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.

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 well, as our gradual summers facilitate the kind of slow ripening that Tannat needs to grow well.

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 AVA 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.


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

Casanel owner Nelson DeSouza

If Nelson DeSouza wrote an autobiography, nobody would believe it. Born in 1942 in an impoverished part of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the man is a rags-to-riches tale come true.

I first met him around 2014 when I started exploring the Virginia wine scene. The guy was – is – charismatic as heck. Even today, at 76 years young Nelson still mows the lawn and does handiwork around the property (ask him about the tables he’s crafted from wood taken from the property – he’s very proud of them). Nelson started off by telling me how he was born with a hammer in his arm; at first I thought he was bragging. An hour later, I came to believe it.

Nelson first visited the U.S. in 1957 on a 90-day visa to visit his father, a naval officer who at the time was stationed in the here as part of a submarine purchase deal. The culture shock was profound, but it left enough of an impression on him that he resolved to return as soon as he could. That turned out to be a 5 year delay, but eventually he made it.

He started off doing carpentry and other odd jobs until moving on to construction. From there, he became a businessman (he still brags about his concrete business) and eventually starting Casanel Vineyards – joined by two daughters who also work with him.

To me, Neslon is the epitome of the “American Dream”. He was kind enough to share part of his story.

“When I was a baby, my parents didn’t have a crib; they took two chairs and put them together and put the box on top of it. That was my crib. We didn’t have electricity. But when you’re born an American, it’s like you’re born in a golden crib.”

“I didn’t know how poor I was until I asked my father for a bicycle. But a new bike would cost him 6 months of his salary. So when I was 12 I worked some jobs until I could buy my own bicycle. It’s not like here in the USA, where you can get a new bike every year. That bike was at least 10 years old, but I had my bike”.

“My father worked in the naval attaché office in the USA. I visited him in September 1957 on a 90 day visa. I didn’t know what to do, so I worked little jobs, building things. America was paradise! So after I left, it was like going to hell. I had to wait 5 years in hell until I could get back to paradise.”

“Would you take responsibility for someone you didn’t know? Maybe for a month? How about a year? My father knew an Argentinian-Brazilian man named Julio Gallo. He convinced Julio to write me a Letter of Call so I could immigrate to the USA.  Julio figured he could find work for me since he saw me working when I was visiting. He had to sign a document promising to take responsibility for me for 5 years. Would you take responsibility for someone you barely knew for 5 years?”

“I went to the US embassy in Rio for my interview. The ambassador was the most important man in the country. He asked me a lot of questions; I only had a 2nd grade education so I thought I was going to fail. Then he asked me if I was a communist. I told him – my father was a Naval officer; I wanted to go to the USA to work. How could I be a communist? Eventually he had me raise my right hand and swear. Then I got to return to paradise. I was born again on September 22, 1962. That’s my American birthday”


Finger Lakes Trip

As a native New Yorker and a wine drinker you’d think I’d be more familiar with the Finger Lakes. To the contrary – they always seemed a world away to me. Besides, as someone who primarily drinks reds the idea of an area that is white-focused didn’t seem appealing for the longest time.

That said, summer in Virginia is hot! Lately I’ve found my palate is slowly transitioning from being red all the time to a seasonal drinker. Plus, a trip to the Finger Lakes afforded me the opportunity to do some parental bonding (OK – dad’s a beer drinker but mom is all about wine). So with the bare amount of planning, off to the Finger Lakes we went.

The Finger Lakes seem a surprising choice for a wine growing region; the old conventional wisdom was the weather was too cold for most vinifera. But in the late 1950s a guy named Konstantin Frank proved the critics wrong. Not only did he introduce cold-hardy vinifera, he realized the Finger Lakes act as a temperature sponge for the worst of upstate New York’s weather. With that discovery, the this area became one of the America’s top wine regions.

Riesling is king of the Finger Lakes, although other German or Austrian varietals like Grüner Veltliner, Lemberger (aka Blaufränkisch) and especially Gewürztraminer are also common. This shouldn’t be a surprise; the terroir in the Finger Lakes closely mirrors that of the Mosel. Terroir isn’t the area’s only connection; I found several German winemakers in some of the higher-end places. I can only assume they were recruited specifically because of their skill with these particular grapes.

