Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Rain, Hail, and Sunshine at Grace Estate Winery

Lately, we having been avoiding traveling through Charlottesville on our passages to Waynesboro and Staunton and bailed at the airport to take back roads to Route 64 at Crozet. This has lead us to Oakencroft Farm & Winery and finally, Grace Estate Winery. The winery was established in 2013 and releases wine from grapes grown meticulously on the 50-acre Mount Juliet Vineyard. This estate vineyard is a small portion of the 450 acre Grace Estate the surrounds the mansion. 

Their wines are branded into three labels which honor the Grace family history. The Odo Collection is named after "Odo, the Count of Champagne and Aumale (later Albemarle) who lived from c. 1030-1115. He famously accompanied his brother-in-law, William the Conqueror during the Norman conquest of England".  Within the Alice Collection, all the wines are named Le Gras which reflects Odo's son William who was the first to take the name Le Gros, which over the centuries evolved to Le Gras, Gras,  and, eventually, to Grace. Finally, the Sheffield Collection highlights notable members of the Grace family tree throughout history.

For instance, the 2021 Aviator Petit Verdot is named after Cecil Stanley Grace (1880 – 22 December 1910) who was a pioneer aviator who went missing on a flight across the English Channel in 1910. The wine is spontaneously fermented using whatever native yeasts are hanging around the winery and aged 21 months in a large format oak vessel. The oak is restrained allowed for a full representation of the fruit.  

The 2017 Earl William Cabernet Franc provides similar fruit expression with more bright cherries and spice. The wine is named after the aforementioned William Le Gros (1115-1179) and is made from grapes grown on the south facing upper slopes of Mount Juliet. 

Our final wine was the 2022 Le Gras Cuve -- a blend of Chardonnay and Petit Manseng. Lots of floral, citrus, and peach notes that we originally thought would be ideal sipping on the deck, overlooking the estate, with our dogs at our feet.  However, an odd front rolled in -- and while the sun was still shining -- rain and then hail doused our outside outing.  But even though the tasting room's windows, the view of the estate and Shenandoah Mountains provide a scenic environment during our visit. 

There are two other pressing incentives to visit Grace Estate and the other wineries in Crozet, the Monticello AVA, and - in general - the Commonwealth of Virginia. Because the 2021 Aviator Petit Verdot was awarded a Gold Medal in the 2024 Governor's Cup Competition, Grace Estate is included in the Virginia Gold Medal Wine Trail.  The passport directs uses to the award winning wineries and provides discounts on tastings and bottle purchased. In addition, April 26th - May 3rd 2024 is Monticello Wine Week -- with numerous events scheduled within the Monticello AVA.  And, as always, the recommend theCompass Craft Beverage Finder

Update; This post was updated to reflect that the 2022 Le Gras Cuve is a Chardonnay - Petit Manseng blend and not 100& Vidal. I think my notes were soaked from the weather. 

Saturday, April 13, 2024

Steak and Eggs with Domaine Bousquet and Wines with Altitude

I am continually blessed to receive multiple shipments of Argentinean Wines with Altitude from Domaine Bousquet. Their estate vineyards are located 4,000 feet above sea level in Gualtallary within the Tupungato mountain range. In this environment, rainfall is scant, sunshine is plentiful, and the desert-like climate creates a massive 59° F day/night temperature differential. The area also has poor stony and alluvial soils that are interlaced with layers of sand and limestone. This diverse combination creates free-draining soils that, due to the already mentioned limited water availability, stress the vines. The grapes react to these conditions by increasing skin tannins, concentrating flavor, and retaining acidity and aromas.

The two new samples that I received fall within the Domaine Bousquet Cameleon label which "symbolizes the story of the Bousquet family, a fourth generation that left their native France after a long worldwide search for an idyllic wine growing region".  The grapes are grown within the Tupungato mountain range described above and benefit from that particular geographic terrior.  On the surface the Cameleon Signature Organic Chardonnay 2022 ($15)  and Cameleon Signature Organic Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 ($20) were pleasant wines where the chardonnay provided peaches and green apple flavors within a medium texture whereas the cabernet showed fresh blackberries, earthiness, slight mint,  and firm tannins.  But on their own they were slightly underwhelming.

That was until I paired each with steak and eggs and the wines rose to a new level. The Chardonnay's texture and acidity worked very well with the cayenne pepper and paprika laced scrambled eggs. They just seemed to integrate effortlessly. An even better pairing occurred with the Cabernet Sauvignon and herb seasoned flank steak where the tannins and acidity broke into and cut through the fat creating a savory plate.  Both the meat and wine exploded in the mouthfeel creating lasting  bites.  

The lesson here is not to dismiss wines after the first sip and find creative ways to enjoy them.  Cheers.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Re-discovering Oakencroft Farm & Winery

After perhaps a 15-year hiatus we finally returned to the 250-acre Oakencroft Farm & Winery as the winery has re-opened and still making wine from some of the oldest vines in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The property is located just outside of Charlottesville and is a relaxing destination with estate and other wines available for purchase along with spreads and charcuterie. The winery first opened in the early 1980s under the ownership of Felicia and John Rogan -- who are considered one of the founding families of the modern Virginia wine industry. The winery closed in 2008 when Mrs. Rogan retired after 25 years in the industry. Over that period she worked with viticulturist  Lucy Morton to transform the Rogan farm into a Vineyard and Winery.  And most importantly, she spearheaded the effort to establish the Monticello AVA, started the Jeffersonian Grape Growers Society, and was chairwoman of the Virginia Wine Growers Advisory Board for a several years.  

