8 (Maggie) against one another for 3rd place.

I was well on my way towards legal drunkenness at this point; some of us were past that.

We LOVED both of these wines. Love loved loved both of them.

But the complexity of wine #4 won out. We did the unveiling, and the winner of the 2020 Fitzsimmons household Tannat/Petit Verdot competition was the 2017 Crooked Run from Arterra Wines. For 3rd place, we anointed Maggie Malick’s 2015 Fortissimo.

Exploring Shenandoah Wine

I’m very happy how this article came out! I first learned of the importance of the Shenandoah American Viticultural Area (AVA) while taking classes at the Capitol Wine School. If there’s a place custom-made to grow wine in Virginia, this is it.

See my blog at the Old Town Crier.

https://oldtowncrier.com/2020/08/01/exploring-shenandoah-valley-wine/?fbclid=IwAR1bbRj23VlMqSNABb4u4jTwddshq1kL1YClG96TSUZpEuWiPlX4MK8x7yE

The Tannat Taste-Off at Maggie Malick Wine Caves

One of the joys of being a wine blogger is you get to fool people into thinking you’re smarter about wine than you really are. Such was the case with my invite by Mark and Maggie Malick (of Maggie Malick Wine Caves) to join them in a tasting of Tannat wines from around the world.

The Malicks have a special love for the Tannat grape. High in acid and tannin, I usually see it paired with rich foods like beef or aged cheese. While otherwise known as the national grape of Uruguay, Tannat does well in Virginia as our gradual summers facilitate the kind of slow ripening that Tannat needs to thrive.

Mark guarding his tannat vines

Mark invited a bunch of Tannat winemakers from around Virginia to bring their wines for a comparison; non-winemakers like myself brought bottles from California, Oregon, even Israel. Toping that off were a half-dozen Tannats from Uruguay; the spoils of the Malick’s most recent ‘research’ visit. All told, we had over a dozen people gathered around their dinner table eating cassoulet & cheese and – most importantly – sampling about 20 bottles of Tannat.

While obviously it’s impossible not to have a great time while drinking a lot of wine, the winemakers used this as an opportunity for some cross-talk regarding how they made their wines, what audiences they sell it to, and speculation on Tannat’s place in the portfolio of Virginia wines. Tannat is unlikely to become a top seller in Virginia, but it does serve as an effective replacement to bold California-style reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

In addition to the Malicks and some friends, in attendance were Mark Beckel of Chateau O’Brien, Doug Fabbioli of Fabbioli Cellars, Michael Heny of Michael Shaps Wineworks, Chris Pearmund of Pearmund Cellars, and Scott Spelbring of Bluemont. If anybody could ‘talk Tannat’, it was this crew.

What did I learn? Well, I’d say two main things:

First, Tannats have distinct regional differences. Very often the nose of the Uruguayan Tannats had a mustiness that was a dead give-away, and they trended towards being on the fruitier side. The California & Oregon Tannats were both softer and less tannic than anything else on the table. The short finish of the Israeli Tannat made it something of an outlier. The Virginia selections were the most diverse, with some trending towards tannic and weighty but others more fruit-forward. “Rounder” might be the best single adjective to describe Virginia’s Tannat lineup.

Second, cellar time really does matter. That’s true about wine in general, but I think it’s doubly so with the Tannat grape. Tannin need time to smooth out, and you could easily tell the difference between wines that were 8 years old vs ones that were 3-4 years old. Unfortunately Virginia’s Tannats were almost uniformly young. The good news is if they were good now, they will only get better over time.

Paring #1:

  • 2017 Effingham (Virginia). Smooth but young, with notes of caramel. The super ripe 2017 fruit and the luxurious Virginia Oak (Culpeper!) will only further knit together over time.
  • 2011 Amat (Uruguay): This was one of the hits of the day, and ended up being Mark’s favorite. Chris started off with noting how it had some weight to it but was still well balanced.  The tannins on this one were smooth.

