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Monday, March 30, 2015

Maggie Malick Wine Caves

There are many Virginia wineries that I hear a great deal about and I do make an effort to visit them all. Maggie Malick Wine Caves is one that another blogger raves about constantly. I was remiss in not visiting sooner, but in my defense the winery is well over two hours away. It is up in the northwestern corner of Loudoun county not far from the Potomac River and the borders of West Virginia and Maryland. Nevertheless, I made an excuse to drive up there and see what they are all about.

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A first-time visitor will be struck by the nature of the winery/tasting room structure. It has a slightly bunker-like appearance. It is semi-circular building fabricated from a kit and covered with earth (and ultimately grass). About half of the interior is choked with wine barrels. There are couple tables and along the left wall is a long tasting bar. If you were going to take shelter in a bunker, this is the one you would want to take refuge in. Despite its curious outward appearance, the staff and guests were having a great time. It is a lively crew.

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Like so many other winery owners, Maggie Malick started making wine as a hobby. She began with kit wines, which introduced the basic steps. The property is 250 acres in total and in an effort to reduce the property taxes, Maggie and her husband decided to devote part of it to agriculture. Vineyards were starting to pop up all over the county and the state was very supportive of grape cultivation. Knowing little about viticulture, they engaged Doug Fabbioli as a consultant. In 2001, with Fabbioli's assistance, they began planting the first of the twenty eight acres that are currently under vine. The plan was to sell the fruit and they still sell part of it, but this is where hobby winemaking and viticulture began to collide. Maggie began making wine from her own grapes.

Of course there is a huge chasm separating hobby winemaking and commercial production. Nevertheless, Maggie decided to take the next step and somehow she was able to make the transition. In 2013, Maggie Malick opened for business and she is now the sole winemaker for a very successful boutique winery.

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Maggie was on duty the day of my visit and I was lucky enough to have her pour eleven of her wines. I also now completely understand why bloggers rave about this venue. There are a few surprises on the tasting menu. Albarino, Garnacha and Tannat are among the varietals. I have seen a few Albarinos and Tannat is increasing grown in the Commonwealth, but I have never encountered a Garnacha. Anyway, all of the wines were superb, but I do like discovering something new. 

Right out the gate, I tasted a winner. The Petit Manseng medaled in the Eastern International and it is not hard to understand why. It is a beautifully balance wine filled with peach, mango and lychee notes. It really is summertime in a bottle. Vidal Blanc, Viognier, Chardonnay and Albarino round out the lineup of whites. All were very good wines.

The reds were equally well crafted. The Garnacha was nothing like a big, jammy  Spanish or Rhone wine. It was much lighter. Maggie calls it her answer to Pinot Noir. It is good, but light bodied with berries on the nose and palate, soft tannins and a hint of spice. I tasted the Merlot, Tannat, Petit Verdot and a blend called Melange Rouge. All were excellent, but the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon was just crazy good and also medaled in the Eastern International. It was full of red fruit, soft tannins and a beautiful finish. As I keep saying though, all of the wines are fabulous.

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As I mentioned earlier, the staff is having fun and not taking it all too seriously. It is infectious, but not frivolous. Guests seemed engaged and the wine stewards were all knowledgable and attentive. From a customer-experience standpoint, I don’t think you can ask for more. Kudos to Maggie and the entire staff.

For me this is a little out of the way (understatement), but if you are in Northern Virginia, or even the surrounding states, it is accessible and worth the trip. The wine, the atmosphere and the novelty of the tasting room will inspire you to make repeat visits. There are plans for a new tasting room up on the hill, but for now I think the existing venue is just fine. Make it a point to stop in and let me know what you think.


Monday, March 16, 2015

North Gate Vineyard

There are a handful of Virginia wineries that I keep hearing about, but I’ve never managed a visit. Most of them are up in the northern-most reaches of the state. I had been hearing great reports from all the bloggers about North Gate Vineyard. I was beginning to feel a little self-conscious, so I made the drive last weekend and made it the first stop on a mini-tour of wineries in that area.

