A Brief Treatise on Iowa Wine, Part 2: Varieties

In part one of my series on Iowa Wine, I explored the very short history behind the Iowa wine industry. Today, I’ll go over a few of the more popular varieties in the area along with my personal experiences with each wine.

A * denotes facts and information gleaned from the Iowa State Review of Cold Climate Cultivars. All other information provided came from Royce Bennett of Collectively Iowa or from my own experience in the tasting.

St. Pepin (from http://www.eccevines.com)

St. Pepin

St. Pepin is a variety cultivated by Elmer Swenson in 1983 in Osceola, Wisconsin. A pistillate variety (meaning only the female parts of a fruit-bearing vine are fully developed), St. Pepin requires proximity to a developed vine to pollinate and bear fruit*. It makes a very light, delicate wine, and the lack of acidity makes the wine almost always cloying and underwhelming in an off-dry style.

The St. Pepin I tasted was made by Royce in his personal Vines and Wine line (NV). It was bone dry, light-bodied, with an attack primarily of minerals. It had a fairly impressive complexity with light tropical and stone fruit flavors. Though it started off tame, the flavors became richer and smoother towards the finish, which was longer than I expected. Definitely a good summer sipper.

Edelweiss

Edelweiss was developed in 1955 by Elmer Swenson in Osceola, Wisconsin, a hybrid of riparia (Frost Grape) and labrusca (Fox Grape) varieties*. Unlike traditional wine varieties, Eidelweiss must be harvested before it fully ripens. Ideally, it is harvested around 12º to 13º Brix. At full ripeness, roughly 18º Brix, it loses its wine descriptors and develops a flat foxy, grape-y flavor. It’s a difficult grape to maintain. With an early bud break and poor productivity from secondary buds, late frosts can very easily ruin a year’s crop*.

The Edelweiss I tasted was from Prairie Crossing Vineyards (NV). It had a massive attack of Granny Smith apple, crisp and pure. It was slightly off-dry, decently balanced, with a medium peach finish. It was fairly simple, but the flavor was clean.

Frontenac (from grapes.umn.edu)

Frontenac

Frontenac was developed by the University of Minnesota from 1978 to 1983 in Excelsior, Minnesota. It is a very vigorous, hardy vine that demands a lot of attention as it grows*. For years, it was harvest during its perceived ripeness peak and pressed to make an aggressively acidic, cherry-flavored wine. In recent years, experiments have revealed that letting the grape sit on the vine roughly a week past peak ripeness drastically softens the acidity, creating a richer, more nuanced experience.

The first Frontenac I tasted was a Vines and Wine label (NV). It was created in the traditional Frontenac style, with a bright cherry flavor, rather plummy, with a VERY high acidity and a short finish. It was in line with most Frontenacs I’ve tried, though I’m excited to see how the new “overripe” Frontenac wines will taste.

The second Frontenac I tasted was from Prairie Crossing (NV). It had a full flavor, again, a typical high acidity, though the character of this wine was softened by a medium level of old American oak, leaving it with a slightly medicinal flavor but nowhere near as harsh as most Frontenacs I’ve tasted. The flavor was simple, a brisk, tart, spicy cherry. This was definitely in the higher end of Iowa reds I’ve tasted.

St. Croix

St. Croix was developed by Elmer Swenson in 1981 in Osceola, Wisconsin. It’s an extremely thin-skinned grape, prone to leaking and very susceptible to disease and injury*. Grapes tend to have a moderate acidity and low Brix and tannins, giving it a natural affinity for palates attuned to Burgundy wines*. It’s a surprisingly hardy vine, recorded as surviving temperatures as low as -39º F and safe down to roughly -28º F, though snow cover significantly improves its chances of survival*.

I had the good fortune of trying two St. Croix varietal wines, and I’m convinced it will be the flagship red wine grape for the Iowa wine industry.

The first St. Croix I tried was from Royce’s Vines and Wine (NV). It had a wonderful potpourri bouquet, descriptors of cinnamon, nutmeg, dark floral, and blackberry. A light tobacco quality sat on the finish. Very rustic and aromatic, though with a surprisingly light body. It was like drinking the scent of a burning candle, and I mean that in the best way.

