Early Mountain Vineyards Announces New Head Winemaker

Really happy how this turned out. I initially interviewed Maya Hood White for a separate article, but this time I got to go into more depth with her.

I’m sad to see Ben Jordan go, but couldn’t think of someone better to replace him.
#VAWine #winemaker #virginiawine #womeninwine #womenwinemaker #girlboss #earlymountainvineyard


Cana Vineyards Wins The 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup

On March 24th, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced Cana Vineyards & Winery as the winner of the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup for its 2019 Unité Reserve, a Petit Verdot-heavy red blend. Owners Lisa & Bryce Petty and winemaker Melanie Natoli accepted the Cup at a packed gala, held at Richmond’s Main Street Station. This year’s Governor’s Cup was the first time the Gala was open to the public.

Melanie made history as the first woman to ever receive the Governor’s Cup. The competition also set a record with three women winemakers – Melanie, Maggie Malick of Maggie Malick Wine Caves, and Rachel Stinson Vrooman of Stinson Vineyards – behind four of the competition’s 12 top-scoring wines, which will form the Governor’s Case.

The remaining Case wines, representing Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, and the Shenandoah Valley, were also revealed. Albemarle Ciderworks won Best in Show for its 2019 Virginia Hewes Crab cider. 127 gold medal winners were announced earlier in the month.

The 2022 Virginia’s Governor’s Case

  1. Cana Vineyards & Winery 2019 Unité Reserve (Cup Winner)
  2. 50 West Vineyards 2019 Ashby Gap
  3. Barboursville Vineyards 2020 Vermentino Reserve
  4. Cana Vineyards & Winery 2019 LeMariage
  5. Maggie Malick Wine Caves 2020 Albariño
  6. Michael Shaps Wineworks 2019 Chardonnay
  7. Pollak Vineyards 2017 Meritage
  8. Rockbridge Vineyard 2018 V d’Or
  9. Shenandoah Vineyards 2019 Reserve
  10. Stinson Vineyards 2017 Meritage
  11. Trump Winery 2015 Brut Reserve
  12. Wisdom Oak Winery 2019 Nineteen

The Governor’s Cup is Virginia’s premiere wine competition, featuring wines that are entirely grown and made in the state. Competition Director and Master of Wine Jay Youmans changed the format and strengthened judging standards in 2012, turning the Cup into a world-class competition. Cases of these top-scoring wines are sent to wine critics around the world, promoting the Virginia wine industry to a national and international audience.

Jay and his team of judges blind tasted over 600 entries, their highest number ever. This year’s competition was marked by two trends; the rising quality of Virginia wine as a whole, and the diversity of wines the state is capable of producing.

Competition judge and wine writer Frank Morgan said of this year’s competition, “In the ten years I’ve served as a judge for the Virginia Governor’s Cup, the quality of wines was higher across the range of varieties. I was especially impressed with the Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot and especially the red Bordeaux-style red blends.”

Annette Boyd, Director of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, also noted how this year’s scores were buoyed by Virginia’s overall improving quality as well as a pair of especially strong vintages. The majority of wines came from 2017 and 2019, harvests winemaker Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards called “Excellent to Outstanding” due to fruit that was almost universally praised as ripe and well balanced.

This year’s scores back up their observations. On a 100 point scale, those scoring 85-89 points earn silver and 90 or more are awarded gold. The strength of this year’s Cup submissions were such that all but a handful won at least silver.

This year’s competition both reaffirmed the Cup’s love of French grapes amongst its top wines, while demonstrating how Virginia is increasingly looking beyond Bordeaux for inspiration.

Bordeaux-style red blends made up over half the Case, alongside a Chardonnay and Chardonnay-based sparkling. Rounding out the case is a dessert wine, Vermentino, and the Case’s first Albariño.

Yet Virginia is still a young wine region, experimenting with new varieties to find those that work best in our terroir. A number of these gold medal winners showcase how Virginia’s exploration of new grapes and styles of winemaking made this year’s gold medal wines its most diverse set ever, taking cues from both California and Europe but forging a style that is distinctly Virginia.

Judges awarded the Cup’s first gold to a Tempranillo (Spain) from Maggie Malick Wine Caves and the first gold in over a decade to a Syrah (southern France) from Beliveau Farm Winery. Albariño (Spain) and Nebbiolo (Italy) were well represented despite relatively small plantings in the state. Petit Manseng and Petit Verdot, lesser-known French varieties winegrowers praise for their suitability in Virginia’s climate, also made strong showings.