Even though Oakencroft Vineyard and Winery had officially closed, the farm continued to operate and the original grape vines were maintained.  A decade later Dorothy Batten purchased the farm and championed many of the sustainable practices currently implemented. One practice is the continued use of hybrid grapes (Seyval Blanc, Vidal Blanc, Chambourcin, De Chaunac, and Merlot Kanthus) which provides broader genetic diversity and requires less pesticides and other chemicals. Former winemaker Phil Ponton spent 40 years maintaining the estate's vines and still shares his wisdom with current Farm Manager Logan Collins. This wisdom included combatting pests by using an integrated pest management system of beneficial plants, animals and insects as well as compost to reduce chemical sprays and industrial fertilizers. Jessica Trapeni is the current winemaker and came to Oakencroft after completing the UC Davis Winemaking Certification program and working at Virginia Wineworks where she was both Lab Manager and Production Manager. 

During our visit we dabbled into two of their estate releases, their 2021 Albemarle County White Wine and 2020 Albemarle County Red Wine. Both were very pleasant expressions of Seyval and Chambourcin and easily pass as more traditional vinifera wines. The Seyval Blanc was fermented under cool temperatures and on its lees, which both preserved the fruit characters and added texture to the body. Lots of racy acidity and minerality. Production of the red wine was more complicated as it is a blend of 64% Chambourcin co-fermented with 11% Vidal Blanc, and the remaining 25% a combination of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine also has bright acidity and ripe cherries leading to very approachable tannins and a long finish. An easy sipper with charcuterie.

The winery also offers several Virginia and international wines and ciders. On our next trip I would be interested in sipping the White Wine next to an Austrian Gruner Veltliner and the Red Wine with a Provence red. 

Finally, the Monticello Wine Week runs from April 26th to May 3rd. Check the Monticello Wine Trail for specific events. 

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Grape Spotlight: Sicilia DOC Grillo

"Beginning with the Greeks, who arrived on the eastern part of Sicily in the 8th century BCE, the idea of methodical grapegrowing practices for the purpose of quality winemaking firmly took root on the island. As the centuries passed, Phoenicians and Romans traded Sicilian wines based on their power and their distinctive qualities. The best vines were propagated, viticulture developed, and thus Sicilian wines were promoted on and off the island. Today, we see the fruits of these labors. Though many things have changed, most of Sicily’s indigenous grape varieties and time-honored winegrowing traditions continue to play an important role. Thanks to meticulous vineyard tending and gentle grape handling in Sicily’s wineries, Sicilia DOC wines feature the medley of flavors that Sicily has been known for since ancient times and which represent some of the best wines of Italy." -- Wines of Sicily DOC

Sicily is Italy's southernmost wine region and is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea It is blessed with consistently bright sunshine and reliably moderate rainfall, Sicily's classic Mediterranean climate is ideally suited to the production of wine grapes. This is because the warm, dry climate means that mildews and rots are kept to a minimum, particularly in well-ventilated areas that benefit from coastal breezes. This low disease pressure means that chemical sprays are hardly needed, and much Sicilian wine is produced from organic grapes.

There are a number of denominations spread throughout the island with the broadest being Terre Siciliane IGT and Sicilia DOC. As of 2017, all varietal wines made from either Grillo or Nero d'Avola must be classified as Sicilia DOC.  According to, "Sicily's soils, and the mountains from which they came, are of particular interest when it comes to studying the island's viticulture. Mount Etna, the towering stratovolcano, dominates the island's eastern skyline, and is responsible for the mineral-rich, dark soils that characterize the Etna DOC vineyards. Vines are now being planted higher up on the volcanic slopes, to capitalize on the cooler air and richer soils there. Fifty miles (80km) south, the Iblei Mountains stake their place in eastern Sicilian wine. On their lower slopes and the coastal plains below them, the DOCs of Siracusa, Noto, Eloro and Vittoria sweep from east to west, forming a crescent that mirrors the arcing coastline. In western Sicily, the volcanic hills are less individually dramatic but just as influential to the soil type".

Apparently the origins of Grillo are still being debated, but what is clear, is that this grape is well suited to the hot, dry Sicilian climate. Traditionally Grillo has been used in the popular Marsala fortified wines because of its high levels of sugar and the ease with which it oxidizes. More recently, winemakers have tuned their processes to use Grillo to make fresh, light white wine with nutty, fruit-driven flavors.  Some winemakers have started using lees contact to create deeper, fuller-bodied expressions of the grape, with aromas and flavors that resemble ripe citrus and spice. 

During last month's Slow Wine tour in Washington DC, I attended the From Vine to Glass: Sicilia DOC's Native Varietals seminar sponsored by Wines of Sicily DOC.  This seminar featured a trio of very distinct Grillo wines.  

Baglio Bonsignore "OI" Sicilia DOC 2022 Grillo
The winery farms 13 hectares of grapes near Naro, in Southwestern Sicily, with four hectares planted with 10 year old Grillo vines.  The vineyards are planted at about 1,000 feet in limestone and clayish soils. We started with a very complex wine, tropical and nutty aromas that follows with loads of character. Fresh and mineral driven with some creamy depth.  

Bagliesi "Terre Di Toto" Sicilia DOC 2022 Grillo
The winery is also located near Naro and the estates are spread over twenty-five hectares in the province of Agrigento and also planted around 1,00 feet and similar calcareous-clayey soils.  This wine is a blend of  Grillo grapes from the estates and is leaner with bright green apples, slight grass, and salivating salinity. This is a patio consumer -- it won't last long.

Di Giovanna "Helios" Sicilia DOC 2022 Grillo
This winery is located in the mountainside of Monte Genuardo, a protected nature reserve and situated on the western side of Sicily,  They operate five family estates of almost 100 hectares -- composed of 65 hectares of vineyards, 14 hectares of olive groves, and 21 hectares of wheat fields and forests. These vineyards are  located in the small DOC of Contessa Entellina within the Sambuca di Sicilia DOC and most are planted on the limestone and ancient marine slopes of Monte Genuardo up to 2,700 feet above seal level.  This is an interesting wine, both refreshing and funky featuring  ripe citrus and spicy aromas and flavors. There's also significant structure with appreciable tannins and minerality on the finish. 

