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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Wolf Mountain Vineyards

Until recently I did not really associate Georgia (the state not the republic) with fine wine. I vaguely knew that the southern United States made a lot of sweet wine from Muscadine. Beyond that, I did not give it much thought. A recent visit to north-central Georgia completely changed my way of thinking. In the mountains near the town of Dahlonega, there is a cluster of wineries making exceptionally good wine from vinifera. Wolf Mountain Vineyards is perhaps the state's premier winery and they are setting the standard for what is possible in that region. 

The Wolf Mountain tasting room/winery complex

In 1999, the Boegner family purchased their thirty-acre estate high on the Dahlonega Plateau and began planting grapes the following year. Today there are ten acres of vinifera under vine on south-facing slopes. The grapes include Syrah and Bordeaux varietals grown at elevations above 1400 feet, where they escape the Georgia heat. Additional fruit for the white offerings is sourced locally. The winery produces 6000 cases annually with the potential to increase that number to as much as 10,000 cases.

Outdoor seating with a killer view

There are a total of sixteen wines in the Wolf Mountain portfolio, but I tasted only half of them. I will say without reservation that the real story here is the sparkling wine and red blends. This is currently the only winery in the state of Georgia that is producing sparkling wine. The tasting started with a Blanc de Blanc and a second sparkler made from whole-cluster pressing of Marsanne, Viognier and Syrah. Both were exceptionally well crafted, dry-style wines and they alone might have made my trip worth while. The still white offerings are also worthy of note, but the reds were simply over the top. I tasted four different red blends and with each one I thought I had found my favorite. The Claret was the fourth and it was simply mind blowing. I did not expect to taste a wine of that calibre. It is a big, earthy, berry infused wine that spent 24 months in new Hungarian and American oak. It is complex with firm tannins and finish that lasts forever. It won double gold in San Francisco for good reason.

One of many Wolf Mountain offerings

The wine is a reason to visit, but it is not the only reason. Prior to establishing the winery, Karl Boegner had a long and distinguished career in the hospitality industry and he brought that background to bear in the Wolf Mountain tasting room. Every aspect of my experience was first rate. The staff has been well coached. They can speak with authority about the wine and they are professional in every aspect of their duties. Wolf Mountain provides the type of environment that will reflect favorably on Georgia’s wine industry. 

Harvesting Malbec 

If what I outlined above is not enough, I should add that Wolf Mountain is one of the most beautiful venues I have encountered on the east coast. The property seems ideal for a wedding venue set against a mountain backdrop that is simply jaw dropping. The popularity of the space is obvious. I arrived late in the day to a full parking lot and a very large crowd in the tasting room. The decks and patios are designed to take advantage of the view and provides every reason to linger after a tasting.

An amazing view from the Wolf Creek tasting room

Simply put, the Boegner family has put great effort into establishing a singular winery in the mountains of Georgia. They are producing world-class wines in a lesser-known wine producing region. I came away a huge fan of this wine venue and I think they deserve our support, but do not take my word for it. I urge you to find out for yourself. After you do, I hope you will let me know what you think.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Chateau Elan Winery

In 1978, when Chateau Elan Winery was established near Braselton, Georgia, consultants were brought in from California. An ambitious program was drafted and 450 acres of vinifera were planted. To put that in perspective, the largest wine growing operation in Virginia is only 200 acres. The viticultural program at Chateau Elan was bigger than anything on the entire east coast. That was problematic.

Outside the Chateau Elan tasting complex

These were still the early days of American viticulture and very little was known about eastern growing conditions. Soil analysis indicated that European varietals might thrive, but everything else about the terroir was wrong. Braselton is not in the mountains, where higher elevation will support vinifera. This part of Georgia is flat, hot and humid. Fungal infections were a nuisance, but could be controlled. The real problem was Pierce’s Disease, which is spread by leaf hoppers. Spraying programs were unsuccessful and a series of west coast and European experts continued to pursue a failing program in vineyards that were slowly dying. The wine lacked any semblance of quality, active acres under vine dwindled to seventeen and the reputation of Chateau Elan suffered.

In 2012 the resort leadership hired a new winemaker. Simone Bergese began his career making wine in Italy and Australia, but he also ran a successful program at Potomac Point in Virginia. So he had some east coast experience. When Simone arrived, he immediately realized that the vineyards were “a dead man walking.” He established a program of sourced vinifera from select vineyards in California. Simone does not use juice or bulk wine. He imports only whole clusters and produces all of the wine on site at Chateau Elan. With the remaining vineyard acreage at Chateau Elan, he took a more radical step. All of the vines were ripped up and replaced with Muscadine.

