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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bogati Bodega

Driving west through Loudoun County, just before starting the climb up the Blue Ridge, you’ll find a tasting room on the side of Route 7. Bogati Bodega is appended to the end of long brick structure containing other businesses. It’s not exactly what I expected, but then I never know exactly what to expect.

Jim and Della Bogaty are the owners of Verimar Vineyards, which is just a little further down the road, on the other side of the mountains. They received the bodega inspiration during a trip to Buenos Aires. So in 2010 they opened the doors at Bogati. The grapes are grown on the Verimar property and their son, Justin Bogaty, makes the wines that carry both the Verimar and Bogati Vineyards label. 


I tasted eight wines during my visit. Most of the wines were crafted from the international varietals encountered throughout the state, but there were a few less common grapes. You’ll find Albariño, Touriga Nacional and Malbec in wineries other than Bogati, but they’re far from the norm. I discovered that most of the white wines tended to be slightly sweet. This was even true of the Albariño, which had about 1.5% residual sugar. Non-traditional though it was, it did have nice honey and pear notes. 


Among the red wine offerings, the Malbec had lots of nice black fruit, round tannin and a nice long finish. The Touriga Nacional was showing lots of red fruit on the nose and palate and also had a great finish, but it was only a couple years old. The tannins should mellow nicely in the Touriga and in a couple more years, this one will be a fabulous wine. All of the wines were well crafted, but I mention these because they’re not typical and they make a strong case for a trip to Bogati.


The tasting room has a very nice fireplace sitting area that was in use on the raw day of my visit. The bodega also serves up a Blond Sangria made from Seyval Blanc, which will be perfect for the warm days to come. In addition, a variety of lite food is available for purchase and there are frequent public events held on the premises. 

I had a very educational visit at Bogati. Paul, my wine steward, offered lots of information about each pour and we had a nice conversation about Verimar, the varietals and wine in general. While Bogati Bodega is more of a satellite tasting room, it’s a very warm, comfortable venue. This one is worth checking out. I think you’ll discover, as it did, that there’s a lot going on at Bogati.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bluemont Vineyard

I recently published a list of wineries with great views and received a query from a reader asking “what about Bluemont?” So I vowed to get out there as soon as possible and I could not have picked a worse day. It was rainy and overcast, so the view was obscured. Nevertheless, I’m glad I made the trip, because the winery was a real find.

The Bluemont view in better weather.
(Borrowed from the Bluemont website)

The drive takes you through the historic Village of Bluemont, which was established in 1731 along what later became the earliest operating American turnpike. After driving through the village, you will pass Great Country Farms and then turn right onto the vineyard property and then climb several hundred feet to the winery complex. (As a quick aside, I should point out that Bluemont has a strong affiliation with Great Country Farms and they frequently collaborate on events. The depiction of farm animals on the Bluemont labels is a testament to that association.)

The tasting room is perched on the hillside at an elevation of 951 feet overlooking the vineyards and farmland in the valley below. It’s a beautiful chateau-like building that opens into a deceptively spacious interior. There are two floors with multiple tasting bars, lots of little corners to explore, seating throughout and local handmade gift and home decor items dispersed throughout the building. Outside, there is covered seating on both levels and indoors you can find music most weekends and lite food is available from the kitchen.

The first vines planted at Bluemont were Norton, because they are a local varietal. But by the time the tasting room opened in 2007, most of the international varietals were represented in the vineyard. The winery  produced 6200 cases in 2013 and enjoys a reputation as a producer of world-class wines.

Every effort has been made to produce the finest possible product at Bluemont. Experts from Virginia Tech were brought in to analyze the growing conditions and make the best recommendations. So there is great emphasis on terroir and the vineyards slope down from an elevation of 1100 feet, which seems ideal for drainage of excess water and cold air. In addition, Doug Fabbioli, owner of Fabbioli Cellars and one of the regional wine rockstars, is the consulting winemaker, which seems to increase Bluemont's likelihood of success.

