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Thursday, November 7, 2013

Lake Anna Winery

Lake Anna is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Virginia. It's surrounded by over one hundred communities, that are supported primarily by recreation and tourism. It's in this tourist community, that Lake Anna Winery began operation in the early 1980s.

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Bill and Ann Heidig planted their first grapes in the early 1980s and originally sold their produce to other Virginia wineries. When they shifted to wine production in 1990, they were one of only thirty wineries in the state. So the winery has a little history and the Heidigs were engaged in viticulture before Virginia gained its reputation for world-class wine. Over thirty years later, Bill Heidig is still actively engaged with the winery, but most of the day to day operations have shifted to his sons, Jeff and Eric. Long-term plans are to expand production to 10,000 cases per year, but this is no corporate wine-making facility. It's still very much a family business and that is reflected in the friendly, relaxed, inviting atmosphere in the tasting room. 

Lake Anna currently has twenty four acres under vine and all the wine is produced onsite. In 2001, Bill and Ann retired from physical wine making and hired Graham Bell, who was previously a winemaker at Horton Vineyards. The introduction of this major wine-making talent is evident in the quality of the Lake Anna wines.
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On the day of my visit, there are a dozen wines on the Lake Anna tasting menu. I found that they were all well crafted. I was excited to see a 2010 Cab Franc on the menu and I wasn't disappointed. The 2010 Cabernet Franc won gold in the 2013 Atlantic Seaboard Competition and it is an obvious award winner. There is a ripe berry aroma and in the mouth, it really opens up with red fruit and bit of pepper. It's an absolutely fabulous wine. I had to take some of this home to try alongside some other 2010 Cab Francs. Another very interesting wine is the 2011 Essensual. This Vidal Blanc is done in an ice wine style and contains about 10% residual sugar, but don't let that fool you. It smells very sweet, but the fruit is not overpowered by the sugar. The grape really comes through and it has a very smooth mouth feel. This is one of the best dessert wines I've tasted this season.

I had a great visit at Lake Anna. The tasting was not rushed and the wines were exceptional. In addition, the wine steward, Patty, offered a wealth of knowledge about the wines, the winery and the local area. The tasting was entertaining and flowed like a conversation. It was everything I look for in a tasting experience. 

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We drove out to Lake Anna Winery during peak foliage and the scenery along our route was just breathtaking. I'm sure that in summer, the drive along the lake will be equally beautiful. I noted that there are numerous restaurants and shops dotting the route, so the area offers much more than just a wine-tasting experience. This can easily be a weekend destination.

If you're headed out that way, Lake Anna is part of the Heart of Virginia Wine Trail and for a single $15 price, you can visit all of the wineries. If you're inclined to hang out for a bit, there's lots of space in the tasting room or on the property to spread out, enjoy the scenery and enjoy a picnic. So if you're in the area, you really need to stop in. Not only does Lake Anna Winery represent a piece of Virginia wine history, they are also producing world-class wines.

Cheers.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Crimson Cabernet—Virginia’s Newest Hybrid

U.C. Davis, home to one of America's best viticultural programs, did what U.C. Davis does and developed a new hybrid. They crossed Norton with Cabernet Sauvignon and called their progeny Crimson Cabernet. Okay. Everyone knows Cabernet Sauvignon, but what is Norton? Why cross one of the world's greatest wine grapes with some relatively unknown varietal? Why should we care?

The fact is that Norton is, itself, a hybrid. The exact parental origins are unclear, but it is almost certainly a cross between a vinifera (traditional European wine grape) and the wild vine, Vitis aestivalis. The union resulted in a disease-resistant varietal that was high in antioxidants and thrived in climates that vinifera found challenging. In addition, it lacked the "foxy" characteristics that are common in wines produced from other native-American grapes. It was initially believed that Norton was a game changer for American viticulture and that it would rival the better-known European varietals. That was before prohibition and the rise of California wine production.

Today Norton is grown primarily in the Midwest and Mid Atlantic and it has not gained a large following. The grape is used to produce mostly big, bold reds with lots of shelf life. Unfortunately, even the best vintages tend to display a mid-palate acidity that does not improve much with age. As a result, oenophiles tend to either love or hate the Norton wines. Nevertheless, Norton does possess qualities that are lacking in European varietals, so it's sort of remarkable that someone didn't cross it with a vinifera a long time ago. It just seems like a no brainer.

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The wild vine Vitis aestivalis is believed to be on of the Norton parents.

Well, efforts have been ongoing, but developing a hybrid with the right combination of characteristics is not an easy feat. There is a very narrow window each year when such a cross can even be attempted. In addition, there are no guarantees of success and determining if the hybrid has the right combination of qualities requires years of observation and testing. So the process took a while and there were many failed attempts, but in the end, U.C. Davis did deliver. The result was the Crimson Cabernet, which is said to be 75% vinifera, and all the best qualities of the Cabernet Sauvignon, with the disease and cold resistance (not to mention antioxidants) of Norton.

Once again the phrase "game changer" began to be bandied about. If the grape contains all the advertised qualities, it may well compete against vinifera. If it is indeed more palatable, if it can thrive in the damp Mid Atlantic growing season and if it can survive the arctic Midwestern winters, Norton might become the signature grape of those regions. Well, that's a lot of "ifs." 

In October 2011, Somerset Ridge Vineyard and Winery in Kansas released the first vintage of Crimson Cabernet. Lucian Dressel, developer of the new hybrid was quoted as saying "Why not take the world's best wine grape and breed it with the world's best vine, one of the healthiest and hardiest vines of all, and see if we can come up with something in between?"¹ That makes sense, but it begs the question, will something "in between" be good enough?

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The earliest releases in Kansas, Illinois and Kentucky seem to show promise and wines produced from the grape are reported to have the characteristics of a big, Spanish red. At the same time, the new hybrid is said to be very susceptible to the influence of terroir. So how will it do in Virginia?

In October 2013, Desert Rose Ranch and Winery, in Northern Virginia, released its first vintage of Crimson Cabernet. The 2012 Desert Rose Covert Cab was deep red with lots of red fruit on the nose. It definitely lacked the acidic mid-palate tannins. Instead there was fruit and a nice mouth feel. I paired it with beef tenderloin and the wine definitely complimented the red meat. We followed with a dark chocolate dessert that also worked beautifully with the wine. It was drinking well with just a bit of tannin in the finish, so I wonder if it has the legs to cellar for a few years? I'm not sure that it reminded me of a big, Spanish red, but it was a dramatic improvement over Norton. I reserve judgment. I prefer to wait a couple years, see how the 2012 progresses and, in the mean time, try another vintage or two. I encourage you to try the wine and render your own opinion.

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Disease resistant qualities and less acidity than the Norton might be a winning combination, but the fact is that the wine-drinking public is not always receptive to hybrids. This has much to do with name recognition. A strong marketing campaign may be necessary to create enough buzz to translate into sales. Time will tell, but it's now up to public perception to determine the fate of Crimson Cabernet.

¹ Wood, Danny, 2013, Dr. Norton Had a Baby and Named it Crimson Cabernet, Midwest Wine Press, February.