Dry and off-dry wines made with hybrid grapes (a crossing of American and Mediterranean vines) also had their best-ever showing. Beliveau Farm also won for its 2017 Soul Singer Chambourcin, and both Grace Estate Winery and Old House Vineyards were recognized for their Vidals. While hybrids have traditionally lacked mass market appeal, climate change is forcing vineyards to reevaluate what they should plant and these under-appreciated varieties are amongst those leading the way.

This diversity isn’t limited to grapes; sparkling wine, cider, and mead all set new medal records in the Cup.

Six sparklings took gold. The nationwide popularity of sparkling wines has seen local bubbly sales surge, with a number of Virginia wineries now offering everything from casual pétnats to serious méthode champenoise-style wines.

Ciders and meads were also well represented, earning 23 gold medals between them. These beverages reflect the changing demographics in Virginia’s beverage market as new drinkers shift to lighter offerings. Nearly 1/3rd of new ‘wineries’ in Virginia are actually cideries or meaderies. The Cup’s ciders were reviewed by a separate set of judges.

Many of this year’s gold medal winners are still available at their respective wineries. Wine lovers can download the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup® Gold Medal Wine Trail app at Virginiawine.Org. The App allows users to plan their trips around wineries that earned gold at the Governor’s Cup, enter raffles for prizes, and view discounts.


Sweet Vines Farm Winery

A few weeks ago I had the chance to meet Seidah Armstrong, winemaker and owner of Sweet Vines Farm. Sweet Vines hadn’t opened yet, but Seidah was kind enough to let me visit on a Friday before their first big weekend so we could chat before things got crazy.

Family history is important here and it influences many aspects of her business. Seidah loves to tell the story of how she is a 3rd generation winemaker, going back to her maternal great-grandmother and maternal great-great grandmother. Seidah planted Muscadine in tribute to these women, both of whom made wine using this grape.

Although Seidah’s background is in the field of education, she caught the wine-bug in 2009 and started making wine on her own. But a few years ago this hobby turned into a calling, so she and her husband started searching for property to pursue winemaking full-time.

“I didn’t find this place – it found me” Seidah explained while we toured the farm. The main building is a former residence she and her family turned into a tasting room. Outside you’ll find a gigantic chess board and fire pit ready for visitors. We spent a lot of time chatting at the Ancestors Garden. Saying the farm is warm and adorable is an understatement.

Sweet Vines sources grapes from the former Oakcrest winery, but they have 1 acre planted here with 3 more on the way. In keeping with family tradition, these vines include plantings of Muscadine, her ‘ancestor’ grape. But not all of Seidah’s wine will come from grapes; Sweet Vines also has several fruit-based wines.

Part of Sweet Vine’s story is how Seidah is breaking new ground in the Virginia wine industry; out of the state’s 300 or so establishments she is one of the very few people of color to own a vineyard-winery, and is likely Virginia’s only Black, female winemaker. It’s an important story to tell given the black community is vastly underrepresented in the overall American wine industry.

At the same time, Seidah’s background is irrelevant to her winemaking. The two of us tasted through her lineup and the wine is worth your time. So whether you want to toast to Seidah making history or you just want to kick back and enjoy a tasty beverage, you should definitely visit.

Sweet Vine wines that we tried:

  • “Pearolicious”: A pear wine that while dry had a “fruit sweet” quality to it. Probably my favorite of the day.
  • “Summer Evening”: Strawberry-lavender wine. Heavy on lavender, grown on the property.
  • Chardonnay: California fruit; had a nutty quality to the flavor.
  • “Typo”: Dessert wine with lots of notes of cinnamon. It was 15% alcohol but doesn’t seem like it at all.
  • “Ancestor”: Sweet-flavored Muscadine wine.

Glen Manor Vineyards Winemaker Tour

There are many good wineries in Virginia. There are a few great ones. But if Virginia had a “Premier Grand Cru” or “First Growth” category, that’s where you’d find Glen Manor.

Owner/winemaker Jeff White didn’t plan on becoming a winemaker, or even growing grapes. His vineyard is actually his family farm which goes back 4 generations. But a summer working with viticulturist Tony Wolf gave him an appreciation of Virginia wine, and that lead to an internship with Jim Law. The rest is history.