Rows of Muscadine in front of the tasting room

Thomas Jefferson believed that Muscadine might be the future of American wine production, because it is resistant to every disease that plagues vinifera. Muscadine, however, has the unfortunate reputation of being a “southern sweet wine.” Curiously, Muscadine is not inherently sweet. In truth, the grape ripens with high amounts of acidity. Southern producers have traditionally masked that acidity by adding large amounts of sugar so the product can be cloyingly sweet. Simone had a different idea.

With the right balance of sugar, Muscadine is capable of dry-style wines. Rather than mask the acidity, Simone uses it in his Muscadry line and balances it with percentages of residual sugar that are one percent or less. Chateau Elan's Duncan Creek offering is the only “sweet” Muscadine wine at five percent residual sugar, but it still retains perfect balance. These are early days for the dry-style Muscadines, but I am of the opinion that the wines show great promise. There is a Muscadine sparkler coming in the near future and Simone is considering a move to entirely organic wines. 

A few of the Chateau Elon offerings

Of course I had an opportunity to taste the full line of Chateau Elan offerings. I will say that the wines made from California fruit are uniformly excellent. The Pinot Noir Reserve and the higher end Fingerprint Collection are worthy of particular note. I particularly enjoyed the Mameli, which is a blend of Barbera, Nebbiolo and Montepulciano. Simone grew up with these varietals, so it is no wonder that it is the most complex and food-friendly wine in the Chateau Elan lineup. 

I will be remiss, if I do not say a few words about the Muscadine wines. First of all, because of their bright acidity, all of them will benefit from a food pairing. Unlike most wines, I found that the Muscadine taste profile was less linear and spread out more across the palate, which adds a degree of complexity that I did not expect. All were well crafted. On the nose, I detected hints of berry and something akin to Concord in all of the Muscadines, but the grape juice feature did not carry over to the palate. The Mascadry Rouge is blended with a bit of Syrah and spends a short time in oak to make it a slightly bigger wine. While it drinks well, it is more of a gateway red that will appeal to new wine drinkers without a strongly developed palate. That is not meant to be derogatory, but the red is simply not the same caliber as the higher-end wines made from imported fruit and I think that is by design.

Visitors enjoying the wine and view from the tasting room balcony

In the end, I feel that Muscadine is the main story at Chateau Elan. Simone is singlehandedly rehabilitating the reputation of that grape and his effort may reverberate through the south. The resort and palatial tasting room will draw visitors from nearby Atlanta and the wines will speak for themselves. Great effort has been placed on an educational tasting program, so it is just a matter of time before the word gets out. With regard to the winery, Simone Bergese has taken Chateau Elan to the next level. Something historical is taking place and I strongly recommend seeing for yourself, so we can watch together as Simone’s wine program evolves. After you stop in, please let me know what you think.


Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Well Hung Vineyard

As legend has it, the winegrowers were in the vineyard and commented on the fruit as being “well hung.” It is from this reference that Well Hung Vineyard was named. The wine label has probably received more attention that the wine. It contains the image of three gentlemen standing behind trellised vines and only their legs are visible. Bunches of grapes hang at about crotch level.  Beneath that image are the words “Well Hung.” It is a little racy, but fun.

Well Hung has been growing grapes since about 2002 and started bottling their wines seven years later. So they have been around for a while, but they do not have a dedicated tasting room. I first encountered their wine at Early Mountain Vineyards and I recall enjoying the wines I sampled, but I have never written anything about Well Hung. Honah Lee Vineyards in Gordonsville has also been pouring their wines for a couple years. I was recently in Nelson County on Route 151 and noticed a Well Hung sign hanging outside the Blue Toad Cidery tasting room, so I pulled in with the intention of doing a tasting and writing a piece for my blog. 

Inside the tasting room, Blue Toad and Well Hung share the same small tasting bar. Having said that, it appears that there is ample space to disperse visitors with seating inside and out. I found the staff to be very attentive and they seemed knowledgable about both the cider and wine. There is a very cozy aura about the place and it appears that there were a number of repeat customers, which bodes well for the reputation.

I sampled six of the Well Hung wines. The three whites and three reds were all well crafted. The lightly oaked Chardonnay was a solid wine and I enjoyed the white blend. Among the reds there were three single varietal: Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. The Merlot and Petit Verdot were excellent, but the Cab Franc reserve just stole the show. There were no green notes at all. It had beautiful ripe fruit, a hint of black pepper and a nice finish. Overall the Well Hung wines were all solid.