Monday, April 1, 2024

Open Road Distilling Opens in Reston

We've been trying to make the rounds visiting Mid-Atlantic distilleries and ventured to the closest to us -- Open Road Distilling in the Reston Town Center, Virginia. The establishment is part of a restaurant group and this location fields a tremendous restaurant and bar that is worth visiting just for the entrées. While developing cocktails for their bar and speakeasy-influenced concepts, they decided to develop a range of spirits which lead to the operational distillery, tasting room, and bonded store. Currently they have four expressions: in-house distilled American Vodka and American Gin as well as in-house blended Eagle Eye Rye and Independence Bourbon. 

Eagle Eye Rye ($34.99)
This whiskey is a blend of various casks obtained from distilleries across the U.S. - including MGP. This slightly spicy and approachable whiskey begs for a flask to enjoy in outlawing style.  

Independence Bourbon ($34.99)
The Bourbon is a blend of bourbons sourced from four distilleries within the United States and aged together after blending.  A pleasant firepit sipper with baking spices and soft tannins. 

American Vodka ($19.99)
This spirit begins as corn-based neutral spirit which is combined with pure water and then distilled in their traditional pot still. This is a very suitable vodka for all your bar needs. 

American Gin ($23.99)
This gin is crafted by first soaking botanical herbs (Juniper, Coriander, Angelica, Bitter Orange, Citron) in neutral spirits overnight, then distilled over a slowly increasing heat source . There is a nice balance between the London Dry profile and an American profile where the juniper and citrus are intertwined. 

Friday, March 29, 2024

Slow Wines Descent into Puglia

The Puglia Wine Region is a long, thin wine region in the far south-eastern corner of the "boot" of Italy. According to, "the hot Mediterranean climate, persistent sunshine, and occasional sea breezes make for a near-perfect environment for viticulture".  For this reason, over the past 2.5 millennium olives and grapes have been cultivated in this area regardless of the Greek, Roman, Goth, Byzantine Greek, German Lombard, Muslim Saracen, Norman, Angevin, Aragonese King, Spanish, French Bourbon, and Neapolitan Republic stewardship.

In November 1995, Puglia vineyards were organized into the Puglia IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), a region-wide appellation for the Puglia region: the easternmost region in Italy, a long, narrow peninsula, bordered by two seas, the Ionian and Adriatic, with the longest coastline in the Italian peninsula.  This coastline is bordered by plains rising steadily up into low-lying mountains and is characterized by scrubby, sunbaked limestone soils, cooled down on summer evenings by fresh breezes from the Mediterranean. 

Puglia IGT regulations allow for 50 grape varieties with an even split between red and white wine grapes. Northern Puglia favors Italian classics such as Sangiovese and international varieties such as Chardonnay and Syrah. In contrast, southern Puglia favors the region's traditional varieties: Primitivo, Negroamaro, Susumaniello, and Uva di Troia (Nero di Troia) for reds and Falanghina, Fiano and Muscat for whites.

These wines were on display at a recent Slow Wine tour of the United States.  This is an organization with branches in the U.S. and Italy which "support and promote small-scale .. winemakers who are using traditional techniques, working with respect for the environment and terroir, and safeguarding the incredible biodiversity of grape varieties that are part of our heritage".  During their stop in Washington D.C., I was able to sample wines from four Puglia members that demonstrated the richness and depth from this area. 

Amastuola Winery
This establishment is located on the western side of south Puglia, close to Taranto and the Ionian sea. By design, the 100 hectare estate "brings together the two concepts of functionality and aesthetics. The rows of vines were planted on the basis of the design conceived by the great landscape designer Fernando Caruncho. The vine spaliers draw harmonious parallel waves that follow each other for about 3 km. The were also defined by their author himself 'waves of time that have been crossing this place since times immemorial'.

In addition, 1,500 centuries-old olive trees have been rearranged in the 24 islands organically positioned throughout the entire surface of the vineyard as well as along the historic allays of the Farm. The olive trees used are the result of a historical-monumental recovery work. The CNR (National Research Council) of Perugia dated and filed a record of all the olive trees, some of which are 800 years old and have a diameter that exceeds 2.5 metres. The combination of olive trees and vines has created a harmonious visual contrast that brings alongside the silver green of the vines with the intense green of the olive trees".

From this estate they produce over a dozen organic wines with several available at the event.  Primitivo is their flagship grape and is expressed through their CentosassiLamarossa, and Primitivo labels.  The Lamarossa may have been my favorite as its shared concentrated ripe fruit and silky tannins with the other labels, but had a more earthy quality. They also poured a bolder more tannic and spicier Aglianico as well as a delicious Negroamaro. Please seek Puglia wine made from this grape. 

Cantina Sampietrana
This winery was formed in 1952 as a cooperative by 68 vine-growers and is located on the Adriatic coast within the Brindisi and Salice Salentino DOCs, both designations dedicated primarily to the production of Negroamaro wines. The region is also both hot and dry and enjoys 300 sunny days each year with summer afternoon temperatures regularly surpassing 104 Fahrenheit. As a result, the grapes which grow here develop high levels of sugar which leads to a high percentage of alcohol in the wine.  Besides Negroamaro, the winery vinifies Primitivo, Susumaniello, Malvasia, Aglianico, Montepulciano, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Fiano and Verdeca.

Negroamaro is a main player and "owes its name to its main characteristics: the almost black color of its wines and a bitter aftertaste. It has medium-sized bunches of conical shape, with tight density, of short size and without wings. The berries are large, very pruinose and with thick black skins with violet veins. Oval in shape, the berries are very leathery. Productivity is very high and must be limited with drastic pruning and suitable breeding systems, little expanded". It's beauty is shown in the Since 1952 Brindisi D.O.P. Reserva -- a blend of Negroamaro 80% and Montepulciano 20%.  This is simply a luscious wine. Negroamaro is also featured in the Settebraccia Salento I.G.P. Rosso, along with Susumaniello, that is fresher and very satisfying.  

