Friday, September 22, 2023

Best Winery in Jersey? (So far...Yes!)

 Readers may recall that last year I posted about a trio of wineries down by Cape May that a couple of friends and I visited, the upshot being that some of the wines we tasted were pretty decent, others not especially remarkable.  This has been my experience over the years that I've been tasting Jersey wines, with standouts relatively few and far between.  However, overall I would say that possibilities are expanding for more noteworthy wineries in the Garden State.  Case in point, my most recent visit to three more establishments in the Cape May area with the same friends.

Lest I bury the lede, so to speak, the first on our itinerary, Turdo Vineyards and Winery started our journey off with a bang - every wine we tasted, both reds and whites, was a winner, in particular the estate grown wines labeled Turis.

    Although Turdo was not on a list of "Ten Best Wineries in Jersey" that I came across in one of my news feeds, for some reason I had a feeling or premonition that we should check this one out.  I'd never heard of it before, but perusing the website, I got a sense that these people were serious wine producers.  Indeed, the passion and quality come through not only in the final product but in talking with the owners Salvatore and Luca, and their son who is the current wine master.

Established in 1998, Turdo began producing vintages within a few years after the initial planting of vines, focusing largely, but not exclusively, on classic Italian varietals such Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Nero d'Avola.  Indeed, we also tasted their "Bordeaux" style blend as well as a Cabernet Sauvignon, which were particularly impressive as they are notoriously difficult to do well in the northeastern states.


We started off, of course, with the whites, the first being a lovely fragrant and crisp Pinot Grigio with bracing acidity and notes of pear, white peach and Meyer lemon.  There are so many mediocre PGs  in the market place, that it's a real delight to come across one that hits the mark. Next on the list was a Riesling, vinified from grapes sourced in Mulacca Hills, if I'm not mistaken.  A fine rendition of the grape widely celebrated in the Finger Lakes, the DiLuca Riesling, embodies its distinctive traits with aromas of Granny Smith, citrus peel and kiwi, leading to flavors of tangerine and lime with a minerally finish.  


The Turis Rosato, made from 100% Merlot, was another delight with scents of raspberry, cherry and strawberry, accompanied by vibrant acidity and a clean, crisp finish, unlike so many mass-produced roses that are listless, limp and lackluster.


Now onto the reds which were especially notable, three of which were Turis estate grown - Sangiovese, Persara (Bordeaux blend) and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The DiLuca Rosso "Black Label" is a Tempranillo-Syrah blend sourced from Mulacca Hill grapes.

The Sangiovese was a lovely example of the predominant grape of Tuscany that is a major component of Chianti, Brunello and many Super Tuscans.  With aromas of tobacco, spice and fruit, this well-balanced,  medium-bodied red delights the palate with  red currant and tart red cherry, finishing with notes of pepper and toasted oak.

As a connoisseur well-versed in Bordeaux wines (I spent a year in there back in the '80's), I have a special predilection on the palate for the French classic, and was duly impressed with Turis's version which is composed of 65% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec and 5% Petit Verdot and Cab Franc.  Although I had some very fine Meritage blends in Virginia recently, it's been much harder to find decent versions further north. The Turis Persara blend notably exudes aromas of rich, dark fruit with notes of vanilla, and on the palate raspberry preserves and blueberry meld together for a luscious mouth feel.

Likewise, the Turis Cabernet Sauvignon was also a very well-produced example of this noble variety which has way too many iterations in the Northeast that fall far short of quality standards expected by the discriminating wine aficionado.  Aged for 30 months in new French oak, this rich, complex 2020 Cab hits all the right notes - plum, cassis and black cherry with nuances of cocoa, vanilla and baking spice.  Now for a good quality red Jersey wine, you will pay a higher price - in the $30-40 price range - but you will feel good about supporting local vintners who really know their craft.

We were also graciously offered samples of the newly released Barbera, one of the "secondary" varietals of the Piedmont region of northern Italy, after Nebbiolo. This is one of my favorite Italian grapes and Turdo does of very fine job of vinifying this varietal into a medium-body wine full of red fruit (cherry and raspberry) with a hint of vanilla, and nicely balanced with the right level of acidity that goes well with pizza and pasta.

The next stop on our winery tour that day was Cape May Winery, a sprawling establishment that includes a couple of inside wine bars and lounges as well as spacious outside patios along with a walk-up counter to order from their abundant tapas menu.  There is also regular live music throughout the summer.


