Thursday, March 15, 2012

The 2nd Annual Virginia Sparkling Wine Taste Testing

Two weekends ago I had the privilege of joining a few other Virginia wine bloggers, PR professionals, and food critics in Charlottesville for this event.  Our organizer was Frank Morgan (Twitter/Blog handle @DrinkWhatULike), and our host was Andy Reagan, Winemaker and General Manager of Jefferson Vineyards in Charlottesville, VA.  Let me start off by saying - if you ever get the chance to attend an event led by these guys - don't miss it!
Thomas Jefferson Vineyards
I am not convinced that there is ever a bad weather day in Charlottesville.  When I arrived just before noon, the sky was a beautiful bright blue, and the grounds and vineyards looked amazing.  Our event took place in the barrel room, right across from the tasting room.  Frank had arrived early to set up the tables, with 11 Riedel wine glasses for each of the ten tasters.  The barrel room was amazing - there was a wood burning stove to heat the barn-like facility, a leather sofa, and large bar area.  True rustic elegance - I loved it!

Wood burning stove in the barrel room

Eleven tastings each

This year there were ten Virginia wines ready for tasting, and one non-Virginia wine thrown in for comparisons sake.  The Virginia sparkling wine line-up was as follows:

  1. Afton Mountain Tete de Cuvee
  2. Prince Michel Sparkling Wine
  3. Veritas Scintilla 
  4. Old House Petillante
  5. Barboursville Brut
  6. Thibault-Janison Blanc de Chardonnay
  7. Thibault-Janison FIZZ 
  8. Kluge Blanc de Blanc 
  9. Horton Sparkling Viognier
  10. Paradise Springs Sparkling Viognier

Blind Tasting Bottles
Each of the bottles was brown-bagged for disguise, and numbered 1-11 accordingly.  Frank (I told you he was a great event organizer) prepared tasting note sheets for each of us ahead of time.  We could rate and comment on each wine however we wanted to, but ultimately had to rank each from most favorite to least favorite. After we were done, Frank took each of our rating sheets and entered all of the data into an Excel sheet pre-populated with a results formula (didn't I tell you he was great?) and - voila! - we had our winner!

Some of my favorites
Now, given that the focus here was on Virginia wine, that makes it all the more difficult to announce the collective winner.  But I will say this - if you happen to be in New Mexico anytime soon for a celebration, you may want to pick up a bottle or two of Gruet Brut.  My personal favorites?  The Veritas Scintilla was #1, and the Barboursville Brut was #2.

When we were finished, Andy treated us to some of his special strawberry wine, and ordered delicious cheese, meat, and fruit platters.  Did I tell you he was an awesome host??


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sparkling Wine 101

Photo credit:
In the spirit of the 2nd Annual Virginia Sparkling Wine Blind Tasting that occurred last Saturday at Jefferson Vineyards (more on that, later) here’s some of the ‘skinny’ on sparkling wine:

There are four methods commonly used to make sparkling wine:
  1. Adding carbon dioxide to the wine in the bottle
  2. Traditional Method – natural fermentation occuring in the bottle (also referred to as the Champagne  or Champenoise method)
  3. Charmat Process –this is when the wine undergoes secondary fermentation in a large tank and is bottled under pressure (the method used for Prosecco)
  4. Transfer MethodThis method will take the cuvée to bottle for secondary fermentation, which allows for the additional complexity, but then will transfer the wine out of the individual bottles into a larger tank after it has spent the desired amount of time on yeast.

Photo credit:  Adrian Bryska

Champagne of course is the classic sparkling wine made exclusively in the Champagne region of France.  Mousseu or Crémant are terms used to refer to sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne region.
Crémant sparkling wines are produced using the traditional method, and have to fulfill strict production criteria.  In France, there are seven appellations for sparkling wine which include the designation Crémant in their name:
  • Crémant d'Alsace
  • Crémant de Bordeaux
  • Crémant de Bourgogne
  • Crémant de Die
  • Crémant du Jura
  • Crémant de Limoux
  •  Crémant de Loire

Prosecco is an Italian white wine — generally a Dry or Extra Dry sparkling wine— normally made from Glera ("Prosecco") grapes. Prosecco is known as the main ingredient of the Bellini cocktail.