Glen Manor has one of the prettiest vineyard views anywhere in Virginia. Its 17 acres of vines tops out at 1400 feet, right below the northern entrance of Shenandoah Park’s Skyline Drive. I’d always wanted to visit the vineyard and this November finally had my chance when a friend invited me on a members-only tour.

The vineyard is so steep that Jeff’s insurance won’t permit him to allow visitors there, so I had to rent a 4 x 4 vehicle to traverse the slope and sign a waiver as a condition of doing the tour. Well trust me – the view was worth it.

While doing our wine tasting Jeff talked at length about the vineyard and his family history, even pointing to a tree that he once climbed as a kid. Since he’s nearly always in the vineyard or cellar (often working at night) visitors including myself rarely have the chance to meet him one-on-one. But that’s ok – his wife Kelly is an amazing hostess, although I admit I miss the focaccia bread she’d leave on the counter, pre-COVID.

On the topic of legacy, Jeff mentioned how his niece Ashleigh White had recently gotten into the winemaking (and winegrowing) business. She’s still young and has the travel bug, so her path in life isn’t set. But one can hope there will be a 5th generation on the farm.

The vineyard’s westward orientation makes it a ‘hot’ site, which guides his farming practices. Jeff picks his fruit at night using headlamps, along with a vineyard team/family unit that emigrated here from Mexico. The story of how Jeff assisted the Morales family emigrate to the US and José’s own life story is amazing, but that’s probably a discussion for another time.

Jeff explained “I would say this was a pretty typical vintage in very untypical climatic times”. The reds seem to be pointed towards finesse rather than power, while the whites and future rosé show a lot of promise. Of course, that’s all in the future and blending trials haven’t started. At this point the whites seemed more like raw apple cider than wine.

My companion and I sat outside for a special library flight which focused on their Hodder Hill (Cabernet-dominant red blend), St. Ruth (usually Merlot-dominant), and Petit Manseng.

One of the Petit Mansengs was a tad too sweet for me, but their Petit Mansengs have otherwise been consistently stellar.

Don’t ask me to pick a favorite red; that question is too hard, and I didn’t take detailed notes regardless. Glen Manor’s reds have a very distinctive earthiness to them that I love. I made sure to get their 2017 St. Ruth.

After that it was time to return home. Hopefully in another year I’ll be a member and do this tour again.

Revisiting Philip Carter Winery

This was far from my first visit to Philip Carter Winery (PCW) or even my first blog here. But I happened to run into owner Philip Carter Strother at PCW’s sister winery of Valley View Farm and he insisted I make a new trip, so an update was in order.

A discussion of wine isn’t supposed to be preceded with a history lesson, but in the case of PCW I can’t help myself. It helps that Philip loves to discuss his family history. And you can’t blame him – you would too if you were able to trace your family’s lineage to America’s first winemaker.

While Thomas Jefferson is America’s most famous wine connoisseur, the truth is he failed when it came to growing wine. Few realize that almost 20 years earlier the Carter family succeeded where even Jefferson failed.

The Carters were among the Virginia colony’s most influential landowners. In 1762 Charles Carter sent a dozen bottles of wine made from vines at his plantation of Cleve (located in today’s King George County) to London’s Royal Society of Arts. Impressed with what they sampled, the Society awarded him a gold medal for his “spirited attempt towards the accomplishment of their views, respecting wine in America.”

Replica of the certification validating the Carter family was growing a vineyard w/both vinifera and American vines, dated Aug 6, 1763

But getting back to PCW, a few things had changed over the past several years. For one, Valley View’s vineyard is now in full production, which gives PCW access to high-quality fruit. Another change was their new winemaker, Tony McDonnell. Lastly, PCW’s tasting room went through a major upgrade. Philip brought me up to speed on all these.

Valley View is owned by PCW but operates as a separate winery (although all winemaking is done at PCW). It’s only 10 miles north but the site is much better situated for wine growing, with higher elevation and excellent soil. 5 acres of vinifera vines are planted there, with more on the way.

The importance of a really good vineyard site can hardly be overstated, especially given the extreme weather variations that’s becoming apparent in Virginia. Smart vintners are adjusting by either replanting with hardier grape varietals or finding better vineyard locations. Philip is doing both. PCW’s estate “Ten Vines” vineyard will likely see more hybrids in the future, while Valley View is poised to become their prime source of vinifera.