Meanwhile at the tasting bar, I drew Christina as my wine steward. Her affiliation with the winery has been short, but she brings a love of wine to the task of pouring and she’d clearly done her homework about the Bluemont wines. She conducted the tasting in a well-ordered, but informal fashion and we had a great conversation about each of the offerings. She was concerned about being able to speak to all my questions, but I thought she did a fabulous job.

Oh the wines! Bluemont produces wine using most of the typical international varietals that you can find growing throughout the state. Of course there’s the Norton as well. All were very well made, but there are a few very special wines on the menu. The Farm Table White and Farm Table Red are the most popular overall. The white is a dry blend of Vidal Blanc, Petit Manseng and Chardonnay. It has crisp peach notes with a bit of citrus in the finish. The red is light and fruity with a bit of spice. Particularly for a someone new to red wines, I think this one is particularly approachable. Both were lovely and I totally understand the popularity.

I, on the other hand, had a couple different favorites. The Peach is a blend of Rkatsiteli and peach wines. Wow! That was unexpected. Of course, as you might imagine, there were distinct peach notes. The Rkatsiteli, however, added quite a bit of complexity to this very dry semi-fruit wine. It could be a sipping wine, but will do much better with something off the grill. The 2010 Merlot was my overall pick. It’s blended with just a bit of Cab Franc and Petit Verdot, but the amounts are too small to make it a legitimate Bordeaux blend. It had the typical cherry on the nose and palate, but without being too fruity. It had a bit of complexity and finish to write home about. Loved it!

So I still haven’t seen the view, but in the immortal words of Douglas McArthur, “I shall return.” In the mean time, even without seeing the fabled panorama, I can easily put Bluemont Vineyard in my top ten. Everything about my experience was first rate. The service, the knowledge of the staff and the wines put this winery in the upper tier. You should seriously check them out, but pick a better day than I did.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Otium Cellars

I was exploring wineries in western Loudoun County on a particularly dreary day. I’d heard many great things about Otium Cellars. It was highly recommended by more than one person. I was in the vicinity, so I made the drive through Purcellville and out to to Otium, which sits on the forty-acre tract of land known as Goose Creek Farm. 

Upon arrival, I immediately understood how the winery's name was awarded. Otium means leisure, peace or tranquility in Latin. This is appropriate. The winery sits among the rolling hills of Loudoun County, within a short distance of the Blue Ridge, where it shares the property with an equestrian facility dedicated to raising world class Hanoverians. Even in foul weather, it’s a stunning venue.


Gerhardt Bauer established Otium with an eye toward concentrating on German varietals and planted his first vines in 2007. There are a few French varietals being cultivated, but the majority of wines are produced from German clones. Currently there are nine acres under vine, but additional acreage has been purchased in partnership with another Loudoun County winery, where an additional thirty acres will be cultivated. Cultivation of more German varietals will include Zweigelt, Gruner Veltliner, Lagrein and Dornfelder. According to Max Bauer, Gerhard’s son and the general manager at Otium, the winery is currently “producing about 1200 cases per year, and that will start to increase a few years after [the] first usable harvest." So I suspect that we can look forward to more great things in the coming years.


The eight wines on the tasting menu included a pair of Pinot Gris, a Malbec and a Cabernet Sauvignon. I will say that all of the Otium wines were well crafted, but I want to talk about the Dornfelder and the two Blaufränkisch wines that were being poured. Dornfelder? Really! I was excited at the prospect. Dornfelder is a highly regarded German hybrid bred from a couple grapes you’ve never heard of. It’s not grown anywhere else in the Commonwealth and it’s certainly not widely grown in the United States. The Otium offering was everything I’d hoped for and more. It was a big, dark red wine with a slightly floral nose and black fruit on the palate. This one was still a little young, but was showing some complexity and a nice finish. I can’t say enough good things.

If you don’t know Blaufränkisch, it’s an Austrian hybrid that also goes by the handle “Limberger" (or Lemberger in the US). There’s only one other Virginia winery producing wines from this varietal. It’s more widely grown in the Finger Lakes or Washington state. The tasting includes two from the same year. One is Austrian, the other from Otium. I’m always a fan of this type of pairing. The Austrian example was full of black fruit and a little pepper. The Otium wine displayed the same basic features, but I thought it had much more going on. It had wonderful fruit and a brilliant finish. I took home a bottle of each, so I can try them next to the one being produced in the Shenandoah Valley. 


