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…

Windridge Vineyards

Maryland wineries are the same driving distance as the ones I visit in Virginia, yet somehow I don’t visit them nearly as often. But I really should – Maryland’s wine scene is growing fast; every time I look at my map I find a new winery had popped up. Such was the case with Windridge Vineyards.

Windridge is west of Gaithersburg, somewhere along that invisible boundary where the burbs turns into farm country. It’s also a very new winery, opening in July 2019.

But ‘new’ is relative here; they’ve had vineyards for a while and only recently took the plunge to open a full-fledged winery. The current tasting room is a temporary setup while they build their permanent one. Fortunately that didn’t stop a friend & I from grabbing a seat inside while doing some wine ‘research’.

With the exception of a Riesling, all of Windridge’s wines were made with estate fruit or purchased in Maryland. Currently they have 27 acres of vines planted, including Syrah and Albariño.  It excites me to see wineries planting vines that I don’t see that often; Albariño especially is well suited to the local terroir.

I was particularly taken with the Cabernet Franc and their Seneca red-blend, but across the board I enjoyed the lineup. And if this wasn’t enough, winemaker Nick Maliska poured a sample of their 2019 Cabernet Franc juice taken from a barrel. 2019 is going to be a fantastic year up and down the east coast, and Maryland wines from that vintage will be outstanding.

What I tried:

2018 Rose: Merlot/Cab Sauv/Cab Franc blend, strawberry in color and strawberry-watermelon notes on the palate.

2017 & 2018 Chardonnays: I enjoyed both, but for different reasons. The 2017 had some nice lemon notes, while 2018 had a surprisingly long finish. Although this may seem counter-intuitive, I think I liked the 2018 better even though it was from a horrible growing year.

2017 Chambourcin: This was a full-flavored Chambourcin, without becoming a fruit bomb. Also had some pepper notes.

2017 Ithaca Reserve (Chambourcin): Less pepper and more fruit-forward.

Chardonel: I’m not always a fan of this hybrid but I liked this one quite a bit. It was off dry and its acidity gave it a nice ‘fresh’ quality.

Seneca (red blend): Earthy, mushroom on the nose. Some acidity and fruit that appeared in the finish.

2017 Cabernet Franc Reserve: This was on the lighter side of the Cab Franc spectrum, with some fruit notes.

2016 “The Old Line” port-style: Strong bourbon notes, which I LOVE in my port-styles. One of the nicer port-styles I’ve enjoyed recently. Made with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Philip Carter Winery

Two of my favorite subjects are history and wine. Fortunately, these things intersect at Philip Carter Winery.

The founder of Philip Carter is a descendant of North America’s the first internationally recognized winemaker, who back in colonial days sent London’s Royal Society of Arts a dozen bottles of wine made at his plantation. Nobody is sure what type of grapes he used, but the Society thought well enough of the wine they awarded him a gold medal. Not bad for a beginner!

Club manager Kristel greeted me as I came in – and took great care of me for the next hour. The tasting room reminds me of a barn, only it’s also surrounded by about a dozen acres of vines. There’s plenty of seating both inside and out as well.

12 acres of vines is mid-sized by Virginia standards, but new vines planted at their sister winery at Valley View Farm will expand its acreage of vinifera. Most of their fruit is estate, with a small portion purchased locally. Although both locations source from the same vines and made at the same location, stylistically speaking the intent is to keep the two separate.

Two things brought me to Philip Carter. One was the recommendation of their former winemaker, Jeremy Ligon (now at Creek’s Edge). The second was a sampling of their signature blend – Cleve.

Calling me a Tannat fanatic might be an exaggeration…but not by much. Cleve is a 50/50 split of Tannat and Petit Verdot; my second favorite grape. I couldn’t tell you why putting two high-tannin grapes together works so well, but they seem to bring the best out of one another. Having had a sample of this once before, I was hooked.

I lucked out as Kristelle allowed me to sample much of their portfolio of wines. While I’m partial to reds – especially red blends – there was something on the tasting menu for all palates. This is one of the few places I’m confident I can bring friends regardless if they prefer sweet or dry wines.

