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
.

image
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.

Tasting California From The Barrel

image

For 31 years … Wait a minute. Think about that. 31 YEARS. That’s not even a decade after the Judgment of Paris made California wine significant … MacArthur Beverages has been hosting a barrel tasting of California wines here in Washington, D.C. It’s an opportunity to try (and purchase) the most recent vintages before they’re ready to be sold – and as the name “Barrel Tasting” suggests, even before the wines are bottled. 

Classic wineries pouring included Chateau Boswell, Hourglass, Girard, Miner, Pahlmeyer, Ravenswood and Ridge, as well as newer labels such as LaRue (one of my IPOB favorites), Relic and Donelan Family. It was comforting to see Hope and Grace – the very first California wine I ever fell in love with – pouring their Cabs, too. (Here’s the full participant list.)

A fun surprise (for me, at least) was to see so many Pinot Noirs (and some Syrahs and other varieties) from throughout Northern California (and dipping down into Santa Rita Hills). My understanding was this event in the past focused mostly on Napa Cabernets (but maybe I was wrong? or maybe this is a sign of changing tastes?).

But what I really enjoyed about the event was the energy in the room. Unlike other big tastings, many of the wines here have never been poured for consumers before. That made the tasting all about discovery –  discovering new tastes and sensations in the new vintages, and for the winemakers, discovering how consumers are reacting for the very first time.

Looking forward to next year’s event! 

Crushing the Corison – Part 2

I had very high hopes to not only crush our Corison tasting, but come back to itswinebyme.com with brilliant notes about many of the vintages – or at least some unifying themes that could tie certain years together.

We were set up for success: Each tasting place mat included designated lines for detailed note taking. And I was more than prepared to write down legible thoughts. But there were five place mats – with four wines per mat.

image

Reading back nearly a week later, the notes are only understandable enough to give a glimpse at what I was thinking, and maybe jog a sensory memory of two. But not enough to tell a riveting story.

Fortunately, after 20 tastes of 19 different Cathy Corison-made wines, there were some key takeaways. Even more fortunate, I was surrounded by 10 knowledgeable and experienced friends.

In Part 1  of this 21-vintage salute to Corison Napa Valley Cabernet, I noted there wasn’t a clear winner among the wines we sipped during our formal tasting. Yet when I sent an e-mail to the group asking for any “lessons learned,” many were in agreement with what impressed us the most.

image

 

(Note: we used 18 vintages and one bottle of the final vintage Cathy spent at Chappellet for the tasting. There were three more recent vintages that were later popped during dinner. And yes that equals 22, but the Chappellet was thrown in as a ringer.)

The first takeaway was acknowledgment of our limitations, such as in this response:

“My insights are that I cannot taste 20 iterations of the same wine and expect to come out with a clear favorite. I measure the value of wine in interest, and similarly interesting wines all have similar value. Also, my palate is a blunt instrument and easily overwhelmed by sameness. The small differences become ever harder to discern.”

Pheww! This warmed my novice heart and I realized the value of this tasting was not about distinguishing differences in each individual year. Instead, it was a master class in understanding a particular winemaking style, and a tribute to how well-made wines evolve over time.

image

 

Our biggest OMG moment came in the form of a 1999 magnum. This may not be specific to a Corison wine – in fact, it’s probably not – but it was truly the most jaw-dropping part of the night.

The top half of the magnum was poured into one decanter, while the bottom half of the bottle went into a second. The two decanters were poured in the first and fourth glasses during our third flight (we were blinded  with each flight – so while we could guess the general time frame because the flights were in order of oldest to youngest, we didn’t know what years we were tasting in each glass).

image

 

Upon tasting, the wines presented themselves completely differently. The first glass was lighter with layered flavors and tannins. “Minty spice,” is what I jotted down. The fourth glass, however was much rounder and full-bodied. It tasted of dark inky fruit and had a green finish. Of our three hosts, the one who wasn’t involved in the blinding or serving of the wines shocked her husband when she was able to detect a similar component and asked if the two wines were the same vintage. But the rest of us were dumbfounded when the two glasses were revealed as being poured from the same bottle.

My place mat notes depict a double arrow pointing at both glasses with the words “HOLY SHIT” written across the arrow. One taster e-mailed all the questions that started running through my head:

The magnum was crazy. Who knew the top and bottom half could taste like two completely different wines? Does this happen in 750s too? If it does, I wonder if that has something to do with how people talk about a wine opening up over an evening (which I don’t tend to notice much of myself) – maybe sometimes the variation is already there in the bottle?”

So now we have an entirely new topic to investigate for another day!

Other takeaways, more specific to Corison wines, included:

  • In the third flight there was a “consistent metallic, tar, bloody, iodine note … It made me wonder whether there was something in the viticulture or winemaking during those years that brought that out.”
  • Except for the 1987 Chappellet, which had a “grittier texture to the tannins,” there was a “stylistic consistency. There was definitely a connecting thread through all the wines regardless of vintage variation. It was very easy to get a sense of what a Corison wine’s character is.”
  • There were no detectable traces of a bad vintage. Each wine in and of itself could have stood beautifully on its own.

A few tasters who were well-versed in Napa Cabernet offered a broader perspective:

“Corison clearly belongs on the short list of Napa producers whose wines not only age well, but actually get more interesting. Both secondary and tertiary development. I’m excited to try the more recent vintages in 10 to 20 years. This list is very small.”

