Petit manseng is a fascinating grape. Several winemakers in Virginia are working with this unique grape in Virginia, where the grape can outlast even a dreadful hurricane season. Click here to read my full article about petit manseng in the local Charlottesville paper, The C-Ville!
I was gone for about 10 months because I was busy working on my first harvest. Yes, I finally made my own unicorn-- so highly allocated in fact, that there is just one. She's a very special 2015 vintage. If she looks extra sweet, that's because she is a late harvest, coming in two weeks after her expected date.
The 2015 vintage was a unique one. Bud break happened sometime in early February, then flowering shortly thereafter. The summer was full of mild weather and lots of kicking. By October, the fruit was practically falling off the vine, but even though the vine was ready (like, SO ready) to drop the fruit, harvest didn't happen until very late November. Today we're almost seven weeks into elevage, yet there is still so much development that needs to happen. But even at this early stage, it's easy to tell that this is one Grand Cru baby!
When you first open this beauty it is fruity and ripe and rich, but after 15-20 minutes or so, it magically turns to meat and pepper. I love serving this and watching peoples' reaction to how it changes over dinner-- it's a truly beautiful and pleasant syrah.
Making wine together since 1984, Rene-Jean Dard & Francois Ribo approach winemaking in a very non-interventionist style, and they were some of the first in the Northern Rhone to re-approach natural wine after the agro-chemical movements of the 1950s.
Much like the late Serge Hochar from Chateau Musar (who believed his aged whites "are for the mind" more than the body), Dard finds his older whites to be more complex and mysterious than the reds, and prefers the reds on the younger side of things. Thus, I was happy to open up this 2012 Saint Joseph red when I did. The wine is one of these alive syrahs that changes so much in the glass over a few hours. It's exciting to drink, and such a dynamic wine in a restaurant setting.
Today, the Margaret River is a thriving wine region of Australia, popular for similar varieties upon which Napa Valley has built its bread & butter, such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. But back in the early 1960s, there was no wine in the Margaret River-- that legacy belonged to South Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales. Planting vines at Vasse Felix in 1967 signaled a turning point that brought this wine region into the world's eye.
Vasse Felix is named after a historic figure: Thomas Vasse. During storms in the early 1800s he was swept overboard on his ship, and though some presumed him dead, other legends abounded about his ultimate fate: Was he adopted by Australian locals? Had he been picked up by an American ship & taken back to Europe? Had he been jailed?
Tom Cullity, a cardiologist who purchased his first vineyard site for $75, named his winery 'Vasse Felix' ('Lucky Vasse'), humorously rebranding history's view of local legend Thomas Vasse. But the winery had to throw most of their first vintage (1971) overboard when local birds ate much of their crop. Determined not to share Vasse's fate, Cullity brought in a falcon to scare off the birds... but he flew away on his first release. (However, you can still find this feathery wanderer on every Vasse Felix wine label).
After a few vintages, things turned around. One of Cullity's early riesling vintages garnered some early support for the region. In 1972 he made his first cabernet sauvignon vintage, which would soon become a benchmark wine for the Margaret River. And, of course, today, these high-quality wines have helped set the course for the Margaret River's wine scene.
Recently, a friend shared this beautiful bottle of 2001 Vasse Felix 'Heytesbury', and it was like peering into the history of Western Australia's wine history. Heytesbury is old-vine cabernet sauvignon, with syrah, petit verdot, and malbec blended in (84% cabernet sauvignon, 8% syrah, 6% malbec, 2% merlot). They hefty alcohol (14.2) blends in to the rich, dark wine, and savory tertiary aromas presented in a way that made this wine great with meats.
Happy New Year, everyone! Charlottesville, Virginia has the most restaurants per capita of any city in the US, with the exception of New York City. It's easy to find a delicious meal in this town, and here are a few of my favorite bites from the past year (one for each month!), with the drink pairings that made them magical.
January: The Adam's Apple
This might be the best lunch under $10 in Charlottesville. Fresh turkey, local bacon, creamy goat cheese, crispy & tart apples, peppery arugula, sweet apple butter, and spicy garlic aioli-- all on crumbly & wholesome sunflower-wheat toast. The sandwich's name evokes an Eden-like perfection, but hints at how sinfully delicious this can be...