What I tried:

2014 Chardonnay: Apple on the nose and palate; Kristelle explained this was a Chardonnay for non-Chard drinkers. I heartily concurred.

2018 Viognier: Soft as Viogniers go; no honeysuckle on the nose but I found it on the palate.

2016 Valley View (Chardonnay/Vidal blend): Semi-sweet. You can smell the Vidal in it, despite those notes being more subdued.

2016 Governor Fauquier (Vidal): Definitely on the sweet side.

2017 Nomini (Cab Franc): Light in color with some pepper notes.

Valley View Red (Cab Franc/Merlot): Light fruit on the nose but I could taste darker fruit…maybe even cranberry?

2016 Corotoman (Meritage): Must be Cabernet Franc heavy; definitely darker fruit notes.

2016 Cleve: Now we’re talking! 50/50 Petit Verdot/Tannat blend. Much smoother than I was expecting, especially with that chocolate pairing. Mushroom on the nose. My favorite of the entirely lineup.

Sweet Danielle (Vidal desert wine): Sweet (as expected) although the pineapple notes surprised me.

“1762” port-style: Very, very smooth. This brand has consistently been one of my favorites in the state. So good that on a previous visit I almost bribed a club member to buy it for me!

Capstone Vineyards

Capstone Vineyards is one of Virginia’s newest wineries, having opened to the public (still by appointment only) in February 2019. Given the number of local wineries you’d think the marketplace would be saturated, but Capstone demonstrates there’s always room for a new place that’s committed to their craft.

As I drove in the first thing I noticed is the vineyard has a great location. The vines are south facing, which maximizes sun exposure. The steep slope tops out 1500 feet, so excellent drainage. I would later learn they have 12 acres of mostly Bordeaux varietals planted, plus some experimental rows of Roussanne, Chenin and Muscat Ottonel.

Downward shot of the vineyard.

While there is a small tasting room at the top, it was obvious is a working vineyard first and foremost; the appointment only schedule guarantees there won’t be any crowds. Fortunately hospitality was definitely not lacking, as co-owner David Adams greeted me as I parked.

Dave explained not only is Jim Law practically his neighbor, Jim is his mentor and winemaker. That’s right; Capstone’s wines are made by ‘the man’ himself in Linden’s cellar, just three miles away. While Dave insisted that finding farmland near Linden was a total coincidence, I wouldn’t have blamed him if that added a tiny bit more incentive.

Dave pouring for me!

As much as Dave and his wife Andrea Baer enjoy growing wine, they currently don’t have any aspirations to expand the tasting area, open it up to drop-in visitors, or make the wine themselves. I rather like this set up as a visit guarantees you a lot of 1 on 1 time with the owners, which to me is the best part (well…maybe after tasting wine). Plus if Jim Law is willing to make your wines…why not let him?

Capstone’s wine production will likely always be on the small side, as they sell the majority of their grapes. When Dave mentioned Capstone is Early Mountain Vineyard’s largest outside supplier I knew this was a good sign of the quality of the vineyard, since Ben Jordan wouldn’t accept sub-par fruit. Jim Law makes the wine, Ben Jordan buys the fruit. Any vineyard endorsed by these guys is a sure-fire winner in my book.

After picking Dave’s brain for a bit, we got down to the wine tasting. Their wines are very much done in the Jim Law style, with reds focused on good balance and whites that exclude freshness. In fact, Dave was able to point to Shari Avenius’ vineyard (one of Jim’s three vineyards) the next hill over; the two locations share similar characteristics in altitude and composition.

What I tried:

2016 Chardonnay: Very bright on the palate, with a nose that reminded me of fresh fruit. Made in steel. For obvious reasons this reminded me of an Avenius Chardonnay, for those who know Linden’s wines.

2015 Merlot: Dark cherries and plumb, with noticeable acidity in the finish.

2016 Vintner’s Blend (Cabernet Franc heavy): Medium bodied and very well balanced.

2015 Fielder’s Choice (Merlot heavy): Made in new and neutral oak, this had noticeable body and structure. I especially enjoyed the long finish and good tannin.