The second St. Croix I tried was the Wagon Trail Red from Prairie Crossing (NV). If you want to get me excited about the future of Iowa wine, this will do it. The presence of red fruit on this wine was so bare as to hardly even need mentioning. The experience was all violets and spices. There was oak, but it was skillfully introduced, tasting as a component of the spices than as a separate flavor. Like the other St. Croix, the descriptors were hefty and perfume-y, but the wine itself was light and delicate. An absolutely brilliant, unique experience.

LaCrosse (from reddogvineyards.com)

LaCrosse

LaCrosse was developed by Elmer Swenson in 1983 in Osceola, Wisconsin from a staggering array of species, including V. vinifera, V. labrusca, V. riparia, V. rupestris, and V. lincecumii*. As Royce told me, it’s a very foxy, finicky grape that invariably produces a wine with a “raunchy” aftertaste. It’s fairly frost resistant as its bud break is mid-season, and it can produce fruit from secondary buds.

The LaCrosse I tasted was from Row 13 Vineyards. It was a very light fruity, floral affair, with apricot and citrus flavors. This wine did not have that peculiar aftertaste, and Royce told me it was because LaCrosse tends to lose that flavor in blends. To produce a varietal wine without that flavor, the winemaker blended the fermented juice with just a touch of unfermented juice from the same grapes. The science behind this baffles me, but the finish was clean and fruity.

Concluding Thoughts

Quick thoughts?

Tannins are hard to come by in Iowa. You’ll stub your toe on a thousand tractors before you find a big red here. There’s just not enough sunshine and heat to develop these wines.

You’ll have to dig in to find dry wines. The local palate, raised on sweet, skunky German-style fruit wines, guarantees that most local wines, even the reds, will be made off-dry / semi-sweet. These wines are so delicate that the sugar utterly destroys the quality of the wine. The good news is more and more winemakers are attempting to get the most out of their grapes, and the results are encouraging.

Expect the unexpected. Not to sound dramatic, of course, but you’re not going to find a Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Noir, or Sauvignon Blanc here. If you do, it’s imported juice. So don’t fret if you don’t recognize any of the grapes on the tasting sheet… they’re still good wines, and there’s still something for most palates there.

The future of Iowa wine depends on newer, more suitable varieties that will be cultivated in the area, though the current industry has been built on traditional grapes. Royce has seen this dichotomy in the preference for the Alsatian Marechal Foch, a decent grape in its own right but one with very limited potential (as in, you’ll live a thousand years before you see a wine scored 90 points from this grape in this area) over its underused, richer sibling Leon Millot (Lay-own Mee-yoh). As winemakers figure out the challenges to growing old varieties and the science behind the new ones, the industry will begin to receive notice from the coastal wine drinkers. For now, the limits of total production, suitable varieties, and overall quality make Iowa wine an unpolished gem in the Midwestern wine industry.

A Brief Treatise on Iowa Wine, Part 1: History

Recently, I got the opportunity to participate in a wine conference in Iowa. While the conference spanned roughly two full days, I planned an extra day to explore the wine country nestled in the sprawling agrarian region around Cedar Rapids. Roughly a dozen wineries are within 30 minutes of the city, and I had the good fortune to visit half of them. By far the most productive visit I had, though, was to a winery and event center named Collectively Iowa.

Collectively Iowa, winery, tasting bar and event center in the Amana Colonies

While I had the opportunity to try some of the best fruit wines I’ve ever had during my many stops, remnants of the influence of German winemaking in the area, the real surprise to me was the level of sophistication in winemaking in the area. Royce Bennett, the winemaker for Vines and Wine and proprietor of Collectively Iowa, gave me the full scope of the incredible growth of the wine industry in the state.

A mere eight years ago, there were 2 grape wineries and 40 acres of grapevines in Iowa. Today, there are 87 wineries and almost 1500 acres of land under vine, an astonishing growth rate of 3750% in less than a decade. At the Iowa Wine Growers Association Conference, I must have met at least another 10 to 15 viticulturists who were either laying bricks on new wineries or beginning fermentation on their first vintage. This state is taking off.