Not as prevalent but still easy to find were Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which seemed to do well-enough to justify the effort. Cabernet Franc also seemed to endure New York’s cold weather in decent shape. On the other hand, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are tough to grow, and usually found at the bigger wineries that were willing to accept significant crop losses in bad years. Honorable mentions go to a number of hybrids, including Marechal Fosh, Seval Blanc and Vignoles.

As for the wines, my parents & I managed to visit 17 wineries (plus a cidery/meadery) in 3 days. Some places we specifically picked in advance, others were visited because they happened to be convenient. Some I won’t bother writing about (including one that advertised itself as a ‘redneck winery’) but there were many good and a few great locations that were well worth the visit.

The top 5 are in rough order, although really #3-5 are tied, #6-8 were tied and #9-11 were tied.

1) Weis: Brand new winery, probably my favorite of the trip – although I may be biased since I got to chat up the German owner/wine maker so the experience was as good as the wines on their own. Excellent Riesling and very good Gewürztraminer. The 2016 Barrel Aged Winzer Select was a contender for best of the trip. The Cab Franc was made in steel and came out very fruity. I left with a sparkling.

Owner/wine maker Hans Peter Weis

2) Wagner: A close contender for favorite visit of the trip, which was oddly surprising since they initially came off as very ‘commercial’ which I view as a negative. But my server was an older gentleman named John who was ON POINT with his descriptions and was an overall fantastic salesman. 60,000 cases/year and 225 acres of vines, making them the largest farm winery in the region. They even had a brewery, which I wanted to try but didn’t have a chance to. And if this isn’t enough, it has a great view.

For the wines: I bought two bottles, which should tell you something. The Fathom 107 was a fascinating blend of Riesling and Gewürztraminer, and the Eastside Riesling was excellent and nice had body. The 2017 unoaked Chard was good; just a tad bit of fruit but didn’t overdo it. 2017 Rose was mostly clean but some strawberry notes. The 2016 Merlot was good and had a nice finish. The 2012 Meritage was also good (and from a good vintage).

3) Keuka Lake: 3rd of my top 5 visits, including possibly the two best Rieslings I had the entire trip. Oddly enough I’d never, ever heard of this place despite asking for multiple recommendations – I just randomly showed up to try their samples. 43 acres vines/3,000 case a year. Had they been cheaper this would have been my favorite winery in the Finger Lakes.

I LOVED the 2017 “Upper Eastside” and the 2017 “Evergreen” Rieslings (both $30). The 2017 “Falling Man” Riesling was fruit forward and really good (but $40?). Even their 2017 Leon Millot was good (if a bit vegetal, but that isn’t a negative descriptor in this case). Heck, I also liked the Cab Franc, which (oddly enough) had green apple notes.

4) Hermann J. Wiemer: World-famous winery and one of the overall best selections of the trip. No hybrids – nothing but vinifera here. I really enjoyed their Rieslings, even the semi-sweet version which I never thought I’d appreciate. The 100% Grüner was also good. I ended up leaving with 3 bottles for myself and other friends.

5) Dr. Konstantin Frank: Another top 5 visits of the trip, and certainly the most famous in the area. I love the backstory though – the namesake was a Ukrainian immigrant who eventually found his way to Cornell University. With a PdD in viticulture and lots of experience growing rapes in very cold environments, he pioneered winemaking in the Finger Lakes and eventually founded his own winery. 150 acres of vines, with vineyards on several of the Finger Lakes.

There wasn’t a single ‘meh’ wine here. Several high-end Rieslings were very good although I think my favorite was the well balanced ‘traditional’ dry Riesling, with the Margrit dry Riesling with nice bite & minerality coming second . Also very notable were the “Old Vine” Pinot Noir with cherry notes, a Pinot-heavy red blend, a Gewürztraminer with lots of character, and a Sauv Blanc with big mouthfeel that mom especially liked. I also liked the Grüner, Pinot Blanc and sweet or semi-sweet Rieslings, despite not being a sweet wine drinker. Excellent view and overall presentation as well.