Go visit! Then visit Linden afterwards!

Chateau O’Brien Winery & Vineyard

I don’t know what it is about wine tasting, but wine always seems to taste better when the owner is pouring it. Do the stories make it taste better? The setting? Or just the idea you’re getting some kind of special treatment? Well, all of the above was true when I did the cellar tasting at Chateau O’Brien.

Owner Howard O’Brien takes a very hands-on approach to his winery, from blending trials to bottling the wine. But one of his favorite parts of the job is doing cellar tastings, all of which he leads personally. Howard is also a big proponent of my all-time favorite grape in the world – Tannat.

I’d like to think Howard’s Tannat wines helped put this grape on the Virginia wine map. Of the 40-something acres planted in the state, 8 belong to Chateau O’Brien. Not coincidentally, his Tannat won Gold at Uruguay’s Concurso Internacional Tannat Al Mundo wine competition – the only American wine to do so. If you’re going to compete against other Tannat wines, the country whose national grape is Tannat is the place to win.

Located in a refurbished farmhouse with views of the hills of the Blue Ridge, the tasting room has exactly the rustic feel that I look for in a Virginia winery. Although they hold events (I’m especially partial to his St. Patty’s Day celebrations), parties aren’t the centerpiece here – O’Brien is one of the most wine-centric locations I know.

For starters, the wines on the tasting menu are aged longer than possibly any other place in the state. When most Virginia wineries are serving red wines that are 2-3 years old, O’Brien is serving wines that are 7-8 years old.  Their ‘average’ upstairs tasting is the equivalent to a special reserve tasting at most places. To top things off, they serve their wines in Riedel glasses – a touch I rarely see elsewhere in Virginia.

While most of my visits are spent tasting his selection of reds, this time I sampled Howard’s whites and roses. I really enjoyed the easy-drinking 2017 Northpoint White (Chardonnay) and Tannat Rose, but my favorite this time around was April’s Apple Rose – one of the most complex roses I’ve had in a while. Rounding out the white tasting was the Apple Ice Wine, an Apple/Blueberry, and a Petit Manseng.

Then off to the reds! But to make this visit special I wasn’t here for regular tasting; today was a visit to the cellar.

It’s not just the wines that make cellar tastings special. I love the intimacy – and the stories. Howard is a real character who’s owned a number of businesses before opening this winery in 2006. As he pours he tells you about the winery and the particular vintages you’re tasting.

You can tell he has an excellent growing location because the fruit profiles of his reds tend towards exceptional ripeness, even varietals like Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon that aren’t great producers in Virginia. Cellar tastings include at least four wines, although occasionally he throws in a surprise.

2013 Malbec: Excellent! Fruity and complex at the same time. O’Brien is one of the few places in Virginia that consistently produces full-flavored Malbec.

Luigi’s Luscious Red (NV?): I didn’t get the varietals, but my suspicion is its Cab Franc heavy with lots of Bordeaux friends. Spice notes on the nose and palate.

2012 Vintner’s Reserve (Tannat/Petit Verdot/Malbec): Super smooth with a long finish. I mean, George Clooney smooth. It was that good.

2012 Tannat: I’d say ‘save the best for last’ although this was up there with the Vintner’s. Long, long finish, full bodied. You could sense the tannin, but the age allowed them to smooth out.

The Staff (Desert style, Norton/Apple wine blend): This was not part of the cellar tasting but I’ll mention it anyway, since I got it as a treat upstairs. Caveat: I’m not a big fan of Norton. But this was unlike any Norton-based wine I’ve had. It isn’t fortified but it’s exceptionally strong.

Zephaniah Farm Winery

Zephaniah justifiably puts the “Farm” in the name “Farm Winery”. As you drive past the milk shed and grain silo you can see this is indeed a working farm – complete with crops, cattle and sheep. All vineyards are by definition farms, but the term seems especially apt here.

