Sunday, January 26, 2014

Monticello AVA Quadrant Series: Northeast

The Monticello AVA is officially "Virginia's Napa." With over 30 wineries (and more to come) surrounding the Charlottesville area, the Monticello AVA contains more vineyards and wineries than most other states.

Those who plan to "hit C'Ville for some wine tasting" should plan their trip accordingly. It's very easy to get lost in the world of Jefferson country wineries. For that reason, we've split the AVA into four quadrants: Northwest, Southwest, Southeast and Northeast.

Each quadrant offers the full spectrum of winery experiences: From industrial, working vineyard vibe, to romantic and intimate, to big event focused spots. With so many wineries in the area, even breaking the AVA down into four sections isn't enough spotlight every location. We'll zoom in on our favorites and also suggest the best route.

We left off in the Southeast quadrant, south of Charlottesville on route 20. Continuing north on route 20, under I-64 and into the city, the highway continues north towards the Northeast Quadrant, the final spotlighted section of the Monticello AVA. This quadrant is the home of two of the most famous, and popular, wineries in the AVA (and the state), and two lower key locations. There are plenty of grape cluster signs in these parts, so focus on the roads and the scenery, vs. looking down at your GPS or Virginia Winery map.

Burnley Vineyards is your first stop. The winery actually looks more like a big country home, and the basketball hoop that adorns the building just adds to that home effect. Burnley, named after the nearby village, is one of the oldest wineries in the state. Walk into their warm tasting room and most likely a member of the Reeder family (and one of their dogs) will greet you. In the winter, the family offers a warm mulled wine and hot soup or chili days. The sitting room in the back of the tasting building contains ramshackle tables and rolling desk chairs that the family must have picked up at office sales. This adds to the quirky appeal to Burnley.

Don't let the quaintness and quirkiness of the location fool you--they make a lot of wine here. In fact many of their selections are offered at retailers like Total Wine. Many of their wines are on the sweeter side, making this an excellent option for those just getting into the Virginia wine scene (it was one of the first state locations one of the blogmasters visited way way back in 2001). Rivanna White (a table white from Vidal Blanc) and Rivanna Sunset (a blush made from Chambourcin) are perfect chili and pizza wines, respectively; the sweetness offsetting the spices of the chili and the pasta sauce of the pizza. On the dry side, they are one of the few Virginia locations that has perfected Cabernet Sauvignon; they offer an unfiltered Cab Sauv full of body and with heavy notes of plum. This is a bold red that will age beautifully, and the price for this sophisticated wine is one of the reasons we urge all Virginia fans to visit the Monticello AVA: $18 a bottle. That's about $10 or $15 less than you would pay for this kind of wine in northern Virginia.

The aforementioned mulled wine is made from their Spicy Rivanna wine. Cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice, anise, orange peel, lemon peel and residual sugar added to their Rivanna Red table wine and can be chilled (for summer imbibing) or steaming hot like tea. We prefer the family-feel of Burnley compared to the next two locations in the Northeast quadrant.

However.....those next two locations, Barboursville Vineyards and Horton Vineyards, are two of the most well-known locations along the east coast. Both tasting rooms can be a bit overwhelming so a bit of warning is needed.

Barboursville Vineyards is what we call "the Smithsonian winery of Virginia." Visiting their tasting room is akin to visiting one of the more popular Smithsonian museums, complete with busy tours of their barrel room and the ruins that are featured on their labels. Tastings at the wine counters can be three people deep of visitors (for that reason we encourage visiting during the week). The famous winemaker here, Luca Paschina, can occasionally be found behind the counter, pouring wine. Totally unassuming and modest despite his reputation as a first class winemaker in the country, Paschina offers tastings of their most famous wine, Octagon, a Meritage blend that stands up against the world class wines of France and California. At $50 a bottle, a little on the pricey side, but well worth the investment for the serious collector. Their Pinot Grigio is our favorite here, and can be found at most retailers in Virginia. A superb dry Pinot, with notes of apple and pineapple. Another popular delicious, consistent winner here is their stainless steel Chardonnay, crisp and dry with touches of pear and lemon notes.