I found the tasting room to have a very informal, relaxed environment. Everyone at the tasting bar was involved in the conversation of wine. Caleb was pouring my wine and Sam, the tasting room manager, was sort of in and out, adding observations and contributing to the general mood. Sam was also kind enough to sit down with me after the tasting and added a little detail about the winery. It was a great visit.


I look forward to returning Otium and I’ll be very interested in seeing how it evolves over the next few years. It’s always exciting to discover something new in Virginia and this is one winery that is adding another dimension to Virginia wines. The new varietals can’t help but add to that experience. In the meantime, this is still a must-visit winery. Get out there, see what they’re offering and let me know what you think.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sunset Hills Vineyard

I drove out to Sunset Hills Vineyard on a singularly awful, rainy spring day. It’s not far from Purcellville in Loudoun County and in better weather, it might offer an amazing view of the Blue Ridge. Having said that, the dismal conditions and limited visibility did not mask the beauty of the property. The winery and tasting room are located on land that was originally a historic 250 acre dairy farm and it is a gorgeous venue in any weather. 


The tasting room is located in a large barn that dates to the 1870s and was completely renovated by Amish craftsmen. And let’s be clear, the tasting room structure at Sunset Hills is not just an old barn that was cleaned up and repurposed with a tasting bar. The building won a Design Excellence-Makeover Award from Loudoun County. They were Amish craftsmen with emphasis on the word “craftsmen.” It’s without a doubt one of the nicer tasting rooms in Northern Virginia.


Diane and Mike Canney purchased the property in 1990, planted their first vines in 1999 and produced the first vintage in 2006. Since then, they have amassed seventy-three acres of vines at four different vineyards. At 10,000 cases per year, the winery still maintains it’s boutique winery status and it’s reputation for world-class wines.

I was fortunate enough to have a brief interview with Diane Canney during my visit and the main topic of our conversation was how Sunset Hills strives to maintain a social conscience and be a constructive part of the local community. Toward that end, the winery has established a reputation as environmentally friendly by employing green practices and using solar energy. The seventy three acres of vines are managed row by row in an effort to minimize the use of pesticides and herbicides. The intense vineyard management requires a large labor force, which combined with the tasting room and winery staff makes Sunset Hills a major local employer.


The winemaker is Nate Walsh, who worked in New Zealand, Oregon and locally at Horton Vineyards before joining Sunset Hills in 2009. Nate’s wines are highly regarded. The current line includes about a dozen wines produced from primarily French clones. During his short tenure, the Sunset Hills wines have won something in the order of forty medals at competitions all over the United States. 

Meredith Wilson, the tasting room manager, poured my wine. She’s been in the industry for eight years; the last four of which have been at Sunset Hills, so she had a wealth of detailed knowledge. There was not a question she couldn’t answer. She pointed out that the grapes are grown in four different vineyards both locally and in the Shenandoah. The same clones are used at each location, so that the varietals can clearly express the terroir. And so we spoke as she poured and poured.


Right out the gate I tasted a winner. The recently released Chardonnay was produced with grapes from the Shenandoah Springs vineyard. Just a hint of residual sugar, but perfectly balanced with an amazing nose and bright peach notes. A lovely wine. And Meredith continued to pour one great wine after another until we came to the Sunset Red. I tasted a 2011 and 2012. The younger wine was superior in every way. The 2012 is a blend of Syrah and a couple Bordeaux varietals that has lots of black fruit mingled with a bit of spice and a crazy-long finish. There were tannins, but it’s still young. Give it a couple more years and then look out!

What more can I tell you? Everything about Sunset Hills is first rate. The service, the tasting experience, the property, the wine, and the list goes on. You’ll certainly be hearing about this winery in my best of 2014 blog. It’s easily in my top ten. So yeah. This one is the real deal. Go there. Check it out. Don’t make me tell you twice.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Molon Lave Vineyards

Driving east along State Route 211 from the Blue Ridge Mountains toward the Nation’s capitol, you will pass a large number of wineries clustered around the intersection of Rappahannock, Culpepper and Fauquier Counties. One of those wineries is Molon Lave Vineyards.