Visiting wineries is about more than the wine itself – it’s about the experience. While I’ve always been a fan of Zephaniah’s wines, what makes their experience truly distinctive is your tasting is done in a 200-year-old manor house, complete with one of the nicest serving experiences in the state. Since you can’t discuss Zephaniah without talking about the history of the house, it’s best to start there.

The home was built by the Nixon family back in 1819; the Hatches purchased it from them in 1950. It has a long, rich history, as you’d expect from a building now in its third century. Ask them about the ghost stories!

Walking into the tasting room I passed antique furniture stacked with old photos and heirlooms. As I was about to introduce myself, the grandfather clock rang out. Everything about my visit gave me the vibe that I was stepping back in time.

If this all makes you feel like you’re entering someone’s home – that’s because you have! The Hatch family (now in its 4th generation here) still live upstairs, although the main floor dining room has been converted to a tasting room. Two smaller sitting rooms are available for visitors to enjoy themselves.

The crowds hadn’t yet arrived, so husband/wife team Bonnie Archer, Bill Hatch and their son Tremain took turns filling me in on their remarkable family history. I think the only adult family member I missed during my trip was their daughter Emily, their assistant winemaker.

Afterwards Tremain walked me out to the vineyard, first planted in 2002. Zephaniah has 10 acres of vines, roughly split between hybrids and vinifera. All told, they produce around or under 2000 cases/year, using only estate fruit. Since I’m a vineyard-geek Tremain took time to explain some of the experimentation they are doing, including the use grapes seldom seen in Virginia including Muscat Ottonel, Muscat Valvin, and Chelois, an older French hybrid.

A “ballerina” trellis system

Going back inside it was time to taste some wine – and the exemplary tasting experience continued. Zephaniah serves their wine tastings in Riedel glasses – a rarity in the state. Not only that, but it’s a seated tasting. No waiting in line at a tasting bar – the will serve you at the dining table.

As for the wines…

Blending is important everywhere, but it seems especially so at Zephaniah. Very few of their wines are 100% varietals; nearly everything has something else mixed in. Even the blending process is a family affair. When it comes to time to decide the makeup of their next wine, all the family members vote on the blend they like the best. It’s the best kind of family get-together!

Most places tend to (virtually) hold your hand by telling you the tasting notes you’re supposed to taste. No tasting descriptions here; they want you to decide what you like on your own.

What I tried:

2018 Rose: Orange color; reminds me of a Provence-style. The 8% Vermentino (another rare grape they grow) adds some punch to this.

2017 Steamship White (white blend): Zesty! Made primarily with Chardonnel.

2016 Viognier: No honeysuckle notes here! Subtle, with a slightly tropical flavor.

2017 Adeline: Aromatic, some honey notes.

2016 Cabernet Franc (with a dash of Petit Manseng): The PM makes it a little more aromatic, but the flavor profile is fruity with strong dark cherry notes. Favorite of the bunch.

2015 Three Captains Red (Red blend). Fruity but not overly so. Blended with Chambourcin and smaller amounts of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

2014 Three Captains Red (Red blend): Not sure what the blend is, but I detected darker cherry than the 2015.

2015 Chambourcin: Fruit forward, not sweet but could appease a sweet wine drinker.

2017 Friendship (50/50 Petit Verdot/Merlot). Long finish, lots of depth. I was surprised by the fruitiness of it, given the blend. Name comes from having received the PV from a neighbor; one of the rare times they don’t have a true estate wine. First time I’ve ever had this one!

Not tried was their 2018 Sparking, Emily’s pet project. Maybe next time?

Va La Winery

I like telling people that the quality of a winery is often inversely proportional to the size of the tasting room. All too often visits to larger wineries are more about the experience than the wine. While I want a good day trip, I want the wine to be the main event, not a sideshow.

But tiny wineries on old farms? Places where the owner is the winemaker? Somewhere that limits the size of your group? Those are something special. At 5 acres of vines and a production of 750-1000 cases/year (all estate), Va La is the definition of an artisanal winery.