Elmer Swenson

Elmer Swenson

Royce also gave me a run-down of popular varieties in the area, what grows where, and where they came from. Iowa owes most of its viable vines to Elmer Swenson, a self-educated grape grower from Wisconsin. From age 8, Swenson had been cross-breeding French hybrids with American native vines, and he dedicated over 60 years of his life to creating cold-climate varieties. With the dozens of grape varieties he bred, he only patented five, and he sent clippings to just about anyone who wanted them in order to help develop the Midwestern wine industry. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 91, and the University of Minnesota, an early partner in his efforts, continues to develop varieties according to his work.

Over 50% of the vines currently planted in Iowa can be traced directly to vines cultivated by Elmer Swenson.

Other grapes popular in Iowa are French hybrids, though viable only in Southern Iowa. The New-York-centric varieties developed by Cornell are also grown in southern Iowa, where the temperature rarely drops below -25ºF. Only the cold-climate grapes developed by Minnesota and Swenson are viable in central and northern Iowa.

The Iowa wine industry as it stands today owes most of its success to Iowa State University and especially Dr. Murli Dhrmadhikari, a viticulturist who joined the university’s staff in 2005. Iowa State, through its Enology and Viticulture outreach program, has assisted burgeoning wineries and vineyards with clearing hurdles to early industry development, from protecting grapevines from deadly corn pesticides to winemaking basics and essentials.

Royce Bennett, behind his wine bar at Collectively Iowa

For an exhaustive list of Iowa-viable grapes researched by Iowa State University, Royce pointed me to their Review of Cold-Climate Cultivars, and believe me, you could spend hours perusing it. In my next post, I’ll highlight the most popular varieties with a summary and tasting notes from varietal wines I tried during my tour.

I especially want to thank Royce for all of his help on this trip. Even before he’d met me in person, he spent over a half hour on the phone describing the history and popular varieties in the state to me, and he spent almost 2 hours of his time conducting an extensive tasting for my benefit. I’ll highlight more on the Amana Colonies in the future, and I absolutely recommend a vacation there to anyone near Iowa. It’s a gorgeous, tight-knit community with 3 wineries, 2 smokehouses, and a brewery within 3 blocks. Hallelujah.

Exploring an Utter Mystery in the Yadkin Valley

From the first moment that I saw the name of the winery, “Cellar 4201,” on the North Carolina map, I was intrigued. The name reminded me, strangely, of the vaults from Fallout, and I half-expected to come across some sort of bomb-shelteresque hole in the ground a la Vault 101:

Fallout Vault 101 Door

Instead, you’re greeted by an elegant wooden door surrounded by sub-tropical plants and set in a cottage-like tasting room that seems yanked directly from Italy’s Piedmont countryside:

Cellar 4201 Entrance

Words cannot convey how intrigued I was by this winery simply because of the name. Mysterious, entirely non-descriptive, and surrounded geographically by quirky names like Divine Llama and Rag Apple Lassie and old standbys like Shelton Vineyards and Flint Hill, Cellar 4201 provoked every curious bone I had in my body (206 I believe is the current scientific count). Looking at the pictures from their website only made me even more intrigued.

Oh, and by the way, that pour they put in the montage on the home page? That’s actually about the pour you get if you pay for a glass of wine. All their wines are only $5 by the glass, and you get to keep the glass as a souvenir every single glass you buy. They, uh, they take care of their customers.

The owner, Greg, was out straightening up the patio when we arrived; he gave us a friendly welcoming, and we started conversing. He gave us a rundown of the history of the vineyard, about how he and his wife, Donna, developed their passion for wine through traveling and decided to bring their favorite varietals from France and Italy to North Carolina. While they’ve been growing the grapes since 2003, their tasting room has only been open for a year. They took plenty of time to ensure their wines were top quality before they invited the public in. He also explained the name and the label; rather than gussy up the winery’s name, they wanted to quite simply describe what they were, a wine cellar located at 4201 Apperson Road. All their labels feature an arrowhead, an homage to Donna’s Cherokee heritage. The vibrant orange that runs through their label, their logo, and the flora on-site stems from Donna’s affinity for that color.

The expansive lawn of Cellar 4201 (yes that's a cornhole set out there)

While we talked, Greg began to pour a tasting for us. He described the intent behind each wine, each vintage, explaining why things tasted the way they did. Far from a hands-off owner, Greg planted himself firmly in the winemaking, though he defers to the knowledge of Sean McRitchie, a second-generation winemaker from McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks, whom he recruited to lead the process.