Philip also talked extensively about his new winemaker, Tony McDonnell. Tony previously worked at a large commercial winery in Pennsylvania but was looking for something more artisanal. Philip wisely offered him a job here. While only the newest wines in PCW’s lineup had his touch, everything he had a hand in I was impressed with.

Lastly, PCW has gone all-in on upgrading their indoor and outdoor spaces. We chatted at a new upstairs club area. Their outdoor space was recently completed. While COVID is almost certainly the main rationale behind this new patio, it’s an upgrade that I’d welcome in any case.

I had the full lineup of PCW wines, with a cider thrown into the mix. Occasionally Valley View Farm and PCW may share a wine, but for the most part they are kept separate.

If I had to pick a favorite it would have been the 2019 Cleve, which was young but outstanding. The Viognier and cider were worthy runners up, and the Chambourcin/Norton blend was shockingly good – and I say that as someone who rarely loves either grape.

For whites and lighter wines:

  • 2020 Chardonnay: Fermented half in steel & half in oak, this would appeal to those who love both styles.
  • 2020 Viognier: Floral, honeysuckle nose with a nice smoothness to it. I’ve been on a Viognier kick lately and thought this was exceptional, so I brought a bottle to go.
  • Noble Pome: A dry cider infused with honey. While Valley View is their main cider location, occasionally you can find ciders here as well. I often find modern ciders too overwhelming but this was much more wine-like in style.
  • 2020 Roswell Rosé: Chambourcin, smelled like strawberries. Fruit notes but dry.

For reds & dessert wines.

  • 2020 Cabernet Franc: Little bit of spice with some fruit notes.
  • 10 Vines Cabernet Sauvignon: “10 Vines” is a label used by PCW for more experimental wines, namely from out of state. This was a California Cab Sauvignon which I certainly enjoyed, even if it was a stark difference to what I’m used to elsewhere in the state.
  • 10 Vines Merlot: Ripe is the key adjective here. I’m used to California Cabs so a Merlot was a nice change of pace and I really enjoyed it.
  • 2019 Cleve: 50/50 Petit Verdot and Tannat. Not as young as I would have thought; well integrated oak, nice balanced overall.
  • 2020 Chambourcin/Norton blend: Norton dominates the notes but it doesn’t have the ‘foxy’ characteristic I’m used to. Fermented in steel then neutral oak.
  • Sweet Danielle: Late harvest Petit Manseng.
  • 2015 vintage “1762”: Port-style with Chambourcin.

I’m really looking forward to seeing Tony’s upcoming wines (and ciders – he makes those too). Have you been to PCW lately? What do you think of the changes?

Morais Vineyards & Winery

Most of my wine blogs are easy to write, mostly because the format is the same. I visit, try some wine, and write about what I liked (or more rarely, what I didn’t). In that respect my visit to Morais vineyards was a success. It helped I also got to caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen since pre-COVID.

But what makes this visit different is any discussion of Morais would be incomplete without talking about owner José Morais and Portugal’s distinct style of winemaking, because these things are intertwined. So let’s start at the beginning.

José is the definition of a self-made man. Born in Portugal, he came to the U.S. at the age of 17 and made his fortune in the construction industry. For years he acted as a liaison between Portugal’s American consulates and the Portuguese government. This led their President to award him the title of “Comendador” – an honor only bestowed upon those who perform great acts of service.

Little did I realize Manassas has an active Portuguese community, complete with its own Community Center. For José, everything seems to circle back to this community and his Portuguese roots, and his winery is no different.

Morais is inspired by the wines and winemaking styles of Portugal (although with a Virginia twang). Portugal makes a refreshing style of wine called Vinho Verde; Morais has its Battlefield White. Portugal is famous for fortified Port wines; Morais has its own Port-style. Even their winemaker, Vitor Guimarãis, is from Portugal.

They likewise use several grapes found in Portugal, including Touriga Nacional, Verdelho, and Alvarinho (call it Albariño and you’ll likely be corrected). While Morais has almost 7 acres of vines they also use fruit from outside Virginia, oftentimes blending it with what they source locally. I’m admittedly skeptical of the use of non-VA fruit at a Virginia winery, but it made sense here since many Portuguese grapes aren’t cold hardy enough for Virginia’s climate.

GM Alexandria Chambers and I caught up on life while enjoying a few flights. Until then I never realize exactly how many wines Morais makes; the must have brought out several club wines because I definitely felt like a VIP during this visit.