Foggy Ridge 'Handmade' hard apple cider
Cidermaker Diane Flynt has an unwavering commitment to high-quality cider, epitomized by her 'Handmade' expression from apples grown in the Blue Ridge Mountains. All of the fresh apple aromas in this sparkling cider bring out the apple elements in the sandwich. This cider is also a great way to wash down a hearty meal John Adams-style, who drank a tankard of cider every morning with breakfast.
February: Bacon Wrapped Dates
Mas - Chef Tomas Rahal
A great tapa is one of life's simple pleasures. These sweet & savory morsels are always on my list of things to try for anyone visiting Charlottesville. Mas has a wide array of tasty, fresh tapas, and while I've never left food on any plate I've ordered, there are a few of their specialties that stand out above the rest... like these dates. They come to you right from the oven in a cast iron skillet, the bottom snapping and crackling with lava-hot bacon drippings. The most difficult part about eating these is the 5 minutes they sit in front of you while you wait for them to cool down-- but on a cold and snowy day in February, a steaming skillet of bacon-wrapped dates is one of the best ways to warm up.
Crisp bubbles are one of the best ways to wash down anything with bacon fat. Since 1881 the family has been making wine, and their contributions toward viticulture and vinification have made a great impact on Cava production over the 20th century. A staple on Mas' awesome wine list, this is a great go-to glass selection that will pair so well with just about any tapa.
March: Mushroom Pizza
Dr. Ho's Humble Pie
Ok, this might be slightly outside of Charlottesville, but it is close enough to be a part of Charlottesville's pizza lore, so here it is: The mushrooms are local, the crust is fresh, crunchy, & chewy, the staff is sassy, the beers are freezing cold, and you can play magnetic scrabble at the tables-- could this be America's ultimate pizza house? It's definitely worth the 15 minute drive outside of Charlottesville proper.
Brasserie de la Pigeonelle 'La Loirette' (Touraine, France)
This farmhouse ale from the Loire Valley is a great treat with pizza-- it's not too funky or feral (as some farmhouse ales can be), but it still has some body and earthiness to it, making it an excellent pairing with mushroom pizza.
April: Icing Stuffed Chocolate Chip Cookies
Perfectly cooked chocolate chip cookies with just the right amount of crunchiness and chewiness, made into sandwiches stuffed with vanilla icing..... This would satisfy even the most discerning Sweet Tooth. The sugar rush mixed with a little coffee makes for a great mid-day pick-me-up.
Locally roasted coffee from The Mudhouse is always fresh, rich, and tasty. This coffee shop fuels most of the local business on Charlottesville's downtown mall, and it has also played a hand in writing countless college papers (there are always several students studying in the cafe). The baristas are seasoned professionals who know how to have fun-- and they pull great shots.
May: Olive Oil Cake
Parallel 38 - Chef Alfredo Malinis Jr.
This tasty and moist olive oil cake comes to you with a giant ball of goat cheese ice cream balanced on top.
Neudorf chardonnay (Nelson, NZ)
Neudorf chardonnay grapes are from a special clone with hen & egg symptoms. The big ripe berries in the bunches give the wine its lush richness while the small unripe berries add a pop of bright acidity. The combination is mellowed in oak, and the dense with with hints of vanilla and peach brought out the best in the olive oil cake.
June: Mushroom & Swiss Burger
Citizen Burger Bar
Citizen Burger Bar, a new burger joint on Charlottesville's historic downtown mall, serves satisfying burgers and fries and has one of the most extensive and well-procured beer lists in town. Sometimes it's the simple things, and when you have a protein craving there is nothing more satisfying than this local mushroom & Swiss burger with simple fries and a beer.
Lagunitas DayTime Ale (dry hopped)
The bright lemony-pine flavors you get from dry-hopped beers practically jump out of the glass. This lively beer acted as a type of palate cleanser between each rich bite of the meaty burger.
