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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 AlbariƱo! 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.


Monday, August 8, 2016

Caret Cellars

If you have ever visited the Chesapeake Bay Wine Region, you know it is flat. Well, there are a couple of small rises, but no real hills to speak of. It can also get quite hot. So you might think that these are inhospitable conditions for viticulture. The ocean breeze, however, helps moderate the temperatures. The coastal air flow also helps decrease the threat of frost. The soil around the Chesapeake contains higher percentages of sand and crushed shell, which allows excess moisture to drain away from vines. These same conditions can provide a degree of minerality in some of the region’s wines. So there are mitigating factors that allow very good wine to be produced in Virginia's eastern, maritime districts.

Last weekend I drove out to Caret Cellars, which is the newest winery in the bay area. The vineyards are not far from the Rappahannock River and just a few miles northwest of the Route 360 Bridge that crosses the river in the town of Tappahannock. I followed the gravel road past the vineyards and parked in the field in front of the small, wood-frame building that houses the tasting room and at least part of the winemaking operation. 

The scale of the Caret Cellars operation is relatively small. They are currently cranking out about 600 cases per year, but their sights are set on 2000 cases. The plan is to add 10 or 15 acres to the 6.5 that are currently under vine. The existing vines were planted ten years ago, but owner R.D. Thompson sold his fruit until 2014 when the first bottles began to bear the Caret Cellars label. 

Floyd Oslin is the winemaker at Caret. He grew up in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, where he started making wine with his grandfather at the tender age of fifteen. In 1984 Floyd moved to the Chesapeake region with the intention of making wine. He learned commercial winemaking at Ingleside Vineyards, which is one the oldest and most respected wineries in the state. He remained there for years and eventually started consulting for other producers until he finally ended up at Caret. So Floyd has extensive regional knowledge and it seems to be paying dividends.

When I entered the tasting room, Floyd was pouring for a small group of tasters. When a spot opened at the bar, I bellied up and tasted ten of the Caret Cellars wines. Floyd stepped me through the offerings, while simultaneously regaling me facts about the winery and the larger wine region. It was a great conversation and Floyd just seemed to love public interaction, which makes him a perfect point person for the winery.

I started off with a very nice stainless steel Chardonnay, a Traminette and an exceptional Viognier/Chardonnay blend that has not yet been released. The Chardonnay added bit of crispness that is typically absent from Viognier, making it a much better food wine. There was also a lovely, peach-colored Sangiovese Rosato with raspberry notes that flowed across the palate and gave way to a candy apple finish. 

The reds started off with a Chambourcin blended with just enough Niagara to make it a crowd pleaser. We moved on to a Sangiovese and then a “Super Tuscan” blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Wow! I would describe it as light to medium bodied, but with more than enough complexity to hold my attention and structured tannins in the finish. It was my favorite of the regular tasting, but Floyd offered me a barrel tasting of his 2015 Merlot, which I tasted alongside the 2014. Let me just say that 15 was full bodied with a lot of fruit, firm tannins and a crazy long finish. It is a potential medal winner and it should be released by this time next year. 

I know that this winery is a little out of the way for most of my readers, but Caret Cellars is more than worthy of support. Consider visiting during the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail Oyster Crawl the second weekend in November. Eat your way through a few of the regional wineries and find out what they are pouring. Whatever you do, however, make the effort to find out more about this winery. When you do, let me know what you think.