This was a very quick stop for me and I feel like I need to spend a little more time with the Well Hung wines, but based on this single tasting, I give them high marks. Their Nelson County tasting room is in a corridor that contains many great Virginia wineries, so when you find yourself in the vicinity, definitely make a stop at Well Hung. It is a winery that needs to be on your radar. After you visit, please let me know what you think.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Cooper Vineyards

There are two vineyards in Louisa County, Virginia and one of them is for sale. This might give the impression that rural Louisa County is less than ideal for viticulture, but that is definitely not the case. Cooper Vineyards opened in 1999 as the 53rd farm winery in the state. They have amassed a loyal following that voted them in as top tasting room in Virginia four years running. In addition, the wine club currently includes 850 members. This seems to indicate an unprecedented  level of popularity for a lone winery in a very rural part of the state. Their reputation is not without good reason.

When Dave Drillock recently purchased Cooper Vineyards, the winery already had an established base of support, but there were certainly opportunities to take the winery to the next level. Dave has a distinct vision for how they will get there. A new 10,000 case winery is in the works. This will allow production to increase from its current level of 5000 cases. Of course, this will require more fruit. In addition to the 21 acres under vine at Cooper, Dave has six more on his farm in Free Union and that will be expanded by another four or five acres. A rebranding is also under way and efforts are being made to improve the quality of wines that already enjoyed a reputation for quality.

It was assistant winemaker Chelsey Blevins who invited me out to Cooper. She met me in the parking lot, guided me around the property, answered many of my questions and tasted the wines with me. I owe her a special thanks for reintroducing me to a winery that I had not visited in a few years. I was far less impressed after my last visit, but I came away this time as a huge fan. The wines in particular were more exciting than I remember.

I just do not know where to start with my description of the Cooper wines. First of all, if you told me I would encounter this level of quality in Louisa County, I would not believe you. I tasted more than a dozen offerings and my notes are littered with stars. It will be difficult narrow my writeup to just two or three. Among the whites, I particularly liked the Rkatsiteli, which is a grape native to the Republic of Georgia. It is light, crisp and floral with hints of lemongrass. The Chardonel won silver in the Governor’s Cup and the bright acidity and pineapple notes make this hybrid a perfect food wine. But oh, the Albariño! It does not pretend to be Spanish. Blended with a splash of Rkatsiteli, it is bright, crisp and slightly floral. It was also my favorite among the whites. It is a crazy-good wine that won Gold in the Mid Atlantic.

Among the reds, I thought the Chambourcin and Petit Verdot were worthy of mention, but the Cabernet Franc and Norton Reserve were just over the top. The Cab Franc had none of the green notes that indicate poor vineyard management. It had a beautiful nose and was actually quite big and fruity. It is not your typical Cab Franc and it was my top pick from the Cooper lineup. I just love a good Cab Franc and this one was exceptional. I also have to mention the Norton, simply because I am not a huge fan of the varietal. This one lacked the mid-palate astringency that can be so off putting, but was big, complex and fruit forward. 

In addition to the wine, there are many other reasons to be excited about Cooper. It is a green winery with a platinum certification. The tasting staff is well trained, professional and customer oriented. The tasting room and winery property are dog friendly. Live music can be enjoyed in the tasting room on most Saturdays and Sundays. Patrons are encouraged to bring a picnic to enjoy in the state’s most popular tasting room. Two Saturdays each month, local artists and artisans display their crafts in the Cooper pavilion and a food truck is on hand for that event. Cooper hosts an annual event to raise funds for animal rescue. And the list just goes on.

If you are in Charlottesville, Richmond or the Lake Anna area, Cooper is just a short drive. If you happen to be passing through, the tasting room is just a short drive from Interstate 64. If you stop in, and I strongly recommend that you do, you will likely be just as blown away as I am. So do make the effort and when you do, please let me know what you think.


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Desert Rose Ranch & Winery

If you are unfamiliar with Desert Rose Ranch & Winery, it is a small boutique operation in the norththwestern corner of Fauquier County, Virginia not far from the the village of Hume. It is part of a small cluster of high-end wine producers that straddle the Fauquier/Rappahannock County lines. The local area is composed of hills and rocky outcroppings that give way to the Blue Ridge Mountains just a few miles west. It seems like ideal terrain for growing grapes. 