Pairing #2

  • 2016 Garzon (Uruguay): “Ripe” was the key word here. There seemed an underlying mustiness to it with a hint of oak; maybe the wine was made in older barrels?
  • 2016 Michael Shaps (Virginia): The charred oak was noticeable, and we could tell it was a younger wine. Grippy tannins. But overall very enjoyable, and we agreed it will only get better with age.

Pairing #3

  • 2016 Tabor (Israel): This was one of the more unusual wines of the evening.  It came from a vineyard on the Golan Heights, a distinction that caused some to joke they tasted notes of ‘gun smoke and shrapnel’. Doug said it tasted ‘funky’ but in a good way. The musty nose and short finish were noticeable. One taster noted it has “unresolved” tannin (aka firm, tight tannin structure associated with younger wines).
  • 2015 Fabbioli (Virginia). One of higher-acid wines of the night, which along with the delicate fruit character and restrained use of oak made it a welcome contrast to the riper, more heavily extracted examples of the evening. Notably this wine won the 2019 Loudoun County Wine Award’s “Best Tannat”.

Pairing #4

  • 2017 Joy (Lodi, California): A “smaller” wine. We didn’t see any notable flaws to it but neither did it have a lot of oomph, especially in comparison to several bottles we had already enjoyed.
  • 2017 Arterra (Virginia): Black fruit on the nose, but had noticeable acidity and a nice finish. It was one of the more interesting wines of the night, likely a result of having been fermented using native yeast (winemaker Jason Murray’s signature style). The only downside is it tasted young.

Pairing #5

  • 2016 Troon Vineyard (Oregon): I looked this one up and discovered it was also made using native yeast, but the Troon couldn’t be more different from the Arterra. Not a lot going on in the nose. Very soft, made in a lighter style. We suspect this was a Tannat made for Pinot drinkers, and was the least Tannat-like wine of the entire lineup.
  • 2017 Maggie Malick (Virginia): Blended with 5% Petit Verdot & 5% Merlot. Coconut notes from the American oak popped out. Christmas spices on the palate. We liked it but like many of the 2017s on the menu, we felt it was young; the notes needed time to integrate.

Pairing #6:

  • 2016 Batovi (Uruguay): Weak nose, except for some musty notes. Not a lot of weight on the palate; more fruit driven than many of the others we were trying. I looked it up and later saw Wine Enthusiast gave it 93 points, which was a higher rating than I suspect people at the table were giving it. Maybe it’s a stylistic preference that Virginia’s Tannat winemakers are more focus on weight and tannin than Uruguay’s Tannat winemakers are?
  • 2017 Upper Shirley (Virginia) The second entry of a Michael Shaps wine. Good length and roundness on the palate. Not as heavy as we were expecting.

Pairing #7

  • Spinoglio (Uruguay): This one also required some research; I believe it’s a Tannat blend and/or non-vintage wine. It did seem more aged than other offerings, and was easier drinking. Despite its background Doug said it had a ‘monolithic’ taste to it, as if the winemakers tried too hard for consistency over complexity.
  • 2012 Chateau O’Brien (Virginia): Strong, refined and weighty. The acidity dried my mouth up quickly. Although it was 15% alcohol it didn’t taste remotely like it. One of the hits of the night, alongside the Amat.

Pairing #8

  • 2014 Horton (Virginia): Tiny bit of musk on the nose. Leather and dark fruit notes. Tannic, medium-to-long finish.
  • 2017 Bluemont (Virginia) This wine was made with fruit from the Maggie Malick vineyard. Candy finish. Brambleberry notes. Someone noted this wine was a good representation of what a Virginia Tannat should taste like.

Pairing #9

  • 2017 Pippin Hill (Tannat blend, Virginia): Young, easier drinking and less tannic than most others.
  • 2017 Maggie Malick Tannat-Viognier (90% Tannat/10% Viognier, Virginia): Easy drinking, aromatic. This is the kind of wine that doesn’t need a food pairing to enjoy it. It’s also Maggie’s best-selling wine and the only winery in Virginia that sells this blend.