July: Heirloom Tomatoes from Radical Roots Farm
Charlottesville Farmer's Market
A late-summer visit to Charlottesville's farmers market will lead you to stroll by the tents of several local farmers. The produce at Radical Roots always stands out: they are hard-core organic farmers, they have one of the most incredible heirloom tomato programs I've ever seen, and the quality of produce is pretty hard to beat. Grab a bag of fresh-cut arugula and a hand full of tomatoes, then all you need is a little olive oil & salt to finish one of the best meals of your life.
Shafer Frohlich 'Felseneck' GG riesling 2010 (Nahe, Germany)
All the herbaceous and complex savory aromas you get from the natural yeast riesling ferment pairs perfectly with a warm, sun-ripened tomato picked a few hours prior from the organic fields at Radical Roots farm. This is one of the loveliest rieslings on the planet, and to have it with something so fresh and vibrant as a sun-warmed heirloom tomato is pure joy.
August: House Made Corn Tortellini with Mushrooms
The Red Pump - Chef Todd Grieger
The Red Pump opened in the summer of 2014 on Charlottesville's historic downtown mall. This tortellini dish from their opening menu was an incredibly memorable way to experience the freshest corn of the season.
Giacommo Fenocchio 2013 arneis
The oily richness of arneis against the sweet burst of perfectly ripe corn kernels and the earthiness of fresh mushrooms created one of the most hedonistic food and wine pairings I've had in a long time.
September: Maitake Mushroom & House-Made Ramen
The Clifton Inn - Chef Tucker Yoder
This is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted in my life. Chef Yoder's house-made ramen noodles with a tasty pan-seared maitake mushroom satisfied the most limbic desires with its beauty, simplicity, and tastiness. Though Chef Tucker has recently left The Clifton, his ramen is something to follow wherever he may land.
Lopez de Heredia 'Tondonia' 2002 (Rioja, Spain)
The old-school wines from Lopez de Heredia are released when ready, and exhibit the earthy side of tempranillo. This 2002 went perfectly with the mushroom and noodles.
October: The B.F.P. (Big Fluffy Pancake)
Brookville - Chef Harrison Keevil
On one of the first crisp days of fall, it seemed as if the entire city was out strolling on Charlottesville's downtown mall. This type of morning was perfect for a lazy brunch, and perfect for a B.F.P., which truly is a gigantic, 'big fluffy pancake' (see the quarter for size comparison). The middle-- saturated with maple syrup and butter-- contrasted the crunchy, fluffy edges.
Virginia Fizz mimosas
A delightful reminder that a good brunch can set the tone for a whole season, the fresh squeezed orange juice topped with Thibault-Janisson's sparkling chardonnay, 'Virginia Fizz,' was a simple pairing for this perfectly-cooked, huge pancake.
November: Braised Lamb Shoulder with Licorice
Palladio - Chef Melissa Close-Hart
Chef Close-Hart is changing restaurants and will soon be running an eatery in Belmont; but in her final months at Barboursville Winery's Palladio Restaurant she made this delicious dish. The braised lamb shoulder was wrapped in a flaky dough and served with a licorice sauce that brought out all the anise aromatics of the Barboursville 'Octagon' 2010.
Barboursville 'Octagon' 2010 (Barboursville, Virginia)
2010 was a groundbreaking and benchmark year for Virginia wineries. It was one of the few years in the last decade when most of the state had a beautiful vintage (previous vintages were marred by drought, rains, earthquakes, and hurricanes). Barboursville's 'Octagon,' a reserve Bordeaux-style blend, has long been a bellwether for quality wine in Virginia, and the 2010 was complex and rich, with a bright acidity that balanced this hearty dish in a great way.
December: French Onion Soup with Mountain View Farm Swiss
Petit Pois - Chef Brian Jones
Caramelized onions, beef broth, toasted baguette and local McClure 'Swiss' cheese-- when French onion soup is done right it can be one of the most delicious bowls of soup on the planet. It's great for all involved.... except the dishwasher.
Ar Pe Pe 'Rosso di Valtellina' 2012 (Lombardia, Italy)
The smooth tannins of the Ar Pe Pe nebbiolo married perfectly with the meaty beef broth, and the bright acidity cut through the bubbling and crunchy Swiss cheese. The wine is delicious on its own, but with a hearty dish like this it became something truly unforgettable.
