Afton Mountain Vineyard

Virginia White Wines at Siduri

This is part 1 of our review of the ten Virginia wineries. Here we’ll look at Virginia white wines at Siduri June 23.  Here we’ll look at white and sparkling wines.  Before we get into the tasting notes, here’s where the wineries are located. (We’ve used Bing maps for this because Google has made their maps virtually unusable.) Click the map to see detailed locations.  Most are located somewhere along the Blue Ridge Mountains in western Virginia near Charlottesville.  The altitude gives the grapes the cool nights they need to ripen properly.

Before saying anything else, thanks to Marty LaPlante for inviting us to this very special get-together.


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A Viognier Surprise

The biggest surprise to us was the viogniers.  California versions of this wine tend to go overboard on the honey.  While the wines have zero residual sugar, the honey tends to overpower everything else.

There were three viogniers at this tasting from Breaux Vineyards, Sunset Hills Vineyard, and Veritas Vineyards & Winery.

The Breaux viognier 2013 ($28) is very nice. It’s made from the five acres of grapes on the estate. At 100 percent viognier it presents a bit of a challenge to winemakers. The wine is a full-bodied style, with good balance and not as much honey as most viogniers. The wine opens with aromas of calla lilies and honeydew melon.  Flavors of apricots and white peaches are followed by a hint of spice and surprising notes of wet slate and citrus on the finish. (And let’s add a style note.  General Manager Chris Blosser has one of the best beards ever.)

Chris Blosser, Breaux general manager

Chris Blosser, Breaux general manager

Sunset Hills’s viognier 2013 ($29) is blended with 5% petit manseng. This wine features very light honey with touch of acidity and fruit. “Food-friendly” describes it very well. This, too, opens with aromas of calla lilies and honeydew melon.  A great mouth feel is followed by notes of spice and honey.  This wine is on the midpoint between the Breaux and the Veritas.

Sunset Hills Owners Diane and Mike Canney

Sunset Hills Owners Diane and Mike Canney

Sunset Hills is owned by Diane and Mike Canney.  Mike is a serial entrepreneur.  The winery is his latest venture, begun in 2005. Diane’s background is a bit more mysterious, described on the winery website as, “a successful career in the Intelligence field.”  At the winery she’s in charge of design and architecture.

Speaking of which, the Veritas viognier 2013 ($25) is also blended with 5% petit manseng. This is a more California style wine, with a honey-melon nose and light honey palate.  Notes orange blossom aromas are followed by citrusy orange zest on the palate.

Veritas's Emily Pelton Virginia Wineries at Siduri

Veritas’s Emily Pelton

Veritas has an interesting story.  Winemaker Emily Pelton was working on her graduate degree in infectious diseases when she realized she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life working with sick kids.  She went back to her parents’ vineyard, took a winemaking course at Virginia Tech and has been making wine ever since.  Her background in biology and chemistry can’t hurt.  According to our sources, Veritas is producing between 15,000 and 20,000 cases per year — and selling over half via direct shipment.  A true Virginia success story.

Two Sparklers

Let’s say at the outset that the Virginia sparklers have a problem. They both claim to be methode traditionelle. But the bubbles are just too big for that to be true. Time for a little sparkling wine chemistry lesson.

Sparkling Wine Chemistry

Sparkling with is usually made from chardonnay, pinot noir, or a blend of the two. The grape juice is fermented and turned into standard wine — but with a removable cap similar to a beer bottle. After settling and aging, the cap is removed and a dosage of sugar and yeast is added. The cork is then inserted with the traditional wire cap and the wine undergoes a second fermentation. The carbon di0xide created during the fermentation process produces the bubbles. And, eventually, as the sugar is depleted, the yeast dies.

This is where patience is required. The dead yeast gradually breaks down, a process called autolysis. The yeast cells blend with the wine to produce an amino acid soup. The effect of this is to increase the specific gravity of the wine just enough to essentially compress the bubbles. The fine, tiny bubbles you see in true methode champenoise sparklers are caused by the slightly thickened wine that contains them.

