Last weekend we made an annual pilgrimage to the actual cellar of Delaplane Cellars, an extraordinary Virginia winery that we've recommended before. There we loved -- once again -- a tasting that has become something of a ritual first day of the springtime wine tasting season for us, drawing winemaker Jim Dolphin's latest creations direct from the barrels wherein they have spent the last months aging. And so it is, in our minds at least, that the finest time of year for exploring stunning Virginia wine country is upon us. Indeed, the Commonwealth's wines are our Best of April.
I wrote in a similar theme just over a year ago of Six winery recommendations for your next journey through stunning Virginia Wine Country. I consider those recommendations to be strong as ever, though I'd gladly add Glen Manor Vineyards as another producer of world class wines in the northern part of the state.
Virginia's curious winemaking history was actually the subject of one of the very first things I wrote when we started Wine:Thirty Flight several years ago, at the time writing, "Incredibly, as it turns out, Thomas Jefferson's quixotic belief that Virginia could make great wine turned out to be correct." Jefferson, a Virginia native, was long-possessed of the notion that the British colony of his birth was an ideal place to grow and produce wine. It didn't work well for him. So, in spite of Virginia having been home to some of the earliest attempts at winemaking in the New World, it would be centuries until truly viable, quality wines began to emerge around the turn of the twenty-first century (though Barboursville Vineyards dates to 1976, and today is producing excellent higher end wines).
Further reading: Barboursville Vineyards realizes Thomas Jefferson's Virginia dream
Having traveled extensively and gotten to know folks in wineries throughout the state, my observation is that the region's most successful producers have converged around two truths. First, that Virginia is far better suited to the production of European-style versus California-style wines, and second that the vineyard matters. Great winemakers know that great wine begins on the vine. They are obsessive about what happens in their vineyards.
I want to dwell on the first idea a bit, for I think it's often lost on casual American wine drinkers that there exists a great and vast world outside of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Winemakers in California have made their state famous for these grapes that grow so well there, but the revelation of winemaking in Virginia (and the world over) is that it is terroir -- the totality of the growing region's natural elements -- not the market, that selects a region's finest grapes. In Virginia those grapes are the white Viognier and the red Cabernet Franc. And, oh my, are we lucky for it.
I admit that my only hesitancy making Virginia wine the subject of our Best of April piece is that we just recommended Viognier as part of our Best of March piece. No matter, there's a reason these wines are such excellent springtime companions. Last month I wrote that, "The white Viognier grape is grown in many regions around the world, despite being far less well known than other higher production whites that form the mainstay of most wine collections. We love it in springtime because it's sufficiently full bodied (sometimes similar in texture to a Chardonnay) to offer the heartiness you want in colder weather, yet is known for its robust floral notes that fill the nose with those blooming flowers we'll soon see all around us."
In fact we have eleven bottles of Virginia Viognier in our personal cellar at this very moment, with another bottle bought and paid for but still resting peacefully in its barrel as it awaits bottling later this spring. Perusal of my tasting notes of Viognier over the years paints a sensory picture of a white wine that runs pale straw to rich gold in color, extraordinarily floral as its aromas kick up out of the glass, hearty enough to perform well when it's still a bit cooler, crisp enough to cool us down when the weather warms, acidic (when done properly) so as to be extraordinarily versatile with food, and often possessed by notes of banana, pear, dried pineapple, and melon. Drink on its own, or pair it with chicken and fish.
2016 Wild Boar Cellars Viognier from Stone Tower Winery
Wild Boar is the non-estate (i.e. grapes are not grown by the winery itself) label for the still-young, but already successful and clearly capable Stone Tower Winery in Virginia's Loudon County. Produced from grapes grown in Orange County, VA, this bottle is a lovely example of the Viognier varietal that performs so well in the Commonwealth (as the state is known). Crisp refreshing fruit dominates the experience, with marked banana and pear on the palate. This is a super versatile white, with a little acidity and viscosity that pairs well with food. Some texture of a sweeter white without the sugar, we also think it will be a crowd pleaser that can appeal to a range of drinkers' preferences.
Famous as the signature varietal from France's Chinon region, and as one of Bordeaux's principal grape varietals, Cabernet Franc sits atop the throne lording over Virginia's reds. Different from Cabernet Sauvignon, its genetic child, Cab Franc is more delicate, brighter red and less brooding, often characterized by rich peppery notes and a tendency to show more cherry or cranberry fruits akin to what one sometimes finds in hearty food-friendly Pinot Noirs. We in fact often introduce newcomers to Cab Franc as a substitute at meals for what they might have otherwise chosen Pinot, though the comparison is inexact. I am generally hesitant to drink Cab Sauv without a meal, but Cab Franc performs magnificently with or without food.
Continuing with the theme, there are currently fourteen bottles of Virginia Cab Franc calling our cellar home, so -- like Viognier -- we put our money where our mouth is on this one. Also, like Viognier, there are very few months of the year when we'd not likely drink a good bottle of this. I'd hesitate at the height of summer, but it turns out that Cab Franc is also the father of some of the most delightful bottles of rosé. You'll find that any number of Virginia's producers playing with rosé are doing so with this grape.
Suckers as we may be for mono-varietal (that's a bottle made from but one grape varietal) Cab Franc, but it's worth noting how some of Virginia's best winemakers excel at classic Bordeaux-style red blends, of which many feature this classic Bordeaux style grape. Jim Dolphin's 2016 Williams Gap, tasted from the barrel last week at Delaplane Cellars, is 50% Cab Franc. Just down the road you'll find RdV Vineyards Rendezvous -- consistently one of Virginia's very best bottles -- is averaging around 20% Cab Franc in this Merlot-driven Bordeaux blend over the last five vintages. I'll add a footnote here that RdV is one of the only Virginia wineries that I find is able to produce truly excellent Cab Sauv dominated blends year in and year out, a true accomplishment.
2014 Delaplane Cellars "Benevino" Cabernet Franc
We tasted the 2014 vintage shortly after it hit the bottle. It was divine then, actually one of the single best Virginia wines that had ever cross our lips. A couple of years on, now, and we find a wine whose best year we suspect will be 2019. Keep your bottles safe until then. Meanwhile, today we're getting a nose of clove cigarette, tobacco, black pepper, generalized spice box, and red stone fruit. Follow that up with more red stone fruit on the palate, unripened red plum, green pepper. You might find some Merlot-like viscosity when you first sip, followed by cranberry that turns quite smooth, and a little menthol in the finish. Leave it open for a couple of hours and you'll swear your drinking the burnt sugar top of a crème brûlée.
Further reading: Virginia's Delaplane Cellars is an indisputably world class winery
So -- if you've gotten this far -- I leave this where it began. We're high in the season of the most wonderful winery adventures not just in Virginia, but in much of the wine making northern hemisphere (I was in Sonoma two weekends ago, beautiful). Go! If you're lucky enough to live in Virginia or be visiting the Washington, DC area, go two, three, four times. Make a trip of it for its own sake. Washington is one of America's pre-eminent cities from which to base an exploration of beautiful wine country. It's rarely more beautiful than it is right now.