*note: I write Petit Pois' wine list, so I feel ethically compelled to state my association with this restaurant; but extended exposure to the French Onion Soup has only strengthened my resolve that it belongs on this list!
This year, my favorites revolved around hearty staples, as opposed to cutting-edge molecular gastronomy or high-end haute cuisine: burgers, pizzas, tapas, sandwiches, noodles... maybe I'm just at a point in my life where I want to get back to the basics of dining, but 2014 was the year of the satisfying, hearty, quotidian meals. And it was great!
The Growers Collection wines from Pyramid Valley Vineyards are interesting forays into winemaking outside of the Weersing's Canterbury home. Made from contracted fruit farmed to their specifications (at least organic and often with biodynamic preparations), these unique vines are a great way to showcase the specialties of tiny vineyards around New Zealand, as opposed to the owners selling their fruit to large wine corporations, or having an industrial grower instruct the growers to re-graft with a more profitable variety. Under the Pyramid Valley Vineyard label, these unique wines have a home in the global marketplace. Growers Collection wines include a sparkling riesling, a savory semillon, and this cabernet franc.
Hawke's Bay is renown for its Bordeaux-like gravel and clay based terroir. The great Bordeaux-style red blends of New Zealand come from this region.
Pyramid Valley 'Howell Family Vineyard' cabernet franc 2009 (Hawke's Bay, New Zealand)
The 2009 cabernet france is ripe and lush. It shows the dark, plummy side of what cabernet franc can be, rather than the savory side of the grape.
In fact, it's a feeling I usually get with romorantin-- a grape that was once popular throughout the Loire (a curious vineyard nearby in Touraine at Domaine Henry Marionnet claims to date to 1850), but after the upheaval of the phylloxera epidemic it now mostly grows in the tiny Cour-Cheverny appellation, which became an AOC recently in 1997 . Romorantin's parantage is gouais blanc and pinot-- if that sounds familiar, it's because those same parents also gave us chardonnay and aligote. In the Loire since the 1500s, romorantin needs extra special guidance to shepherd its delicate pink canes into shape and minimize the effects of wind damage. When farmed with care, and when hail spares the region, romorantin defines the truly distinct wines of Cour-Cheverny. Cazin, who works with a combination of older vines planted by his grandfather and younger vines planted by himself, is considered a benchmark producer in the region and has truly helped guide what the Cour-Cheverny AOC means to the rest of the world.
At the 2o14 Virginia Wine Summit (Richmond, Virginia), I sat on the It's All Relative panel discussion about value. Fellow panel member John T. Edge of Southern Foodways Alliance brought an interesting cultural dynamic to the discussion, restaurateur Todd Thrasher (who founded some of my favorite restaurants in the D.C. area, including Restaurant Eve) brought an economic viewpoint to the conversation, and sommelier Neal Wavra brought a keen taster's perspective to the blind selections of wine in front of us. Anthony Giglio kept us all in check as our moderator.
As the four of us spoke about value, we each came from a different perspective. John talked about how being a part of the food culture in your local area is a major part of experiencing, participating, and creating regional culture.
Todd spoke about the day-to-day realities of running a restaurant group. For example, he needs a high-quality wine that he can sell by the glass, and has been pouring Thibault-Janisson sparkling wine for years because the tasty sparkler can beat Champagne prices while out-performing in quality. Neal & I nodded our heads in approval-- we both pour Thibault-Janisson bubbly too, for the same reasons.
For months in advance, I thought about value and what it means. A panel discussion about value and Virginia wine is like opening up a can of worms, because the truth is, many Virginia wines are expensive (comparatively in the market), and European wines can easily come into the market at less expensive prices, and therefore imported wines are generally more profitable on a wine list which makes them enticing options for wine directors. You'd think local products that don't have to travel would be less expensive than something shipped overseas, but that just isn't the case in Virginia.
