Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cork Calling Orson - All about corks

Through the years, the blogmasters have discussed the pros and cons of various methods to cap wine bottles with Virginia winemakers. We've compiled our notes into one brief summary post to explain the differences and mention the advantages and disadvantages.

Casual and serious wine drinkers have their preferences,and so do the winemakers. The answers to our questions were a bit surprising. To cork, or to screwtop, boils down to your drinking habits. A glimpse of the five most popular types of wine cappers:

Natural Cork
The preferred method of most wineries in the state, as well as the world. But as we've discovered, traditional cork doesn't always provide the best seal. And as natural cork can be unpredictable, the cork could crumble while opening the wine. Some have no problem with bits of cork floating in their wine glass (if you're drunk, who cares anyway?) But others may toss their wine out at the very sight of this. Natural cork, being natural and all, is subject to bacteria contamination, which according to some winery owners and wine fans, is just part of the "adventure of wine enthusiasm."

Natural cork costs the most of all wine bottle toppers, but they are naturally decomposing, therefore good for the environment. Better yet, save them to create a cool wine cork corkboard (you can buy the kits at Total Wine).

There are some wineries that feel natural cork is the one and only way to seal a bottle. Fox Meadow Winery near Front Royal swears by the romantic appeal of natural cork and will always use them.

Agglomerated Cork
Have you ever opened a wine bottle that appears to have a natural cork, only to realize it's some sort of "super packed" cork? Not very porous, and therefore useless for your cool wine cork corkboard? These are agglomerated corks, which are formed from granulated natural corks. They are less expensive than pure natural corks, they can provide a more consistent seal, and they repel bacteria more than their natural counterparts. But drawbacks are there: More difficult to open with a basic corkscrew, and they will not decompose like natural corks. Ox-Eye Vineyards in downtown Staunton works with agglomerated corks.

Synthetic Cork
These are those "foamy" corks that can come in different colors. They are inexpensive to produce, make that "popping" sound, and totally repel bacteria. cork "romance," and unless they are returned to the winery, they cannot be recycled. And if not properly capped on the bottle, air could filter through the synthetic cork after a few months (or even weeks). Still, many wineries in Virginia favor the synthetic cork, especially mass producers like Horton.

Screw Tops
The most hated method of wine bottle capping according to many fellow blogmasters, several Virginia wineries, and the diehard wine aficionado. Many green wineries in the state swear by screw tops, to reduce the demand from natural cork trees. The problem of course is metal cannot be absorbed by nature, so these wineries presume their guests will recycle. If you've been to Wolf Trap with your six pack of mini wine bottles from Barefoot or (your choice of cheap mass produced 7-11 wine), you know the advantage of screw top wine. Forget about aging wine on your rack, forget about a quality seal, forget about wine opening romance - quantity over quality. And sometimes, that's totally fine.

Many mass producers in Virginia offer the same wine in cork or screw top bottles (depending on your drinking habits). White Hall Vineyards near Charlottesville is just one example.

We came across zorks at Byrd Cellars recently and were intrigued - this is a plastic combination of synthetic and screw top. Just as easy to open as a screw top, but with a more reliable seal. The biggest benefit of zorks are their natural-cork like ability to reseal. Screw tops do not allow for a good reseal, if you can't finish the bottle. For this reason, zorks are used in some countries for sparkling wines.

Here is a short video of a discussion with the winemaker at 8 Chains North Winery near Purcellville, explaining the wine sealing process:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Virginia WineRoad Trip: Route 6 Trail

The Charlottesville area is now home to so many wineries and vineyards (and a few breweries) that selecting the right Wine Trail is the best way to maximize efficiency - driving in a scenic area is great, as long as there are wineries dotted along the way! Route 6, a state highway that runs along the Rockfish and James Rivers south of Monticello, is a unique way to start in the country and end in the city - Richmond. Follow this course and you can do the rural thing and urban thing in one weekend, and hit a few places to imbibe along the way.