Sekt is the German term for quality sparkling wine. The majority of Sekt produced is made by the Charmat method with the remaining premium Sekt being made according to the Traditional Method.

Cava is the name of a type of Spanish white or pink sparkling wine produced mainly in the Penedès region in Catalonia.

Other Sparkling wines are usually white or rose, but there are some sparkling reds such as Italian Brachetto and Australian sparkling Shiraz.

Blanc de Blancs – white of whites, 100% chardonnay
Brut - very dry  
  • Brut Natural or Brut Zéro (fewer than 3 grams of sugar per liter)
  •  Extra Brut (fewer than 6 grams of sugar per liter)
  • Brut (fewer than 12 grams of sugar per liter)
Doux - sweet

Interesting Fact (thanks Wikipedia)
While Dom Perignon is often credited with inventing Champagne, he actually spent most of his life trying to prevent the wine from developing bubbles.

Where to find in Virginia
Many Virginia wineries are now making sparkling wines.  These include Paradise Springs, Veritas, BarboursvilleAfton Mountain, Thibaut-Jannison, Kluge/Trump, Prince Michel, Horton Vineyards, and Old House Vineyards.

Be sure to check some out on your next winery visit!

Photo credit:

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Retail Shopping for Virginia Wine

Over the past few weeks I have come across a few articles or statements from people mentioning they have difficulty finding Virginia wine in Virginia stores, or think they can’t buy it anywhere other than onsite at a Virginia winery.  I know for a fact this isn’t true.  I often browse the Virginia wine sections at various wine and grocery stores.  Personally, I enjoy buying Virginia wines from the wineries themselves.  I enjoy the experience of escaping the DC beltway craziness on a weekend afternoon.  A mere one hour drive out to the Virginia countryside can make you feel worlds away, and is one of my favorite ways to unwind. But, I can certainly understand wanting to find your favorite bottle of Virginia wine closer to home.

So, I decided to incorporate a few extra stops into my routine of errand running this past week.  In total, I hit six stores over six days across Northern Virginia in search of Virginia wine.  Four were chains, and two were smaller independent retail outlets.

The Harris Teeter on S. Campell Ave. in Arlington is my local neighborhood supermarket, so this was probably the most convenient stop for me.  I’m in here at least three times a week, and this particular store has carried Virginia wine for quite some time.  Last week, nine Virginia wineries were represented on the shelves.  Notables included Breaux, Prince Michel, Barboursville, and Horton Vineyards.

Harris Teeter S. Campbell Ave. Virginia Wine Selection

The Whole Foods in Clarendon is another relatively routine stop for me.  As is with the Harris Teeter, I’ve noticed Virginia wines in the wine section in this store for a while as well.  When I swung by last week, they seemed to be running low, but I counted nine separate wineries, most of which had multiple varieties for sale. Noteworthy wines included White Hall, Cooper Vineyards, Pearmund, and Fabbioli.

Whole Foods Clarendon Virginia Wine Selection

Wegmans in Fairfax was no doubt the largest grocery store I shopped at this past week, and their downstairs wine room also had the largest selection of wines for sale.  I had never looked for Virginia wine here before, so was particularly curious as to what I would find.  I was pleasantly surprised – roughly 21 different Virginia wineries were here, most with multiple varieties for sale.  Some that were noteworthy included Chrysalis, Breaux, Barboursville, Horton, Prince Michel, Ingleside, and Willowcroft.

Wegmans Fairfax Virginia Wine Selection

I was purchasing several bottles of wine as a thank you gift this week, and picked these up from Total Wine in Alexandria.  It was here that I found the absolute largest selection of Virginia wines – I counted 47 different wineries.  So folks – if you live near a Total Wine – definitely check out one of these stores if you’re hoping for a nice selection.