Horton Vineyards is a short eight minute drive from Barboursville, and like Barboursville Vineyards, is ever-present on shelves in Virginia (and surrounding states) retailers. There are so many wines offered at Horton that two tasting counters have been set up in the tasting room: White and red. The blogmasters were actually monitored at the white tasting station during one visit, which was a little off-putting at first, but given the number of wines here, the staff was simply looking out for us, otherwise we would have stumbled out of their tasting room. Viognier is one of the star varietals here; Dennis Horton was one of the first Virginia winemakers to experiment with the grape, paving the way for future Commonwealth varietal experts like Bernd Jung at Chester Gap Cellars and Mark and Vicki Fedor at North Gate Vineyard. Viognier is such a specialty at Horton that they offer a customized Viognier for Total Wine, part of Horton's "Tower series" of wines.

Perhaps Horton's most intriguing wine is Rkatsiteli, a slightly off-dry varietal from Georgia (Russia, not the U.S.) that is unique and offers notes of honeysuckle and tangerine. Only a few wineries in the U.S. offer "Rkats" (as they call it here); the famous Dr. Konstantin Frank Cellars in the Finger Lakes region of New York is another location, and Rebec Vineyards between Charlottesville and Lynchburg has also offered the wine in the past. Horton's Black Cat Chardonnay is another fixture at retailers, and is one of those rare Chardonnays that really opens up when chilled. On the red side of the spectrum, we're huge fans of Horton's $9 table wine, Route 33 Red. A blend of several red varietals, including Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Touriga, Syrah, and Grenache, you can buy a case of this stuff and not feel broke. It's a great party gift wine.

After enduring the crowds at Barboursville and Horton, if you're ready for a more relaxed and subdued experience, we can't say enough great things about the newest location in this quadrant: Reynard Florence Vineyard. Named after the French word for "fox" (thus yet another fox-themed winery in Virginia) and the owner/winemaker's wife, Reynard Florence boasts an intimate tasting room, a low key patio and views of the rolling foothills northeast of Charlottesville. It's an irresistible location that is hard to leave. Owner Roe Allison, a native to the Monticello area and former student at UVA, drew from his experience in the building business and skill as a carpenter in planning the vineyard’s design: A high cordon wire to minimize frost, proper spacing for optimal growth, and high, layered guide wires that maximize sunlight and canopy management are techniques that ensure fine vintages. And his wine is out of this world good, particularly his Cab Franc, with touches of cranberry and tobacco, and Merlot.

Reynard Florence is one of the few Virginia locations working with Grenache, which was one of the blending grapes found in Horton's Route 33 Red. Grenache is a bold, tangy red popular in Argentina as an alternative to Merlot. Roe's favorite wine growing section of the world, Côtes du Rhône, usually offers over 80% Grenache. It's one of the most grown varietals in the world, but its tight clusters make it particularly susceptible to powdery mildew and fungi in Virginia's humid growing season, making it as difficult to grow here as Pinot Noir. Roe devotes attention to his Grenache, and his passion for the varietal pays off, as this wine is usually sold out a month after it's released.

As for whites, Reynard Florence spotlights another Virginia up and comer, Petit Manseng, which is off-dry and not as "spit out" sweet as some other Mansengs found in the state. Reynard Blanc (translation: Fox White) is an off-sweet table wine that is sure to please new wine fans, particularly females, from UVA. Any conversation with Roe is sure to include the cute winery dog, a corgi. As evidenced from this write-up, Reynard Florence is one of our new favorites in the state.

Exploring the Monticello AVA quadrants makes for countless memorable vacations, or weekend getaways, from the high pressures of northern Virginia. Whichever quadrant you select, endless pleasures and delicious varietals await you.