All this to say that the focus seems to be more on entertainment than serious wine appreciation, although you can opt for a guided tasting.  Given the vibe, we decided to just order a selection of wines for tasting while nibbling on snacks.  I did order the crab slider which was very tasty.  On the other hand, the wines were generally unremarkable, so that if you decide to stop by, don't hold high expectations of the wine, but do enjoy the food, music and bonhomie.

The final destination of the day was Hawk Haven Vineyard and Winery established in 2008 and located in Rio Grande, just north of Cape May.  Producing mostly popular vitis vinifera wines such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec, the winery makes available both estate grown wines as well as wines vinified from a cooperative of vineyards in the area.


For our guided wine tasting, we sampled 6 different wines - whites, a rosé and reds, beginning with the estate bottled "signature series" of the 2022 Sauvignon Blanc and 2022 Pinot Grigio, both fine examples of these popular varietals, exhibiting aromas of gooseberry, lime and white flowers, and notes of green apple and minerality on the palate for the former; and lemon verbena, toasted almond and macademia on the nose, and Meyer lemon and apricot on the palate in the case of the latter. I reiterate that it's always noteworthy to find a Pinot Grigio that stands out among the innumerable insipid versions flooding the market. 

The Signature Series rosé is a kind of "kitchen sink" blend, consisting of 9 common red varietals that all come together to produce a delightfully crisp, tantalizing pink wine exuding vanilla, strawberry and apricot on the nose, and cream, white peach and tangerine on the palate.

The three reds were tasted were the 2020 Q (a Bordeaux-style blend consisting of Merlot, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Malbec & Petit Verdot, aged 2 years in oak barrels), the 2020 Proprietor's Red Blend (70% Merlot, 20% Cab Sauv & 10% Petite Sirah, 17-18 months aging) and the 2020 OA Cabernet Franc (98% with 2% Petit Verdot, 20 months aging).  These were also well-produced wines that exhibited prominent characteristics associated with quality wines of the respective blends or varietals. For example, the Cab Franc offered up aromas of plum, clove and lavender with notes of blackberry, black currant and strawberry on the palate.  This red topped out at $46, but all the whites were in the low to upper $20s, and the Proprietor's Red came in at $25 and the Q at $39.   The range in price points will allow most customers to find something that fits there palate at reasonable price.  


The summer shore season may be over, but it's always the right time for a good wine, and Turdo and Hawk Haven provide a good reason to take a weekend trip to taste some the best Jersey has to offer. Plus, there's always next summer!


Monday, August 21, 2023

Wining and Dining By the Shore - Selection from the Philly Wineguy's Cellar

 In late July, friends met down the shore for their annual summer wining and dining soirée.  We'd previously decided that I should select wines from my cellar that would be appropriately for a warm weather repast.  I chose a sparkling Rose, a couple of whites and reds, all from the Finger Lakes or Virginia except for the bubbly.  (You can read more about the Linden Winery from Virginia and its Petit Verdot in my previous post about my winery visits there.)

For extra fun and amusement, I had the guests try to guess the country or region of origin and the varietal(s).  More often than not, one of the imbibers would knowingly or unknowingly utter the correct answer after some hints on my part, which was impressive as identifying wines in a blind tasting is notoriously tricky and difficult.  Despite all the tasting I've done over the years, I am not especially good at it except for the most obvious wines. Usually, I will note familiar tasting profiles but then mix up the varietals.  So kudos to those guests who were on the mark.


As for the wines themselves, overall it was thumbs up, however, the Goldfinch Chardonnay caused some dissension among the ranks as I expected.  It was aged in French oak and as such did not go down well among those who have an aversion to oaked Chardonnay.  Now I am usually not a fan of the oak, but depending on how it influences the wine, I can appreciate those wines that have a nice balance of toasty-ness with the fruit, and acidity.  I actually tasted and compared the other Chardonnay from Prejean which was aged in American oak and had a slight preference for the French oak.  In any case, I do recommend visiting Prejean as they produce some nice quality wines and you can choose whether to taste the oaked Chardonnays or not.

Ampulheta Magica "Aplauso" Bruto Rosé Vinho Espumante NV


Origin: Bairada DOC (Portugal)

Varietals: Touriga Nacional, Baga

Production/Tasting Notes: Traditional champenoise method (secondary fermentation in bottle); 9 months cellaring for settling; one month of remouage; 2 months cellaring in bottle before release; light fruity sweetness - wild berries, strawberries, raspberry; thin, light bubbles; fresh, lively; balanced acidity; slightly creamy.