Like many state highways, route 6 doesn't follow a conventional straight line path. We suggest hopping on 6 via route 29. However your GPS, Google map or MapQuest map (or if you're a relic like us, your atlas) takes you there, you're looking for the intersection of U.S. 29 and state highway 6, near Faber, Virginia (home of a general store, and that's about it).

You will be rewarded for the trip on Route 29 (especially if you took 29 through Charlottesville) with the first winery - and you're not even on route 6 yet. The turnoff to DelFosse Vineyards is actually about a quarter mile past the intersection of 29 and 6. This place has to be seen to be believed. Picture traveling on winding mountain roads, very narrow in spots, for about five miles, and then coming across a giant campus dedicated to fine wine (oh, and the winery is surrounded by a nature preserve complete with a trail from the winery to the mountain woods). A pond, terraced vineyards, and a cabin you can rent for the night. Plus some amazing and unique wines. Be sure to try the Grand Cru Olivier red blend.

DelFosse is a hard place to find, but even harder to leave. Should you pass up on the cabin rental, find your way back to route 29 and drive northwards back to the intersection of 29 and highway 6. Make the right on 6 and follow the signs towards Scottsville. Scottsville itself is an interesting town that hugs the James River and you may want to stop for lunch. Or, continue on the trek. You still have several wineries to hit before getting to Richmond. About two miles past the village of Columbia, you'll arrive at the next stop: Byrd Cellars. Expect great things from this new winery. The wines are incredible, and the winemaker is serious. He even plans to release a Viognier later this year, even though he confessed to us that he is "not a fan." The winery is perched on a hill overlooking railroad tracks and the James River bed. Not one, not two, but three apple wines, and they are particularly proud of their Nortons (a regular and a reserve). We loved the chardonnay, but all wines are impressive, considering the newness of this winery. And be sure to ask about their "Columbia cats," a white cat with tabby markings that apparently pops up all over this section of Virginia. The winery has taken in several.

The next two wineries are not on Route 6 - okay, we're cheating. But by the time you hit Byrd Cellars, you may have grown tired of the road anyway. Chart a course to Windsong Winery, which you can plot on your own via GPS or ask the nice folks at Byrd (they'll be happy to draw a map for you). Windsong is another relatively new location, on "Funny Tree Trail," named after a strange looking specimen that the owners of Windsong are more than happy to explain. The wines are adequate, with room to improve, and definitely unusual. Three wines rare for Virginia: Muscat, Dornfelder and Garnet, plus a chardonnay and several fruit wines. A very serene location to be sure.

The last winery on this trail is another highly unique one: Grayhaven Winery. Follow U.S. highway 250 or I-64 eastbound towards Gum Spring, and look for the signs. The tasting room exists in a small Tolkien-esque building and the wines are just as unique as Windsong's. The whites are good, but the reds stood out. They boast an incredible Touriga that will keep on your rack for 10+ years. Other must trys are their Cab Sauv and Pinotage, which could be dubbed South Africa's answer to Pinot Noir.

Off to Richmond, if you really feel bold, Short Pump. Just follow I-64 or highway 250 (which becomes Broad Street). The Route 6 Trail offers highly unusual choices for the diehard Vavino fans out there.

DelFosse Vineyards
Byrd Cellars
Windsong Winery
Grayhaven Winery

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Virginia WineRoad Trip: Route 20 Trail

Virginia Route 20 is one of the alternative routes to Charlottesville - do yourself a big favor and bail off U.S. 29 in Ruckersville if you drive down to Charlottesville any time of the year (particularly the fall). The highway north of C'Ville resembles Route 7 in Tysons Corner on a bad day. You'll want to stop at 7-11 and grab a bottle of Glen Ellen to survive that highway, thus ruining a great Virginia wine experience that awaits you.