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The North Gate tasting room only opened in 2011, but Vicki and Mark Fedor started planting vines in 2002. Today, seven of the property’s twenty-six acres are under vine and they are leasing other vineyard acreage. Production was increased incrementally each year until they reached their production limit of 5000 cases. Going forward, attention will focus entirely on adding quality to the eclectic lineup of wines.

Vicki and Mark Fedor are also the winemakers at North Gate. Their wines are continual award winners at events across the U.S. and throughout the Commonwealth. Their 2012 Meritage was selected for the 2015 Governor’s Case, which is one of the most prestigious honors for a Virginia wine. I’ll talk more about that wine in just a second.

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There are nine wines listed on the North Gate website. I was able to taste seven of the wines from that lineup. They are sourcing Riesling from New York, but all the other grapes are either procured locally or grown on the property. All of the wines were well crafted, but there were three I found to be of exceptional note. The Rkatsiteli gets points just for being out of the ordinary, but it was also a fabulous wine. It is a bone-dry white with bright acidity and a very crisp finish. Of course the Meritage was my personal favorite. It contains layers of complexity and from nose to finish, it is every inch an award winner. Finally, the apple wine is one of the most popular and it is easy to see why. The tasting sheet describes it as, “like biting into a fresh, juicy sweet apple,” and I am unable to say that any better. 

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Another interesting note about North Gate is their LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold certification. The tasting room is made almost exclusively from reclaimed and recycled material and it is powered entirely by solar power. They also actively employ practices that conserve water, reduce waste and address recycling. 

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The tasting experience overall gets two thumbs up. The staff was friendly, courteous and customer oriented. In addition, they were knowledgable and were not limited to descriptions of the wine. I had a very nice conversation with my wine steward and he was able to expand on many details of the winery. 

So if you are in Loudoun County and anywhere near Purcellville, North Gate Vineyard is certainly worthy of your time. So check them out. If you should happen to make it up that way, I will be very curious to hear what you think. 


Monday, March 9, 2015

Creeks Edge Winery

A plethora of new Virginia wineries has opened in the last couple years. By far, the area of quickest growth is in Northern Virginia on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge. In April of 2014, Creeks Edge opened in  northeastern Loudoun County. It is one of the latest additions to a grouping of wineries known as the Potomac Cluster, because they are pressed up agains the river along the Maryland border. 

I stopped by on a reasonably nice winter afternoon to have a look around and taste the wines. The tasting room facility easily ranks among the nicest in that part of the Commonwealth. It’s a large timber-frame building with an elevated deck and a silo on one side, that was built to accommodate a stairwell that leads from the tasting room to the winery and barrel room. Inside, there are high, cathedral ceilings with exposed support beams and ceiling joists. A long tasting bar sits just inside the door and seating takes up the remainder of the large guest area. When I arrived, a fire was burning in the fireplace and there was live music playing in the far corner.

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I was far from the only visitor. A fairly large crowd had gathered at Creeks Edge on that afternoon. The staff was working hard to keep up with the demand for wine. Owner Ted Durden had stopped in to supervise a work crew in the barrel room and was pressed into service behind the tasting bar. This turned out to be my good fortune, because Ted poured my wine, filled in some of the details about he winery and gave me a quick tour of the facilities.

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Creeks Edge currently has twelve acres under vine and 2014 will be the first vintage from estate fruit. They were pouring vintages that went back to 2009, but the fruit was purchased elsewhere in Loudoun County. Now get this. There are plans to add ten acres per year over the next five years. That is ambitious, but in the face of the current grape shortage, it is a necessary step for a serious new winery. In order to insure quality fruit and the desired varietals, Ted is making the investment. Kudos to him. This will allow the winery to control the quality of the fruit and position them to produce world-class wine in the coming years.