Food  Pairing: seafood; fish; pasta; light hors d'oeuvre; cold salad

Alcohol: 11.5%


Prejean Goldfinch Vineyards Chardonnay 2021


Origin: Finger Lakes (Seneca), New York State

Varietal: 100% Chardonnay

Production/Tasting Notes: Estate bottled; barrel fermented in grand Vosge French Oak;

Food pairing: poultry; seafood;

Alcohol:  12.6%


Prejean Dry Riesling 2021


Origin : Finger Lakes (Seneca), New York State

Varietal: 100% Riesling

Production/Tasting Notes:  Estate bottled; crisp; aromas of lime, orange peel, mineral; tropical fruit, apple flavors
Food Pairings: salmon; pork; Asian cuisine


Alcohol: 13%


Rock Stream Cabernet Franc 2020


Origin: Finger Lakes (Seneca), New York State

Varietals: 100% Cabernet Franc

Tasting Notes: Cherry and black raspberry aromas and flavors; hints of vanilla, dark chocolate; smooth, dry finish;

Food  Pairing: roast chicken; pizza

Alcohol: 12%


Linden Petit Verdot 2020


Origin: Loudon County, Northern Virginia

Varietals: 87% Petit Verdot; 13% Cabernet Sauvignon      

Production/Tasting Notes:  Double sorting before crush; whole berry fermentation; malolactic fermentation with cultured yeast; French oak aging (9-22 months); separate pressing and fermentation before blending; robust; notes of blackberry; dark fruit; earthy; steely tannins; full bodied.

Food Pairing: braised beef; lamb; mushrooms

Alcohol:  13.3 %


Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Further Adventures in Virginia Wineries

 Those who keep abreast of the latest trends and hotspots in up and coming wine regions will know that Virginia has been gaining lots of attention in recent years for their burgeoning wine production and higher quality.  If you weren't aware of the very active enological culture in the state just a hop over Maryland from the Mason Dixon Line, I hope to entice you to the rewards of a weekend trip in this report of my recent trip among the wineries of Northern Virginia. 

Readers of this blog may recall  that last summer I wrote in a post about a trip I made to Williamsburg and the surrounding area.  Although this wasn't necessarily a wine-centric trip, I did have the opportunity to visit three wineries in the area and was quite impressed with the quality of wines, even though Eastern Virginia is a some distance from the heart of the wine country.


This time I specifically planned to visit particular wineries in the Northern Virginia AVA which is just south of the Maryland border not far from Frederick, and a relatively short distance southeast from Harper's Ferry, a popular destination for history buffs.  As such, most accommodations would be either near there or in Charlestown, WV, where I stayed my last night.  But first, I explored the area further south and just east of Front Royal, VA, which boasts quite a few wineries, although they are more spread out than in the far north region closer to Maryland.


My first winery stop after a 4+ hour drive from Philadelphia was the Château O'Brien. 


I made my way up the steep, crooked and deeply rutted gravel roadway (washed out from recent rains) across the railroad tracks past the sign to a rather large tasting room and lounge that overlooks undulating fields of vines bordered by lines of trees. The only sign of life at first was a young fellow riding a large tractor up the road from the other side. The entrance door was open so I concluded it was indeed open for tasting, and after scouting out the different rooms, I came up an employee who was vacuuming one of the cozy tasting rooms.  He saw me, turned off the vacuum and proceeded to invite me to the bar for a very personalized tasting.  (I am remiss in not recalling his name, and although he was not the owner/winemaker, he was quite knowledgeable about the wines and the property.)

Despite the incongruous and slightly cheeky name, there was no joking around with wines which were very high quality and demonstrated the winemaker's passion for making the most of the terroir, varietals and vinification.  As indicated in the tasting list below, the focus of this winery is primarily on reds, although they also vinify a few whites such as Chardonnay and Petit Manseng, as well as a few fruit wines (apple and blueberry) made of fruit from local orchards.  (Although the bottle prices are no doubt on the high end, reflecting the superior quality and limited production, the tasting menu cost is a very reasonable $15.)

As a precursor to the wines on the list, my host started me off with a rosé of Tannat which was quite appropriate as I had just conducted tasting classes featuring rosés back in Philadelphia.  As a very dark-skinned grape, only a very short maceration time is required to bring about a pink hued wine with a bracing tannic zing.  

The winemaker takes special care with the Tannat red wine which garnered top prize at a contest in Uruguay, known as the world's premier producer of Tannat.


The Petit Verdot, which has become a signature grape of Virginia, was another winner, figuratively, if not literally, presenting a full-bodied, complex and dense wine, replete with dark fruit and a lush and silky palate.  