Pairing #10

  • Bone Orchard (port-style): Crushed blackberry notes. It was also…getting more difficult to taste anything at this point, given were now on our 19th and 20th wines of the night.
  • 2011 Vivent de Tannat (Uruguay): Classic port-style. Weight-driven not tannin driven. Christmas spice notes and noticeably high alcohol.

Was there a favorite? Based on what could tell, the consensus was the 2012 Chateau O’Brien and the 2011 Amat were the top two. I thought the O’Brien was the smoothest of the evening, while the Amat was the most complex. Which is better depends on what style you preferred.

PS; I actually learned a third lesson of the night. When doing wine tastings, ALWAYS write your notes down immediately! Because the next morning might be…fuzzy…

Riedel Tasting at Tarara Winery

For someone who drinks a lot of wine, I still have a lot to learn about the subject. The use of correct glassware to maximize your wine experience is one of them. So when I found out that Tarara was having a class on Riedel glasses, it was hard to pass up.

Why is glassware important? Because every type of wine has unique characteristics which can be accentuated (or masked) by the shape of your glass. The glass’s lip directs the wine to specific parts of the tongue, thus emphasizing qualities such as acidity or sweetness. A large bowl-shaped glass helps release a wine’s aroma, while a taller, thinner bowl captures it. There’s a science to it, but a lot of it is common sense.

The class was led by winemaker Jordan Harris, who made the event a lot of fun. He spent almost as much time poking fun at himself for his very extensive glassware collection (most of which he never uses out of fear of breakage) as he did teaching us the dos and don’ts about good glassware.

Jordan started with two really great pieces of advice. First, the price of the glasses you use should correspond with the price of the wine you usually drink. If you’re going to pay for expensive wine, then you’d better get the most out of it.

Second…drink your best wines on Tuesdays. Why? Because when you open on a ‘special occasion’, your memories are of the occasion; the details of an expensive wine are wasted on you. So to best enjoy your expensive wine, open it on a slow day so you’ll remember every detail. It’s also a great way to liven up your Tuesdays!

You’d think an over hour-long event about glassware would be boring…but it wasn’t. Pairing it with good wine helps as well.

We used the 4 pieces from their “Riedel Veritas” collection, specifically glasses for Oaked Chardonnay, Riesling/Zinfandel, Old World Pinot Noir, and Cabernet/Merlot. Smaller tumblers were used for comparison purposes. If you take their class, you keep the glassware afterwards; education and new glasses as a package deal!

I didn’t realize Riedel has over a hundred glasses in all shapes and sizes (and price points). Want a glass for Rheingau Riesling? Riedel has one for that. How about a Chablis Chardonnay? Sure thing. Brunello? Got that too! Just about every major varietal or region had at least one glass type dedicated to its maximum enjoyment. 

Glass #1: Flute (served with a Pet Net wine)

Not a Riedel, but this was a great demonstration on the importance of good glassware. Flutes are traditionally the way sparkling is served. But flutes have a major problem – the narrow aperture reduces the aromas you can detect. It pretty to look at and useful for preventing the glass from warming up in your hand, but it detracts from smelling (and thus tasting) the wine. I thought could detect something on the nose, but the notes were subdued.

We took a sip from the flute and poured the rest into the Riesling/Zinfandel glass. Big difference! I’d go with the later in the future when tasting sparklings.

Glass #2: Riedel Veritas Riesling/Zinfandel glass (served with the 2015 “Boneyard Magic Dragon” Viognier):

This longer, narrowing glass is designed for aromatic white wines. The lip directs your wine to the front of your palate, while the smaller aperture concentrates aromas. I found the Viognier to be highly aromatic, with high acidity and some weight to it.

After a sample we poured this into the tumbler. The difference was significant; I just didn’t get the same nose. The Riesling/Viognier glass was definitely the way to go for ‘delicate’ whites.

Glass #3: Riedel Veritas Oak Chardonnay glass (served with the 2017 Chardonnay from their “1987” old vines label)

The Oak Chardonnay glass is big and round, which gives you a lot of surface area for aeration. The lip directs the wine to the sides of your palate, accentuating the acidity and deemphasizing any oaky characteristics.