Primitivo was also on display in three offerings, the Tre Filari Salento I.G.P. Rosso, Centoare Primitivo, and Stillarosea Salento I.G.P. Rosato. Like with the Amastuola Winery, these wine show concentrated ripe fruit and silky - easy tannins. 

Finally, the Verdeca Salento I.G.P. Vino Biblioteca is a refreshing saline driven wine with citrus and juicy acidity. This autochthonous and late ripening grape is now found almost exclusively in the Taranto and Bari provinces and is most known for its high acidity.

Sacco Vignaiolo Apuli
This winery is located in Torremaggiore in northern Puglia and whose underlying philosophy is Terra Mij or "My Land". This implies a deep respect for the territory and tradition first displayed by founder Vincenzo Sacco and now by his two sons Matteo and Alessandro. They maintain this respect by focusing on Nero di Troia - the indigenous grape of northern Apulia. This grape is more commonly referred to as Uva di Troia and is believed to have arrived in Puglia with Greek colonists in ancient times. "According to the legend, in fact, the Greek hero Diomede, once the Troia War (Trojan War) ended, sailed to the Adriatic Sea until he reached the Ofanto river and there, after he found the perfect place, he anchored his boat. Diomede brought with him some grapevines that, upon the banks of the Ofanto river, gave birth to the Nero di Troia grape.   It takes its name both from its polyphenolic properties, which gives it a deep ruby red color that sometimes may seem 'black', and from its historical origins."

During this tasting they offered three expression from this grape. The Magis Nero di Troia is the premium offering - made from hand harvested grapes grown on very steep slopes. This wine has tremendous structure with balanced freshness. the Terra Mij Nero di Troia is even fresher with hints of spice - a very solid wine. Finally, they produce a rosè in the Unanotte Nero di Troia Rosè where the wine's pink color is extracted over one night (Unanotte). This is a lovely wine -- bright fruit and slight minerality. 

On the white side, the Aleis Organic Falanghina stands out as a single vineyard source with fresh citrus and mineral characters. And the Terra Mij Organic Bombino White is an introduction to a new grape variety -- its obscureness probably explains adding White to the label. It's a blend with 30% Malvasia - aromatic with ripe fruit, minerality, and fresh acidity.  Bombino Bianco is most likely from Spanish origin but has found a home in northern Puglia, Abruzzo, Lazio and Emilia-Romagna.

Conti Zecca
The Zecca family has been farming estates in central Salento since 1580 when Francesco Antonio Zecca moved to Leverano. In 1884, Pope Leone LEO XIII bestowed the title of Count upon Giuseppe Zecca because of the family's role in developing the region. In the early 20th century the first bottles were produced and in the post War era, the cellar was modernized leading to the first Conti Zecca wine label: Donna Marzia. In modern times, they operate four estates all closer to the Ionian coast that cover 320 hectares of vines. They focus on Negroamaro, Primitivo, and both Malvasia Nera and Bianca.  The Nero IGP Salento Rosso is a dark rubied blend of Negroamaro and Cabernet Sauvignon which starts with a complex aroma of fruit and spice that leads to a structured wine with soft but firm tannins and a deep fruit profile. I just want to chew on this wine on a cool night on the deck. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Rum in Richmond with Virago Spirits

In the last few months we've visited a plethora of distilleries focusing on rum where this spirit seems to be enjoying a new renaissance of discovery. While visiting Richmond for the Virginia Wine Gala, we ventured into Virago Spirits -- primary because of its proximity to Hardywood Craft Brewery in Richmond's Historic German Brewing District.  Upon entering the tasting room we went through a journey into rum while gazing all the while on their vintage, direct-fire, 2,500-liter Charentais-style alembic still. 

Virago's slogan should be "slow-down" as they slowly distill their spirits using alembic still in  single distillation runs that take 12 hours and 48 hours for a complete distillation cycle (three ‘broullis’ distillations + one ‘bon chauffe’ distillation). This duration allows the distillery to separate out the crude portions of the distillate and to concentrate flavor. The flavor is also enhanced by the direct-fire nature of the still which requires an agitator that keeps the mash moving inside the pot. Without it, heat would be distributed too unevenly, and the mash could scorch. The distillery believes this "adds layers of depth and complexity of flavor". The distillery also slows the process by aging and finishing their rum in various oak treatments. 

However, their flagship and most bartender friendly product is the 151 High Proof Rum. This spirit is made from double-distilled molasses. The touch of expected heat is offset by clean tropical fruits and a layered profile. They also offer a more traditional Classic White Rum at 80 proof that provides a similar flavor profile without the burn.

We then moved into the Four-Point Rum section where this rum is a blend of four major rum destinations: Barbados (8-year-old rum, pot and column distilled, Jamaica (4-year-old rum, pot distilled), Nicaragua (5-8-year-old rum, column distilled), and Panama (6-year-old rum, column distilled). These individual rums are then blended in house to create a beautiful and complex rum - a sipping can cigar rum. This brand is then made even more complex by finishing in other used casks. The Cognac Cask Finished Rum rested for 15 months in freshly-emptied, 30-year-old Grande Champagne cognac casks which adds additional floral and tropical attributes from the nose through the finish. The Ruby Port Cask Finished Rum spent months in freshly-emptied casks of ruby port from Portugal’s Douro Valley which provides earthier and cherry fruit elements to the final rum. A fantastic series. 

Finally, Virago Spirits releases several other gin, liqueur, and apple products such as a very delicious Pommeau and an Apple Brandy still resting. For gin, they offer the Modern Gin with Oolong Tea and the Kali Hibiscus Gin. Since most of their rums are available in the ABC system, I purchased a bottle of Ginjinha - Cherry Liqueur which strongly resembles the similar Portuguese liqueur.  Although the Virago version is made using  tart Montmorency cherries from Michigan and a secret blend of winter spices. Delicious. Also, look at the exceptional glassware they use to provide the flights. Little Libations material. 

