There is a debate among Virginia winemakers and wine lovers about where the best wine in Virginia comes from, but those are some rough seas for a wine writer to navigate (many have told me that there is no debate, yet they don’t all say the same thing).
Certainly among the most cited is the Monticello American Viticultural Area (AVA), Virginia’s first established AVA. Referencing Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, its name pays homage to that most famous and early proponent of Virginia grown and made wine. The AVA covers some really beautiful country. Dotted with several small to medium-sized urban areas, themselves quite lovely, most of the land is taken with large, upscale horse ranches, farms, and estates. This atmosphere certainly boosts the AVA’s pedigree.
Although I’ve lived in Arlington, Virginia for most of the last twelve years, I haven’t spent much time at Monticello’s wineries. Earlier this summer, I set out to begin rectifying that and chose five to visit. During the long weekend trip, I also held a winemaker roundtable to discuss how Virginia tannin is built, which will I’ll report on in a future The Cork Report post.
For now, I’d like to talk about each of these wineries, some of the wines of each that stood out, and why each is worth getting to know as they all speak, in their own way, to what it means to make and drink Virginia wine.
My first stop was Stinson Vineyards, owned and operated by Scott Stinson, Rachel Stinson Vrooman and Nathan Vrooman (father, daughter, and husband, respectively). Stinson is indicative of a style of winery that has become a favorite variety of mine to visit: small, industrious and creative. For this kind of winery, wine production volume and quality are essential every vintage to secure the economic success of the business. This leads to all sorts of varying business and winemaking decisions that change from year-to-year as they seek to strike a balancing act between making enough wine that is profitable while hewing as close as possible to the highest standards of quality.
I’ll give you an example. Nate’s family owns a winery called Ankida Ridge Vineyards. I was able to taste some of their wine while at Stinson, and learned that Ankida’s focus is on pinot noir. On first pass, pinot may not seem like a good grape for Virginia terroir, but they and a small handful of others are trying to make it work, and making significant progress. Prior to the 2017 vintage, Anika produced one pinot because they needed to have enough volume to justify production and sales and time to dial-in quality for a grape that is still establishing a reputation: it’s still one thing to produce a Virginia pinot of quality that people take seriously, but it’d be a whole other thing to produce two and risk sacrificing the quality of either.
Since their first vintage in 2011, Ankida has made incremental, and increasingly daring, changes to the vineyard and winery techniques they use. So, when in 2017 two barrels stood out, which were from a single block and had seen more stem inclusion than the rest of that vintage’s harvest, they felt that it was time to make their first second pinot. Though I didn’t get to try it, as an Ankida fan, I’m optimistic for them because they spent six vintages learning and experimenting, but always operating under the necessity of producing a wine that must sell. It’s a formula likely to result in long-term improvement and captures the amount of industriousness that these small wineries must follow in order to build a long-lasting winery. This is what makes these kinds of wineries enjoyable for me to follow.
I was able to taste a good amount of wine at my Stinson visit, and want to call out a few favorites that I think justify a visit. Stinson makes two rosés, one of mourvedré and one of tannat, the latter being my favorite. Tannat is a robust, forward and tannic grape, but it’s tamed nicely in this instance in a way that allows the fruit and acid to really shine in the rosé style.
On the red side, both of Stinson’s sturdy reds, the cabernet franc and Meritage blend showed well, though I was more drawn to the single variety bottle. Cabernet franc is, or in my book at least ought to be, Virginia’s red grape of focus. In order for cabernet franc to be itself, it needs an herbaceous quality — take that away and you have a separated-at-birth and underweight cabernet sauvignon. When someone says they don’t like cabernet franc because it’s too vegetal, I tend to suspect it’s because they’ve had poorly made cabernet franc. A vegetal cabernet franc is one in which someone erred at any one of several moments in vineyard and/or winery, and can be legitimately off-putting. There is a difference between vegetal and herbaceous. The latter is savory, like the former, but much better matched with the fruit flavors of the grape and more complex. Stinson’s version shows the deft hand needed to coax out the herbaceous quality without extracting vegetals.
