While new wineries continue to pop up across the East Coast from New York to North Carolina, there is no region gaining more ground in both quality and recognition than the greater Charlottesville wine region. Farmers over the past 200 years cultivated the soil for fruit crops like apples and peaches, which set an ideal stage for what is now known as the Monticello American Viticultural Area.
One major factor in its success, according to King Family Vineyards owner David King, is precisely its lack of newness. Time has already proven many of the rolling Blue Ridge slopes conducive to cool-climate fruit production, and with the help of Virginia Tech’s viticultural research department and some recently acquired expertise, Monticello has lived up to the wine-growing potential that Thomas Jefferson foresaw there centuries ago.
As we stand on the precipice of winter, vineyards may seem low on the list of worthy discussion topics. Now, of course, is the time where vines begin to go barren and production comes to a standstill until the spring thaw. But while everyone else with the winter wonderland bug is waiting in line at the ski slopes, Charlottesville’s wineries offer intimate afternoon getaways off the beaten path. With the last of the fall wine festivals behind us, tours are down and crowds have dwindled, leaving true wine enthusiasts with a selection of world-class vineyards to explore without the fuss of traffic. And with more than 20 vineyards to choose from, it is just a matter of knowing where to start.
Winter is the season to have long, intimate discussions with the winemakers, get nearly one-on-one tours of the cellars, and odds are, there are some great deals to be had. Underneath the brown landscape and the cold, bustling wind, there lies a world of winter wine, waiting to be discovered in Charlottesville, Va.
Castle Hill Cider
In 1998, a great barn was built in Keswick, Va., on the Castle Hill estate, just a stone’s throw from Charlottesville and Monticello. Located on a 600-acre plot of rolling, endless hills, the barn was designed to accommodate cattle auctions for the surrounding ranchers. Like much of Keswick, the land is undeveloped and still entrenched in the natural beauty of Virginia, with a prominent view of the Southwest Mountains. When architect and landscape designer John Rhett saw the abandoned barn in 2008, with its 8,000 square feet of open space and 25-foot ceilings, he had other plans for it.
Rhett was approached to put a vineyard on the property and convert the barn to a winery, but his thoughts were a bit more interesting. “I prefer trees to vines,” he said. “I thought, why don’t we plant an orchard and start a cidery.” The Barn at Castle Cider is now a fully functioning traditional cidery and the area’s newest event space.
What makes this cider so unique is its ancient production techniques, which go back to the origins of cider production. The cider is aged and fermented in kvevri, traditional amphoras from the nation of Georgia’s Caucasus Mountains, lined with beeswax and buried in the cool earth. “We are the only cidermakers in the world making cider in kvevri,” says cidermaker Stuart Madney. “We really have no idea how long it’s been since cider has been made this way — possibly thousands of years.”
The apple varieties are all fermented individually to retain their unique flavors, and then blended to create different ciders. The apple orchard Rhett planted in the fall of 2009 is made up of 600 trees with 28 different types of apples. Its most prized variety is a nearly forgotten native breed, the Albemarle Pippin. “It’s an apple that became a favorite of Queen Victoria,” says Rhett. “She was given a basket of them, and she liked them so much that she removed the tariff from the apple just so it was cheaper to import them.”
The Albemarle Pippin got here by the hands of George Washington himself. Originally from New York, Washington gave a cutting to Colonel Thomas Walker, Thomas Jefferson’s guardian and mentor, who planted it in Albemarle County.
While cider production has been underway for over a year now, The Barn at Castle Hill Cider just celebrated its grand opening, and now is the perfect time for a visit. CastleHillCider.com
Al and Cindy Schornberg founded Keswick Vineyards with a mission to listen to the land. Taking a minimalist approach to the winemaking, this family-owned and -operated vineyard focuses its attention on the vineyards themselves to produce the best possible fruit with which to make the wines. Using natural, native yeast, all of their current red wines are also unfiltered and unfined — meaning that all the natural sediment in the wine remains with it in the bottle, ensuring peak flavor and body. And while their wines are in top form right off the shelves, this process makes the wine age superbly. It will keep developing in depth and complexity for five to 10 years in the bottle — good news for the connoisseurs among us.