Halfway through the tasting, Greg had to leave to attend to his other business, but his tasting room partner and best friend Aaron continued the customer service. With a sleeveless shirt, tribal bicep tattoo, and a deep tan, Aaron struck me more as a rugged, outdoorsy type than a tasting room attendant, but he quickly demonstrated his passion for and knowledge of Cellar 4201′s wares as he poured the last wines. Aaron described how, after a long friendship spanning decades (“We’ve never had cross words for each other,” he proudly told us), Greg recruited him to help follow his dream and create the vineyard. They attended classes together, conducted blind tastings, and otherwise educated themselves on the varieties they planted. Now, they harvest the grapes, make the wine, and pour the wines together as a seamless duo.

Gotta stop before I write too much again. How about the wines? None are over $15, and all are absolutely fantastic. Small lots are maintained from 5 total acres of vines, and their wines are 100% estate-grown, meaning all the wine gets plenty of attention throughout the process.

Cellar 4201 is a winery after my girlfriend’s heart. She’s a big red drinker, lover of Bordeaux, and very particular about her white wines. Completely flying in the face of the typical North Carolinian palate, Cellar 4201 offers only two whites (neither of them sweet), and the rest of their wines are classic left-bank Bordeaux reds and an Italian red and off-dry Rosé, both single varietal Sangiovese.

09 Stainless Steel Chardonnay – Offers a bright nose of citrus, primarily pineapple, with a surprisingly full flavor of citrus and tropical notes and a very light perceived sweetness balanced by a superb, soft acidity. Finish is medium-long and tastes like lemons. 7/10

06 Barrel-aged Chardonnay - Spent 9 months in older French and American oak, imparting a very light oak on the nose and flavor. Tropical notes still come through on the nose, and the flavor introduces a slightly buttery characteristic as well as tropical and spices. The wine has a beautiful mouth-soaking texture, incredibly smooth and firm. 7/10

Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

NV Sangiovese – A quick note about the non-vintageness of this wine, straight from Greg: in 2007, frost killed almost all of their Sangiovese, leaving them with just 100 gallons after winemaking. Rather than bottle this as is, Greg decided to barrel-age the whole lot for an additional year, 2 years total, blending it with the 2008 Sangiovese after it had aged for a year.

The result is, in my opinion, the best wine they currently offer. A deep reddish-purple color like the skin of a black cherry, offering a light pepper and smoke that gives way to a rich black cherry flavor. The oak provides an incredibly nuanced, velvety texture while hardly encroaching on the pure flavor of the grapes. The tannins are chalky and delicate, offering a surprisingly smooth red wine that was perfect for sipping out in the sun. 8/10

Also, why Sangiovese? From the about us section: “After traveling to Italy, Donna developed a passion for Sangiovese. While admitting it is difficult to grow, it is currently our signature wine.” Simple.

2006 Merlot - With a nose of brisk cherry and black pepper, the Merlot hardly exhibits the 10 months it spent in French oak. It has a great structure, perhaps a bit lighter than a typical Merlot, but the flavors and texture are simply delightful. 7/10

2006 Reserve Merlot - With their Merlot, they split the vintage, oaking one twice as long as the other. Thus, the Reserve Merlot has all the characteristics of its purer brother, but with a palpable, pleasant oak characteristic. The flavor is fuller, darker, with cherries and pepper just bursting onto the palate. The texture is fuller as well, coating the mouth very nicely. Both styles are equally delicious and affordable, so choosing a Merlot is as simple as figuring out how full you prefer your reds to be. 7/10

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon - Very smoky nose. Complex flavor of dark fruits, tobacco, and wood with a smoky finish. Beautiful full flavor and texture. 10 months in French oak softened it without masking the flavor. 7/10

2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon - With a fuller dark fruit flavor, light oak on the nose and palate, remnants of the smoky and woody character of its lighter brother, and a raisin quality on the finish, the 2006 Reserve Cabernet takes 20 months in French oak in stride. Great texture on this one. 7/10

2006 Sweet Native - The one concession Cellar 4201 has made to the sweet-drinking crowd, the Sweet Native is an off-dry Rosé from 100% Sangiovese with 3% sugar. The flavor is an array of citrus and red fruits, with a pleasantly crisp acidity and a decidedly non-syrupy texture. As Mr. Drink Pink, I approve. 7/10

This post accompanied by a bottle of the Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I made it almost 4 days without opening it.