Owner Anthony Vietri is a local boy who in the 1990s decided start a winery. But he and his wife were faced with two choices. Option A was to purchase land in California. Option B was to set up a vineyard on his family farm. Unfortunately for Option B…Pennsylvania wasn’t exactly known for its wine. Since vinifera had a limited track record in the state he’d be starting basically from scratch.

Thankfully they chose Option B. Va La experimented with different varietals and growing techniques until they found the right mix, including a trellis system that’s only 48 inches high (!). While Anthony knew his well-drained knob of land had certain advantages, he probably didn’t fully understand the farm is located in a sweet spot for vinifera. Option B turned out to be a better deal than they realized.

I met Anthony upstairs while his associates put out quite a spread. Va La goes all out in their tastings, including using Riedel glasses for their wine and pairing them with an assortment of local cheeses, olive oil, and his mom’s bread. Here, even the food is local or homemade. Heck, even the oak barrels are from Pennsylvania.

Va La typically only has 4 wines at any time, most if not all of them field blends. I emphasize the word ‘blend’ here, because the vineyard has well over 30 varietals planted – and Anthony uses them all. That’s right; over 30 varietals of grapes going into only a handful of wines. ‘Blend’ is an understatement.

Most of the grapes are northern Italian varietals, including ones I’ve never heard of. Pignolo? Sagrantino? Cascetta? I mean seriously – how did he find these? Maybe the real question is how does he blend such a diverse assortment. As someone who got a C+ in high school chemistry, the science of it all astounds me.

Now…the main event!

2017 Silk (Rosato; aka Italian Rose): This is one of the most complex Roses I’ve ever tasted, made with Corvina Veronese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Petit Verdot, Langrein and others. I’d never had an Italian Rose before so this was a huge treat – and I promptly purchased a bottle.

2016 Prima Donna: Whatever you do, don’t call this an “orange wine” despite its amber hue. Tangy, with apricot notes.  Malvasia Bianca, Petit Manseng and others.

2016 Barbera: A rare 100% varietal. Light colored, with a combination of being both gamey with sour cherry notes. Compares well with what I’ve had from Italy.

2016 Cedar: Nebbiolo heavy, but likewise a blend. Tastes like earth and spice and everything nice. I tasted this one with some chocolate which soften the subsequent sips.

Va La is yet another demonstration that the east coast can produce world class wines as long as you do your homework; proper care is done in selecting the vineyard site, vineyard management, and of course the right winemaker. I suspect I’ll be back next time I’m in Philly.

Stinson Vineyards

As one of the smaller Charlottesville-based wineries, Stinson is easy to miss. Located in the woods just outside the city, it doesn’t have the grandiose tasting room that some neighbors have. But it has one key ingredient – excellent vino made by it resident winemaker, Rachel Stinson Vrooman.

Rachael said her winemaking style is inspired by the “garagiste” (garage) wineries of France. There’s likely a double meaning to this as the Stinson tasting room is located in an old garage, plus her consultant Matthieu Finot (of King Family Vineyard) to this day makes wine in his own garage. Hey – who needs a wine cave when you have a wine garage!

Even more astounding is she has no formal training; her previous job was a photo editor in New York. But when her parents purchased an old vineyard in Crozet, she came down to become their winemaker (her first vintage was produced in 2010). Today Stinson produces around 2800 cases/year from 7 acres of vines, plus locally sourced fruit.

I find myself constantly revisiting Stinson because this is one of the very rare wineries that I’ve ALWAYS left with at least one bottle. That’s no small feat; I visit a lot of places so I’m forced to be choosey on where to spend. I’m especially partial to their Sauvignon Blanc and Tannat, but vintage after vintage I always seem to return to their Chardonnay.

Stinson also serves wine from two other vineyards; Ankida Ridge (owned by her husband) and Turk Mountain Vineyard. Turk Mountain doesn’t have a tasting room so they sell their wine here. Unlike Stinson, Turk’s wines tend to have a rustic, unrefined quality to them.

