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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Barns at Hamilton Station

Up in Loudoun County, in the Middleburg AVA, there’s ten acre property that was once a working farm. Its century-old wood and stone dairy barn has been restored and repurposed as a tasting room. The restoration maintained the integrity and feel of the old barn, which has a cathedral-like quality. It’s here in this fabulous space that you can taste The Barns at Hamilton Station wines.

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After wandering around the property and taking a few pictures, I bellied up to the tasting bar. Susan poured the six wines available on the menu. She’s been with the winery since it opened, so she was a wealth of information and was able to speak quite intelligently about the wines. Susan was also able to put me in touch with two of the owners, but more on that in a minute.

Despite the fact that I found all the wines worthy of mention, I simply can’t discuss them all. Fortunately, there were a couple of real winners. The Rosé was one of my favorites. This blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot was done in a French style, which is to say it’s a dry Rosé. It was full of fresh strawberry notes that reminded me of a warm summer day. It could be a go-to picnic wine.

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The reds included a Malbec and a very good medium-bodied Merlot, but I was particularly impressed by the Cabernet Franc, which was my top pick of the tasting. It was blended with ten percent Petit Verdot and five percent Merlot. This blend had beautiful fruit, nice structure and showed off a little bit of spice in the finish. It was a wonderful wine and made me wonder why Cab Franc isn’t the state grape.

Following my tasting, I had an opportunity to sit down with Andrew and Maryann Fialdini, who own The Barns along with Craig and Kim Garten. We talked at some length about what the winery is doing today and plans for the future. There are currently two and one half acres under vine, which were planted in 2011. With five additional leased acres, the winery is able to produce about 2400 cases per hear. There are plans to increase production,but the challenge is finding more grapes. So for now, they are seeking additional property suitable for viticulture. 

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Despite the fact that increased production is desirable, The Barns has finally reached a point where they are not selling through all of their stock and they’re able to begin building a library. This also gives them the bandwidth to rotate their tasting sheet every couple of weeks. They make a total of twelve wines and offer six for tasting on any given day.  

Michael Shaps is winemaker, which explains the quality of the wine at this young winery. Of course this means that the wines are being produced near Charlottesville in Central Virginia, so there is a continual need to transport stock up to Loudoun County. It’s possible that a winery will eventually be built at The Barns, but there are no immediate plans and the Shaps wines are unquestionably first rate. We’ll just have to wait and see how things develop over the next few years.

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In the mean time, The Barns is amassing a flock of regular patrons. They are trying to strike the right balance, so they don’t become too crowded and gain a reputation as a place to drink. They offer catered food and music on Fridays and music most weekends during the day. The beauty of the property also makes it a particularly attractive wedding spot. Pets are also welcome and there’s plenty of space on the grounds to bring a picnic.

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So The Barns at Hamilton Station receives the prestigious Virginia Grape “two thumbs up” and should be added to your list. This is an exciting time to visit and definitely a winery to keep an eye on. I predict great things in the coming years. Get out there now, so you can say “you knew them, when they were young."

Cheers!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Three Fox Vineyards

Fauquier County was once home to the densest population of wineries in Northern Virginia. It has since been overtaken by Loudoun County in numbers, but Fauquier still contains a concentration of some of Virginia’s finest craft wineries. Three Fox Vinyeards added to this number when they opened for business back in 2004, and quickly positioned themselves as innovators and producers of quality wines consistent with the County’s reputation.

John and Holli Todhunter had a longstanding desire to open a winery. Twenty-nine years ago, shortly after they met, they decided that one day they would make wine. They planted their first vineyard back in 1998 with a friend. This only reinforced their desire and it was only four years later that they finally realized their dream.

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When John and Holli planted their first grapes in 2002, they became one of the few vineyards in the state to concentrate on Italian varietals. To enhance the probability of success, they partnered with Barboursville Vineyards in Central Virginia, who pioneered cultivation of these varietals back in the 1970s. Today they have about fifteen acres under vine and produce about 3000 cases of wine each year. There are no immediate plans for more acreage, but John explained that the “new estate vineyards are going to have their first harvest his year,” which will increase production by about thirty percent. Ultimately, John pointed out, the goal is to achieve “5,000 to 6,000 case production, a loyal following, and good retail distribution in Northern Virginia and DC."

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Three Foxes is located on 50 acres in northwestern Fauquier. It’s a beautiful property that can draw a decent crowd on most weekends. The tasting room is a small, cute space, but in fairer weather, much of the activity moves outdoors. There is a tented space used to disperse crowds of tasters and the winery operates a GCWD (golf cart wine delivery vehicle). The cart is used to serve visitors relaxing in some of the more remote corners of the property. One such popular retreat is the meadow down by the creek, which offers opportunity for wading and dogs can run free off leash. Up closer to the tasting room, Three Fox is famous for its lawn games. Bocce and Cornhole are two of the most popular and the winery frequently hosts tournaments. So there’s a lot going on.

