The famous Blue Ridge Mountains have been written about in songs. These mountains are the first major eastern line of the Appalachian Mountains, running from north to south though Virginia. Along the east side of the Blue Ridge in central Virginia are the historic homes of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and James Madison Monticello. And Monticello, named after Jefferson’s famed estate, is one of the seven established AVA’s in Virginia.
Lined along the eastern side of the of the mountains is home to a large percentage of the wineries in Virginia, which is more than 200. As winery owner David Pollak best explained, with a mix of humor and seriousness, “It is no more challenging than anywhere else to make wine here, except that we have frost, humidity and hurricanes.”
But with high elevations, sloped vineyards and good wind flow, if the winter is not too treacherous, this is as good area to make wine as anywhere else. And my host, Brian Yost of The Virginia Grape, a resource to all things Virginia wine, took me out to show me this.
Afton Mountain Vineyard
The vines at Afton Mountain Vineyard were first planted in 1978, making them some of the oldest vines in the area. Afton Mountain opened as a commercial winery in 1990 and Elizabeth Smith, a former property manager, and her husband Tony, who works in commercial real estate, purchased the winery in 2009.
They had been living on the eastern shore and started taking wine classes at community college. They had land in the area but as they began understanding microclimates, they realized that the land they had would not work if they wanted to plant vinifera.
Instead, they began looking in the Monticello area, with a five-year plan in mind, where they were quickly introduced to Afton Mountain Vineyard. It was the ideal vineyard site, located just below 1,000 feet elevation in a nice wind pocket that helps protect against serious frost. The vineyard is located on an isthmus between a lake and creeks, resulting in good drainage in the rocky, clay and loam soil. They started with 11 acres and today have 24 acres from which they produce approximately 3,000 cases, all estate fruit. Fun fact, Afton Mountain Winery was the first gravity flow winery in the state of Virginia.
Bollicine 2013 – Made in the classic method, with hand riddling, this sparkling wine is made with 70 percent chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir and is bright and delicate with pineapple notes.
Albariño 2016 – Only the second vintage for this wine, it has a bright floral and citrus nose with medium plus acidity on the palate.
Owners David and Margo Pollak started in Napa Valley in the late 1970s with Bouchaine Winery, the second major winery in Carneros. This was when Carneros’ potential was unknown but as Pollak explained, “We kept working at it and got more right than wrong.”
Their second vintage of pinot noir was served by President Reagan and in 1986, they sold Bouchaine Winery to Dupont. Pollak went on to run businesses in Europe but every time he saw a vineyard, he had to walk through it.
In 2001, his wife said that if they were going to do another winery, they should get started. They did not want to return to California and looked at Oregon, but after five days in a row of rain during a visit, they decided against it.
As both David and Margo were educated at Cornell, they looked east. The Finger Lakes were an option but they did not want to focus on riesling. Then Pollak tried a chardonnay by Jim Law from Linden Winery and he saw that Virginia had potential. They found the perfect microclimate in land along the Blue Ridge Mountains, which was previously an apple orchard and then a vegetable farm. The vines, planted north to south, are in a wind tunnel so they do not have dew issues or rot. With 30 different soil types, the Pollak’s have planted 30 of the 100 acres on their property.
2015 Viognier – Fifty percent whole cluster and 50 percent skin contact for eight hours, the wine has a tropical nose and on the palate, it is bright with apricot and peach notes, a creamy mid-palate and delicate acidity.
2015 Pinot Gris – Marcus Keller of King Estate in Oregon consulted on the wine. The pinot gris is left on the skins for eight hours and the resulting wine has a nice weight to it. It has notes of orange blossom, stone fruit and tropical fruit, and a long finish.
2014 Cabernet Franc – A bright ruby color, the nose of the wine is cherry, pomegranate, blackberry and pepper and velvety on the palate.
Rachel Stinson’s parents were looking for a property to retire on outside of Washington, D.C. Her father had always loved wine but never expected to own a vineyard, especially in Virginia. They purchased their vineyard in 2009. It was originally planted in the 1970s but they replanted and today have just under seven acres planted to sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, tannat, petit manseng and mourvedre in red clay soil.
Today, Stinson’s parents are still involved but she is running the winery and making the wine, with the help of consulting winemaker Matthieu Finot, and her husband Nathan who has another winery in the area.
“I never thought I would be in wine but now I cannot imagine anything else,” Stinson explained as she told me how she had been living in New York when her parents bought the property.
Sauvignon Blanc 2015 – Fermented on the less in a combination of a concrete egg and stainless steel, the resulting wine has notes of grapefruit, lemongrass and passion fruit and is bright and fresh with great salinity on the finish.
Chardonnay 2014 – The chardonnay, of which 50 percent goes through malolactic fermentation and 15 percent is in new French oak, has notes of lemon zest, apple and pineapple and an elegant mouthfeel.
White Hall Vineyards
White Hall Vineyards, named after the local township, was the 49th winery in Virginia. The property was purchased and planted by Tony and Edie Champ in 1991. Tony Champ, who has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, worked in the textile industry and traveled around the country for work.
He was first bit by the wine bug in the 1960s when visiting California. While living in New York, he decided he wanted to make wine. California was too far from their family and New York was too cold. So they picked Virginia and purchased property that had been pasture land.
They started with seven acres and today have 47 acres under vine. The Champ’s goal was to make good quality Virginia wine at reasonable prices. Today, producing between 5,000 and 7,000 cases per year, White Hall Vineyards is in seven states along the east coast. Seven years ago, their daughter Lisa Champ moved with her husband from Atlanta to help run the business and is now the General Manager.
Viognier 2015 – Beautiful aromas of white flowers, stone fruit and citrus, this wine is elegant as it covers the palate with soft acidy and finishes with salinity.
Cabernet Franc 2015 – With 21 percent of cabernet sauvignon added to the cabernet franc, the wine has aromas of boysenberry, blackberry and tobacco.
Petit Verdot 2014 – Whole-berry fermentation in stainless steel, followed by seven months in French and American oak, this wine has a fruity and jammy nose but on the palate, it is balanced by acidity and soft grain tannins.
There is so much more wine to explore along the Blue Ridge Mountains and with the town of Charlottesville nearby with great restaurants, perhaps this region has the potential to become a wine-tourism destination area.