Unlike most wineries that I’ve visited Stinson has several small tasting bars instead of one big counter. I found this adds to the intimacy of my wine tasting as you’re not fighting a crowd. After guiding me through her wines, Rachel gave me a tour of the facility – including a barrel tasting of some outstanding Tannat and Sauvignon Blanc.

We also stopped to discuss their concrete egg, which they used for their Sauvignon Blanc. This ‘egg’ fascinates me. These vessels combine some of the advantages of both oak and steel; it adds depth and mouthfeel but doesn’t leave flavor behind. Given Linden Vineyard (possibly my all-time favorite winery) is one of the few Virginia wineries that also uses such a device, I’d say Stinson is in great company.

What I tried: 

2018 Sauvignon Blanc: Made in the concrete egg and steel. Soft and yeasty.

2016 Chardonnay: Light oak, toasty. I always enjoy their Chardonnay because Rachael always hits the right balance of oak without overpowering the wine.

2016 Wildcat (Rkatistelli): Made with fruit from Horton vineyards. Rkats is a really fun grape that has some bite to it.

2018 Cabernet Franc: Soft, almost herbal qualities but no green pepper.

2015 Meritage: Merlot heavy, black cherry notes.

2015 Tannat: Wonderful! Soft but full. This is up there with the Chardonnay as my favorites of the lineup.

2016 Petit Verdot: Full bodied, notes of plumb.

2015 Le Rouge: 50/50 blend of Tannat and Petit Verdot, which I swear is an up and coming blend in Virginia. My lips puckered up because of the acid (which is always a good sign).

Bluemont Vineyard

Whenever I chat with people who have only been to one or two Virginia wineries, Bluemont is typically been among the ones they’ve visited. The reason is simple; with a view that allows you to see as far as the Washington Monument, Bluemont delivers a pretty amazing daytrip experience.

But focusing on the view alone is unfair. With 50 acres of vines and a production of 8-9,000 cases/year, Bluemont is one of the larger wineries in Loudoun. So a friend & I went on a wintery day to chat up winemaker Scott Spelbring for a closer look.

Things were slow when we arrived but it got busy quickly; even in cold weather it’s still a popular, family-friendly place so you need to grab a table early. In the summertime the outside patio fills up especially fast with people picnicking.

Speaking of food – this is one of the few wineries that has a kitchen. This time around I got a flatbread and the crab dip. But looking at the menu, it’s hard to go wrong on any option.

Eventually I met up with Scott, who explained Bluemont is more than a winery; it’s a group of businesses which also includes a farm, a brewery, and now a cidery. The property covers some 245 acres of land, from the farm at the bottom to vineyards waaaay up at 1300 feet. While I took plenty of pictures, I don’t think it’s fair to not post a summertime photo.

Scott has worked here since 2016. From what I can tell he’s changed the lineup away from sweeter wines and focused on more Bordeaux-varietals.

That said, Bluemont still has sweeter options available. They normally have two tasting options; a “Flagship” tasting focused on lighter, fruiter and/or sweeter wines, and the “Elevation” tasting that is more Bordeaux-grape focused. We ended up doing a mix of the two, plus a few new ones.

It’s hard to beat an experience where the winemaker is pouring and explaining his wines. That said, this day was a lesson learned about timing. Scott was actually holding back some of his best wines so he could meet the entrance quotas for the Virginia Governor’s Cup, still several months away. Sounds like a good excuse for a revisit!

What I tried:

Sparkling Rose: 100% Chambourcin; light and playful.

Merle (Rose): Made with Merlot; dry with strawberry notes.

2017 Merlot: Dark cherry notes, but spreads out nicely.

2016 Assent (Bordeaux blend): Second favorite of the lineup. Nice complexity, fruity nose. A shade on the lighter side of medium bodied.

2017 M3 (Merlot): Another Merlot, AND this one isn’t even properly labeled yet! Dark plumb notes, full mouthfeel. This was my favorite of the lineup and I can’t wait for it to go on sale.

2017 Petit Manseng: Apricot notes

“The Apple”: Apple wine that will satisfy sweet-wine drinkers.