Monday, March 25, 2024

Mieza Blendery - Alexandria's Shrine to Blended Beers

After most of our brewery visits, we normally post our review on our social media channels, but at times there are extraordinary operations that necessitate a blog post. Mieza Blendery is one such establishment. The blendery is located in Alexandria (between Aslin Beer Alexandria and Port City Brewing Company) and their goal is to "make a lot of diverse beer components, many of them may not taste good or balanced on their own, but when blended correctly result in an experience that couldn’t be achieved as a single one-off batch."  Whereas consumers expect consistency in a Port City Porter, each offering at Mieza is unique. 

The name Mieza, is also unique. It refers to the "shrine of the Nymphs" -- the town in ancient Macedonia where Aristotle taught the Alexander the Great between 343 and 340 BCE. According to founder Alex Lynch, "Mieza is a blank space I can project onto, possessing a modicum of myth and some underlying themes that my approach to blending strongly shares". Lynch has plenty of brewing experience, first as a brewer at Lost Rhino Brewing Company, then to Sonoma's Bear Republic, and back to Lost Rhino to manage their barrel program and quality control lab. And because of his relationship with Favio Garcia, the first batches of the Mieza brand were brewed at Dynasty Brewing.

During my visit, I enjoyed a flight of four -- two because of their wine grape heritage. The Angels and Astronauts (8.3%) is a blond barrel-aged sour beer aged on Monticello AVA Petit Verdot; whereas the Venatio II (7.4%) is a blond blend with Viognier grapes and dry hopped with Huell Melon hops. I really liked the second, an explosion of sour and funky flavors that transitions to an apple cider finish. Don't be put off by the muffled nose. The Ceramic Gnomes (7.4%) is very intriguing blond blend where the sweet & sour cherries and star anise blend nicely and finishes with some vanilla and spices from aging in Rye barrels. Finally, the Cousin Throckmorton (5.8%) was a huge surprise. This mixed culture Saison is based on a Helles beer and strengthened by Saphir hops is softly sour but with plenty of funk and even melons.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

2024 Virginia Governor's Cup Gala and the Gold Medal Wine Trail

On March 7th, Virginia wine fans and industry personnel gathered at Richmond's Main Street Station to taste and converse with the producers of the Gold medal winning wines from the 2024 Governor's Cup Competition. Out of 752 entries, 138 gold medals were awarded representing 79 different wineries. In addition, the wineries representing the top 12 wines belonging to the Governor's Case Club were introduced with Governor Glenn Youngkin announcing the winner of the overall competition. This honor was bestowed on King Family Vineyards for their 2019 Meritage -- a blend of estate grown Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec -- and produced by winemaker Matthieu Finot.

Before this announcement Buskey Cider was awarded the Best in Show Cider for their Ruby Red Crab Apple. The Richmond based cidery produces this dry cider using 100% Virginia grown ruby red crab apples. According to the cidery, "..fermented to completely dry, these apples were chosen for their high acid, tannin, and mouth-puckering fruit character".

The Gala itself was a fantastic event -- from the location to the food to the fabulous wines. Shoutout to Chef Leah Branch of The Roosevelt for the Lobster Hushpuppies; Chef Dale Reitzer of Acacia for the Smoked Bluefish Salad; and oysters from the Rappahannock Oyster Co

On the wine side we used the opportunity to catch up with old friends and acquaintances such as the crew at Paradise Springs Winery and to taste their excellent 2022 Petit Manseng. Michael Shaps Wineworks had multiple Gold winning wines including another Petit Manseng. A third Gold winning Petit Manseng was produced by newcomer Southwest Mountains Vineyards. This Keswick winery also poured a delicious 2021 Cabernet Franc -- put this winery on your radar. Half a dozen Albariño wines were awarded Gold medals included one from another new winery, 7 Lady Vineyards, but also from several we previously tasted at 8 Chains North Winery, Afton Mountain Vineyards, Cana Vineyards, October One Vineyard, and Potomac Point Winery & Vineyard.

A few other producers that we plan on following up with are Muse Vineyards, Ankida Ridge Vineyards, Breaux Vineyards, Carriage House Wineworks, Capstone Vineyards, and Black Heath Meadery. Look forward to future posts regarding their Gold winning wines. 

The downside to the event is that the three-hour time period was way too short to meet all the winemakers and sip all the wines. Fortunately Virginia Wine has instituted a Gold Medal Wine Trail where consumers can explore Virginia wine country and sip these award winning wines. We obviously prefer theCompass Craft Beverage Finder, but recommend downloading this mobile passport. 

Photo Courtesy of Virginia Wine

Governor's Case Club:

  • Afton Mountain Vineyards, 2019 T
  • Barboursville Vineyards, 2019 Paxxito
  • Bluestone Vineyard, 2017 Petit Verdot
  • Breaux Vineyards, 2019 The Fog Nebbiolo Reserve
  • Cave Ridge Vineyard, 2019 Fossil Hill Reserve
  • Cross Keys Vineyards, Blanc De Noir
  • Hark Vineyards, 2019 Spark
  • King Family Vineyards, 2019 Meritage (Winner of the Virginia Governor’s Cup)
  • Michael Shaps Wineworks, 2020 L.Scott
  • Mountain and Vine Vineyards and Winery, 2022 Chardonnay
  • October One Vineyard, 2022 Albariño
  • Paradise Springs Winery, 2022 Petit Manseng

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Another Exploration into Uruguay Tannat

Last week I was able to continue my exploration of Uruguay wine - specifically Tannat - through a Masterclass presented by Peter Granoff, MS. and sponsored by Uruguay Wine and INAVI (Instituto Nacional de Vitivinicultura). The seminar stressed the lighter and fresher versions of Tannat rather than bold, heavily oaked expressions as well as the 200+ soil types and maritime influences. 

Uruguay resides in the same parallels as its neighbors Argentina & Chile, but also South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. The soils are mostly clay, there's plenty of sunshine, and the vineyards are primarily situated near the Rios de la Plata (across from Buenos Aires) or near the Atlantic Ocean. Think cool coastal breezes and balanced and structured wines. There's a relatively long wine-making tradition in the county as immigrants from Spain, Italy, and Germany brought their wine-making traditions and wine grapes with them. 