Total Wine Alexandria Virginia Wine Selection

While having lunch at Cheesetique in Shirlington on Friday, I quickly browsed through their small but selective wines for sale.  I was surprised to see two Virginia wines amongst their collection – a 2010 Lovingston Petit Manseng and a 2010 Jefferson Vineyards Viognier.

Cheesetique Shirlington Virginia Wine Selection

My final stop was to Arrowine in North Arlington.  This artisanal wine and cheese shop has been a popular neighborhood store for years.  I counted 16 Virginia wineries represented on the shelves.  These included Barboursville Octagon (one of the most famous Virginia wines), Chrysalis, Linden, Pearmund, Rappahannock Cellars, and Glen Manor (although not the recently crowned gold medalist 2009 Hodder Hill from last weeks Virginia Governor's Cup competition).

Arrowine North Arlington Virginia Wine Selection

Although I had seen Virginia wines on the shelves many times, it was fun to take a closer look at the names, number of wineries, and varieties.  As for the prices of the wines, they looked to me to be pretty close to what I see at wineries themselves.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Day Two: Virginia’s Monticello Wine Trail – the Birthplace of American Wine

I’m not going to lie.  The facts that Donald Trump owns Trump Winery and Dave Matthews owns Blenheim Winery were my main reasons for wanting to visit both while in Charlottesville.  The third winery we visited on this day was Jefferson Vineyards.  Three wineries owned or named after famous men in America.

Most people who follow wine news in Virginia are familiar with the backstory on the recent Trump acquisition of bankrupt Kluge Winery.  I’ve heard many people say they would never visit this winery just because of the Trump affiliation.  I had an open mind and wanted to try it first-hand before making any judgments.

Trump Winery:  Entrance sign and tasting room
Trump winery lies along the Southern Monticello trail, and is located about 20 minutes south of Charlottesville.  The drive here felt more remote than the previous day – but it could have been the route we chose to take.  With all of the open territory, it wasn’t difficult to spot Patricia Kluge’s expansive Albemarle Estate and vineyards nestled in the hills.  The tasting room is across the street and just down the road from this estate.  What I found ironic, especially given the Trump reputation for acquiring and re-branding, is that the address of their tasting room is on Blenheim Road!

The tasting room is a small, cute building, but I was expecting the larger facility which is advertised on the main page of their website.  It appears their website has been updated since my visit, as the tasting room link now shows this smaller building.  Once inside, we encountered confusion, and first-hand reminders of where we were thanks to the Donald Trump book display.  We weren’t welcomed, nor told where to go.  Off to the side, we saw a very tiny tasting room packed with noisy people, and one young man trying to juggle the pourings for about 15 people simultaneously.  We stood three rows back for about 15 minutes, waiting for our turn, but ultimately gave up.  Their tasting menu offered six different options ranging from a tasting of two wines for $8 on upward to a tasting of six wines for $17.99.  Yes, we were definitely in Trump territory.  

Trump Winery:  Entrance table, tasting room, and our two glasses of wine

Opting out of the tastings, we decided to just get two glasses of wine for $8/$12 a piece, and invited ourselves over to sit at a table in the main room.  After a few minutes here, we were finally approached by an employee.  He offered to provide us tastings at the table (thanks, wish you had told us that when we walked in!).  We declined and just kept our two glasses.  I did take the opportunity to ask him a few questions.  I had noticed some cute Trump Winery labeled souvenirs – a woman’s shopping bag and etched wine glasses.  I asked how much the shopping bag was and he responded with “More than you want to know.”  Again, thanks.  The glasses, while attractive, were $12 apiece.  What I found most ironic, and confusing, was that the place still seemed to have a bit of an identity crisis.  While the Trump name was everywhere, all the wines were still labeled Kluge.  I asked about this, and the man stated that he thought a Trump labeled wine was in the works, but beyond that he didn’t know what the plans were for re-branding.  Huh.  Not long after this, the noise of the tasting room became too much and it was hardly a relaxed setting.  The boisterous group of middle-aged adults celebrating something was getting out of control as their wine kept flowing.  One of the employees shouted at them to keep it down.  Nice.  There was more confusion regarding how to pay as they were seriously short-staffed.  We finally managed to do this.  And bolt.