Desert Rose was a ranch and winery in that order. Owner Bob Claymier purchased the property to raise horses, more specifically Arabians, after he retired. Bob grew up on a ranch in eastern Oregon and the winery is a tribute to that lifestyle. From the old wagon on the front lawn, to the ranch house look of the building and the television in the back of the tasting room airing a non-stop series of old black and white westerns, the property is filled with cowboy memorabilia. It may well be the largest such collection in the state and it lends a certain ambiance that is unique among Virginia wineries. 

I recently dropped by Desert Rose and met with Bob for a short interview. As he entered the tasting room in his work cloths and cowboy hat, Bob looked like a guy who is not afraid of an honest day’s work. You might imagine that he has always been a rancher, but after a tour in the Navy, Bob worked with the CIA (and I do not mean the Culinary Institute of America). The horses and the ranch are not so much an attempt to reinvent himself, but Bob seems to just be settling back into an earlier lifestyle and it suits him. 

As I mentioned earlier, the winery came second, but wine production also traces back to Bob's childhood. His mother made beer and wine as a household product. Bob is quick to point out that “it was not necessarily good wine.” Nevertheless, it made a profound enough impression, that he spent much of his life making wine as a hobby. Owning property in the middle of Virginia wine country gave him an opportunity to take it to the next level as an additional retirement project. Bob is the winemaker, but he says that he "gets help when needed." In any case, his transition from home winemaking to production of fine wine seems to be a complete success.

While there, I tasted several Desert Rose wines. All are worthy of mention, but for the sake of brevity I will not go into detail on all of them. I started with a Chardonnay and two white blends. Then we moved on to a Cabernet Franc/Chambourcin Rosé. The red wines, however, are the main event. The Chambourcin was drinking well with great fruit and none of the astringency that is sometime present in that varietal. The Cabernet Franc, in my opinion, is one of the best in the Commonwealth and illustrates what is possible for that grape in the Mid Atlantic. It is big wine with no trace of green pepper, dark cherry notes mid palate and a crazy long finish. Finally, I need to mention the Crimson Cabernet, because this is the only winery in the state growing that hybrid.

In case you are unaware, Crimson Cabernet is a cross between Norton and Cabernet Sauvignon. It was developed in an attempt to cross the heartiness of the Norton with the characteristics of Cab Sauv. Desert Rose bottled the second vintage in the United States and the world for that matter. I have tasted two vintages, but they were both very young. The vines need to mature as well. I do not feel like I have enough experience with the grape to make many substantive comments, but I will say that the grape seems to have potential. It will be interesting to someday do a vertical tasting of Crimson Cabernet to better gage how it develops over time. In the meantime, this is the only winery in the region where it can be tasted.

My enthusiasm about Desert Rose must be evident. I have been a huge fan since my first visit a couple years ago. I do not make it back there often, because it is so far from Charlottesville, but I would if I could. If you nearby or in the area, you should make every effort to visit. It is has, as I have described, many unique qualities, but the quality of the wine should be your primary motivator. Make an effort to stop in and when you do, let me know what you think.


Monday, July 18, 2016

Rappahannock Cellars

The Delmare family moved from the Santa Cruz Mountains, where they were making wine from old-growth vines at Savannah Channel Vineyards 30 miles north of San Francisco. They still own the California Vineyard, but they made the move to Virginia in an effort to find a more wholesome and family-friendly environment. John and Marialisa Delmare subsequently raised 12 children on their 85-acre farm in Rappahannock County. It is a family operation in the truest sense. All of the children, in turn, have had a hand in working the vineyards and assisting with other aspects of winery operations.

Over the past 16 years, the Delmare family has transformed their winery into one of the most respected and well-known winemaking operations in the Commonwealth. Planting began at Rappahannock Cellars in 2000. Today there are 30 acres under vine and another 22 leased acres at Indian Springs in the Shenandoah Valley. They also import fruit from their Californian vineyards and have other small holdings in Virginia. All told, they are producing between 12,000 and 13,000 cases annually from this fruit.

It had been at least three years since my last visit, so my site was long overdue for an updated profile of Rappahannock. Prior to my tasting, I spent some time wandering around reacquainting myself with the grounds and tasting room complex. The property is hugged by a series of rolling hills that give way to the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. A food truck was parked near the barn, where they were selling their wares. Ample outside seating can be found in the yard or on the deck and porch areas. Inside there is a tasting space with three bars and off of that room there are large areas reserved for the wine club. A couple of staff members seem to be dedicated exclusively to the club rooms.