For whites we started with Battlefield, a light, bright 50/50 blend of Alvarinho and Vidal with a touch of carbonation. It wasn’t a sparkling but it did give it a bit of zest that I liked.

From there we went to the Verdelho, a grape native to Portugal and famous for use in Madeira. It had lime and grassy notes on the nose but apple on the palate. I enjoyed it and don’t think I’ve ever had one before to compare it with.

I would have been disappointed not to try their Alvarinho, and they didn’t let me down. It was made in stainless steel tanks, with lemon notes on the palate. We finished the whites with a Chardonnay that you could tell benefited from the restrained use of oak, and a dark, dry Cab Franc/Cab Sauv rosé made in the Portuguese style.

Moving to the reds, when I saw the “2018” vintage on their Merlot I privately despaired but was soon impressed. 2018 was a wet, difficult year for Virginia, so good reds were an exception and this was one of those exceptions. It was fruity but not overly so.

Next up was another pair of 2018s; the Comendador (red blend) and Cabernet Franc. The first is a Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Touriga blend that had a hint of vanilla, while the later had a spice note.

The last of the regular line up was a 2018 Touriga that was a real standout, and one of the favorites of the day. Medium to full bodied, earthy, and big tannins.

I thought the tasting was finished – but then they brought out the big guns. Have I mentioned how wonderful Alex is?

Part II started with the Touriga/Syrah “Manassas City” blend which was young but still drinking nicely. We went to try three more red blends; a cellared 2017 Comendador, the 2019 Souzão, and a 2019 Tourão.

I liked Comendador but loved the last two. Both use grapes native to Portugal, so there likely isn’t anything close to them in Virginia (the fruit was mostly west coast). The Souzão was a little spicy while the Tourão had an amazing nose and great complexity, blending Virginia and non-Virginia fruit. As overflowing as my wine cabinet is, I had to take the Souzão home.

But wait – there’s more!

Finishing the lineup was a series of dessert wines, including their ruby port-style (Touriga & brandy), Jeropiga (Vidal & Chambourcin), Moscatel, and (my favorite) a cherry wine. I’m a sucker for a great presentation and the cherry wine has one of the best methods of delivery – they pour it into a tiny chocolate cup and you devour it whole.

For as many wines as I tried, there was actually more in the works I never got to sample. Vitor is collaborating with John Davenport of Three Crosses Distilling Company and both have products using the other’s barrels.  John is aging his rye whisky in barrels used to make port-styles wines. Vitor is aging his 2021 Ruby port-style in Three Crosses’ rye barrels.

It was a great visit, which I finished sitting on the patio looking at their park.

Old Westminster Winery

I visited Old Westminster Winery back to back with Black Ankle Vineyards. Both were on my list of ‘must visit’ Maryland wineries, although for different reasons. While Black Ankle makes wine in a more traditional style Old Westminster leans heavy into experimentation; specifically the production of ‘natural wine’.

Natural wine isn’t well defined but most agree it’s a style of winemaking that utilizes natural yeast fermentation, limited to no sulfites, and doesn’t use filtering for clarification (or some combination of these and other methods). It’s an ancient style that’s come back into vogue due to its emphasis on sustainable agriculture (and perceived health benefits, although those are more debatable). While some wineries have a pétillant natural (pet-nat) sparkling or claim their focus on ‘minimal intervention’ Old Westminster takes its ‘natural’ approach to a whole new level.

Personally I find natural wine a love-it-or-hate-it style. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of natural wine out there that’s quite yummy and I would totally recommend visiting Old Westminster to try for yourself. But they can taste ‘funky’ for lack of a better term (although not in a bad way), and the wine itself can look cloudy due to its lack of filtering. Cloudy wine isn’t in any way faulted, but its best to keep an open mind for any visit.

Right now they have 10 acres planted – mostly Muscat. On top of this they have a vineyard at Burnt Hill Farm (also called the Burnt Hill Project) which promises more estate fruit. Otherwise they source fruit from Maryland.

Another cool thing is they have a number of food options available, including several styles of pizza. Some are traditional margarita-style pies, others are (like the wine) on the experimental side. I chose a personal pizza topped off with beats (of all things) but really enjoyed it. They also have Sunday brunch.

As for the wine – a number flight options are available, both for reds, whites, and sparklings. Not wanting to miss anything I did a good cross-section. My server was also kind enough to swap out a few items for others I was more keen on sampling. They also have canned wine (didn’t I mention they were experimental?). Extra points for having tasting notes with QR codes you could scan to get a quick video of the winemaker chatting about the wine.