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I was able to taste six of the current offerings. Five were from the 2011 vintage, which was fine for the Pinot Gris, Vidal Blanc and Chardonnay. All were well crafted, balanced whites. The Chambourcin and Merlot were a little weak, which is to be expected for reds from that vintage. There was, however, an absolutely spectacular wine on the menu. The 2009 Merlot was a truly great wine with big berry notes, a lot of complexity, structured tannins and a long finish. If this is any indication of what can be produced at Creeks Edge, I predict great things.

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After the tasting Ted took me on a quick tour of the winery. I also go to meet the work crew that was putting some final touches on the barrel room. They are all high school students, who have been with Ted since he was their youth-league football coach. So he has been mentoring them for years and they are now apprenticing with him in construction trades. The majority of the very impressive tasting room was built by this same crew. It actually makes the facilities seem all the more impressive.

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The entire experience was first rate. The staff was professional and well trained. The tasting room is just amazing and then, of course, there’s the wine, music and a fireplace, but that’s not all. There is also food service at Creeks Edge. The menu includes mostly light fare, but there was soup for that cold winter day and they feature a daily special, if you are in need of something more substantive.

I have to say that I came away a fan of Creeks Edge. If I lived closer, I would likely become a frequent customer. This is one that should be on your watch list. I predict that Creeks Edge will be turning out some great wines. In the mean time, try to stop in. When you do, let me know what you think.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Village Winery

Up in Loudoun County, in the village of Waterford, there’s a small wine producer that’s following a slightly different business model. Village winery has cast aside the traditional bottle in favor of three-liter wine pouches. In many ways, it’s similar to box wine, but without the box. I stopped in recently to see what they’re up to and I came away with a pretty favorable impression.

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The space-age technology of the pouch has some distinct advantages over the bottle. The bag collapses as he wine is poured preventing air from coming in contact with the wine. This can extend the life of the wine for weeks after the pouch is first opened. The Village motto is “have the wine on your time, not the wine’s time.” The spout even features a built-in aerator. On top of all that, eliminating the bottling line and cork reduce the overhead and allows the wine to sell for the equivalent of eight dollars per bottle.

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On the other hand, of course, there is something sexy about a bottle, not to mention the romance of pulling the cork. Serious oenophiles may not be prepared to fill their wine cellars with pouches, but as a table wine I found them to be quite approachable. 

There were eight wines on the tasting list when I stopped in. Four were grape wines made from Bordeaux varietals and the other four were fruit wines. I thought they were all well crafted. The Bordeaux blend and single varietal Petit Verdot were the real standouts for me. The fruit wines were also quite good. Apple, raspberry and elderberry were used alone or in combination. I’m a huge fan of elderberry, so those blends were my favorites.

Village is doing some other interesting things with elderberry. They are producing non-alcoholic tea and syrup from a combination of elderberry and aronia. These products are marketed for their antioxidant qualities. I actually took home one of each. There are near-term plans to create a sports drink from the same combination.

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Now, pouch wines may not be for everyone, but Village does have a loyal following. The wine fairly flies off the shelf. So even if you’re skeptical, there’s definitely something to it. I will suggest that you just have to see for yourself. Stop by, try the wine and let me know what you think. 


Monday, March 2, 2015

RdV Vineyards

There are a growing number of Virginia wineries that are in business with the single goal of making the best possible, terroir-driven wines. Rutger de Vink approached his vision for making world-class Virginia wines from this singular perspective. To achieve this, de Vink first apprenticed at Linden Vineyards, where he became a disciple of Jim Law’s winemaking philosophy. This provided a basic understanding of the importance of terroir in making truly great wine. Armed with this knowledge, de Vink began to search for the right vineyard site. 