The last Stinson wine I want to call out is their skin contact 2016 Wildkat. It is made from 100% Rkatsiteli, fermented on the skins and aged for fifteen months in neutral oak. The alcohol comes in at a near-as-to-be-imperceptible 10.5%. Skin contact wine is white grapes made like red wine in that the juice and skins are allowed time together so that color, flavor, and structure from the skins are able to impact the wine. It ends up coming out some orangish hue, and is therefore often referred to as “orange wine.”
From my experience, skin contact wine is the most diverse of any category in terms of profiles, structures, and textures; put another way, no skin contact wine I’ve had has ever reminded me of another. This one is quite substantive and worth a try.
From Stinson I continued on to Veritas, a winery with a distinctly different business model and focus (though they are tinkering with skin contact wine). Significantly larger than Stinson and set up to host large private events, production is significantly higher and more standardized. The setting is just gorgeous and the tasting room is big enough to have a large, dedicated staff, which augment a full-time events team as well as the vineyard and winemaking crews.
Emily Pelton, the head winemaker and part owner, and her assistant, Elliot Watkins, oversee a lot of production in terms of volume and diversity. Elliot, for example, runs the sparkling program that includes Scintilla, a methode champenoise of chardonnay and either merlot or cabernet franc depending on recent vintages, and Mousseux, a dry rose of cabernet franc with some occasional merlot. I haven’t tried the latter, but quite like the former. Elliot poured Scintilla for me and we talked at length about his love for sparkling wine, especially that made in the Champagne style. He takes it seriously and does it methodically. The grapes destined for the sparkling program get picked based on acid, not ripeness, and they’ve outfitted the winery to accommodate the most time consuming of sparkling wine-making methods. It’s one of the better domestic sparkling wines I’ve had.
Veritas’ treatment of sparkling is indicative of their larger approach to winemaking: embrace typicity of the variety, and make it as expressive as possible of that typicity. Though apparent in all of their single variety bottles, I found it most striking in the 2016 sauvignon blanc. Sauvignon blanc is usually one of my least favorite pours at a winery in large part because so many aim for the grocery-store New Zealand style, meaning light and zippy and nearly flavorless beyond citrus, slate and, if you’re lucky, some chalk. The variety can produce a lot more than that; try a few from Sancerre if you’re suspect. Though the variety can be grown and coaxed into decent yields in many different terroirs, it doesn’t flourish in as many places as some winemakers would like, which further contributes the bounty of uninspiring sauvignon blanc.
If you’ll allow me a quick sauvignon blanc-related anecdote, one of my favorite winemakers from California, who learned to make wine in Australia, was the first to tell me that sauvignon blanc was the wine that all aspiring winemakers should learn to master before trying other varieties. I’m paraphrasing, but it went something like this: “if you can’t make a good aromatic white [his reference to what a good sauvignon blanc should be], then you can’t make good wine.” I’ve now referenced this conversation to numerous other winemakers and nearly all have agreed.
Back to Veritas. They make a good aromatic sauvignon blanc that screams sauvignon blanc: fresh, steely, deep slate/chalk minerality, sweet citrus, white pepper and slightly bitter green herbs with serious structure. It’s worth trying. The red I want to call out is the 2016 Vintner’s Reserve. Choosing this as a standout is bit of a cheat as it’s their top-of-the-line wine, but as many of us have come to learn the painful way, the most expensive wines aren’t always the best. Nevertheless, the Vintner’s Reserve comprises the winery’s best barrels of cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and malbec, and is a demonstrable retort to those who say Virginia can’t produce a serious Bordeaux-style blend. My perceived secret of this wine is their choice to apply the extractive parts of the process at reasonable levels that reflect what the fruit can offer, a point beyond which a lot of Virginia wineries I’ve experienced have gone.
In terms of good sparkling, single varieties and standard blends, Veritas is a safe and enjoyable option, and comes through strongly in the quality department. If you’re looking for more experimental wines, they do produce the Flying Fox label, though don’t expect access to it in the tasting room. Veritas is about traditional, classic wine.
Next week, we’ll publish part 2 of this 2-part story.