No, Seriously, North Carolina Wine Pt.1: Westbend Vineyards

I just realized that it has been almost a month since I’ve focused a piece on North Carolina wine. That is entirely unacceptable. Luckily, I went on a wine tour this weekend, hitting two of the hottest vineyards in the state, and I’ve got the pictures and tasting notes to prove it.

I might have the tasting notes, but they've got the medals

You might remember the Westbend Vineyards Riesling from an earlier review on my blog (you can check it here). There, I quote a mini-raving by Robert Parker about Westbend’s wines:

One of the South’s best kept wine secrets is Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville, North Carolina. Westbend produces two excellent Chardonnay cuvées; a tasty, rich Seyval, a good Sauvignon, and a surprisingly spicy, herbal, cassis and chocolate scented and flavored Cabernet Sauvignon. As fine as these wines are, I am surprised they are not better known outside of North Carolina.

Well, I finally got to try the rest of their wines. Want to know what I thought of them? First, a bit more about the vineyard.

Westbend Vineyards began its life as a hobbyist’s farm back in 1972. Originally designating his land a weekend getaway for experimenting with new crops, Jack Kroustalis decided to go against the grain and plant vinifera. He started with the standard French varietals and French/American hybrids, found some early success, and rolled with it from there.

Oh, and the original 150 year-old homestead still stands on one of the vineyards, and they’re currently restoring it to use for events. You’ll recognize it immediately from their labels, which have featured artwork of the homestead pretty much every year since their first official vintage back in 1988.

Recently, they’ve been revamping the vineyard, which was a sprawling mix of various varietals. Old growths of vines that had fallen out of favor were torn out and replaced to homogenize the sections of the vineyard. You can see the results in the picture below, with thick, old vines sharing space with grow tubes.

old and new growth side by side, a sign of changing for the better

The vineyard overall has been growing steadily ever since that first vintage. They’re now up to 300 oak barrels, a mix of American, French, and Hungarian, in addition to their sizable stainless-steel fermentation tanks, recently retrofitted with cooling jackets. They also brought in a winemaker from Long Island, Mark Terry, to take the winery in a new direction. I have to say, based on what I tasted today, that was one savvy business decision.

We got to chat with Mark for awhile, discussing some of his experiments, future plans, and past decisions. I especially liked learning his thought process behind ideas such as fermenting Chambourcin in all three kinds of oak and blending them together. He’s got a bit of a mad scientist kind of mentality about his wines, which is big help when you’re trying to make your winery stand out.

But about those wines…

note: all vintages are what were poured in the tasting room as of June 19th

Let’s start with the reds, and begin with my least favorite wine of theirs, which is something like being the least warm spot on the sun.

Pinot Noir: Yes, a Pinot Noir, that finicky, cruel, flighty varietal, grown in North Carolina. And you know what? It’s on par with many Pinot Noirs I’ve had. Chocolate, coffee, and nutty aromas and flavors lead to a medium chalky finish accompanied by espresso. The mouthfeel is a bit thin, the acidity maybe a tad high but the tannins are pleasantly chalky. 5/10

Chambourcin: One of the most blueberry-heavy wines I’ve experienced in awhile, this is yet another great example of how well Chambourcin does in North Carolina. A dusty, earthy flavor accompanies blackfruits and blackberries on a decent finish. 7/10

Cabernet Sauvignon (’06): Beautiful nose of coffee, slight chocolate flavor, bright cherries, and the oak is nuanced and surprisingly tasty. Bordeaux varietals do very, very well in the Yadkin Valley, and this one is no exception. 7/10

Cabernet Franc: A blend of 85% Cab Franc, 10% Chambourcin, and 5% Merlot. Tobacco on the nose, which is light enough to not overwhelm my senses. Black fruits, raspberry, and heavy cinnamon flavors, and a medium finish with a very stark black pepper flavor, which I actually enjoyed. Beautifully full mouth feel. 7/10

Vintner’s Signature: 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Merlot. A very interesting aroma of raisins, mocha, and cedar. An equally interesting array of flavors: woody, cloves, red fruits, leather… with a velvety mouth feel and a good finish. All I can say is this wine is unusual, and I rather like it. 7/10

“Les Soeurs” Cabernet Sauvignon (’07): A pungent, woody nose of smoke, sawdust, and cigar box. Flavors of espresso, cedar, and ripe black cherry combine with extremely fine, powdery tannins to create a beautifully complex experience. The finish is long and woody. 8/10

So what about the whites?