6) Domaine LeSurre: Owned by a couple from France, no vineyard but locally sourced fruit. Excelled in Chardonnay and reds. I especially liked oaked Chard but unoaked was good too. Had a nice Pinot with cherry notes. Also enjoyed their other reds, including an excellent 2014 Cab Franc, Lemberger, and “Reserve” red.

7) Standing Stone Vineyard: Now owned by Hermann Wiemer; 46 acres of vines. One of the oldest wineries in the area. Good Riesling and Gewürztraminer, although the surprise was their Saperavi which had a dark color and rubarb-ish notes. The Cabernet Sauvignon was good too.

8) Barnstormer Winery: Cute tasting room. Nice Sangiovese Rose; I think this was the only time I saw this varietal. Good dry Riesling with grassy notes.

9) Damiani: Rare red-focused winery. 40 acres of vines, 80% estate (the rest local). Located on one of the warmer areas of the region. Very good 2017 Cabernet Franc, not overly peppery. Interesting Marchael Fosh, with a long finish. Good 2017 Lemberger with a white pepper finish and good tannin. Pinot and semi-dry wines were OK.

10) Lakewood Vineyards: My very first Finger Lakes winery ever! Nice, light bodied Cabernet Franc, although their Riesling was my favorite of the bunch. They did a good job with their Concord and Niagara grapes, although those aren’t my favorite varietals.

11) Heron Hill: This was the last winery of day #1 so while I *think* the wines were good my taste buds were most definitely shot at this point. Their main winery at the bottom of Keuka was beautiful, but I actually did my tasting at their smaller tasting room on Seneca. But the Seneca location had beer, which made dad very happy. He deserved it after having to drive mom & I around all day.

We also visited Shaw, Bully Hill, Ravines, Miles, McGregor, and Earle Estate Meadery/Torry Ridge Winery.

Not tried: Kemmenter or Forge Cellars, which are appointment-only locations that are definitely on my list for next time. I also need to visit Shalestone and Ryan Williams.

Linden Vineyard Evolution Seminar

Linden is one of my favorite wineries in all of Virginia. Not only are the wines outstanding, but it epitomes my favorite parts of the Virginia wine scene. The small, service-focused tasting room. The lack of crowds. The rustic feel. Having the wine maker available to ask questions (when he’s not working the fields). Linden is literally my Virginia wine dream come true.

If you’re reading this, chances are that owner/winemaker Jim Law needs no introduction. But for those who don’t, suffice to say he is one of Virginia’s best and most influential wine makers.

I’ve been here a bunch of times. But today wasn’t just any tasting – it was an “Evolution” seminar, taught by none other than the man himself.

Jim isn’t a talkative guy, but he definitely loves to talk about terroir. Our discussion ranged from how he was introduced to wine, how he picked this location, to the various styles he experimented with. But most of it was about dirt – and the wines that came from it. It was very cool to listen to Jim impart decades of experience and musings.

Linden draws from three vineyards; Hardscrabble, Avenius, and Boisseau. Hardscrabble is his 20 acre estate vineyard, primarily growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay but home to several other varietals. Avenius a cooler 5 acre site with a 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, 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.

The tasting consisted of mostly older vintages, with a handful of newer ones thrown into the mix. What we tried:

2005 “Hardscrabble” Chardonnay: Named after his estate vineyard. It was definitely aging but still drinkable, and had an oddly sweet-ish nose.

2012 Hardscrabble Chardonnay: Creamy, nice acidity

2015 Hardscrabble Chardonnay. This is one of the wines that Jim is most proud of in his entire history of wine making. Let that sink in. Big mouthfeel, long finish, nice acid. As he said, “This is the Goldilocks of wine”.

1996 Cabernet Sauvignon: Old but still good. Just as interesting was his description of the site location, especially how this particular site needed to restrict water intake.

2001 Reserve (left bank style red blend): Dark cherry, long finish, nice tannin but not overpowering.

2010 Hardscrabble (red blend): Spreads out immediately. Great tannins.

2015 Hardscrabble: Nice balance, long finish, very smooth. One of my favorites

2007 Petit Manseng: A desert wine that was thick and reminded me of lemon and honey. Also excellent.

2014 Petit Manseng: Similar but less thick or sweet