I finally made my way to one of the tasting bars and found seven wines on the menu. There are separate lists for the public and club spaces. There are no “inferior” wines at Rappahannock, but club members do taste reserve and “black label” wines that are aged longer in oak. Jenna was my wine steward and she let me taste from both menus, so I could gage the difference. She has been with the winery for six years and was able to speak with great confidence about each of the offerings. Her knowledge of the wines and winery contributed to a very nice dialogue throughout the tasting. It really was a first-rate tasting experience. I think Jenna created an excellent customer experience and represented the industry well, creating conditions that will inspire a return visit.

All told, I probably tasted a dozen wines, which is far too many to talk about at length. We started with a white blend and a Chardonnay. Both were excellent wines, but I thought the Cab Franc and Merlot Rosé was a particular standout with its watermelon notes and tart raspberry finish. Among the reds, I tasted both the regular and black label Meritage. The extra six months in oak make a marked difference in the black label example. The black label was characterized by more complexity and supple tannins that will ensure more years in the cellar. The final wine of the tasting was the Solara, which I think is one of the most unique wines in Virginia. This wine is produced from Vidal Blanc that is left to age on the roof in large glass jars. Each year part of the wine is siphoned off and more Vidal is added. This is an Oloroso Sherry style wine that is characterized with a pecan nuttiness that takes on a strong pecan taste profile that can taste almost like pecan pie. I think this wine is all the justification you need to visit.

Rappahannock Cellars is certainly one of the state’s premier wineries and produces wine of the highest caliber. If, inexplicably, you have never visited, you should make plans to stop in. If you have been there before, it is probably time to return. Rappahannock is a Virginia institution that inspires our support. After you drop by the tasting room, I hope you will let me know what you think. I will be waiting to hear from you.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Hill Top Berry Farm and Winery

The Rockfish Valley in Nelson County, Virginia has long been known for its wine. It contains a cluster of the Monticello AVA’s premier wineries, which also happen to be among the best in the state. The last few years have seen a number of breweries, cideries and distilleries opened along Route 151 and the Rockfish Valley has gained a reputation for heavy weekend traffic. The wineries, however, are set back off the road. Despite the congestion, therefore, the property around the tasting rooms seems remote and completely removed from the weekend craziness.

Hill Top Berry Farm is one of those wineries. They have been producing wine since 1993, so they definitely predate most of the other venues. They produce primarily fruit wines and mead, but they recently began to grow and bottle a single-varietal Chambourcin. They also grow Niagara and Concord, but these are used primarily for blending with the mead. Altogether, Hill Top produces about 6000 gallons of wine and mead annually, which works out to about 2500 cases. 

Marlin Allen was making wine as a hobby even before he retired from law enforcement. When he started producing commercially on his 30-acre Nelson County farm, he became the state’s 51st winery. Today the operation has passed on to his daughter Kimberly, who has taken the winery to the next level. The property sees a steady stream of visitors and the tasting menu is full of exotic meads and fruit wines.

There are a total of 30 wines and meads being produced. On my most recent visit, I tasted nine of the offerings. Among my favorites were the dry-style plum wine, which had a big mouth feel and despite the low residual sugar could easily stand up to something spicy and asian. The spiced pumpkin mead was another very interesting offering. It was reminiscent of pumpkin pie and seems like a perfect holiday pairing. I also tasted the Chambourcin for the first time. It was a light-bodied wine, but had nice fruit and structured tannins. It was drinking very well. The most exotic pouring was the mead made from Zambian African killer bee honey. It was a deep golden hue, bone dry and complex with hints of whiskey on the palate. It was a fascinating mead and the only Hill Top product that is sourced outside Virginia.

For years I was a bit of a snob and thumbed my nose at fruit wine and mead. That all changed after my first trip to Hill Top. The quality of the wine and mead combined with the passion of the owners made a profound impression. The offerings can be as complex and offer as may pairing options as a grape wine. I mistakenly and inexplicably believed mead would be sweet, because it is made from honey. Of course, the sugar interacts with yeast to create alcohol, so the fermentation process can be halted at any point to create a sweet or bone-dry mead. So there is something for everyone.

I am obviously a fan and, if you have any reservations, I suggest you stop in to see for yourself. The tasting staff is knowledgable and can help educate you on every wine or mead on the tasting menu. I think you will be as surprised as I was. So after you stop in, please let me know what you think.