2020 Albariño: Saline, peach notes on palate. Pineapple and peach on the nose,

2020 Sauvignon Blanc: About as opposite a New Zealand SB as you can get. Neither high acid or perfume-y. I detected some melon notes.

2020 Trio: Chardonnay heavy white blend

2019 Muscat: Apricot all the way. Apparently there is some residual sugar but I couldn’t detect it. No filtering so it has an interesting cloudiness (which is totally healthy)

Frank Fizz: Interesting; 100% Cab Franc pet-nat sparkling. A ‘rustic’ sparking.

Rev 7th Edition: Cedar/Oak. “Molassas” is on the sheet but I can’t confirm it since I don’t know what it tastes like!

Solera Batch 3: A port-style wine. Spicy, with Christmas-y notes. Not sure if I loved it but it was very interesting.

I can’t remember which it was, but one of the wines I tasted has ‘tastes like beet juice” in my notes!

Black Ankle Vineyards

While several Maryland wineries are about as close to me as Virginia ones, unfortunately I’ve never visited them as often. I’ve heard from friends the Maryland wine industry is maybe a decade behind Virginia – but they are catching up fast.

But in asking around, a handful of names came up as ‘must visit’ locations. Black Ankle Vineyards was one of them. Since they were just over an hour away from me, further investigation was in order.

As a smaller state Maryland wineries have less flexibility in sourcing local fruit, so it’s not unusual to find their wine labeled as “American” rather than “Maryland”. Fortunately at 56 acres of vines this location doesn’t seem to have a problem with having estate fruit.

I was quick to discover Black Ankle was at least the equal to any I’ve visited in Virginia (or just about anywhere) both in service and in wine. They even took the difficult path of only growing vinifera, including Albariño (increasingly a Maryland favorite) and Syrah (which is hard to find anywhere on the east coast).

The tasting room is pretty, with lots of outdoor sitting and great views. It’s also dog & children friendly (at least outdoors for the later), and you can bring your own food. They even have a Telsa charger and nice glassware. Black Ankle checked off lots of boxes before I even had my first tasting.

I didn’t have a reservation but it was early so I snuck in anyway. My server Kody was on the spot during my hour-long visit – and she was very kind to let me sample a few bottles not on the tasting menu but happened to be open. I’m thankful for that, because several turned out to be favorites.

Black Ankle seems to have an affinity for Albariño because they had three different versions from three different tracts – and they all expressed themselves differently. But the real treat was the sample of their Black Ankle Estate, which really blew me away. The only thing I didn’t love were the price points were on the higher side, with whites going from $38-50.

All flights were accompanied with tasting notes, although I tended to use my own descriptors.

  • 2019 Chardonnay: Some butter notes. Not necessarily California style but it was somewhat reminiscent of one.
  • 2020 Grüner: Light, lots of mineral notes. Hard to compare since I see so little of this variety locally.
  • 2020 Albariño Verjeo: Aromatic. Heavier than I expected. At first I thought I detected citrus but probably more leaning towards pear.
  • 2020 Albariño Sur: More citrusy than the first, and definitely with some mineral notes.
  • 2020 Albariño Norte: Definitely citrusy and softer than the rest.
  • 2020 Passeggiata (red): A super soft summer red, meant to be chilled. Not sure what the blend was.
  • 2019 Crumbling Rock (Bordeaux blend but leaning towards Cab Franc): Wonderful aromatics!!!
  • 2016 Black Ankle Estate (Bordeaux blend but leaning towards Cab Sauv): Heavier Bordeaux blend. Earthy and dark cherry; a definite winner.

All in all, Black Ankle was a great experience. This place really blew away my expectations for Maryland wine, so I’ll happily go back.

Rockbridge Vineyard & Brewery

Rockbridge is conveniently located not far off I-64 in the southern Shenandoah. I was in the area visiting some of their new neighbors but dropped by since it had been a long time. It helped I was on a mission to buy as many Gold Medal winners from the Virginia’s Governor’s Cup as I could, and Rockbridge’s 2017 V d’Or was on the list.

Founded in 1988 this is one of the oldest wineries in Virginia; in fact their winemaker Shepard (Shep) Rouse is the 3rd oldest tenured winemaker in the state. I suspect he was also one of the early proponents of hybrids, which make more than half of their 17 acres of vines. They also have an assortment of vinifera, including 2 acres of Pinot Noir and some Riesling.