My guess is that Virginia sparkling wine producers are too impatient. There are other possible explanations, of course, but this is the simplest I can dream up.

With that lesson completed, on to the reviews.

The Reviews Are Pretty Good

There were two sparkling wines.  The Afton Mountain Vineyards 2010 “Bollicine” Brut Sparkling ($35) was our favorite.  Not just good, but interesting. This is a blend of chardonnay (70%) and pinot noir (30%). The traditional yeasty nose blends with candy apples moving into a crisp, citrus palate and finish.

Afton Mountain's Elizabeth and Tony Smith

Afton Mountain’s Elizabeth and Tony Smith

Afton Mountain is the realization of a dream for Elizabeth and Tony Smith. They bought the vineyard in 2009, at least in part for the view:

Afton Mountain Vineyard

Afton Mountain Vineyard

The vineyard is 1,000 feet up the Blue Ridge Mountains. Like many of the other Virginia wineries, altitude makes up for the absence of the cool Pacific breezes in California, Oregon and Washington. The first vines were planted in 1978, making the vineyard one of the older among those at this event.

But if you want to try Afton Mountain’s wine, you’re temporarily out of luck.  The 2013 vintage was very low-yield, with total production of 2,000 cases. Reduced supply combined with increasing demand means there’s only enough for the wine club and tasting room sales.  They have temporarily stopped mail-order direct shipment. And they are not currently accepting new members into their wine club. They have doubled the acreage and hope to produce 4,500 – 5,000 cases this year, which should let us enjoy their wine without making the cross-country trip to Virginia!

Thibaut-Jannison Winery offered their Blanc de Chardonnay ($30). Made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, this is a non-vintage blend with 90% of the grapes from the 2010 harvest and the other 10% from 2008 and 2009. The wine itself shows minerality with hints of green apple and peach. Pretty good stuff.

Claude Thibaut Virginia Wineries at Siduri

Claude Thibaut

T-J only makes sparkling wine. Their lower-end offering, Fizz, was not available here. And they have the antecedents for success. Founders Claude Thibaut and Manuel Janisson met in their childhood village near Reims. Claude moved to California in 1983 after spending a few years working in Australia. Manuel was looking for some experience. The two began discussing making sparkling wine. It took a mere 25 years for them to realize their vision. In 2003 Claude visited Charlottesville to consult with the Kluge Estate Winery. He immediately recognized the potential for Virginia sparkling wine. The two began their joint venture in 2005. In 2007 they released their first Blanc de Chardonnay. Their first release of Fizz was 2011. Despite being newcomers, their sparkling chardonnay was featured at a State Dinner at the White House November 24, 2009.

Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc

There were three chardonnays, a white blend, and a lone sauvignon blanc.  In the best eclectic fashion, we’ll start with the latter.

Stinson Vineyards offered their 2013 sauvignon blanc ($23). There is just a touch of vegetal aroma with a strong overlay of grapefruit. This is followed by pears on the palate and a crisp, flinty finish.


Rachel Stinson (Vrooman) at work

Rachel Stinson (Vrooman) at work

Stinson was represented by Rachel Stinson Vrooman, the new daughter-in-law of Christine Vrooman, vineyard manager at Ankida Ridge. Christine’s son Nathan is the winemaker at Ankida Ridge, keeping all of this nicely in the family!