It's most important to stress the maritime influences upon viticulture. According to our prep material, "About a third of Uruguay has an Atlantic coastline. The dominant winds in Uruguay come from the sea, bringing with them cool, rainy conditions resulting in about 1,000 mm/39 inches of rainfall a year, while the interior experiences high peaks in temperature in summer and rainfall that can be as much as 63 inches/1600 mm a year in some areas.

Another third of Uruguay runs along the Uruguay River, which flows into the Paraná River to form the Río de la Plata, one of the largest estuaries in the world. This shoreline experiences higher temperatures, which can be as high as106° F/41º C in summer. Similar conditions are to be found in the center and north of the country, albeit with a larger thermal range.

In general terms, whites and varieties with shorter cycles are to be found closer to the coast, in vineyards stretching from Rocha to Maldonado through part of Canelones. Meanwhile, the interior,
stretching from Canelones to San José and Colonia, specializes in reds with longer growing

Uruguay is located on the Río de La Plata craton; a craton is a mass of pre-Cambrian rock that has not been affected by the movement of continents. The Río de la Plata craton is one of five on the continent of South America. The craton and rivers help create three distinct soil types. "(1) In the Department of Maldonado it takes the form of low, heavily eroded sierras of grey granite – 2.5 billion years old, and the oldest rock on the planet. The soils of Maldonado are formed by the erosion of this rock and are rich in clay, with varying depth determined by proximity to the hills. (2) Around Montevideo, in Canelones, the soils are deeper, created by erosion of the craton itself as well as eolian deposits. These soils are clay-based and retain less water, depending on the sand content brought by the river. (3) The shore of the Uruguay River, between San José and Colonia, has clay soils deposited by the river along with abundant pockets of calcium carbonate created by dead sea life from previous eras.

Wine Regions:  

  • Metropolitan: 12,076 acres/4,887 ha
    Includes departments of San José, Canelones, and Montevideo. Deep, clay soils also include strips of pink granite, making for a terroir well-suited to Tannat. 
  • Oceanic: 1,053 acres/426 ha
    Includes two departments, Maldonado and Rocha with a varied topography which is the primary factor in distinguishing its wines. The Cuchilla Grande is the highest point in Uruguay, reaching a height of 1,600 feet/488 m above sea level, contributing a mix of granite and ballast to the soils. The climate is oceanic where white varieties dominate. 
  • Southern Riverside: 722 acres / 292 ha
    Includes departments of Colonia, Río Negro, and Soriano. The influence of the Uruguay River can be seen in the sedimentary soils of Carmelo, while the San Juan River is distinguished by rockier soils. The region accounts for 5.2% of hectares under vine in Uruguay. Carmelo lies at the center of the southern shore. A dozen wineries are scattered throughout the area. Soils are distinguished by pockets of calcium carbonate deposits. Reds are the heart of the region.
  • Northern Riverside: 408 acres/165 ha
    This terroir spans the departments of Artigas, Paysandú and Salto along the shore of the Uruguay River. This is a continental terroir, with a thermal range between day and night of up to 20 degrees, and high relative humidity. Soils range from riverbed gravel to calcareous clay, with varying amounts of lime and sand. 
  • Center: 109 acres/44 ha
    Here, the departments of Durazno, Florida, and Lavalleja are the most relevant in terms of area under vine. The soil and climate are similar to that of the Metropolitan area.
  • North: 84 aces/34 ha
    The Rivera and Tacuarembó departments are planted in different geological formations, each rich in iron, comprising 84 acres/34 ha of vines, or 0.6% of the total. A continental climate with a significant thermal range. Experiences more hours of sunlight than any other region of Uruguay.

Tannat was introduced into Uruguay in 1870 by Basque immigrants -- most likely collected from Southwest France. According to the seminar, the genetic origins are unclear but the first written record occurred in 1783 at Madiran in SW France. The grape has thick skins which provides a bulwark from humidity and contains 5-6 large seeds instead of the more standard 2-3 small seeds.  And Tannat appears to be well adaptive the the various Uruguay climate and soils. Viticulure and winemaking with Tannat has evolved over the last 20 years with growers pluck leaves to allow more sunshine and green harvest up to 50% of the fruit in order to "balance leaf area and fruit weight for a crop that can achieve better ripeness". In the cellar, the grapes are cold macerated before fermentation and micro-oxygenation where oxygen is introduced into the wine in a controlled manner to help tame Tannat's tannins. Other new methods are the co-fermentation with Viognier as well as a judicial use of oak or even completely unoaked wines. 

The Wines:

Pisano Wines is witness to a century of winemaking tradition - in Progreso in Canelones - and is operated by three Pisano brothers: Gustavo, the winemaker; Eduardo, the agronomist; and Daniel, the export manager. The family traces their heritage to Italian and Basque immigrants - this later from the group of people who introduced Tannat to Uruguay. Again like Montes Toscanini, the Pisano wines benefit from the Río de la Plata (River Plate) - an estuary formed by the confluence of the Uruguay River and the Paraná River at Punta Gorda. The Pisano RPF Tannat 2020 Progreso, Canelones ($24) s a fresh and well-rounded wine with light and chewy sour cherries that alternate with darker fruit and soft tannins. 

The Cerro del Toro Winery was started by the Norwegian businessman, Lars T Ugland and the Kambara family from Japan in 2016 in a joint venture. The winery is located on the north-eastern face of the Cerro del Toro hill in an 800-hectare estate in Piriápolis. The Cerro del Toro vineyard currently have 28 hectares of vines planted only 2 km from the Atlantic Ocean. The Cerro del Toro Tannat 2020 Piriápolis, Maldonado ($25)vis unoaked with the dark fruit coming forward with some earthiness and saline as the freshness lasts long into the tail. 