Trump Winery:  Trump displays, Trump accessories, Kluge wine

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 5, Knowledgeable Staff: 3, Wines: Did not taste enough to judge, Tasting Room and Amenities: 4, Scenery and Ambiance: 7, Value: 3 

Blenheim Vineyards

Driving up the road to Blenheim from our raucous experience at Trump was a welcome relief.  We instantly felt the more laid-back style and a QUIET setting.  The tasting room building itself has somewhat of a ski-lodge feel.  The architecture inside is really interesting.  A glass floor allows you to see the wine barrels in the cellar downstairs.  The tasting counters back to floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking their vineyards.

Blenheim Vineyards:  Property, vineyards, and tasting room
We tasted five wines on their tasting menu for $5.  This included the Painted White 2010 (42% Chardonnay, 28% Viognier, 20% Roussanne, and 10% Marsanne), Red Table Wine (blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Syrah), Cabernet Franc 2010, Petit Verdot 2010, and their Painted Red (47% Merlot, 21% Syrah, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petit Verdot, and 7% Cabernet Franc).  Bottle prices ranged from $14 - $30.

Blenheim Vineyards:  Inside the tasting room and the glass floor
I asked our pourer how often Dave Matthews visits the winery these days (and no doubt I was the 4 zillionth person to ask him this question).  He said he does visit occasionally when he’s in town.  We were told Dave’s mother purchased the property in 1999 as she wanted a fruit farm, and this was subsequently turned into a winery in 2000.  His influence is elsewhere though, as Dave developed the designs for the building, and also designed the labels of the Painted White and Painted Red wines.

I would love to go back here!

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 5, Knowledgeable Staff: 9, Wines: 8, Tasting Room and Amenities: 8, Scenery and Ambiance: 8, Value: 7

Jefferson Vineyards

This was our last stop of the day.  The oldest of the three wineries we visited this day, the tasting room is smaller and more discrete.  This is one winery where we will have to go back to as we walked into yet again the same inebriated crowd we’d run into at Trump.  [Note:  Ladies, if you think it is a good idea to gather your sorority sisters to celebrate your 45th birthday, or any birthday for that matter, and get completely wasted while swearing and yelling at the wine pourers, you WILL make a complete idiot of yourself and you SHOULD care.]  

Jefferson Vineyards;  Tasting room, grounds, and historical marker

Our experience was pretty well ruined, but we did try their tasting menu which consisted of a Pinot Gris 2010, Chardonnay 2010, Chardonnay Reserve 2010, Vin Rouge, Cabernet Fran 2010, Petit Verdot 2010, Meritage 2008, Johannisburg Riesling 2010, and Vin Blanc. We enjoyed nearly all the wines on this menu.

We will go back!

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 7, Knowledgeable Staff: 9, Wines: 8, Tasting Room and Amenities: 6, Scenery and Ambiance (boisterous women aside): 7, Value: 8

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Day One: Virginia’s Monticello Wine Trail – the Birthplace of American Wine

As a couple living just outside Washington, DC who both enjoy wine and American history, there really isn’t a more obvious local destination to spend a holiday weekend.  This, however, was our first visit to Charlottesville together, and our first visit to the many destinations on our itinerary to the central Piedmont area.

The Monticello region is one of six American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s) in Virginia.  And believe it or not, this is one of 24 trails across the state of Virginia, now home to over 200 wineries.  Monticello itself, one of our destinations, was the home of Thomas Jefferson and where he first attempted (yet failed) to grow vines for making his own wine over 200 years ago.  Today, over half of Virginia’s 2000 vineyard acres grow within the Monticello AVA.  Given the breathtaking views edging the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the rich culture and history at every turn, this is not only considered the birthplace of American wine, but also referred to as the ‘crown jewel’ of Virginia’s wine industry today.