Viognier: Nose of hot house strawberries, oddly enough. Flavor is pear and minerals. Rather simple, but very pleasant, with a brilliant acidity. 7/10

Barrel Fermented Chardonnay: Heavy nose and flavor of oak, though it pairs fairly well with the coconut flavor. A little overdone, but still enjoyable and smooth. 6/10

Chardonnay: I scribbled in the margins “surprisingly full-bodied.” That it was… that it was. Citrusy and tropical, with pineapple really standing out on the nose. Bright flavor of lemon-lime that matches a crisp acidity and perceived sweetness rather well. 6/10

Watching Chardonnay ferment: more or less exciting than watching paint dry?

Sauvignon Blanc: Rather acidic, with a flavor that’s more nuanced than aggressive. Notes of lemon-lime and melon really match the acidity well, and there’s an herbal overtone that feels right at home with the Sauv Blanc experience. 7/10

First in Flight (NV): Based on the blend, 68% Seyval Blanc, 30% Chardonnay, and 2% Riesling, and the lack of vintage, my initial reaction was lacking in anticipation. Boy, was I wrong. Beautiful pear on the nose, with lemon-lime (seeing a pattern in the whites yet?) matching a light sweetness and strong acidity, and a beautifully clear tart granny smith apple on the finish. 7/10

Do they have good dessert wines?

Hell yes, they do.

Lilly B: A citrusy, floral nose with orange peel and marmalade accompanying a honeyed scent. Very pleasantly sweet, not at all syrupy, with apricot and honey really standing out in the flavors and an explosively active acidity providing a serious backbone to a deliciously pungent wine. 7/10

Lillmark Blanc de Noir: Sparkling wine with a beautiful peach-orange color and a very active carbonation. Absolutely dazzling flavor of sour apple candy. I’ve rarely tasted a flavor as pure and aggressive as this one. We tried it on a whim, and 5 minutes later I was spending $35 on a bottle. Totally, completely worth every penny. 8/10

note:: you can purchase all of these wines at their current vintage on their website at http://www.westbendvineyards.com/

Virginia Wine Tour: Chateau O’Brien

Day two of my Virginia wine tour took me to Chateau O’Brien, in western Fauquier County. Picture’s worth a thousand words, right?

Entryway to Chateau O'Brien

Entryway to Chateau O'Brien

They set the stage right… The walk up to the entrance of the tasting room is lined with planted, tended grape vines. Like Breaux Vineyards, the overall feel of the facility is that of a home, with the Cellar Collection tasting room attached to an open kitchen, the Classic Collection tasting room in a 2-tiered sitting room, and an enclosed deck designed for intimacy.

Debbie and Howard O’Brien were an absolute delight to interact with, each in a different way. Both exhibited a remarkable passion for their wines, though Debbie was much more personal and intimate in her discussion while Howard was much more authoritative and instructional as each conducted their respective tastings. Debbie deftly handled the Classic Collection, their more everyday wines, while Howard presided over the Cellar Collection, their specialties and cellar-worthy wines.

Fireplace Room at Chateau O'Brien

Fireplace Room at Chateau O'Brien

Again, before I get too long-winded about the aesthetics, let’s get into their wines.

Classic Collection

2007 Northpoint Rosé – Tastes like a sorbet, off-dry, with delightfully crisp lemon and peach flavors and strawberry candy on the finish. Color is a very light red with a peach tint at the edge. It has a very active, pleasant acidity that practically dances in the mouth. It’s relatively full-bodied with a subdued lemon drop nose. $20.00 is a very fair asking price. 8/10

(to interrupt, I purchased a bottle of the Rosé in addition to a bottle of the Late Harvest Tannat, and it barely lasted 24 hours at home. I had to pop the cork on it with a grilled meal of Caribbean-style salmon, garlic-potato-stuffed yellow bell peppers, and marinated asparagus. It was one of the best wine pairings I’d had in awhile. This wine really brought out the foodie in me. Look at that color!)

