As 2016 Harvest Commences, RdV Vineyards Matures

The Virginia wine experience is most often filled with fun and frolic — as it should be. It’s a chance to flee the city into the rolling green hills that many Washingtonians easily forget exists (I know I nearly did). You can taste, enjoy beautiful views, have a picnic, share a bottle (or two, or three) and often listen to a live music performance. It’s escapism at its finest (especially during an election year).

But nestled about an hour west of D.C., straight out I-66, is one winery that’s operating a little differently. It’s not here to attract the throngs of day-trippers. Instead, it’s courting the serious wine drinker and producing wines to play on the national and international stage.

RdV Vineyards
RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, Va.| Photo by Jeff Mauritzen / Courtesy of RdV Vineyards

RdV Vineyards is as much a part of Virginia wine as it’s not. With 16 acres of vines sitting
above the frost line on a hill in Delaplane, Va., overlooking 100-acres of
farmland, the winery takes a mostly hands-off approach to winemaking, letting
the land speak for itself. Their finished bottles have been well integrated
into the Washington region’s dining scene. And just this past year, the
White House served RdV’s 2010 Rendezvous during the Nordic state dinner

RdV’s hospitality center only looks rustic from the outside. | Photo by itswinebyme.

But once you step inside RdV’s white barn-like structure with towering silo, the interior suggests something more likely found in Napa or Europe. Its sleek minimal design elements, including Herman Miller Eames-style wooden chairs and leather couches adorning its tasting room, is almost reminiscent of a contemporary art gallery, leaving visitors with a sense of peace and calm. In the center of the building is a staircase leading down to the wine cellar, the caves, a large fermentation room filled with steel tanks, a glass-enclosed bottling room and a small
laboratory used to determine the blends for each vintage.

RdV Vineyards
Fermenting tanks inside RdV Vineyards. | Photo by Gordon Beall/ Courtesy of RdV Vineyards

When I visited the winery on a warm Wednesday morning in early September, all was quiet. The temperature was a few degrees cooler than when I left Washington, and blue skies intermingled with some clouds and a few droplets of rain. Just a few of the vineyard workers were tending to the vines – all lined in perfect rows covering the green hillside – patiently waiting for
harvest, which RdV begins today (Sept. 15, 2016). They’ll begin picking Merlot, followed by several other Bordeaux varieties, and will end the harvest season with Cabernet.

For several years, RdV has been written up by local, national and international media. The initial excitement about the amount of effort and resources Rutger de Vink was pouring into his winery was something the Virginia wine industry needed to help bring more attention to the emerging region.

After the release of RdV’s first vintage, London-based wine writer Jancis Robinson came to visit and praised the winery: “I sincerely believe [Rutger de Vink’s] considerable efforts stand a good chance of putting the state definitively on the world wine map,” she wrote.

A bottle of the wine reached Eric Boissenot, the famed enologist and winemaker who has worked with many of Bordeaux’s most respected wineries. After tasting it, he reached out to Rutger to volunteer his services for free. So once a year, in exchange for a plane ticket and a place to stay, he joins Rutger, Jarad Slipp, RdV’s estate director,Josh Grainer, RdV’s winemaker, and Jean Philippe Roby, a consulting viticulturist also from Bordeaux, for several days of blending sessions to create the final wines. (Read more about the entire RdV team here.)

RdV Vinyeards
Eric Boissenot during a blending session in 2014, while Jean-Philippe Roby, left, Rutger de Vink, right, and Jarad, seated in the back, look on. | Photo by Logan Mock / Courtesy of RdV Vineyards

Now, about a handful of vintages later, the RdV story remains much the same, but the winery is beginning to show positive signs of maturity.  Rutger and Jarad are excited about the upcoming release of their 2013 vintage. They say there’s a much better understanding of the fruit each block of vines is producing. This will also be the first year they expand their offers to purchase beyond the winery’s “Ambassador” program to their mailing list subscribers.

The winery’s caves are lined with filled French oak barrels, and racks of sleeping unlabeled bottles are stacked in cages at least six-feet high. A piece of land behind the vineyards where
Rutger once lived in an Airstream is now the site of a still-under construction contemporary-style home he’s building for his family.

RdV Vineyards
Caves at RdV Vineyards. Photo by Gordon Beall / Courtesy of RdV Vineyards

 RdV’s wines include Lost Mountain, a Cabernet-dominated Bordeaux blend, and the Rendezvous, a Bordeaux blend that’s dominated by Merlot. There is no recipe for how the wine is blended each year and what percentage of each grape are bottled. It’s all decided by the artistry of tasting and influenced by the subtleties of the vintage. The Rendezvous is created as a lively and energetic fruit-forward wine that’s meant to be drunk young, while the Lost Mountain is a bit more refined and structured with finesse that hints at its aging potential.

RdV Vineyards
RdV Vineyards wines include Rendezvous, left, and Lost Mountain, right. | Photo by Matthew Girard/Courtesy of RdV Vineyards

RdV creates its wine by fermenting each vineyard block in its own tank. After the blends are decided, they are put together and poured into French oak barrels to rest for two years before being bottled where they are stored an additional year before release.