The rambling, spacious tasting rooms and decks offer ample accommodation for enjoying the wines which you may accompany with your own picnic supplies.  (It's always a good idea to check with the winery first to confirm whether they allow food brought in from elsewhere; many establishments do offer in-house provisions, ranging from a charcuterie or cheese board to a full menu.)


    As the only customer at the time of my visit, I had the pleasure of chatting with my host at length about the wines, the background of the winemaker/owner, who was away at the time, and the history of winemaking in the local area.  Such personal attention goes a long way in making the whole experience especially memorable and rewarding.


My next stop that Thursday was Rappahannock Cellars, largely due to the fact that it is one of a small number of wineries in the area  that are open during the week. (As many are open only during the weekend, be sure the check their websites on opening times and days.)


Rappahannock is a fairly large establishment with expansive tasting rooms and porches wrapping around the main building to accommodate visitors. However, due the rainy, drizzly weather, no doubt, there were relatively few guests there when I arrived in the late afternoon.  As a result, I was able to spend more time chatting with the young lady who served up the tasting menu.

As you can see in the above sample tasting menu, the selection included sparklers, white and red wines.  In my particular tasting, the sparkling rosé was switched out for a sparkling red blend of Merlot and Norton, which was followed by a Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay, a Cab Franc blend and a single varietal Cab Franc from 5 different vineyard blocks.  


While each of wines was pleasant enough in their own way (the red sparkling wine was perhaps the most interesting, if only for the unusual blend and rarity of a red bubbly), none was particularly distinctive, especially following the selections at Chateau O'Brien.  This is indicative of the mandate and mission that each winery assumes in its cultivation, vinification and marketing.  This is often reflected in the pricing as well, although you can expect to pay more at most of these independent US based wineries than, say, for many European imports because of higher production cost, including labor and land values. The fun, as it were, is in exploring locally-produced wines and enjoying the estates where they are grown.

Before I go any further, I must give a shout-out to my cousin Marilyn and her husband Bob for hosting me in Middletown, VA, during the first part of my trip to Northern Virginia wine country.  Even though they are not wine drinkers themselves, they made sure I was enjoying my time in the area and were interested in how the winery tours met my expectations.  Cheers to you both!

The following day, Friday, I had a reservation at RdV Vineyards in Delaplane  for a tour and tasting, an experience that would prove to be unique and beyond expectations, setting the gold-standard for a wine connoisseur's indulgence.  In fact, I did have an inkling that this would be a special treat in that I had previously had the pleasure of sampling one of their wines thanks to a friend in the wine business who had obtained a bottle a few years ago.  I was duly impressed and made a point to put a visit there on my to-do list.  (I had originally planned this Virginia visit back in 2020, but we all know what happened when a certain virus invaded the country.)  Furthermore, the price of the tour and tasting was well above average in the area, and so, one would expect a higher level of quality and service.  


The first indication that guests would be afforded exceptional customer service was when I contacted them requesting a reservation. They were already booked for the my preferred date, but I was able to be squeezed in when a pending reservation was canceled. My interactions on the phone with their representative were most pleasant and professional as were the email follow-ups. Needless this to say, I was very much looking forward to my visit, even though the weather was not particularly ideal.

The overall impression is one of understated elegance and finesse, beginning with the entrance to the property, which, if you're not careful, you may pass right on by.  Behind the very high, black automated gate with just a relatively small RdV logo at the bottom corner  between dense rows of trees, the gravel lane meanders to the right up a hill towards a large structure topped by what looks to be a silo set below steep rambling vineyards with a view to the verdant bucolic valley below.  There were no signs touting tours, visits, opening hours and such, no doubt to enhance the visitor's experience by avoiding needless distractions.  I was the first guest of the day and so there were only a few other vehicles parked near the building.  


I made my way up to the entrance and was immediately greeted by name upon stepping into the reception area by Karl, who would be my personal host and guide throughout the entire visit. Following an exchange of pleasantries and introductions, I was offered a flute of grower Champagne and we proceeded to a tour of the facilities.  

The building was designed to house virtually all stages of the vinification process, including maceration, fermentation, barrel and bottle aging, bottling and labeling, in order to maintain full control of each step along the way.  These processes take place in the subterranean level which provide some natural cooling supplemented by modern temperature control.  At one point, we stopped so that Karl could offer me a barrel tasting of one of their cuvées that presaged what I was about to taste back upstairs.


As we strolled along the cellar hallways, Karl gave a brief history of the founding of the winery, the construction of the facility and the development of the vineyards which sit above huge granite deposits that provide superior draining essential for optimal vine production.  The picture below shows the deep granite layers that lie beneath the topsoil.