We tried that same wine in the Riesling/Zin glass and I had a very different experience. The oak seemed more pronounced in taller Riesling glass as the wine hit the front instead of the sides of my palate, giving it more depth.

Glass #4: Riedel Veritas Old World Pinot glass (served with the 2018 Boneyard red)

The Pinot glass aims to the tip of your tongue – the part which accentuates sweetness. I think this type of glass would be exceptionally good for showcasing fruit notes. As a light but fruity red, the Boneyard definitely fit this category.

Glass #5: Riedel Veritas Cabernet/Merlot glass (served with the 2016 Bethany Ridge)

This is your glass for Bordeaux style wines, or tannic reds in general. The shape is designed to aim for the back of your palate and smooth out the tannins. This is my new go-to glass for all red tastings in the future.

The Bethany Ridge seemed to be one of Jordan’s favorite wines, as he was commenting on the quality of the growing site (actually owned by Walsh Family).

Virginia’s 2019 Growing Season – The Hype Is Real!

2019 was a great year for Virginia wine. Given how disastrously wet 2018 was, even an ‘average’ summer would have been a blessing. But this summer seemed intent on making up for last year’s non-stop rain and cloudiness, resulting in what many places are calling one of Virginia’s best vintages…EVER.

“Ever”, they say? When I first heard that, I thought it sounded like a lot of hype – not to mention a huge generalization for a state as big as Virginia. No two vineyard are identical, and Virginia’s 300-ish wineries can’t all have a perfect year at the same time. So I asked around…and found the hype may be warranted.

In most parts of the state bud break came on time or a bit early, and the lack of an early frost coupled with plentiful rains enabled good fruit set. But the real boost came in mid-summer when drought set in and the heat spiked. After than it seemed to be a race as multiple varietals often became ready for harvest at nearly the same time.

Vineyards in the Northern and Central Virginia AVAs seem to have benefited the most from this season; the term ‘the best year ever’ was utilized by several places, including some who have been growing since the mid-2000s. While wineries the Southern or Shenandoah AVAs somewhat less inclined to use such hyperbole, all were very pleased.

This is great news, but the goodness doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the adjective that was most-often used describing this harvest is ‘clean’. Mild humidity resulted in greatly reduced disease pressure across most vineyards. Wine making is never easy in Virginia, but this came close.

There’s still work to be done in the cellar, so many winemakers were reluctant to ‘make a call’ regarding the vintage. But even those who have been wine growing for 10+ years are lauding the quality of the fruit. When the debate is mostly between “Is this a great year” vs. “Is this our BEST year”, you know you’re in for something special.

In researching this topic I contacted around 30 x wineries across the state so I could get a good cross-section of opinions. I took the liberty of paraphrasing these conversations for brevity, but kept the comments in their entirety whenever possible.

Northern Virginia:

  • Doug Fabbioli/Fabbioli Cellars: A bit cold over the winter. There was some winter kill on sensitive varietals. A bit wet in the spring. It wasn’t until late spring that we felt our wet pattern from last year had shifted. Lots of heat. The acids seemed good at harvest but seemed to crumble a bit in the fermenter. The wines are solid but some will need an acid addition. I think each vintage is a little different. Our job as winemakers is to absorb those variables and finish our wines in a way that we have some consistency. We will be up to the task.
  • Jordan Harris/Tarara Winery: Easily the most balanced and “perfect” vintage I have seen since I arrived in 2007. Very efficient ripening with limited disease pressures.  Fruit set was decent as it was fairly dry by then, shoot growth was slow but steady being fairly dry and berry weights were small. The result was balanced vines and balanced grapes of great concentration and heavy skin to juice ratios for the reds
  • Katie DeSouza Henley/Casanel Vineyard: Every vital phase necessary for what we consider a successful growing season (i.e., bud break, bloom, veraison, etc.) left us happier than most of the milestones in previous vintages. We are at or above benchmarks that we have set in previous historical vintages.
  • Mark Malick/Maggie Malick Wine Caves: Spectacular year – almost no rot. Chemistry was great, compares well to 2010 and 2017. 2018 rains threw off the vineyard a bit. Bud break normal. 1-2 week earlier than normal harvest.
  • Roxanne Moosher/Winery 32: This was our best harvest yet. We had minimal disease and insect pressure. Our fruit had excellent brix and pH. Flavor, color and aroma are outstanding. 