From the Northern Virginia/Washington, DC area, it’s just under a two hour drive before you reach the northern point of the trail.  For this weekend trip, we didn’t have the time to drive the entire trail.  There are, after all, 25 wineries dotting the Northern, Eastern, Western, Southern, and Northern Gateway stems.  We down-selected to seven that we thought we could fit into the weekend were so happy with our selections!

Prince Michel
Our first stop was at Prince Michel [pronounced Michelle].  We have enjoyed tasting their wines at some of the frequent festivals in Northern Virginia, so were excited to check out their winery in person.  Not only that, but given their location directly off of Route 29 South, it is a really convenient destination if you’re continuing your drive south like we were.

On this particular Saturday, the tasting room was lively and fun, but not overly crowded.  We took a peek at the large party room off to the side and the fun artwork and furniture in the sitting rooms.  The tasting room is large, with an oval shaped tasting station in the middle and a good sized bar surrounding it.  In addition to the bar, this winery sells a multitude of fun wine accessories and chocolate covered fruit and nuts made by a local vendor.  Just beyond the tasting room is their barrel room, where they offer a fun, easy, and educational self-guided tour.

The tasting menu at Prince Michel, I have to say, has to be the best deal I have experienced to-date in Virginia.  We were first offered to select a dry or sweet menu (we went with dry) and for $5 we could select 15 red or white wines to taste.  Yes, 15!  Given this was our first stop of the day, we split one for 7ish tastings a piece.

The woman pouring for us told us she was the tasting room manager.  She was laid- back, friendly, and super knowledgeable on all the wines.  The first one I selected was the Prince Michel Sparkling wine (love me some bubbles!) which was a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  It had a peachy color, refreshing finish, and was honestly my favorite of all of them.  But, at the $39 price point, I didn’t end up buying a bottle.  The vineyard designate wines on the menu were the Mt. Juliet Petit Manseng, Mt. Juliet Petit Verdot, Quaker Run Syrah, Crown Orchard Cabernet Sauvignon, and Mountain View Cabernet Franc.  [Note:  Cab Francs are a popular wine within this region, and they were a favorite of ours at just about all the wineries!] After our tastings, we took a walk around to view the items for sale and do the self-guided tour.

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 10, Knowledgeable Staff: 10, Wines: 7, Tasting Room and Amenities: 10, Scenery and Ambiance: 6, Value: 8

Prince Michel Winery: self-guided tour, looking over the barrels back into the tasting room, and beautiful grounds
Prince Michel Winery: Historical photo of men 'airing' the grapes and collage of former U.S. Presidents who lived in the area

King Family Vineyards 
I’d read a lot about this winery, and given that nearly everyone RAVES about the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I was really looking forward to our visit here.  The winery is about a 15 minute drive outside of Charlottesville.  Once you leave I-64, it’s a few more turns through a neighborhood and farmland until you reach the entrance.  This part of the drive has a very ‘tucked away’ feel, as you pass Tanglewood and Folly Farms.  As is typical in this area, black picket fences line the edges of the roads to mark the farm properties.  On this particular day, we pulled into a packed parking lot.  Walking around, you instantly fall in love with the sprawling property, views of the polo fields, and Blue Ridge Mountains in the background.  

The tasting room was cozy – a woodburning fireplace and leather furniture were the centerpieces, surrounded by additional seating areas and wine displays. The tasting menu featured six wines for a tasting fee of $5 each.  We sipped two 2009 wines – a Meritage and a dessert wine called Seven – and four 2010 wines – a Viognier, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and second dessert wine called Loreley. We felt more of the 'college town feel' here as many of the other customers appeared to be students from UVA.  The gentleman pouring our wines was very knowledgeable on the wines, and also worked at a local bistro in town.  He told us he was in the process of applying to wine school in France.  My favorite of the day was their Chardonnay, made in 2/3 new oak barrels.  Their Seven dessert wine was probably the most interesting on the list – a good wine for after dinner paired with chocolate.  They use Kentucky Woodford Reserve barrels for this wine which gives it a bit of a bourbon kick.  While the wines were good, price points sit at $22 and above. Due to the crowds, we actually made a second trip back here before heading north, and ordered two glasses of the chardonnay, a freshly baked baguette, and some cheese which we enjoyed immensely while soaking up the scenery and the warmth of the fireplace.