After touring the production facilities and much conversation about the wine-making process, it was time to ascend the stairs to ground level and taste the fruits of all that labor.  Karl led me to the lounge area adjacent to the entrance hall where a beautiful table setting of wine offerings and an appetizing board of cheeses, breads and meat was presented for my delectation. 


I had chosen to do a vertical tasting of RdV's flagship issue, Lost Moutain, that included the 2019, 2015 and 2012 vintages.  (You also have the option to select a tasting comparing one of their vintages with top tier Napa and Bordeaux wines.)  The particular blend varies from year to year, depending on the harvest and qualities of each varietal and ultimately determined in consultation with the owner and winemaker.  The Lost Mountain cuvée is Bordeaux-inspired and reflects the Right Bank style with Cabernet Sauvignon typically dominating. 

As recommended by Karl, I started by tasting the 2019 vintage, a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Merlot. Though still quite young in the aging process, the power and elegance of this vintage were already quite apparent with bright red and dark fruit opening up on the nose, enhanced by plush, savory, and smooth textures on the palate with a lingering, tantalizing finish supported by fine grain tannins.  The potential for this vintage as an exceptional cuvée in the years to come as it ages and develops more completely was clearly evident even as its delights are already eminently appreciable and rewarding.  

The 2015 vintage is composed of 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Cabernet Franc and 3% Merlot. Of the three millésimes that I tasted, this one stood out as my favorite (not an easy choice!) largely due to its overall complexity, balance of fruit, tannins and acidity, layered aromatics and silky, plus textures. It never overpowers the palate and consistently draws you back in to experience the nuances that play against the nose and taste buds.  The several years of aging have imbued the wine with a depth and maturity which bring through its many attributes to highly appreciable levels.  Which is not to say that it will not continue to develop with further aging, but at the present time it holds forth with superior stature and depth.

Last, but not least (indeed none could be termed less or lesser in any way, just at different stages of development) was the 2012 vintage consisting of  46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Cabernet Franc and 14% Merlot.  The best analogy I could come up with to describe this wine in comparison with the more recent vintages would be single malt Scotches of various ages, in particular the Macallan brand, that marked distinctive phases of aging and development.  In a different vein, the 2012 Lost Mountain struck me as a gracefully aged Rolls Royce in which the classic design and structure hold its appeal with understated elegance and sophistication.  The revelations of fruit, minerality and tannins are melded together to create a blend that is a greater than the sum of its parts and exuded lusciously smooth texture, cascading flavors and an extended, persistent finish worthy of its longevity.


So I can hear readers asking me through the ether: How much was the tour? And how much is a bottle of this self-described American Grand Cru.  Well, I must say that I did do a double-take when I first learned the price for a tour and tasting, but I will say in all honesty, it was definitely worth the $125, especially for any wine connoisseur who appreciates a deep dive into the wine-making process and wants to experience what the potential is for a particular terroir outside California to produce a world-class wine in the United States.  Alternatively, one may think of it as an exceptional midday repast paired with a superior vertical flight, not to mention generous and unparalleled hospitality and service. In short, a class act without pretense.

The Lost Mountain currently retails at $225 and the Rendez-vous label goes for $90.  Availability is essentially by membership only or in a few select restaurants in the D.C. area.  There are plans to eventually make a Semillon-based white wine as the vines have now been planted.

Many thanks to my host Karl who made the visit especially memorable, and to owner Rutger de Vink and his wine maker Josh for their passion, craft and personable reception.

The next stop on my tour of Northern Virginia, as recommended by Karl from RdV, who graciously called ahead on my behalf and made a reservation, was Linden Vineyards which was about 20 minutes west on route 66 and off the exit towards the village of Linden.

Linden Vineyards is one of the older wine growing establishments in the area, Jim Law and his family purchasing the former apple orchard in 1983, and planting the first vines in 1985 for the first commercial vintage in 1987.  

For this particular tasting, the focus was more on white wines topped off by a couple of Petit Verdots.  Grapes are sourced from three separate  vineyards - Hardscrabble, containing some of the original 1985 plantings, Avenius and Boisseau - often producing distinct versions of the same varietal, which I was to discover mostly notably with the Sauvignon Blanc. 

 But first on the list was their 2021 Rosé, which was a delightful, tantalizing Cabernet Sauvignon blend supplemented with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.  I especially enjoyed the bright fruit aromas and flavors (cranberry, cherry) and herbal notes (mint, tarragon) which were brought to bear by lively acidity and the right touch of tannins. Apparently, the rosé is not produced every year since the focus is on the other whites and reds, but the 2021 vintage demonstrated they can do very well with the pink juice as well.