The Schornbergs chose the historic Edgewood Estate as the site for their dream vineyard after searching the country, recognizing its potential of producing world class wines. It’s also a downright gorgeous property, and with a fine winter frost blanketing the dormant grape vines and the grey hush of the mountains looming in the distance, there is hardly a more beautiful spot in Virginia to warm up with a bottle of vintage Petite Verdot.
They’re also not bad if you like white wines. Their 2002 Viognier Reserve was voted Best White Wine in America at the Atlanta International Wine Summit. They have a slew of other awards from across the country, and they keep raking them in. Give them a visit — we’re sure you’ll agree with the judges.
Barboursville Vineyards, quite frankly, has it all. Founded in 1976, the winery has been a leader in establishing the credibility of the Virginia appellation with an array of wine varietals, cultivating wines of a European heritage best suited for the regional terroir, or land.
Luca Paschina, the Italian-born winemaker of Barboursville Vineyards, came to Virginia in 1991 after years working in Italy and California, and has since been producing some of Virginia’s fully ripe and high-quality grapes. Paschina got his viticultural training in Piemonte, the renowned winemaking region in Italy. And in good years in Charlottesville, he says that he sees little difference from its growing season and Piemonte’s.
And you can’t go wrong with their wines. From their Cabernet Franc to their Sangiovese, and the Chardonnays and Pinot Grigiots in the whites, Paschina has developed the portfolio of Barboursville wines into a world-class achievement. Their crowning viticultural achievement is surely Octagon, a seamless blend Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.
This award winning wine, with a dark, rich garnet color and an intense aroma of plum, cassis, coffee and berries, was woven together in barrel for a phenomenally full and silky palate. The tannins are resplendent and graceful. This is not a wine you want to miss.
And beyond the wines and the vineyard, the Barboursville Estate also maintains the 1804 Inn, a converted 18th century vineyard cottage and residence, and the world class Palladio Restaurant, which even offers cooking classes and wine dinners with Barboursville wines. Combined with some of the region’s finest wines, Barboursville Vineyards is an ideal location to while away a wintry weekend.
King Family Vineyard
King Family Vineyards is a family-owned and -operated boutique winery located in Crozet, just 15 minutes from Charlottesville at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The winery specializes in small productions of ultra-premium wine that showcase the remarkable qualities of nearly 100-percent, estate-grown fruit. Founded in 1998, the winery’s first vintage was only 500 cases. Today, the winery produces approximately 5,000 cases of wine per year.
But David King, owner of King Family Vineyards, is on a larger mission: to make local wine more accessible in the state of Virginia. “We sell everything we make,” says King. “Yet wine made here is only 4.5 percent of the wine consumed in the state. Our biggest goal right now is merely to make more wine.”
There is a large local market in Virginia and its bordering states that has yet to be developed, he says, but with the state legislators helping to promote local wines in more shops and fine dining establishments, consumers have more opportunities to support local growers. King hopes for more wine lovers to discover the burgeoning industry right in their backyard.
During the summer months, the veranda, expansive lawn, or brick patio are perfect for outdoor picnics. In the winter, however, the winery’s tasting room is home to a warm stone fireplace and rich, family-friendly seating areas. Bring your own goodies or pick from the tasting room’s gourmet assortments of chocolates, cheeses, salamis, spreads, and hot French bread.
In 1730, John Carter, Secretary of the Colony of Virginia, obtained a patent for 9,350 acres in what is now Albemarle County, Va. In the 1790s, John’s son Edward built the first Blenheim house.
It was at Blenheim where Thomas Jefferson and his bride, Martha, are said to have rested and warmed themselves after their coach stalled nearby during a snowstorm.
Hopefully, you will have better luck with your vehicle than the Jeffersons, but in whose footsteps would it be better to follow in the historic Blue Ridge tradition of fending off the winter chill than the author of the Declaration of Independence and his brilliant, lovely wife?
Blenheim Vineyards is located on the foothills of Carter’s Mountain in southern Albermarle County, and their varieties include Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Viognier and Petit Verdot, among others, and all are outstanding examples of the varietals. Their wines reflect the climate, soil and beauty of the surrounding Piedmont landscape.
The tasting room offers a peak into the barrel room below and a breathtaking view of the southern vineyard.
On the adjacent property, a historic home has been refinished with a freestanding Library, complete with a wraparound porch and fireplace. Try the wine, take in the sites, and don’t forget to thank Mr. Jefferson for finding it first.