Rockbridge made the leap to becoming a winery/brewery combination several years ago. The barn-styled building is divided between the two operations, with more space outside. According to tasting room manager Dianna Rankin, it’s not unusual for husbands to head to one side of the building for beer while wives stay on the other side. The brewery was closed when I visited but I did peruse their very considerable beer list.

While their wine list is exceptionally long and varied, Rockbridge’s most famous creation is arguably their V d’Or dessert wine, an ice-style wine made from Vidal, Vignoles and Traminette. The V d’Or is especially noteworthy because it was twice selected for the Governor’s Case in the past decade.

Dianna set me up with a generous selection of wine tastings. I immediately noticed that across the board bottle prices are very affordable, even by the standards of the Shenandoah area. I’m accustomed to prices in NOVA and Maryland where whites set you back almost $30 and reds are even more expensive. So it was shocking to see most of Rockbridge’s wines were around $15 and the most expensive ones were $25. They also have a deep bench of library wines available for sale.

For their wines I especially liked the Chardonnay, of which they had several vintages. The 2019 Rockbridge Chardonnay was my favorite; made in steel but using a whole cluster press process to give it more structure and tannin. Despite that process I found it light & easy drinking.

Also very good were the Rieslings. While I’m not often a fan of off-dry wines I’ll make an exception here. One of the best was their 2015 Riesling, which had body and complexity along with 2% residual sugar. I had several stars in my notes so I must have liked it a lot.

After the reds was their 2017 Rosé, made with Chambourcin. It had a Jolly Rancher strawberry/watermelon flavor to it.

Next up were several reds, including a very spicy 2015 Syrah and a Cab Franc which was all smoke & spice.

But the crown goes to the 2017 V d’Or. No tasting notes here, but I know I need to save this for a special occasion.

Above Ground Winery

Above Ground might be a familiar name for those who have spent years visiting Loudoun wineries. Owners Matt and Mary Barbagallo formerly had a tasting room in Purcellville before moving to the Shenandoah. Not only is vineyard acreage cheaper there, they wanted a nice place in the countryside to retire. The Shenandoah offers both. So they planted several years ago and (re)opened this summer.

While nearly all Virginia wineries advertise themselves as a ‘Farm Winery’, this place definitely emphasizes the ‘Farm’ part of that phrase. That’s partially due to their remote location, about halfway between Staunton and Lexington. But it’s also because the Barbagallos put nearly all their effort into the vineyard as opposed to a fancy tasting room.

Don’t get me wrong – you’ll love the drive here and the view from the top of the vineyard is lovely (and yes, they do plan a new tasting area to take advantage of it). But mostly, visitors are here for the wine.

Matt took me on a tour of the vineyard to better explain why they picked this location. With an elevation of 2100 feet and a rain shadow from the surrounding mountains, this is a great place for vines. It helps they planted on Frederick-Christian soil, which offers great drainage with mixes of limestone and other minerals. I admit – I’m a geek when it comes to checking out vineyards, so I was more than happy to test my skills at trying to identify which vines were riesling vs pinot noir (PS – I still stink at guessing).

Right now Above Ground has 7 acres of vines, including several Bordeaux reds, Chardonnay, Riesling, and some Pinot Noir. The last two I’m especially excited about, since Virginia has so little of it.

Above Ground crafts most of their wine according to the local palate, so you won’t find anything fancy. Most of their current lineup is either blended with fruit or made into lighter, juicier styles. People who style themselves wine snobs may wonder about the relative lack of dry wines. But I enjoyed the entire lineup – especially the Chardonnay.

  • “Exit Strategy” 2020 Chardonnay: This was mostly steel and a little bit of oak. Clean, with a nice mouthfeel. I bought a bottle of this to take home.
  • “Dividing Ridge White”: A light white wine/fruit wine blend, made with riesling and apples. This is more of a picnic, porch-sipping wine.
  • “Karma” (Merlot/Cabernet Franc): Light and juicy.
  • “Wild River Red”: Sweet wine made with elderberries and west coast fruit. Definitely a porch sipper.
  • “Dividing Ridge” Red: Blend of raspberries and grapes (Cab Franc?)

Above Ground reminds me the type of tasting experiences that used to be common elsewhere in Virginia but are increasingly rare, where the owners/winemaker pours for you while shooting the breeze. If you’re looking for a laid back, unpretentious experience, definitely visit.