Chatham Winery

Chatham Winery

[pullquote]Jon Wehner is a second-generation winegrower on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. He learned about grape growing from his parents who operated Great Falls Vineyard in Great Falls, Virginia for thirty years. He and his wife and their three children own and operate the vineyard and winery. Since 1999, more than twenty acres of high-density (1,740 vines per acre) French vinifera varietals have been planted. They are Merlot (clone 181 and 3 on rootstock 101-14 and 3309), Chardonnay (French Dijon clones 95/96 and 76, and California Clones 4 and 5 on 3309 rootstock), Cabernet Franc (clone 214 on 101-14 rootstock), Cabernet Sauvignon (clone 337 on 101-14 rootstock) and Petit Verdot (clone 400 on 101-14 rootstock).[/pullquote]

Chatham Vineyards on Church Creek was the only winery outside the Charlottesville area. Chatham is located in the Eastern Shore Region, near the southern tip of the peninsula that forms the Chesapeake Bay. There is a healthy dose of broken oyster shells in the soils. Chatham has been there since 1999. There is an oyster bed in front of the vineyard that produces 3 million per year. The winery is named after the Earl of Chatham. From the Chatham website →

Jon knows history. He noted that 34 million years ago a meteor strike formed the Chesapeake Bay and created the peninsula. He claims the oyster shells in the soil and the salt air give his chardonnays a slightly saline flavor. He is specifically trying to produce wines to accompany oysters.

Before getting into the reviews, here’s the bad news: Chatham does not currently ship to California. I’ve e-mailed Jon to chastise him for this omission.

For Chatham’s Church Creek Steel Chardonnay 2013 ($17) Jon “really tried to preserve the acidity to go with oysters.” The wine is cold fermented from three Dijon clones. Hints of pear and honeydew melon aromas are followed by wet slate and just a touch of salinity. This wine was, indeed, made for oysters.

Chatham also brought the 2011 vintage for comparison. The extra two years has softened the acidity and brought out the honeysuckle.

Chatham Family

Chatham Family

Chatham Dog

Chatham Dog

Like many California wineries, Chatham has an active series of events at the winery. One in particular is of interest, their annual Oyster Extravaganza. This year it will be held November 8. Tickets are available on the website, $45 for adults and $15 for kids. Local oyster growers bring their oysters to the winery so you can try pairing each with different whites.

The third chardonnay was from Ankida Ridge, located at 1,800 feet elevation in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The soil is decomposing granite, about 30% each sand, clay, loam. It’s very will drained, allowing for a high vine density. The vines are five years old, with 1.5 acres of pinot noir. Ankida Ridge plans to plant another 4 acres. Everything is processed by hand, including bottling. Owner Christine Vrooman describes the vineyard as her “peaceable kingdom.” Livestock includes chickens, guinea hens, sheep, cats, and dogs. The chickens and guinea hens eat the bugs and weed seeds, the cats chase the birds and rodents away with the sheep taking care of the weeds. The dogs handle larger varmints. And they all contribute 100 percent organic fertilizer. Christine manages the vineyard, while her son Nathan is the winemaker. Her husband is a veterinarian who “supports the activity” — and undoubtedly helps keep the kingdom peaceable.

Ankida Ridge Christine and Nathan Vrooman

Christine and Nathan Vrooman

Ankida Ridge’s 2013 chardonnay ($32) opens with pear and spice aromas. Hints of grapefruit on the palate, with touches of oak and malolactic fermentation add to good acidity and citrus.

Early Mountain Vineyards poured their Block Eleven 2013 ($25). This blend is 65% petit manseng and 35% muscat. Petit manseng was new to us. Apparently it is popular in the midwest, at least in part because it offers a little more cold resistance plus fruitiness and high brix. It’s mainly used in dessert wines. This blend had too much muscat for our taste. The tasting sheet is about right when it says, “The palate is full of ripe mandarin fruit, pineapple, candied ginger, and lemongrass. Medium bodied with a touch of natural sweetness.”

Early Mountain Owner Jean Case

Owner Jean Case

Early Mountain Winemaker Steve Monson

Winemaker Steve Monson

Early Mountain’s owners are Steve and Jean Case. (Yes, that Steve Case. AOL, anybody? Jean spent over two decades in marketing and branding for AOL. She is now the owner of Early Mountain.) The vineyard was first planted in 2000, but the owner went broke. The Cases bought the vineyard in 2008 and reopened in 2012.


Good things are happening in Virginia.  In part 2 we’ll look at the reds (including the lone pinot noir).