Bodega Garzón is also a coastal winery located eleven miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Their estate has more than 1,000 small vineyard blocks covering its hillside slopes, which benefit from varying microclimates, different levels of humidity, and an intense canopy management as was described above. These factors allow the vines to develop with maximum exposure to the sun providing rich, expressive fruit. This is the Garzón Reserva Tannat 2021 Maldonado ($18) in a nutshell, very structured with layers of fresh fruit and an extended finish.

Alto de la Ballena is a small winery operating in the Sierra de la Ballena located just 15 kilometers from the Atlantic coast. The small 8-hectare estate vineyard benefits from the oceanic air as well as excellent drainage from the steep, granite, and schist hillside mountain soils. The winery's birth is dated at the Millenium when  Paula and Alvaro quit their finance jobs after spending the previous two years searching for the ideal vineyard location. They found that in the Maldonado department in the Oceanic region.  They showed an interesting wine in the Alto de la Ballena Tannat Viognier 2018 Sierra De La Ballena ($26) - an 85-15% blend. They manage both lots so that they can be harvested very close together allowing for co-fermentation. The Viognier adds a more intense aroma and softens the Tannat's tannins creating a fantastic fresh wine. Still structured with juice acidity, some herbs, and juice and chewy sour cherries. 

Basta Spirit was founded in 2018 and produces spirits using a Tannat base. The Vermut Flores Rosé NV Canelones ($16) contains 27 botanicals, including flowers such as hops, chamomile, rose, and elderberry. It is extremely aromatic, with loads of herbaceousness and forest spiciness - very gin-like. One participant mentioned sipping with sour cherry juice and thus I created a delicious using equal parts vermouth and Del Maguey Mezcal followed by a heavy dose of Don Ciccio & Figli Cerasum Aperitivo.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Four Fresh and Food Friendly Organic Wines from Domaine Bousquet

I received another shipment of Argentinean Wines with Altitude from Domaine Bousquet where their estate vineyards are located 4,000 feet above sea level in Gualtallary within the Tupungato mountain range. In this environment, rainfall is scant, sunshine is plentiful, and the desert-like climate creates a massive 59° F day/night temperature differential. The area also has poor stony and alluvial soils that are interlaced with layers of sand and limestone. This diverse combination creates free-draining soils that, due to the already mentioned limited water availability, stress the vines. The grapes react to these conditions by increasing skin tannins, concentrating flavor, and retaining acidity and aromas.

I decided to pair the two white offerings with a bowl of spicy sausage and shrimp jambalaya. Initially I thought the acidity expected in the Bousquet Organic Sauvignon Blanc 2023 ($13) might be the best option but the white stone fruit flavors were essentially overwhelmed by the food's richness. Instead the Bousquet Organic Unoaked Chardonnay 2023 ($13) was ideal as the wine's depth of apple-peach flavors and acidity, not only stood up to the richness, but also complimented it as the wine's expression lasted past the jambalaya's.

The four wines are incorporated into Domaine Bousquet’s premium varietal series. This program blends estate and purchased organic fruit from the Uco Valley in the high Andean foothills. The grapes benefit from huge day/night temperature swings, achieving exuberant ripeness and juiciness. The wines receive no oak treatment allowing the fruit shine through and make the wines extremely food-friendly as described above. 

The Bousquet Organic Cabernet Sauvignon 2022 ($13) and Bousquet Organic Malbec 2023 ($13) portray this juicy fruit forward profile. They each had abundant acidity and strong blackberry flavors. They both provided approachable tannins with the Cabernet more chewy and the Malbec silky. Both of these worked well with BBQ and burgers.  I would say that these are four excellent picnic wines.

The wines also be available throughout the United States. The Domaine Bousquet website provides a handy tool to search for retail outlets and restaurants that carry their wine. For those in Fairfax County, Mom's Organic Market carries may of their wines. 

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Let's Visit Alentejo, Portugal through the Herdade do Esporão Reserva

Herdade do Esporão is a Portuguese wine brand that many readers might have familiarity with.  They are the largest producer in the Alentejo region and also the most widely distributed in the U.S.. We love receiving samples from this producer.

As a refresher, Alentejo covers much of Portugal’s southern half, spanning the flatlands below the Tejo River down to Portugal's southern Atlantic Coast. It accounts for 13% of Portugal's area under vine and 18% of wine production. Alentejo incorporates eight sub-viticultural zones (from north to south: Portalegre, Borba, Évora, Redondo, Reguengos, Granja-Amareleja, Vidigueira, & Moura).  The climate is hot and dry with both a Continental and Mediterranean climate with winters exceptionally cold whereas spring and summer are dry and hot. The region experiences high levels of sunshine in the growing season -- over 3,000 hours annually. also shares that the "Alentejo is broadly flat with hilly areas dotted across its zone. Major mountainous or hilly regions across the area include the Serra de São Mamede (1025m) on the border with Spain at the very northeastern end of the area, and the Serra de Portel (421m) and the Serra d’Ossa (649m), both in the central east".

The Herdade do Esporão estate is located in the Reguengos de Monsaraz DOC sub-region which itself is located squarely in central Alentejo. The granite and schist soils and the local climate are particularly favorable to vine-growing and the region is well known for its production of high-quality wines with their own distinctive characteristics (VisitPortugal).  The region provides the estate with two key advantages: access to water and diversity of soils. According to the winery, "Alentejo is a dry region, averaging just 58 cm/23 inches of rainfall per year. The estate sits on a probable north–south fault zone; fault zones coincide with areas blessed with groundwater. This relative abundance of water was decisive to the medieval occupation of the land and building of the defensive Esporão tower.

Soil mapping begun in 2008 by geologist José Borrego established that at least seven different soils exist within the property, with dioritic soils (medium- to coarse-grained igneous rock) found only at the estate. Dioritic soils result in wines wines with lots of aroma, fruit, and acidity. Granite-origin granodiorite soils eventually yield wines with great freshness and minerality. Other soils include mottled schists (the Reserva Red) for grapes with high sugar and phenol levels, and two different versions of sandy clay loam soils are home to some of the white grapes".