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 7, Knowledgeable Staff: 10, Wines: 9, Tasting Room and Amenities: 10, Scenery and Ambiance: 10, Value: 7

King Family Vineyard:  Views of the polo field, patio, and grounds
King Family Vineyard:  Inside the tasting room area
Veritas Winery

Veritas was another winery I was excited to visit, not only for their wines, but for the mountain views.  I quickly learned that there probably isn’t a winery in this area that doesn’t benefit from this factor!  The drive from King Family involved some very steep and windy turns – certainly not good for anyone who may be out tasting several other wines beforehand!  We made our way into another crowded parking lot.  Rounding the corner of the property, we had amazing views of the property and happened to catch some phenomenal sun rays which were fantastic for what could have otherwise been a very chilly winter afternoon.  Unfortunately, the main tasting room was closed this day as we were told they were re-doing the floors.  Instead, everyone was directed to their main event room, which looked to be decorated for a wedding, but we found out they were decorations from a New Year’s Eve party.  Tables, chairs, and couches were scattered around the large space and we found it to be very noisy and disorganized.  There must have been close to 100 people here at this point.  The UVA students were in abundance here as well.  We made our way onto a couch, as one of the pourers told us she could fit us in.  We sat down next to another couple, which was a little TOO close to be and a bit awkward at first.  Our pourer was friendly, but distracted with the crowds and seemed unsure of the process herself.  Another couple soon joined in next to us.  They were from northern Virginia as well, and had been in town for a wedding. 

On this day we paid $5 each to taste quite a range of 10 wines:  Scintilla (a 80% Chardonnay Brut), Sauvignon Blanc 2011, White Star (80% Viognier), Rose 2010, Cabernet Franc 2010, Merlot 2010, Red Star (Cab Franc, Merlot, and Chabourcin), Petit Manseng 2010, Othello 2009 (port), and Kenmar 2009 (Traminette, similar to Ice Wine).  Our favorites that we purchased were the Cab Franc, Rose, and the Petit Manseng.

Veritas is definitely a winery I would like to return to – when the main tasting room is back open, and hopefully on a less crowded weekend.

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 6, Knowledgeable Staff: 6, Wines: 9, Tasting Room and Amenities: 10, Scenery and Ambiance: 10, Value: 8

Veritas Winery:  Beautiful outside scenery
Afton Mountain Vineyards
Most wineries in Virginia close at 5pm sharp.  On this day, we were arriving around 4:30, so just as they were preparing to wind down.  The property had a very peaceful feel – and the pond out back was a nice addition to the surrounding mountain views.  The inside was very cozy – somewhat of a family room feel with another wood burning fireplace.  All the seats here were taken with a group enjoying wine with some food.  The crowd on this day was older than what we encountered at Veritas.  Out back was a lovely patio with views of the pond.

There were two options for tastings  - $8 for their reserve tasting menu of seven wines, or $5 for their house tasting menu of seven wines.  I personally am not a fan of these types of menus – it leaves you with a “Do I want to try their good wine, or their not-so-good wine?” feel.  We decided to do a tasting of each menu, and share the wines.  This tasting room was smaller than others we’d visited, and our pourer on this day was new, so not as informed on the wines.  Apart from their dessert wines, prices range from $17 - $30.  We tasted a mix of Tete de Cuvee Brut, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Festa di Bacco (blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, and Cab Franc), Cabernet Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, semi-sweets, and dessert wines. Our favorite was the 2009 Cabernet Franc Reserve.

My Experience Rating (relative to other Virginia wineries):  Convenience: 6, Knowledgeable Staff: 5, Wines: 8, Tasting Room and Amenities: 8, Scenery and Ambiance: 10, Value: 6

Afton Mountain Winery: Tasting room and vineyard

Afton Mountain Winery:  Tasting room fireplace, wine awards, and views of the patio