Meal pairing with the Northpoint Rosé

2008 Northpoint White – 80% Pinot Grigio, 12% Viognier, 8% Petit Manseng. Fermented in stainless steel, this wine exhibits massive citrus on the attack with a healthy acidity to match. Crisp minerality and tropical flavors also present themselves, and there’s a very distinct honey on the finish. The nose is very subtle as it exhibits these notes. A good entry into their whites at $20.00. 7/10

2006 Virginia Chardonnay – An oaky Chardonnay that manages to please. The flavors from the oak are subtle, and the wine exhibits a very light nose of toast and butter. The toasty, buttercream flavor also matches the smooth, full texture very well. 6/10

2008 Buddy’s Bistro Red – A very light reddish-purple in the glass, it exhibits a strong raspberry nose and flavor. The finish is peppery but not unpleasantly so. The flavor is overall a bit light, a bit simple, and a bit hot. For $20.00, it’s a solid 6/10.

2006 Northpoint Red – A deep red with a purplish tint at the edge, the wine exhibits a beautifully bold dark fruit nose. The flavors are all dark fruit, blackberries and dark cherries, and the long finish has a rich, ripe plum characteristic. The last three words I wrote in my tasting notes? Fantastic. Well-structured. Clean. About as good as you can get for $24.00. 8/10

2008 VA Apple Wine – Made from apples hand-picked from nearby orchards, the apple wine is very smooth and crisp, with a pure, ripe apple flavor. Not sweet like apple juice and not dry like apple cider, it has a great balance for a dessert fruit wine. A bit pricey for a fruit wine at $20.00, but it’s worth it. 7/10

Buddy, the Official Mascot of Chateau O'Brien

Buddy, the Official Mascot of Chateau O'Brien

Cellar Collection

2005 Virginia Chardonnay – Has a sweet tropical nose and flavor with notes of banana and butterscotch candy, a result of 9 months in American oak. Excellent alcohol structure against a full, beautiful flavor. A phenomenal example of the proper way to oak a Chardonnay, and a fairly inexpensive lesson in those regards at $24.00. 8/10

2006 Reserve Chardonnay – Another school of thought in oak with 14 months in French oak. A good balance of butter, toast, and vanilla. Very light and creamy, slightly nutty, with a beautiful sweet cream on a long finish. $29.00 nets you a solid white wine. 7/10

2006 Northpoint Red Cellar Collection – 41% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petit Verdot, 14% Malbec. Round dark fruit flavors, amazing complexity on the finish, very smooth and velvety, an absolute delight at $39.00. 7/10

2006 Limited Reserve Tannat – Very dark, deep reddish-purple, with a bright, ripe blackberry nose. Flavor is huge, aggressive, with a flavor of fresh dark fruits. Very well balanced. My words? “Chalky, velvety, sublime.” As Howard said, Virginia is built for Tannat. Definitely an investment at $69, but it’s one of the best wines I’ve had in the United States, let alone Virginia. 8/10

2007 Late Harvest Tannat – Exploding with dark fruits, rich, ripe blackberry and raspberry. It’s airy, not syrupy, with 4% residual sugar and 18% alcohol. Let’s go to the winery’s website for the details:

No wine language can so eloquently express the powerful elegance of this wine. The result of superb viticulture, patience, and discipline for harvest timing and sound winemaking, this subtly sweet Tannat blatantly expresses the underestimated potential of red wine in Virginia. Natural sugar accumulation, during ripening, reaches a level beyond the capacity of a natural yeast fermentation, resulting in a wine with 18% alcohol and a slightly perceptible sweetness.

Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s $69 for a 750ml bottle and worth every penny, especially for such a rarity in the wine world. 7/10

Hey, tasting through this line-up, I was in love. They haven’t been on the map for very long either (first vintage in 2005), so their wines should only improve. Word is spreading about this winery… the tasting rooms were busy, not crowded, but busy, for the majority of the time I spent there (about 4 hours).

If you ever find yourself in the area, make sure you stop by Chateau O’Brien. They’re another great example of the potential for wine in Virginia.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.