Snapshots from the Northeast Quadrant:

Burnley Vineyards:

Barboursville Vineyards:

Reynard Florence Vineyards:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Monticello AVA Quadrant Series: Southeast

The Monticello AVA is officially "Virginia's Napa." With over 30 wineries (and more to come) surrounding the Charlottesville area, the Monticello AVA contains more vineyards and wineries than most other states.

Those who plan to "hit C'Ville for some wine tasting" should plan their trip accordingly. It's very easy to get lost in the world of Jefferson country wineries. For that reason, we've split the AVA into four quadrants: Northwest, Southwest, Southeast and Northeast.

Each quadrant offers the full spectrum of winery experiences: From industrial, working vineyard vibe, to romantic and intimate, to big event focused spots. With so many wineries in the area, even breaking the AVA down into four sections isn't enough spotlight every location. We'll zoom in on our favorites and also suggest the best route.

We left off in the Southwest quadrant, at Wintergreen Winery, to be precise. A 45 minute drive will take you over to the Southeast Quadrant (don't worry - the drive will go by quickly because of the scenery in these parts). Follow state highway 6 eastbound (which shares the highway with route 29 for about 2 miles), directly through Walton's Country. You may even decide to take a brief detour and check out the Walton Family museum. Those familiar with the classic show from the '70s will recognize the name Rockfish - which is the name of a river that meanders in this part of Virginia (one fork goes through Wintergreen Winery) and a small village that was occasionally described on the show as if it was some major metropolis.

Route 6 will take you away from the mountains a bit, closer to the foothills of the Blue Ridge and the bluffs alongside the James River. The town of Scottsville may be worth a stop for breakfast or lunch (depending on if you overnight near Wintergreen). In Scottsville, take route 20 northbound back towards Charlottesville. The wineries in this region are clustered close together - right next door, in the case of four wineries. Your first stop will be a winery whose namesake needs no introduction: Trump Winery. Being the left-leaning bloggers that we are, we were a bit hesitant to stop by one of The Donald's newest investments. But fair is fair - we are not biased when it comes to wine. And we were absolutely surprised by our experience here (we just ignored the Hummer with the "Don't Tread on Me" license plate in the parking lot).

Trump Winery is the new name for what was formerly called Kluge Estate. If you visited Kluge Estate before they closed in 2009, expect the same type of experience. The tasting room building is identical, although the interior has been upgraded. The winemaker is the same. The inviting tall grove of trees in the picnic area near the parking lot is the same. The views of course are the same. However the wine is better; Kluge specialized in sparkling wines and bold reds. That made for a challenging experience when we visited Kluge on one of the hottest days in 2004--we're not big fans of sparkling wine and bold red in 98 degree heat is not exactly a mouth-watering thought. Kluge was acquired by fellow GOPer Donald Trump in 2009 and Trump worked his magic to acquire highway signs for route 64 immediately. Before the winery was open, his signs were up. (The normal waiting period for these signs is one to two years - and can only be acquired after the winery is open). So obviously The Donald pulled some puppet strings there. Okay, we're off on a tangent - more wine talk, less politics......fine.

Managed by The Donald's son Eric, the folks working at Trump are incredibly hospitable and entertaining. Being an "all purpose" winery, you can spend all day here, as Trump also has a kitchen that serves light fare like flatbread and cheese and sausage plates. Tastings are $8 a pop (that's cheaper than many wineries in Northern Virginia), and the tasting process is slow and leisurely. Several sparkling wines are offered, all of them on the dry side. Of the several sparklings, our favorite was the Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend (only 5% pinot but that 5% really makes a difference). Chardonnay was our favorite varietal here: Crisp, dry, with notes of pear and apple. In a close second was the Viognier, with its distinct notes of honeydew melon. As for the reds, those familiar with Kluge may remember their well-priced Bordeaux blend called Albemarle Simply Red. When Kluge closed its doors, they had several hundred cases of this stuff to unload, and did so at rock bottom prices. We found Albemarle Red at Safeways, other Virginia wineries (which offered the wine as a surrogate if they were low on a particular red varietal), and the occasional Sunoco station. And at $14 a bottle - to this day we groan about not grabbing more bottles for our collections. Trump replicated this wine, and it's as fantastic as ever, but at $28 a bottle, double the price. This wine is appropriately oaky with notes of black currant and smoke.