Deciding when to pick the grapes simply comes down to the taste of the grapes. On my tour of the vineyards, Jarad, who’s also a Master Sommelier, told me there’s no measuring of brix or abiding by a particular formula. Standing about a third of the way up the hill that’s packed with sandy loam layered on top of granite, we sampled Cabernet and Merlot berries that we picked off the vines. He talked me through the state of the grapes by looking at the color of the seeds and accounting for the leathery feel of the skins. While the juices were sweet (the Merlot slightly sweeter with plumper berries than the Cabernet), the berries at
that point were not quite ready.

RdV Vineyards
Cabernet grapes hang on the vines at RdV Vineyards on Sept. 7, 2016. | Photo by itswinebyme

When Jarad and I returned from the tour of the property and winemaking facility, there were
four bottles in paper bags lined up against the wall in the tasting room. Among the wines were the 2012 vintage of RdV’s Lost Mountain and Rendezvous, a 2012 Plumpjack from Napa Valley and a 2012 Chateau Figeac from Bordeaux. We tasted blind, which served as an interesting exercise in understanding the winery’s motto – “Neither Bordeaux or Napa, but uniquely our own.” The quality across all four wines were about even and proof that RdV’s vision for their well-balanced wines to be on par with the world’s best is coming to fruition.

Rutger could have opened a winery and produced the same high quality wine he makes here in Virginia, in California, or France, or in any other established wine regions where growing conditions are easier. But instead, he’s happy being able to bring something different to the table. Toward the end of my visit, Rutger, Jarad, Josh and I were discussing the wines. I casually asked if being an “outlier” in the wine world is where they like to be. Jarad and Rutger
smiled: Outlier is the name they had chosen for a winery publication they’re putting together.

More about RdV Vineyards: The winery produces 2,000 cases a year mostly sold through its Ambasador program, to winery visitors and to D.C-area restaurants. The 2013 Lost Mountain will sell for $125 and the 2013 Rendezvous for $75. Tours are by appointment only Thursday
through Sunday and cost $50 per person.

Learn About Wine With Me – White Bordeaux Wine Labels

This may or may not become a regular feature. I like the idea of writing through a specific topic from my class. It helps me better understand the lesson, allows me to stretch my writing fingers and maybe you, dear reader, will find what I have to write about interesting.  So I’ll start here, and we’ll see if other topics naturally present themselves in the same way. If you spot a factual error or you’re confused by something I’ve written, contact me: I’m itswinebyme on both gmail and twitter. I reserve the right to come back and re-edit this a million times, as I work through the learning process. 🙂 

I love buying wine. It gives me the same kind of happy excitement as when buying new shoes, or a new purse, or anything on a New York City shopping spree. So when the instructor of my WSET class pointed out a specific kind of White Bordeaux we should try, I immediately ran to MacArthur’s. One of their experts selected the label above and told me at $20/bottle it was a good entry level version of this particular wine to try. I haven’t opened it yet, but I figured this would be a good instructive opportunity to really understand the parts of a French wine label. I’m mostly writing this for my own learning purposes (and attempting to do so without my notes). So here’s what I think each element of this label tells us (starting at the top and moving to the bottom):

  • Grand Vin De Graves: These are grapes from Graves, an area of Bordeaux on the Left Bank. This combined with the specific appellation noted on the label (we’ll get to that a little later in this post) let me know what kind of grapes are in this wine.
  • Chåteau Tour Léognan: This is the property where the grapes were grown, or possibly the name of the vineyard on a larger property (I’m not 100 percent). When I first started writing this, I was nearly convinced that this was also the brand or producer, but as I worked my way down to the bottom of the label, I realized my mistake. The prominence given to the vineyard or property in a French wine label is the opposite of what you see in the U.S. and other markets, where it’s the brand or the producer that’s seen as more important. But in France, it’s the terroir, which drives a wine’s importance, not necessarily who’s making it.
  • 2012: This is easy. It’s the vintage, or the year the grapes were harvested. The class instructor noted that 2013 was a disastrous year for Bordeaux, so hopefully this vintage won’t let me down.
  • Pessac-Léognan: Aha! The very reason I bought this particular White Bordeaux. It’s the premium appellation for White Bordeaux, which by definition should be a mix of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon grapes. As a consumer, I’m expected to know this (which is why reading French wine labels can be so difficult). Fortunately this particular bottle’s back label notes it’s 70 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 30 percent Sémillon. 
  • The bottom of the label includes Famille Perrin, Propriétaire S.C.E.A. Chåteau Carbonnieux, and unlike the first Chåteaux written so prominently, this is the winemaker (aka producer, brand) of the wine. After some googling, I think this may also be the owner of the land, too. In theory, the owner could sell the grapes to other winemakers and they would have to label their wine with “Chåteau Tour Léognan,” as well.

To make understanding French wine labels even more complicated, there are other quality indicators not listed on this particular wine, such as Cru Classé, which signifies the best wines, according to a classification system created by the French government in 1855. But that system only applies to Bordeaux, so if you’re looking at a French wine label from Burgundy and see terms such as Premiere Cru or Grand Cru, that’s a different designation combining a quality rating and ensuring the grapes are from a single vineyard. Does Cru Classé have to be single vineyard? That I’m not sure about. But since most Bordeaux wines (red and white) are blends, I’m guessing the answer is no.

I’m always uncomfortable about publishing posts that may have factual mistakes. But writing this has taught me there’s still quite a bit I need to learn. If that means buying and enjoying more wine, I’m not going to complain!