Next on the list were two Chardonnays from different vintages and vineyards.  The 2018 Village Chardonnay is a blend from all three Linden vineyards and then fermented in old, neutral French oak with no malolactic fermentation and aged sur lie for 10 months.  As a result, this is a leaner, somewhat minerally Chard with floral notes on the nose and more restrained as opposed to plush and broad on the palate.   On the other hand, the 2019 Hardscrabble Chardonnay, aged partially (20%) in new French oak barrels and the rest in slightly used French oak, followed by sur lie aging for 11 months in barrels and 5 months more in tanks, presented a much broader profile of ripe fruit notes, boosted by caramel, apple, butterscotch and vanilla flavors with a rounder, fuller mouth feel and a notable underlay of toasted oak.  My personal preference was for the former, although Hardscrabble was a very fine rendition of the style with the potential for many years of aging.

The two Sauvigon Blancs on the tasting list were quite distinctive from each other, demonstrating the profound effect that terroir can have on the same varietal, even when the vineyards are not especially far apart. The 2021 Hardscrabble is more in the Old World style, offering up aromas of wet stone and citrus zest with a touch of brine on the palate.  The punch of the Sauvignon Blanc grapes are mellowed out by 16% Semillon adding some balance and layering to the end product. A light crush, extended fermentation period and 10 months aging on the lees allow for full expression of the terroir resulting in a delightful accompaniment of fish, shell fish, goat cheese and salad. 

The 2021 Avenius, while also exhibiting stony, oyster shell aromas, was  more pronounced in the fruit (kiwi and grapefruit zest) and presented as more concentrated, dense and complex, fuller-bodied with a lingering dry finish.  Higher in alcohol as well at 13.9%, this single varietal (i.e. sans Semillon), the terroir is prominently showcased in this age worthy vintage.  I bought a bottle of each to further enjoy and appreciate both styles and will give an updated appraisal in the future.


The final two wines on the sample tasting list were Petit Verdot blends of different vintages.  As the particular composition of varietals changes from year to year, depending on the individual harvest, the taste profile will vary accordingly, but in general, these are dense, complex, full-bodied wines, with dark fruit notes and steely tannins.   The 2020 vintage is composed of 87% Petit Verdot and 13 % Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the 2016 vintage blends just 3% Carmenere and 3% Merlot to the dominant Petit Verdot.

As I've previously noted, Petit Verdot is becoming the signature grapes of Virginia so that you will often find this varietal on the wine lists of a number of wineries throughout the state.  This is a great opportunity to break out of the Cabernet Sauvignon rut that you may find yourself in.

Part II

The last two days of my road trip, I explored wineries in the most northern tip of Virginia which are clustered mostly along route 9 east and west of Hillsboro, a quaint little village lined with boutiques, cafés and farmers' markets.  Indeed, there are over a dozen wineries spread along the winding thoroughfare such that I refer to it as a mini-Napa Valley.  (On a side note, if you are partial to traffic circles or roundabouts as opposed to 4-way stop sign intersections, this is the place for you! But do exercise caution - local drivers seem to be in a great hurry and tailgating is not uncommon, so it's best to map out your winery choice in advance so you're ready to turn off the road at the right place.)

About 12-15 miles east of Winchester, VA (birthplace of and town where Patsy Cline started her illustrious singing career), and just north of Round Hill, off route 7, and on the way to Hillsboro, lies Williams Gap Vineyard which is situated high atop a steep hill at the end of a long, winding gravel road that snakes through vineyards on either side.

Now you may ask how did I choose which vineyards to visit given the abundance of choice in the area? Apart from RdV, which I knew about ahead of time and had already made a reservation for, it was a combination of getting a sense of place and quality from the website, opening times and most important, recommendations from knowledgeable people at whatever winery you're currently visiting in the area.

In the case of Williams Gap, it was on the way to route 7, the website had a good vibe and picnic lunches are permitted on site.  To my delight, the winery, its overall ambience and the hospitality of the staff exceeded my expectations.  And there was live music, to boot, in the spacious outside pavilion overlooking the rolling hills of vineyards. 