All in all we were happy we stopped by and can easily find ourselves back here.

Entrance to Trump Winery:

Located a stone's throw away from Trump Winery is Blenheim Vineyards, which is owned by Dave Matthews. Two celebrity wineries as neighbors, although the crowd you will see enjoying the sustainable tasting room at Blenheim is rather different from the crowd enjoying the elegant, decidedly not sustainable tasting room at Trump. Blenheim employs sustainable practices right down to the screwtops on several of their bottles. This winery packs them in particularly from nearby UVA so arrive early during the weekend for a more intimate experience.

The tasting building is an A-frame like structure that you walk down a hill (or concrete steps near the crush pad) to enter. Inside the building, sound-absorbing wood surrounds you and you're treated to an eastern view of the grounds from the bright tasting counter. The winemaker here is well known in the Commonwealth, Netherlands born and Charlottesville raised Kirsty Harmon, and her vintages are unique and delicious. The wines rotate here from year to year based on the growing season but during our last visit, we enjoyed a Viognier aged in oak that offered a hint of honeysuckle and banana, and on the red side of the scale, their affordable ($15 a bottle) red table wine, blended with Cab Franc, Cab Sauv and Merlot, was our favorite. Past vintages have included chardonnay and a pure cab franc; the winemakers here are perfectionists and prefer to use grapes grown on the property, which also explains the rotating styles.

Entrance to Blenheim Vineyards' tasting room:

Inside Blenheim:

A few miles up route 20 from Trump and Blenheim are two more side-by-side locations: First Colony Winery and Virginia Wineworks. Wineries like the Trump/Blenheim duo and First Colony/Virginia Wineworks are friendly competitors and surely most folks who visit one will most likely visit the other, so all locations win. Plus, the experiences at these side-by-side spots are usually different from one another. First Colony Winery is more of a traditional Virginia spot, with a bright tasting room and several spots inside and out to chill with a bottle of rosé, Meritage or Merlot (our favorite wines during a recent visit). Virginia Wineworks, where Virginia wine legend Michael Shaps perfects his wines, is the definitive industrial winery. The tasting room is in the same building where the wine is barreled and boxed. Shaps also makes wine for other relatively new state wineries like Attimo Winery, near Christiansburg, and Pippin Hill, also in the southeast Monticello AVA quadrant.

We've spotlighted both First Colony and Virginia Wineworks numerous times in past posts. The two wineries share signage off route 20 and gladly refer customers to each other. Virginia Wineworks, about a quarter mile through the trees down the gravel road from First Colony, offers their budget label ("Wineworks") and the slightly higher priced Michael Shaps label. Wineworks is home to the "wine in a box," a great economical concept for parties; just don't expect to age boxed wine for very long. Wineworks has a few picnic tables scattered around the property; not exactly a great cold weather location, but the tasting process is long and highly entertaining; you simply cannot NOT buy a bottle (or four) at Shaps' location. His wines border perfection - both the whites and reds.

First Colony's current mascot (and future winery owner, according to the staff), is Fritz, a friendly and vocal orange tabby who wandered onto the property about 8 years ago as a kitten with two broken legs. Having a resident cat automatically increases the favorable rating of a Virginia winery to the blogmasters, but First Colony is a terrific year around spot.

Fritz, the greeter of First Colony Winery:

If you still have the energy and time after partaking at these four spots, several other Southeast Quadrant locations await you:

Pippin Hill Winery

Wisdom Oak Winery (formerly Sugarleaf)

Jefferson Vineyards

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Winter Virginia Winery Scenes

Happy New Year!
Enjoy a few of our favorite winter scenes at Virginia wineries.

Narmada Winery:

Cooper Vineyards:

Chrysalis Vineyards:

Paradise Springs Winery:

The Barns at Hamilton Station:

Fox Meadow Winery:

The road leading to Fox Meadow: