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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Wilderness Run Vineyards

David Pagan was inspired during a trip to Tuscany. He came away thinking that the terroir bore strong similarities to his 150 acre Spotsylvania County property. So he returned home determined to plant grapes and try his hand at making wine. In 2014, Wilderness Run opened its doors.

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As of my visit there are ten acres under vine and the plan is to move forward as a small-batch, boutique winery. From my perspective, it looks like David is working with his son and a family friend to make it all happen. They were hustling around pouring the wine and performing all the other necessary duties. Despite the flurry of activity, they have not yet released their first vintage, but I’ll talk about that in a moment. What they did do is come up with a more creative idea for starting to create a little buzz.

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For now, since they have not released their first vintage, they are pouring wines from around the state. It’s really quite a lineup from great Virginia wineries like Ox Eye in the Shenandoah, Ingleside out on the Northern Neck, Chrysalis in Northern Virginia and Prince Michel in Central Virginia. I love this solution to the lack of proprietary offerings, because visitors get a chance to taste a range of Virginia wines. I’m told that there’s a chance they will continue this program even after Wilderness Run wines are released. I hope they do.

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Now about the Wilderness Run wines… There were plans to release the Wilderness Run White shortly after my visit. I’m sure that it is being poured as you read this review. They brought out a bottle for me to sample. This blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Petit Mensang was crisp, bright, balanced and well crafted. This is an auspicious omen. There is also a Malbec that’s still in the barrel. They lost a lot to birds, but what’s left will eventually result in about sixty cases. They poured me a sample. It was a light-bodied wine with nice fruit notes and firm tannins. It will be interesting to see how it develops over the next few months.
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So these really are the early days for Wilderness run. In an attempt to attack early attention, aside from the lineup of Virginia wines, they are sponsoring a range of events. These include music on the weekends and yoga in the vineyard. While I was there, a healthy crowd was gathered to listen to a local band and everyone seemed to be enjoying the venue and the wines. 

We should definitely stop by and show a little support. If you’re in the area and make an appearance at Wilderness run, let me know what you think.


Monday, November 24, 2014

Sans Soucy Vineyards

Paul Anctil began making beer and wine as a hobby even while he was in the Marine Corps. Later, after twenty-five years of military service, he and his wife Jackie purchased fifty acres in rural Southern Virginia. Part of the rational was to move his children away from the city, but here he could also pursue winemaking a bit more aggressively. 

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Paul further explored the idea through Virginia Tech and transitioned his land from tobacco to vine. As of this writing, 6.5 acres of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Traminette and Tempranillo (yes Tempranillo!) are being grown. An old schoolhouse that had been repurposed as a barn, was converted once again and became the winery and tasting room. Future plans include the possibility of purchasing additional fruit to expand production beyond the current 2000 cases. 

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San Soucy was the first winery I visited in the “southern” part of the state. It clearly debunked the the myth that only sweet wines are produced in that region of the Commonwealth. There were also a couple of exciting innovations taking place. They are likely the only vineyard in the state growing Tempranillo, but it seems to make perfect sense. The warmer climate is ideal and the fact that it’s an early ripening varietal means that it will be harvested prior to the threat of hurricanes at the end of the growing season. 

A second innovation was, for me, the most interesting. Paul borrowed an Italian technique and applied it in Virginia. The hot growing conditions can destroy the grape’s acidity, which can ultimately result in an unbalanced, sweet wine. If he waits until the grapes reach an ideal 22 brix (brix is the unit of measure for sugar by volume), the acidity will be too low. Paul harvests some of his fruit at about 19 brix and partially dries it in a converted tobacco barn. This Amarone-style method increases the sugar content without impacting acidity and the results are quite remarkable. 

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I must say that the wines more than exceeded my expectations. They were outstanding. There are a couple novelty wines and crowd pleasers in the mix, but the Sans Soucy wines are generally over the top. Among the whites there is a Traminette-Viognier blend and another 100% Viognier, but I was quite taken by the single varietal Traminette which gives hints of sweetness on the nose, but proves to be bone dry. It was not overly floral and exhibited a bit of spice.

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The reds, on the other hand, really stood out. Each of them spent between eighteen and twenty four months in oak. I have nothing to which I can compare the Virginia Tempranillo, but it was a medium bodied wine with a some spiciness and structured tannins. I took some home so that I can explore it a bit further. The Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot were exceptional, but I have to tell you about the Legacy blend, which is the flagship wine. This blend of Petit Verdot, Tempranillo and Cab Franc is done in the Amarone style. It’s a bold, complex wine with structured tannins, that demonstrates the best features of each grape. It was filled with rich fruit and firm tannins. It’s unlike anything you’ll find in Virginia.

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It’s no wonder that Sans Soucy Vineyards is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Campbell County. From my perspective, this was a very exciting discovery and I encourage anyone exploring that part of the state to stop in and check out this winery. There is something for everyone on the tasting menu and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Let me know what you think.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Rogers Ford Farm Winery

I had not visited the southwestern corner of Fauquier County in several years. Indeed, the last time I was in that area, I was leading a canoe trip for the Boy Scouts down the Rappahannock River. Ironically, the river flows right along the border of the property that is home to Rogers Ford Farm Winery. 


The Rogers Ford estate is surrounded by the Phelps Wildlife Management Area and it’s a long way from the great Virginia wineries clustered up in the northern reaches of the county. It’s an area that's better known for hiking, fishing and paddling. In fact, canoeists occasionally wonder up from the river to visit the tasting room. This only adds to the feeling of remoteness, but it’s really only a short drive from Route 29, which is the main artery running south out of D.C. 


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As early as 1980, Rogers Ford was growing grapes and producing wine as part of the Dominion Wine Coop, which was later purchased by Williamsburg Winery. It was during this period, at age eight, that Johnny Puckett began to learn the craft of winemaking and vineyard management from his father. He later went on to earn a certificate from U.C. Davis, but the quality of wine is a clear reflection of those years of mentoring and experience.

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Since Rogers Ford parted ways with the Dominion Wine Coop and struck out on its own in 2001, they have maintained a reputation for quality craft-wine production. It doesn’t hurt that some of the vines date back to as early as 1980. Maintaining a small, boutique winery status has also been a factor. Production levels are holding at about 1000 cases per year with emphasis on exceptional small-batch wines.


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Johnny was working behind he tasting bar when I arrived and he guided me through eight different wines as he filled in some of the details about the winery. Among the eight wines being poured, all were very good, but I noted a few standouts. The stainless steel aged Jacob Christopher Chardonnay was bright, crisp and balanced with a hint of sweetness and notes of tropical fruit. The Petit Verdot was a monster. This unfiltered wine was dark red, big and jammy with firm tannins. It is absolutely top shelf. The Snake Castle Port-style wine must also be mentioned. With its chocolate and cherrie notes, it’s no wonder that this is one of the winery’s most popular offerings.


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Following the tasting, I spent some time wandering about the grounds and found a small crowd gathered on the lawn sipping Rogers Ford wines. I also noted visitors depart on horseback, which is not something one sees at most wineries. It’s a lovely setting and despite the fact that it’s fair distance from other wineries, it’s not really as remote as it feels. I recommend a visit and I’d love to know what you think.



Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Morais Vineyards & Winery

Jose Morais came to America from Portugal, where both his father and grandfather were winemakers. Here in the U.S., he founded and runs a successful construction company, but somewhere in his genetic makeup there is a desire to produce wine. So Jose purchased 180 acres in Fauquier County, built a winery complex that reflects his Portuguese heritage and, in 2011, opened Marais Vineyards and Winery. 

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Today there are twelve acres under vine on the property and if any fruit is sourced, it comes entirely from growers inside Virginia. Of the 2000 cases produced each year, all of the it is sold through direct sales out of the tasting room or at the events that Morais attends.

To make wine for Morais, Jose brought in Vitor Guimariãis, a forth generation winemaker. Vitor started making wine at age fourteen and went on to graduate from Portugal’s Superior Institute of Agronomy with a Master’s Degree in Viticulture and Enology. Along with years of experience, he brings some old-world techniques. Vitor crushes  the fruit by foot to avoid breaking seeds that might release tannins. In addition to some standard Virginia wines, he has also added some distinct Portuguese flavor to the lineup of wines.

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The tasting at Morais is done as a food and wine pairing. A plate of assorted small bites is provided along with a bit of guidance on which items to pair, but it’s a more loosely structured affair. Visitors are left to experiment with the food and wines, which I rather appreciated and enjoyed. 

Along with the plate of morsels, eleven wines were available for tasting. Of the three dry whites, the Select White, made from Rkatsitelli was my top pick. It is an aromatic, complex wine, with crisp, balanced acidity. They were also pouring a dry Rosé made from Cabernet Franc. It was macerated eighteen hours on the skins, which gave it the most beautiful shade of pink. The strawberry notes just scream “summer.” Of course there is a Touriga on the list, but I really enjoyed the Cab Franc and the Select Red, which is a Bordeaux blend. All of the dry offerings were well crafted and superb.

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What I really want to talk about though are the dessert wines. It’s here that the winemaker really excelled and all benefitted from a distinct Portuguese influence. The Moscatel, made from Muscat of Alexandria, was fortified with Brandy and aged between eighteen and twenty four months. This is a typical dessert wine served outside the Port regions. The Jeropiga was made from a blend of Merlot and Cab Franc. It too was infused with Brandy and aged 18 months. It is a fabulous wine with beautiful aromatics, a creamy mouth feel and a lovely vanilla nose. The final offering, however, was just out of this world. A Cherry Wine, made from very sour Morello cherries, was served in a small chocolate cup. This won Best in Class at Atlantic Seaboard and deservedly so. It’s an amazing dessert wine that doesn’t need dessert to enjoy.

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My wine was poured by Candace, who has been with the winery since they opened. She and the other staff members were extremely knowledgable and engaging. She provided background on all the wines and the winery. I observed a similar level of knowledge among the other wine stewards. It was an extremely relaxed, but educational tasting. These are the qualities I always look for and Morais scored high marks.

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If you’re traveling to or from D.C. on Route 29 Morais is only a short detour and completely worth a stop. I would add this one prominently to the top of my list and make a point to stop in. When you do, let me know what you think.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Cobbler Mountain Cellars

In Northern Fauquier County, sitting in the shadow of Big Cobbler Mountain there is a ninety-acre tract of farmland that has been in Laura Louden’s family since 1959. When her husband Jeff left his career in finance, they started looking at the viticultural possibilities of the property. Within a few years, Cobbler Mountain Cellars joined the Virginia wine scene and, as of this writing, is still a relative newcomer.

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Jeff had a little experience making wine for home use, but that was only enough for him to know that he had more to learn. So he went to UC Davis in 2004 and returned ready for his new career. Jeff produced the first Cobbler Mountain vintage in 2009 and today he is making about 2000 cases of wine annually. A recent grant from the United States Department of Agriculture will allow him to expand his operation even further, so it will be very interesting to see how Cobbler Mountain evolves in the coming years.

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I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Jeff Louden prior to my tasting. I then tried nine wines at the tasting bar and participated in a special tasting in the barrel room, so I walked away with a pretty good understanding of the wines. I also have to say that each of the offerings were exceptionally well crafted.

Among the whites I should give special mention to the Vidal Blanc-Riesling blend, that was off-dry and balanced with big stone fruit notes. My favorite among the whites, however, was the Chardonnay. It was aged in a combination of stainless steel and oak. It was showing beautiful apple and tropical fruit combined with balance and  complexity. That one is an award winner.

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The lineup of reds included Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Meritage and Petit Verdot. Each spent between eighteen and twenty four months in oak. I loved them all, but I have to say the Petit Verdot was my top pick with its garnet color, leather and nutmeg nose and a palate full of dark fruit. It also had a big mouth feel and a finish you could get lost in. it was the full package and a truly first-rate wine.

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I would be remiss, if I failed to mention the barrel room tasting, where I made the most exciting discovery. Cobbler Mountain is making a sparkling wine, that’s just over the top. The Blanc de Blanc is made using the traditional method (a.k.a. methode chamenoise). Then bottles are hand turned and spend thirty six months on the lees. It’s a very good example and can likely go head to head with any other sparkling wine in the state.

You might think that Jeff has his hands full, but he’s decided to make cider as well. It was not ready to taste and I’m no authority on the subject anyway, but I’ve recently heard very positive reviews from members of the Virginia blogging community. There are also plans for an annual cider celebration in October, so put that on your calendar.

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When I arrived, Cindy was working behind the bar. She's been with Cobbler Mountain for going on two years and she’s their biggest cheerleader. Cindy’s a huge fan of the winery and loves to tell visitors the history and background, while pouring and describing the wines. I thought she did a great job and really represented  Cobbler Mountain very well. 

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On top of everything I’ve just told you, the property is beautiful. It contains ample seating arranged beneath the shade trees on the front lawn. The view of the mountain and the farmland below is also amazing. This is the kind of place you could while away an afternoon or more. In fact, if you are inclined to stay longer, camping in the vineyard is a possibility during the fall months. You’ll need to check their website for more details.

As you can see, I definitely came away a fan. The wine, the cider, the property and the experience are all worthy of note. This is a vineyard you’ve got to check out. Put it on your short list and let me know what you think.


Monday, November 3, 2014

Miracle Valley Vineyard

In north-central Fauquier County, you’ll find Miracle Valley Vineyard resting atop a plateau on the slope of Little Cobbler Mountain. As you wind your way through the property and pass the vineyard, you’ll notice the gazebo and just beyond that, you’ll notice the winery and tasting room buildings rising up behind the nearby hillside. This is a property of jaw-dropping beauty and one worth spending a bit of time exploring.

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Joe Cunningham retired from a military career and decided to make wine. In 2004, he and his wife Mary Anne purchased the Miracle Valley property. Joe then set about learning the business. He took classes at Virginia Tech and spent six months in California immersing himself in wine and the wine culture. 

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Today there are ten and one half acres under vine and ninety-five percent of the wine is made from estate-grown fruit. With those grapes, Miracle Valley is producing about 3500 cases of small-batch, well-crafted wine each year. Whatever Joe learned at Tech and in California seems to have paid off.

There were six wines on the menu, when I visited. There was a single dry white made from a blend of White Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Niagara. It was unusual, but definitely worth note with its beautiful aromatics and crisp notes of pear and grapefruit. There were a pair of outstanding reds being poured, that included a Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. My hands-down favorite, however, was the Cabernet Franc. It had a big berry nose and a medium body with lots of character. On the palate, cassis notes mingled with structured tannins and a long finish that had a touch of white pepper. I love Cab Franc and this one did not disappoint.

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I found the tasting room staff to be exceptional. Shawn poured my wine, but I stayed on a bit and traded notes with David, who was also working the bar. I found them both to be very knowledgable and committed to educating each of the visitors. Their knowledge of the wines and the industry was extensive. So Miracle Valley is either doing some smart hiring or training their staff. In either case, I thought the wine stewards represented the industry very well.

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If the wine and the beauty of the venue are not enough to get your attention, Miracle Valley offers live music most Saturdays. They also have a number of seasonal events. There was a harvest festival scheduled for the day of my visit. They also host a Halloween Festival, a Thanksgiving Turkey run and Santa visits during the holidays. 

I have to say that this winery ranks high on my list. Miracle Valley is easily accessible and located near a number of other wineries, so add this to your list and make it a point to stop in.