Central Virginia:

  • Ben Jordan/Early Mountain: 2019 was an excellent vintage with balanced whites and reds with ripe intensity and richness.  Moderately early bud break.  While this notably early start to the vintage was psychologically challenging, the fruit was well-balanced. It is understandable to compare 2019 to 2017, however yields were more typical and balanced in 2019, compared to high yielding 2017. 
  • Luca Paschina/Barboursville: Considering “Outstanding” as my highest score, 2019 was “Excellent-Outstanding”. By comparison, 2010 was as Excellent (hot dry season) and 2017 Excellent-Outstanding (a bit cooler than 2010 and with more mid-summer rains). I am indeed among those which would have preferred a slightly cooler season as we had in 1997-2007 2009.
  • Rachael Stinson Vrooman/Stinson Vineyard: We will see some beautiful wines come out of 2019. It was a challenging vintage in the vineyard, but the fruit was clean and super concentrated. We had quite a bit of downy mildew and drought stress in the vineyard – which sounds antithetical, but early morning dew was just enough to keep disease pressure on the leaves. Canopies started to brown and drop their leaves by early September, forcing an early harvest for most varietals. Luckily, sugar levels were high from the raisining and flavors were ripe and generous.
  • Jake Busching/Jake Busching Wines: 2019 was a challenging year for the state from the late drought perspective. No frost, good ground water presence, and a ‘normal’ spring got the vineyards up and fruiting and then it went dry mid-summer.  I think the excessive heat was the real issue; if folks didn’t see it coming and curtail leaf pulling a bit I think they may have burned some fruit. For those of us tuned into maturity I think 2019 is the best vintage we’ve had since 2009. 

Shenandoah Valley:

  • Robert Muse/Muse Vineyard: It certainly was a large vintage. Whether it will rival ’10 and ’17 in terms of quality remains to be seen. Over time we’ll see what the effect, if any, was of an exceedingly hot September that produced accelerated sugar accumulations and therefore early harvests.
  • Krista Foster/North Mountain: Harvest was plentiful; well balanced. Best harvest in 10 years.
  • Lee Hartman/Bluestone: We were really pleased with everything that came in.  I think in the Shenandoah Valley we are able to find good balance in the fruit due to cooler temperatures, day and night, as well as having lower rainfall.  We might have harvested a little early, but not as early as I would have thought closer to veraison.

Southern Virginia:

  • Virginia Hamlet/Hamlet Vineyard: I’ll just start with WOW! Hot dry July but enough water to keep things moving. No disease pressure – I mean NONE. Prettiest canopy we’ve ever had. Has anyone checked the charts of the stars because those babies aligned this year!
  • Sandy McPherson/Hunting Creek Vineyard: Our growers had a banner year! I can only hope these wines will come close to the 2010 vintage. I think 2019 in general is similar but slightly better for us in Southern VA than 2017 in terms of difficult varieties like Viognier doing very well.
  • Justin Rose/Rosemont Vineyard: We had a very wet June (the most rain we have seen in one singular month ever since we started tracking in 2005). Luckily August and September were very dry and the reds were able to concentrate and we had lower sugar levels than normal. The white wines and reds have a little less acid then I would like but not a huge deal. Therefore with the weaker acid profiles and the larger berries this year may not rank the best ever but it was very, very good.
  • Robert Schenkel/Altilo Vineyard: There was plenty of rain here during spring and early summer.  The dry weather later was perfect for us even though the heat lowered acid and raised PH.  Yields may have been less than 2017 but the quality was far superior.  2019 should be a very good vintage for Virginia wine.

Southern Virginia Wine Field Trip

Sometimes I forget how big Virginia is. Having lived outside D.C. for over a decade, I’m long accustomed to having a few dozen excellent wineries within an hour’s distance. An hour further, Charlottesville or the Shenandoah Valley beckons. But given my quest to visit every single winery in Virginia, sometimes you gotta hit the road for days at a time. This is one such trip.