Last, but not least the wines were very good, providing a crisp, refreshing and flavorful array of chilled, tantalizing whites, plus a rosé on a rather hot, sunny, afternoon in mid-summer Virginia.  (A red wine tasting is also available, but there was little question of which I preferred given the weather).  Now a winery's own description of their wines can, at times, be overwrought, overblown, exaggerated or even, dare I say, deceptive. In the case of Williams Gap, I found them to be very much in line with my own palate and sensory acuity (apart from the overused term "incredible").  And so below, you will see descriptions of the wines I sampled. You will also see that I had no problem finishing them all with my packed lunch:

The most interesting wine in the selection was the Petit Manseng, which may be unfamiliar to the casual wine drinker or even among those who are more serious and experienced. Typically used as a blending grape, this 100% single varietal shows off its distinctive quality and taste profile such that you can appreciate the appeal and unique attributes.  Aged in stainless steel, with no malolactic fermentation or residual sugar, the tropical and citrus aromas shine through and dazzle the palate with layers of complexity that are pretty much MIA in say, your average Pinot Grigio. So if you want to get out of that PG rut, look out for this often overlooked "little" varietal and give your palate a boost.

If you prefer air-conditioning on a hot, sweltering day, the very expansive and attractive inside tasting bar and lounge provide cool comfort to enjoy good wine and company.  There are also local craft beers available, which is becoming more common in wineries these days.

On a final note, for those of you who pay attention to such things (and who doesn't!), the restrooms at Williams Gap were impeccable - clean, cozy, and comfortable, not to mention tastefully decorated. It is indicative how much they do care about their customers, and does not go unnoticed.

Further on up the road, my second stop of the afternoon was Walsh Family Wine, between Purcellville to the the south and Hillsboro to the north.

Founded in 2014, the Walsh Family farms six distinct sites, all but one in Loudon County, for a total of 54 acres under vine.  The owners, Nate and Sarah, both have backgrounds in the wine business, and their passion for creating fine wines shows through in
the overall quality of both reds and whites. 

Even though it was quite a warm day, I chose to do the red sampler because I was intrigued by the opportunity to compare the two Merlots from different plots as well as the Tannat, a favorite of mine, and the Cabernet Franc which is grown quite widely throughout and  Virginia and typically shows off distinct characteristics according the particular terroir of origin. 

In order of presentation, the sampler board included a 2015 100% Merlot, a 2020 Cabernet Franc (20% Petit Verdot), a 2019  Merlot  (3% Petit Verdot), and a 2020 Tannat (10% Merlot).   Now almost 20 years after the film Sideways lambasted Merlot, this varietal is still trying to recover and bring back wine drinkers who are reluctant to order a glass.  Fear not (!) for there are any number of very fine Merlots being produced both domestically and internationally that will make you think again, and Walsh Family offers up some excellent examples, showcasing enticing aromatics of cherry and smoke, a rich, smooth palate and balanced structure of fine grained tannins (2015 Northgate) or in the case of the 2019 Russ Mountain, an intense bouquet of dried fruit, prunes and cigar box with a full-bodied, lush mouth feel accented by bramble and spice.

The Tannat is especially known for its prominent tannic properties (hence the name), and it's important that they not overwhelm the palate, but enhance the overall flavor profile. What's especially noteworthy in this 2020 Bethany Ridge are the aromatics of blueberry (no joke!), ripe dark fruit, and smoke that proceed the lush, round palate with long aging potential.

Finally, there was the Cab Franc which I enjoyed sufficiently to bring home a bottle, and will review in a follow-up post.

The last day of my enological road trip in Northern Virginia, I cruised the aforementioned Route 9, scoping out which wineries looked promising.  8 Chains North Winery had been recommended at one of the other establishments I visited, and so I started there as it opened an hour earlier than most of the others along the route.  Indeed I was the first customer of the day and consequently, had the undivided attention of the server who was well-versed in the featured sampler wines, as well as many of the surrounding wineries.

The tasting menu was a nice cross section of whites, a rosé and reds so you have the opportunity to sample their strengths and styles across the board.  (In addition to the three local vineyards where their grapes are sourced, the winery also vinifies Washington state whole  fruit under a separate brand.)
As you can see from sample menu above (apologies for the partially blurry resolution), varietals featured largely reflect the typical vitis vinifera widely grown throughout Virginia, e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, although the rosé is produced from the North American hybrid Chambourcin, well-known in Pennsylvania. Overall, the wines were high-quality,  well-made representations of the particular varietals or blends, full-flavored, balanced acidity, appealing fruit aromas and perky tannins. In a word, all the wines were winners at price points that are reasonable for this region ($20s to $30s).  

The grounds, while not especially large, are quite attractive and comfortable areas in which to relax and enjoy a few glasses of vino. 