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But the main event is the wine and John is the winemaker. He trained initially as a biochemist with an extensive extensive background in yeasts. While in graduate school in Santa Barbara, he also trained in winemaking with a friend. After a long hiatus, he underwent further training with Jim Law and Tom Payette, who are huge names in the Virginia wine industry. For the first few years, Payette acted as a winemaking consultant and still helps out when needed, but John is the sole winemaker. His background and the influence of Law and Payette are evident in the quality of the Three Fox wines.

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As I said earlier, Three Fox is known for their Italian varietals, but they have a few other tricks up their sleeve. There were twelve well-crafted wines on the tasting menu, but a few really stood out. My favorite white was the Gatto Bianco (white cat) which is a Viognier/Chardonnay blend. There were elements of both varietals with strong tropical and pear notes and a finish that just kept going. I enjoyed the Sangiovese and Nebbiolo, but the recently released 2012 Cabernet Franc was worth writing home about. It was full of cherry and berry notes. There was also a little chocolate and a bit of spice in the finish. It’s easy to understand how this wine won Silver in San Francisco. It’s an exceptional Virginia Cab Franc.

So Three Fox is a beautiful venue with great wine that encourages visitors to linger. What more of an invitation do you need on a nice weekend afternoon. You just can’t go wrong. Stop by and check it out for yourself.

Cheers!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Chateau O'Brien at Northpoint

In the very southwestern corner of the Middleburg AVA, not far from the Blue Ridge and the Appalachian Trail, there is a relatively new winery that has already established itself as a producer of world-class wine. Chateau O’Brien at Northpoint is all about making the best possible wine.

Arriving at Chateau O’Brien you’ll first notice the unobstructed view of the Blue Ridge as you look out across the vineyards. The tasting room is just up the hill in the original farmhouse that has been remodeled and the interior rebuilt to suit its current purpose. The elevated deck that has been added to the rear of the building offers a similarly spectacular view.

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Howard O'Brien started planting his grapes in 2000 and let the vines mature for six years before bottling the first vintage. Today there are about forty-five acres under vine and Chateau O’Brien produces about 2200 cases each year from 100% estate-grown fruit. Howard brought in Jason Murray to manage the vineyard and also challenged him to make the wine. This is often an optimal scenario and many of the best winemakers are also winegrowers. The perfect marriage of these two skills is evident in the quality of the winery’s offerings. 

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There are two tasting options available. Whites and reds are tasted in different rooms, which limits the possibility of contamination. Actually, I made that up. It really helps disperse the crowd, limits the wines poured at each tasting bar and restricts the discourse to a smaller wine list. It’s the first time I’ve encountered this arrangement, but it seems to work. The reputation of Chateau O’Brien is built on its reds and so I elected that option.

All of the Chateau O’Brien reds spend twelve to twenty four months in French oak and as I said earlier, they are produced exclusively from estate-grown fruit. There were four wines on the regular tasting menu. First was the Malbec. It was a medium-bodied  wine that was showing great structure and lots of black fruit. I was thinking it would be a hard act to follow, but the Cabernet Franc was even more fabulous. The oak lent some complexity without overshadowing the fruit and it had a beautifully long finish. So I thought I’d found my favorite, but then I tasted the Petit Verdot. It proved to be even better, with its dark fruit, spice and complexity.

This proved to be one of those tastings where each wine was better than the one before. The final selection, the the Northpoint Red, was hands-down the best of the lineup. It’s a Merlot-heavy blend of all the Bordeaux grapes. Twenty months in French oak imparted a great deal of character. It had lots of red fruit on the palate with a finish that just kept going. It demonstrates what’s possible with a Bordeaux blend in Virginia and certainly merits its price tag as one of the Commonwealth’s most expensive wines.

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There are a couple other more exclusive tasting options available. There are Private Reserve Cellar tastings  and vertical tastings of the late-harvest Tannat. I’m told that the Tannat is potentially one of the best in the United States and has been officially recognized by Uruguay. That’s saying something, because Tannat is Uruguay's national grape. Both of these options are by appointment only. I do intend to return and avail myself of these other opportunities. At a minimum, I’ve got to taste the Tannat. 

This is a winery that doesn’t host a bunch of public events to try and draw a crowd. They don’t need to. Patrons visit because of the wine. What Chateau O’Brien does do, is take the time to explain the wines and educate each visitor. If you are interested in seeing the quality that is possible in Virginia wines, this would be one of your stops. 

Cheers!