A note about the author…

The Southern Virginia AVA has about a dozen wineries, many placed on old tobacco farms. On the face of it, that sounds pretty good. That is…until you realize these locations are usually an hour’s drive away from each other. This lack of wine clusters makes it challenging for all but the truly insane Virginia wine purists to make a dedicated wine-focused trip to this area.

That said, there’s a lot of good wine to be had down here, with everything from sweet Muscadine to hybrids to traditional Bordeaux-style blends, served in tasting rooms that range from someone’s home to outright mansions. Yes – go ahead and scoff at sweet wine or native American vines (I admit – I do). But as the old adage goes, the customer is never wrong – and they definitely have customers.

Three Sisters at Shiney Rock

I asked around why this AVA seems to have such a focus on sweet wines and found it has more to do with good business sense than with issues with the terroir. See, a disproportionate number of these “southern” wineries are tiny, mom-and-pop farms who decided to put their land to more productive use and realized (shocker!) that alcohol is a big seller. Lacking the money or experience to grow European Vitus vinifera, they turned to varietals or styles that are easy to produce – namely hybrids, vines native to North America (aka Vitis labrusca), or fruit wines.

The area’s demographics also favor of this approach. Southern Virginia is both thinly populated and lacks many well-known tourist attractions. As locals are often the main audience, these wineries must cater to local tastes – which translates to sweet and/or fruity. Not surprisingly, a few also had breweries on site.

Beer tasting at Sans Soucy

But vinifera lovers – don’t despair! Despite the area’s rep for sweet wines, I found several excellent wineries that catered to my own palate. As with everywhere else, vinifera can thrive when care is put into good site selection and maintenance, and having a growing season that’s 2-3 weeks earlier than the rest of the state brings its own advantages. I dare you to drink anything from Rosemont and other vinifera-focused vineyards and walk away thinking this area can’t produce world-class wine.

One thing you won’t find are many fancy tasting buildings. Everywhere has a small town vibe to it, with most places opting for more modest setups in transplanted or refurbished barns, side-buildings adjacent to their homes, or (for Tomahawk Mill) a flour mill. Maybe these aren’t the places you’d have a big event, but the scenery is just as pretty as you’ll find elsewhere in the state. As an added bonus, in nearly every case the wine maker (usually also the owner) was pouring my wine at the tasting bar, which is become rarer and raer everywhere else.

Despite the miles on my car, I’m very happy I made this trip. I got to see a side of Virginia that few transplanted yankees get to see, and walked away with a fresh realization that you don’t need a fancy tasting room to have a good time.

While wine was the focus of this trip, I admit I had some side-excursions – including a visit to the American Armed Forces Tank Museum at Danville. Who would have thought tanks and wine paired so well together? Special thanks also to The Chandler House Home Bed and Breakfast.

GIVE ME YOUR WINE – NOW.

Where I visited:

2 Witches Winery & Brewery: 4 acres of mostly hybrids, also some Cabernet Sauvignon.

Altillo Vineyards: 5 acres of vinifera.

American Way Country Wines: 15 acres of fruit and vegetables.

Bright Meadows: 10 acres of hybrid & American grapes, plus blueberries & blackberries.

Hunting Creek Vineyard: 5 acres of mostly vinifera with some hybrids.

Rosemont Vineyard: 27 acres of mostly vinifera with some hybrids.

Sans Soucy (not on map but close to Bright Meadows): 7 acres of vinifera & some hybrids, plus fruit wines and beer.

The Homeplace Winery: 9.5 acres of hybrids and some vinifera, also some fruit wine.

Tomahawk Mill: 4 acres of mostly vinifera.

Three Sisters at Shiney Rock: 2 acres of American vines, plus fruit wines.

Virginia Tasting Cellar: Tasting room right outside this AVA but primarily selling southern VA wine.

Not visited on this trip: Hamlet and Preston Ridge.

Photo credit: Virginia Wine Marketing Office