Sorely missed was the Petit Verdot (entrant for the Governor’s Cup competition), and the Albariño (which is sold out).

King Family Vineyard

King Family easily cracks my Top 10 list of favorite Virginia wineries. Even if you’re a novice wine drinker, as soon as you drive in it’s easy to see why I love this place.

With manicured polo grounds set against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the place is STUNNING. They have some indoor space for picnicking, but the optimal time to visit is when the weather allows you to sit outside.

A pic of my previous visit to King Family. I wish I had this view during my visit; instead all I had was fog!

If that’s not enough reason to visit, I have two words for you: Matthieu Finot. Those familiar with the Virginia wine scene likely know the name, as he’s easily one of the best winemakers in the state. Don’t take my word for it; just look at the composition of the Virginia Governor’s Case for the past 8 years. Nearly every one of those years has a King Family wine in them, with their 2014 Meritage winning the cup in 2018.

During my visit I had not one but two hosts; James King and Wine Director Matthew Brown. Matthew teed off with a (very extensive) tasting while James gave me the backstory of how King Family Vineyards came to be.

James gives all the credit to his parents – David and Ellen King. They picked out the land because David wanted to follow one of his passions. If you guessed ‘wine’….you’re wrong! Actually the driving force behind their acquisition of over 300 acres of land west of Charlottesville wasn’t wine – it was polo.

David gave his realtor strict guidelines that their future home needed enough flat land to pursue his hobby. Little did the Kings know their farm was also suited for viticulture. They turned down the first suitor who randomly appeared at their doorstep asking to plant vines, but the idea stuck. King Family planted their vineyard in 1998 and opened the tasting room in 2002.

Today, King produces 20,000 cases/year (5,500 of that Rose), making them one of the largest wineries in the state. While their 50 acres of vines gives them a lot of fruit, they get grapes locally as well. And yes – polo is still played here, from Memorial Day to mid-October.

When the zombie apocalypse hits, you’ll find me here

I soon learned that King Family has a problem that most businesses would love to have – they are so popular, they sell out of their inventory exceptionally fast. When I visited their tasting menu leaned heavily on 2017 and 2018 vintages, and the popular Rose was long gone.

Compounding the problem is King was holding back some of its best wine so it can submit them into next year’s Governor’s Cup wine competition. Even so, I still had a tasting of almost a dozen wines, including several stunners.

We started off with the whites, all of which came out in 2018. This was a tough growing year, but Mattieu still put on a solid lineup. I think my favorite was the very zesty Viognier, which wasn’t overly floral like many Viogniers can be. We also tried their Chardonnay and a Chardonnay-heavy blend called Roseland. Both were easy drinking and very approachable.

Next up were a trio of single varietal reds, starting off with a 2018 Cabernet Franc that was both tart and fruity. After that was their 2017 “Small Batch” Petit Verdot, which caused my lips to pucker up.  I LOVED that PV. Granted I love PV in general, but I especially enjoyed this one.

The third was a Petit Verdot from…Argentina! This is a new initiative, and a good way for King to expand their repertoire of red wines. I liked it but I have to admit; I’ve grown to be a PV snob, and it’s hard to beat the ones in Virginia.

After that were the Merlot-heavy red blends. I sampled the 2012 Meritage, which had a nice mix of earth and fruit (and also was in the 2015 Governor’s Case), followed by their 2017 Mountain Plains red blend. I enjoyed both, but that Meritage was definitely hard to beat…except maybe…MAYBE that small batch Petit Verdot.

Finishing the tasting was their 2017 “Seven” port-style and 2016 Lorely desert wine. The Seven was made with…Petit Verdot! Again – have I mentioned I love PV?

Sadly I never got to meet Matthieu, but I can’t write about King Family without talking more about him. Mattieu arrived in Virginia just do ‘one vintage’ and then move to another assignment. It so happened that year was the very wet 2011, so he stuck around a second year to try again. Then he stayed a third year. While he focuses on King Family, Matthieu makes wines for several other wineries in the area as well.