"Molon Lave” (come and take) was the defiant reply of King Leonidas to demands for Spartan surrender at the Battle of Thermopylae. It is in honor of this classical expression, that the winery was named. This is one of two (Mediterranean Cellars is the second) wineries owned by the Papadopoulos family, who used the famous phrase to highlight their Greek heritage. 

The winery opened for business on the a fifty-acre Fauquier County property in 2009. The first grapes were planted in 2004. Today there are fourteen acres under vine and all of the Molon Lave wines are produced from estate-grown fruit.


I tasted ten wines during my visit. For the most part, the varietals used at Molon Lave are typical of other Virginia wineries. On the menu there was Viognier, Chardonnay, Petite Manseng, Chambourcin, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. I found all of them to be well-crafted, excellent wines. There was, however, one little Greek twist. The Papadopoulos family is also growing Kokineli, which is being used to produce a Rosé. It’s worth visiting the winery just to taste this wine.


The tasting menu describes the 2010 Kokineli as “reminiscent in it’s flavor of Retsina.” If you’ve never tried Retsina, it’s an acquired taste. Retsina is made with pine resin and can be a bit overwhelming. I would not use that word to describe the Kokineli. It did have mild pine notes on the nose and palate, but I found it to be delightful and unlike anything you’ll taste elsewhere in the Commonwealth. It’s a complex wine with very distinct herbal qualities. This particular Rosé might be fine for sipping on a summer day, but it’s far more appropriate with food. It was by far my favorite of the tasting and one of the most exciting wines I’ve discovered in Virginia.


Sarah was pouring my wines and despite the fact that the entire staff was scrambling to deal with a larger than expected number of visitors, I thought she did a fabulous job. She talked with authority about each of the wines and took time to answer everyone’s questions. I thought the entire staff held up well under trying circumstances, remained focused and did everything in their power to provide an excellent customer experience. 

I think there are many reasons to stop by Molon Lave, but the Kokineli is high on that list. I encourage you to explore all the wineries in the area, but this one is a particular standout. 


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Gray Ghost Vineyards

Rappahannock County contains a significant concentration of wineries. In the Northern Virginia Region,  Loudoun County certainly contains the most, but Rappahannock still boasts some of the better wineries in the state. Gray Ghost Vineyards is the oldest and perhaps most respected of these wineries.

Al and Cheryl Kellert began experimenting with vineyard management and winemaking from their home in the DC suburb of Woodbridge. As Cheryl tells the story, they had about sixty vines on their property and were beginning to encroach on the neighbors. They started looking for a spot to take their passion to the next level. They found the property that became Gray Ghost in the eastern corner of Rappahannock County and planted their first vines in 1986. More accurately, they transplanted the vines from their backyard vineyard in Woodbridge. Today the Kellerts have thirteen acres under vine and produce 4000 cases of wine each year from 100% estate-grown grapes.


But let me back up just a bit. I said the first vines were planted in 1986. Let’s do the math. Gray Ghost has vines that are (as of this writing) twenty eight years old. They need thirty years to be considered “old growth,” but they’re pretty old for Virginia vines. I’m sure this plays at least a small part in the reputation of the Gray Ghost wines.


There are fourteen wines in the Gray Ghost arsenal and there were ten on the menu when I stepped up to the tasting bar. Most of the typical Virginia varietals were represented in the lineup. Sadly, the Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot were sold out. Interestingly, Gray Ghost produces both a Gewürztraminer and a Riesling, which are more typically seen in the Shenandoah Valley. They tend to do better with slightly cooler temperatures. The Gewurz was sold out, but the tasting room staff was very excited about the recent release of their latest vintage Riesling. The excitement was warranted. I found the off-dry Riesling to be a well balanced wine with nice floral notes and crisp green apple on the palate.