The Route 20 Wine Route starts in Barboursville and ends in Scottsville, which is about 20 miles south of Charlottesville. A few wine destinations (some famous; others not so famous) are must-stops--including Barboursville, of course. There is a small town (more of a crossroads) named Barboursville, but this name is famous for its vineyard and winery, one of Virginia's originals (planted in 1976). If the Smithsonian operated a winery, it would probably resemble Barboursville. There is a restaurant (Palladio) on the premises as well. Rows of visitors descend on the tasting bar every weekend, no matter what season. World renowned for its Octagon red blend, Barboursville wines can be found in supermarkets all of the state (as well as the occasional Sunoco station) - this is a mass producing winery. There is something for everyone here, and the prices are right. The drawback of a place this large is the lack of space for "unwineding." On warm days, you can bring your own picnic and enjoy a bottle or three near the fascinating Barboursville Ruins. Photo ops at nearly every turn.

Driving a few miles south on Route 20, make a right turn off and follow the signs to Burnley Vineyards. Not as well-known as Barboursville (or Horton, which lies east of route 20 on the road towards yet another "ville"-- Gordonsville), Burnley is one year younger than Barboursville; first vines planted in 1977. Most likely, you will be greeted by the owners with a glass of warm mulled wine in hand. The tasting room is the polar opposite of Barboursville's slickness and the room in the back, for unwineding, is a mishmash of tables with folding chairs and old rolling office chairs. Highly unusual, and that describes the wines too. They are probably the only Virginia winery that offers a Red Zinfandel (grapes trucked in from California). A guest house if offered for those who want to wrap up the first half of the Route 20 jaunt.

As route 20 approaches Charlottesville, you can see the quaint city tucked into the foothills to the west. Continue on route 20 south and follow the signs to Jefferson Vineyards, the closest winery to Monticello. Another pioneer of the Virginia wine scene, Jefferson Vineyards is perched up on a hillside and offers a terrific Riesling (semi dry).

After the detour to Jefferson Vineyards (and Monticello for a glimpse of Gabriele Rausse's vineyard on TJ's estate grounds), return to route 20 southbound, and follow the signs to Sugarleaf Vineyards. The Long and Winding Road - a song appropriate for the gravel road leading to Sugarleaf (second after the road leading to Stone Mountain for "winery offroading" in Virginia). Sadly the former winemaker at Sugarleaf, Dan Neumeister, passed away a few years ago in a fatal motorcycle accident. His favorite tree on the Sugarleaf property, which also adorns the labels of their wines, greets visitors to this unique boutique location.

Continue on 20 south, and take a left turn before crossing the bridge and visit the Commonwealth's "celebrity wineries" (which exist side by side): Trump Vineyard (which opened in late 2011, on the property that used to be Kluge Estate Vineyards) and Blenheim Vineyards (owned by Dave Matthews). The experiences at these wineries fit the personalities of their owners to a tee--overdone, expensive, and elite for Trump Vineyard; Earth-friendly, unpretentious and naturally beautiful for Blenheim.

The final two wineries on the Route 20 Trail are next to each other as well: First Colony Winery and Virginia Wineworks. First Colony is one of the blogmasters' favorites in the state - every wine's a winner. The tasting room is more traditional, versus the "working winery" atmosphere of Virginia Wineworks, which is over the hill and through the woods, about half a mile from First Colony. Michael Shaps, the winemaker at Virginia Wineworks, is one of the Godfathers of Virginia wine, and the wines under his name are among the best on the east coast. The more affordable label, Virginia Wineworks, contains incredibly priced outstanding wines (including wine a box....the first Virginia winery to offer this.) According to the tasting room hostess, a picnic area is coming for the warmer months.

One trail, nine wineries, which, typical for Virginia, are completely different from each other. After Virginia Wineworks, find a place for an overnight (a tent will do at this point) and prepare for the next jaunt - the Virginia Route 6 Wine Trail......

Barboursville Vineyard
Horton Vineyards
Burnley Vineyards
Jefferson Vineyards
Sugarleaf Vineyards
Trump Vineyard
Blenheim Vineyards
First Colony Winery
Virginia Wineworks