Why? Well, I posit that it's because a thousand years ago in Burgundy, monks could experiment with all sorts of grape varieties-- and who was financing their work? Tithers. Congregations over the centuries financed all the trial & error that has brought Burgundy to where it is today. What about Bordeaux? Much of that experimentation was financed by royalty, and in subregions such as Graves, you have tithers & religious organizations financing the experimentation there, as well. With proven track records, plenty of existing vineyards and wineries, R&D investment that is centuries out of the way and was financed by someone else, and shipping infrastructure in place, these regions can make profits with less investment than in Virginia. Because who is financing the Virginia wine trade? Passionate individuals spending their own money on brand new state-of-the-art wineries, vineyards, labor, and equipment. And the wine trade infrastructure of Virginia is not a well-oiled machine as it is in established wine regions of Europe.
When I see that we have 260+ wineries in Virginia, most of them founded in the last decade, I see 260 million dollars of personal investment (and probably closer to 3x that amount) that has been sunk into starting these wineries. Wineries take years and sometimes decades to get their finances from red to black, so families who have taken this winery investment risk and need cash flow to cover operating costs end up charging prices that will keep their winery sustainable. Some criticize those prices for being too high, but ultimately the market will decide.
Is there value in local products? I believe that part of experiencing a place, and becoming part of a place, is to eat and drink the products that come up from the local earth. Part of establishing a personal identity and sense of self means taking into account your geography and placement in the world, which translates to consuming and celebrating your unique local products and being proud of what your neighbors produce. Paying a few dollars more to a local winery is worth it to me to support the wine industry here. It's also a worthy price-- in my opinion-- to become part of Virginia, sip by sip.
Eventually, most Virginia wineries will have recouped their start up costs, trade routes will be solidified, and the reputation of the region will have risen to the point where the high-quality wineries can command higher prices without the consumers raising their eyebrows. But that will take time, most likely decades.
For right now, I take heart in the fact that every day I get to watch history being made in my state. I get to participate in it. I get to taste all the results of experimental trial and error. And yes there are plenty of errors. When I buy wine for the restaurants, I put money where I think quality lies; I buy what's good and I tell the producer when I think a wine is no good. I get to be a part of all of it by voting with my dollars, and in my own tiny way, I get to help guide the industry by only buying the good wines and trying to keep anything sub-par out of my cellar. And are there great, profound wines from Virginia? Oh, yes. I taste them every day. After tasting multiple vintages from the same producers I'm starting to see the nuances of terroir emerge in the subregions. It's fascinating watching a whole new industry rise up like a phoenix from the fading tobacco plantations that once thrived and supported so many jobs here. I get to watch Virginia wine become a quotidian part of the lunch meals and suppers of locals. I get to talk to hundreds of tourists a year who have visited my city to tour the wine country here. I get to be a part of it. That makes my life more valuable.
But aside from cultural value, is there monetary value to be found when buying wines here? If you search, you'll find the values. I can still manage to pour Virginia wines year-round at competitive prices because I have found some people making great wines at decent prices. Value from many angles exists here, and I think that as the industry matures, the pricing will only become more enticing from a consumer's perspective.
The Roosevelt in Richmond, Virginia boasts an ambitious all-Virginia wine list. Such a focused list is possible because this is Virginia's wine industry blossoming phase. Each AVA and winery is searching for their identity and experimenting with so many different grape varieties and production methods; wineries make such an expansive variety of wine, from methode traditionelle sparklers to fortified dessert reds, and everywhere in between. With so much to choose from, a restaurant can fill all the bases with just local wines-- a feat that would not have been possible 15 years ago.
Their wine list is a nice snapshot of what's happening in Virginia, highlighting the top producers and interesting trends-- such as chardonnay/viognier blends and powerful Bordeaux-style reds-- that are coming to define the AVAs here. The selections are thoughtful and priced as great values.
The menu is full of modern takes on hearty southern cuisine from Chef Lee Gregory. Here are a few photos from dinner:
I’m Erin, and I’m thirsty for drinks and the secrets they hold. Wine is my main game, but I’ve been known to love a cocktail here and there, and who doesn’t like a good beer on the regular? This blog is for wine/spirits/beer geeks. No beverage will be left unsipped! Posts are at least weekly, more if possible.