The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was not on the menu, but happened to be for sale. I was very curious about a wine produced from the older vines, so I purchased a bottle. I’ll taste along with some other examples from the same year. I’ll have to deliver my findings at a later date.


I had a very pleasant visit at Gray Ghost. The staff seemed knowledgable and friendly. Despite the number of visitors, I had a very short wait and I was not rushed through my tasting. Everything seemed well organized and the the winery had enough staff t handle the traffic.

As I pointed out, Gray Ghost can draw a crowd, but the visitors are dispursed to several tasting bars and side rooms. Outside the tasting room, the property also offers ample space on the edge of the vineyards to relax with a picnic and a glass of wine. So if you’re visiting the wineries of Rappahannock County, this one should be on your list. The quality of the wine and the tasting room experience are just two reasons to check it out.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sharp Rock Vineyards

In southern Rappahannock County, just a few miles west of the Shenandoah National Park, you’ll fine one of the most beautiful winery properties in the state. Sharp Rock Vineyards sits just above the banks of the Hughes River, which is a beautiful little trout stream that flows out of the park. The winery also offers a commanding view of Old Rag Mountain with its prominent rock outcroppings.

Old Rag Mountain 

Sharp Rock began as a family farm in the 1700’s. The first vines were not planted until the early 1990’s and the winery/tasting room opened in 1996. Today, in addition to the winery, there are also two bed and breakfast cottages on the property. To the rear of the winery there are acres of vines, that Jimm East, the owner/winemaker, uses for the 1000 cases of wine he produces each year. It’s a rustic but charming venue.

                The winery and tasting room is                                                The Hughes River is on one edge of the property.
                        housed inside this old barn.

Despite it’s seemingly remote location, Sharp Rock attracts enough patrons to sell all of its wine out of the tasting room. The proximity to the national park insures some tourist traffic and there are always those (like myself), who are out specifically to visit wineries. Possibly the largest body of visitors, however, are hikers. Old Rag is one the most popular hikes on the East Coast and the trailhead is located just up the road from the winery. On any given day, a majority of visitors are likely stopping in for a post-hike refreshment.

Of course there are other things that attract visitors. Sharp Rock hosts a few weddings and three or four public events each year. The public events take the form of mini festivals that can attract hundreds of people. These are really music events that typically include some kind of food and they are manageable affairs that are not overwhelmingly crowded. Of course the biggest draw at Sharp Rock is the award-winning, artisan wine.

 Another mountain view from the winery

On the day of my visit, Jimm was behind the tasting bar pouring wine. Of the fourteen wines produced by the winery, seven were on the menu. Jimm’s winemaking philosophy is to let the fruit show in the wines. So oak is used, but used sparingly. As a result, the Sharp Rock wines are very fruit forward.

Three whites were available for tasting. The Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay were both excellent wines. The Chardonnay, in particular, stood out with its complexity, fruit and mouth feel. It received just the right amount of oak, but was not “buttery.” Because it’s a slightly sweeter wine, my absolute favorite was served at the end of the tasting. The Chamois Blanc is a Chardonnay/Vidal Blanc blend with about 2.5% residual sugar. The sugar was the perfect foil for the acidity and didn’t overpower the wine’s peach notes. It’s an exceptional wine. I felt compelled to take some home.

         The vineyards behind the tasting room.                                                                          The lineup of wines.

The lineup of reds consisted of a five interesting blends. The Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc) were represented in all of them. All were well crafted, fabulous wines, but I won’t mention them all. The Old Rag Red blend of Cabernet Sauv, Cabernet Franc and Nebbiolo was a big interesting wine, but I really like the Chamois Rouge. This dry, oaked blend of Chambourcin and Cab Sauv displayed some jammy fruits with a bit of spice. Jimm suggested this as a picnic wine and I completely agree. Slightly chilled, this will make a nice summer go-to wine.

I felt like my visit was completely successful. I found anther exceptional winery with amazing views, great wine and the tasting experience gets two thumbs up. If you’re on your way home from Old Rag, or just happen to be in the area, this is a winery that needs to stay on your radar. I’ll probably drive out for one of the music event. Maybe I’ll see you there.