Please note that the sign and turn-off for the winery comes up fast, so it would be wines to pay close attention to your GPS while approaching.

Back on Route 9 proceeding west through the charming burg of Hillsboro, I next made a stop at Bozzo Family Vineyards (not be be confused with the clown Bozo!), a very small, family-run establishment founded by a Philly transplant. 

 Given the amount of time, effort and tenacity it takes to launch a small scale, independent winery and tend to the vineyards, I am fully cognizant of the  hard work required to produce quality wines.  Which is to say that some wineries still have some work to do to reach their potential. Such is the case for Bozzo as the vineyards are still relatively young.  You can see the list of wines available below from which I chose a sample of whites and reds:

Generally speaking, I did not find any distinctive qualities in most of the wines I tasted.  For example, the Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc were  rather muted or subdued, and a bit lackluster.  However, I was drawn (again) to the less common varietal of Petit Manseng a bottle of which I actually ended up purchasing.  In fact, I just tasted that bottle  which confirmed my initial positive impression as a delightfully  fruity, dry and crisp wine with tantalizing acidity that enhanced the tasting pleasure with a nice zip to the finish. The wine was aged in stainless steel for about 6 months and on the lees with stirring.  Originating in Southwest France, the grape is commonly vinified into a sweet wine, although in Virginia and elsewhere in the New World, the single varietal, dry Petit Manseng is becoming more widespread.  In summary then, even if you don't always find wines to your liking at a particular tasting, there's often a gem hidden somewhere in their production. 

The inside tasting room is quite cozy and nicely appointed, and there's also an outside space under cover that features a pizza oven where fresh pies are made. 

The last stop on my tour of Northern Virginia Wineries (I was able to visit nine altogether during my four-day road trip) was an establishment recommended to me by a couple of people in previous few days, and not only because of the wines, but also the views. 
Breaux Vineyards  I was not disappointed on either account.  Indeed, for a rather large and very busy winery,  the quality of their wines was impressive, and the service, despite the numbers of visitors flowing in and out, was very friendly, personal and informative. 

The gravel road leading up to the winery wended its way in serpentine fashion through the vineyards until you reach an ample parking lot below the patios and main tasting room. 

Looking out from the entrance, you have a splendid, panoramic view of the acres of vineyards that spread out below as well as the surrounding valley and the low rise mountains in the distance. 

Although it was a rather warm, sunny day, I opted for the red wine sampler since it looked most promising in terms of selection and complexity.  There are several options for tasting, including a personally guided tasting or a DIY with notes that you can take with you to the outside patio where you can enjoy your own picnic lunch.  There is also a light menu available for purchase.  As I'd brought my own snacks, I chose the DIY which included a Cabernet Franc, a Merlot, a Meritage and a Malbec. 

I won't go into detail about each of the wines, but suffice it to say that they were all high quality wines, medium to full bodied, plush with rich, dark fruit, nuances of spice, leather or cigar box, and structurally fine tannins exuding intoxicating, intense aromas. Full details about the wines, including tech sheets, vineyards and vintages are available on the website as an informative guide.  The reds are higher price point wines, ranging from $30 to the mid $50s, but they rank among the top wines that I sampled during my road trip and may be treasured as distinctive standards bearers of the burgeoning wine scene in Virginia. The whites are more in line with average price points in the region, ranging from $20 to $32. 

The Marquis de Lafayette, a predominantly Cab Franc blend with 8% Petit Verdot and 2% Merlot was a very reasonable $30, exuding aromas of dark cherry and a hint of spice, leaning more towards fruit  rather than vegetal, green pepper flavors that are typical of many Old Cab Francs.  I tasted it again last night from the bottle I brought back and enjoyed just as much the plush texture, full-bodied dark fruit aromas and flavors, and elegant, long finish.  This is one of the more luscious, rich Cab Francs I've had over the years, well rounded and balanced out by the Petit Verdot and Merlot - a testament to the rise of Virginia wines on the national scene.

To sum up, as Virginia continues to expand its number of wineries - currently 300+ - and the acreage under vine, there is a consummate rise in the overall quality and recognition as a destination state for wine connoisseurs, ably exhibiting unique characteristics of terroir and a penchant for uplifting particular varietals as standard bearers of the different regions. Only 4 hours from the Philadelphia area, the northern region boasts numerous wineries of note, as I have described above, and presents an enticing excuse for a weekend getaway for the wine aficionado.  For even more adventures, proceed further southwest to the Charlottesville area which touts a number of reputable wineries - sounds like another trip to Virginia may be in the offing!