Of course location is everything. To assist with this process, de Vink hired vineyard consultant Lucy Morton, who is listed among the most influential personalities in the American wine industry. Morton has assisted with vineyard site selection throughout the state and understands wine growing in the mid Atlantic region better than nearly anyone alive. She has been called in to advise on site selection for many of the Commonwealth’s best and most famous wineries. Such advice will not necessarily insure success, but working with Lucy Morton certainly increases the odds. Numerous sites were surveyed and soil samples examined, before de Vink settled on the location of RdV Vineyards. Morton's help certainly paid off.

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The vineyards at RdV are positioned on hillsides that offer optimal sun exposure and drainage. This will also help protect the vines against frost, which is one of the risks to viticulture throughout the state. The soil thinly covers the solid-granite subsurface, which is ideal for stressing the vines and forceing all of their reproductive resources to focus on the fruit. These are nearly perfect conditions for the few Bordeaux varietals grown in the sixteen-acre vineyard.

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The resulting wines are genuinely spectacular Bordeaux-style blends that are intended to age for many years. These are wines that have been lauded by no less wine personages than Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson. There are just two wines. Well, there are others, but they are made from the inferior fruit and relegated to the wine club members. The top-shelf wines are limited to a right-bank and a left-bank Bordeaux-style blend. That is to say, one is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and the other is primarily Merlot. It is fair to say that either of these wines will rank among the best in the Commonwealth and they should.

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Eric Boissenot is just one member of the “dream team,” that manages every aspect of the RdV operation. Boissenot blends wine for some of the best houses in Bordeaux. As legend has it, he insisted on blending for RdV after he was offered a sample without prior knowledge of its whereabouts. In fact, he was so impressed, that he offered to blend the wines without charge. Whether or not he still goes unpaid for his efforts, I have no knowledge. In any case, Boissenot ranks among the champions of his craft and blends nothing that is less than world class. So there you go.

I had heard a great deal about this winery prior to my visit. Richard Leahy devotes an entire chapter to RdV in Beyond Jefferson’s Vines. The process of site selection and quality of the wine are legend throughout the state of Virginia. A handful of other bloggers have written about the wine, the beauty of the property and the majesty of the tasting room complex. The price of a visit, however, is prohibitive. For years I put it off, because the cost of reserving a spot in a scheduled tour and tasting was forty dollars. Unfortunately, procrastination meant that the price went up to fifty dollars, which is about five times the cost of tasting at most other area wineries. 

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The overall experience at RdV goes a long way toward offsetting the sting one might feel after shelling out that kind of a tasting fee. When I visited, it was a blustery winter day. Guests were served Champagne next to a roaring fire as they await the appointed hour of the tour. Our guide was well rehearsed in every aspect of the wines and winery operations. Unfortunately, the power was off, but the show must go on. So my visit to the wine-cave—which is hewn out of the solid-granite substrata—was limited to what I could see by the light of a few candles and flashlight apps that other tour members had on their cellphones. Depending on one’s state of mind, the darkness may have lent an air of moderate romance or made it slightly creepy. I just found it unfortunate, that I was unable to get any good pictures. 

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Following the tour, the two wines are served alongside a plate of well-presented charcuterie. The wines were extraordinary and they are complimented by the setting. Every aspect of the RdV experience is sculpted and thought through in such a way, that it sets them part from other regional wineries.

Now, I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m embittered by the cost of the tour and tasting. I’m actually quite happy that I finally paid a visit. I will say, however, that RdV seems to be striving for a level of exclusivity that is absent in other Virginia wineries. I feel compelled to point out that other wineries have served me charcuterie, although perhaps not as well presented. I have also been provided a tour of other wineries and I seem to recall that the lights were on. I will say that only a handful of wineries pour wine of such high calibre, but are the RdV wines five times better than the majority of other Virginia wines? Probably not.

So I leave it up to you. You must form your own opinion. Before you go, be certain to schedule your visit via the RdV website. Walk ins are discouraged. If you have previously visited or you stop in subsequent to reading my blog, I am very interested in your opinion. Please let me know what you think.