The boundaries of the Herdade do Esporão estate were first established in 1267 and have been unaltered since.  In 1973, José Roquette and Joaquim Bandeira bought the property because the Reguengos sub-region "ensures wines that were full-bodied but elegant and both big and seductive, thanks to a mix of very poor, stony soils and a harsh climate".  The first wine was produced in 1985 using the brand name Esporão which coincidently was the Esporão Reserva Red -- which we will be reviewing the 26th vintage. Currently, they have 450 hectares of vines planted with 194 grape varieties, 37 of which are in full production. Three of these grapes are included in the Reserva White and five in the Reserva Red.

Esporão Reserva White 2022 ($23)
The grapes for this blend of Antão Vaz, Arinto, Roupeiro were grown on a granite/schist base with a loam/clay structure. After harvest, 75% of the grapes were fermented in stainless steel tanks and the remaining 25% in new American and French oak barrels. This slight oak treatment yields a creamy and structured core surrounded by a white floral and slightly citrus aroma and a fresh herbaceous finish. 

Esporão Reserva Red 2021 ($23)
Red blends comprise a large percentage of Alentejo output and this wine is a blend of Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional, Aragonez, Trincadeira, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Each variety was vinified separately, destemmed, crushed, temperature controlled alcoholic fermentation in stainless steel vats, concrete tanks and small marble lagares, pressed, followed by malolactic fermentation in stainless steel tanks. The wine then spent 12 months in new (20%) and old (80%) American and French oak barrels. After bottling, the wine aged  at least 6 months in the bottle. This is one of my favorite Portuguese wines with dark fruit (blackberries, plums, and dark cherries), spice and herbs, and a wonderful structured balance with the approachable tannins and pop rocks acidity. 

Notes on the Grapes:

Antão Vaz
: This is the most dominate white grape in Alentejo and most prevalent in the Vidigueira and Reguengos sub-regions. The berries are loosely clustered and thick skinned providing disease resistance and they are also able to cope with drought-like conditions. In general it can provide stone and tropical fruit notes, various nuts, minerality, and ripe citrus. 

Arinto: Alentejo's best white blending variety, thanks to its exuberant acidity. Discreet aroma. Green apple, lemon, and lime freshness and mineral notes. Arinto has large leaves for shading and super-high acidity, making it well suited to the hot Alentejo climate.

Roupeiro:  A pale-skinned grape variety that is grown throughout Portugal under several aliases. Wines with Roupeiro exhibit citrus and stone fruit flavors with noticeable aromatic lift.

Alicante Bouschet: Although not indigenous to Portugal it has found a home accounting for 2% of all Portuguese plantings and ranking #8 for all reds. The grape thrives in Alentejo, particularly in Vidigueira and Reguengos, and is the second most planted red grape after Aragonez. It produced dense wines with dark fruit, pepper, smoke, and abundant tartness and astringency. 

Touriga Nacional: A dark-skinned grape variety that is widely believed to produce the finest red wines of Portugal. Called Portugal's answer to France's Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Aragonez: This is a southern Portuguese name for Tempranillo known to produce red wines with red fruit and leather aromas, high tannins, moderate to low acidity, and moderate alcohol. 

Trincadeira: Considered one of the oldest varieties of Portugal. The wines produced from this grape grape are full-bodied and very rich as to their flavor. The aromas are fresh and herbaceous with flavors of blackberries and flowers.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Domaine Juliette Avril - AOP Cairanne 2019

The origins of the Cairanne AOP vineyards derive from the Roman period where vines have been tended for at least two millennium. The name « Cairanne » probably comes from the Latin « Cara », which means « rock » or « stone », referring to the stony and stony soils characteristic of the area.
I received a Hopwine package of three wines from Domaine Juliette Avril and was quite enamored with their AOP Cairanne 2019. Cairanne is an appellation for quality red, white and rosé wines from the parish of Cairanne in the southern half of the Rhone Valley in France. The wines were previously classified as 'Côtes du Rhône Villages Cairanne', but after an extended period where it was seen by many as as the most consistently excellent of the villages, it was elevated to cru status in 2016. This means that wine produced here is now just labeled 'Cairanne'. (

Cairanne's climate is Mediterranean, characterized by hot and dry summers, and mild winters. This sunny climate is strongly influenced by the proximity of the Mediterranean, which acts as a thermal regulator, moderating temperature variations.  The Rhone River also acts as a thermal regulator, moderating temperature variations and protecting the vines from winter frosts. Thus nights are usually cool in the area and this day-night thermal amplitude allows the grapes to maintain acidity, which brings a touch of freshness to the wines and balances their richness in alcohol.

Domaine Juliette Avril is currently managed by the grandson of Juliette Avril's, Stephan Brun-Avril. He represents the third generation of an estate consisting of 43 ha in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cairanne, Côtes du Rhônes Villages Plan de Dieu, and Côtes du Rhône appellations. The Cairanne vines cover over 10 ha over two types of terroirs: white limestone clays (cold earth that gives the wines tight, robust, powerful tannins) and red clays (which provide a generous aroma).

The AOP Cairanne 2019 is made from a GSM blend of Grenache 65%, Syrah 25% & Mourvèdre 10%. It is a wine of character but still well balanced and supple. The grapes are mixed during harvest and fermented together.  The aroma is earthy with some leather that yields to a fresh fruit and black pepper. The tannins are approachable yet build structure and depth. 

The Hopwine kit also included two other wines starting with a very delicious AOP Côtes du Rhône 2020. The is a majority Carignan blend that also includes Cinsaut, Grenache, and Syrah. It is herbaceous, fruity (dark plums) with very approachable acidity and tannins. AOP Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2019 is a blend of Grenache 65%, Syrah 25% & Mourvèdre 10% that was aged casks for six months. Expect a lively aroma, vibrant fruit, black tea, and a long, friendly finish.