In response to that comment, another wrote:

 “As someone that really doesn’t ever recall having Corison before, oddly enough, that’s the impression I came away with, too: I’d put Corison in the same category as Dunn. Made to age, older-world style of winemaking.”

image

For me, what continues to make this night so special is understanding the simple and gradual evolution of wine as it ages. It’s not that the younger wines can’t be enjoyed now. But all of a sudden, that 2006 bottle I fell in love with months ago no longer held a torch to some of the older vintages.

As one friend e-mailed:

“The tasting really solidified for me what it means for a young wine to be closed/locked down/not showing much. The really young ones (‘09, ’11, ’13) were still delicious and still obviously Corison, but after tasting the older wines, I could really tell that they weren’t revealing their full potential.”

Crushing the Corison — Part 1

After months of planning and securing as many vintages that we could, a group of us gathered Saturday night for a vertical tasting: We wanted to taste side-by-side the 25-plus vintages of Cathy Corison’s Napa Valley Cabernet.

We succeeded in securing 21 of those bottles (including one that involved travel through Brussels and Austria!). Eighteen of the wines were blindly served in five flights over approximately two and a half hours. Three of the more recent vintages were then served later that evening with dinner.

For the first time in the year and a half that I’ve known this group of friends, there was pure silence as the first flight was poured and we were ready to begin.

Corison Wine Tasting
Pre-tasting lineup of bottles. Our host also printed out tasting notes and reviews from the Corison website for us to later compare.

If Corison Cabernet has not yet crossed your palate, get yourself a bottle. The first time I tasted it, I was half-way into a  wine-laden dinner and it stopped me cold. It’s not what you expect out of a Napa Cabernet (it’s so much better than that!) and the winery is significant to today’s winemaking conversations (for example, this recent post from James Suckling about Napa’s 2013 vintage aligns more closely with how Cathy has been making her wines throughout her 40-year career, than just the results of a single vintage).

She is the first woman winemaker/proprietor in Napa and has been creating wines under her own label since 1987. Now, after releasing more than 25 vintages, she’s known by many as a “living legend.” She’s also highly-respected among her winemaking-legend peers ( See this recent interview with Ridge’s Paul Draper).

One important reason why: She has yet to stray from her restrained, elegant style that’s focused on making beautiful layered and complex wines that speak to the terroir, even while the rest of Napa began producing overly-ripe, high-alcohol, in-your-face Cabernets. I fell in love with her Cabernets because it’s the only Napa Cab I have yet to taste that doesn’t include a bite of raw green pepper (I’m convinced I have a sensitivity to pyrazines, and Corison wines are known for not having the chemical compound). On a visit to her winery last October, she was quick to quip: “I pick before the pyrazines!”

Had I done some better research prior to my visit, I would have found this San Francisco Chronicle profile from more than 10 years ago where she addresses this specific topic. But more notable, this piece could have been written yesterday. It’s a sign that her philosophy is steadfastly strong. Here are just two paragraphs from that 2005 story worth noting:

“I make wine for myself,” says Corison simply, and the statement comes not as an arrogant claim as much as an explanation of why her wine is so styled. It’s refined and calls for introspection, with the sort of character that once was mainstream California Cabernet in the 1970s and early 1980s, and which today is like wearing spats with formal attire: of another era.

It is a wine style that focuses first on lower alcohol levels. In a tasting of her wines, dating back a decade, the average alcohol level was about 13 percent; today’s wines are a tad riper, hitting 13.5 percent. Moreover, they deliver a faint hint of the dried herbs and “dusty” component for which her ranch south of St. Helena once was prized.

More recently, Eric Asimov of The New York Times wrote a column after tasting the first 25 vintages of Corison wines in a special tasting session with Cathy. Just as in the Chronicle piece, he pays particular attention to her approach:

“Wine is way more interesting at the intersection of power and elegance,” she said. For that reason, she is among the earlier harvesters on the valley floor, picking grapes while they still retain lively acidity and before they begin to shrivel and turn overly sweet.

“I feel almost a moral obligation to make wines that let the dirt speak,” she said. “One of the things I love about wine is that it speaks of time and place, and marches forward speaking of time and place. These wines are still talking about what was happening.”

Like her wines, her winemaking approach has been notably consistent: simply grape juice, just enough yeast to ensure that the fermentation begins within a few days of harvest, and a little sulfur dioxide after the naturally occurring malolactic fermentation, in which stern malic acid transforms into softer lactic acid. That’s it. No added acid, tannins, enzymes or other corrective steps, and no overbearing oak flavors. In an era when Napa cabernets have shot up past 15 percent alcohol toward 16 percent, Corison cabernets have never touched 14 percent.

Corison Wine Tasting
The first flight of our Corison tasting included the 1988, 1990 and 1993 vintages. The fourth wine is a 1987 Chappellet. We were unable to obtain a bottle of her first Corison bottle from ‘87, but we managed to find a bottle of the last vintage where she was the winemaker at Chappellet.

There’s no denying any of the observations made in the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times pieces during our 21-vintage salute. It was a study in dusty herbs and beautiful young fruit emanating out of the older vintages – a sign that in the coming years, these wines will still have a lot to say. When the initial silence (or maybe it was just pure awe) subsided and we began comparing our thoughts out loud, comments included everything from “blueberry pie” and “chocolate-covered raspberries,” to notes of leather saddle, white and black pepper, and gorgeous florals. The complexity and layers of tastes radiating out of each vintage meant almost every glass was emptied well before there was opportunity to take advantage of the white-plastic dump buckets that were supposed to help keep us relatively sober.

Our final results were inconsistent except that most of our favorites were spread out across the 1990s.

Corison Wine Tasting
While there was a lot of love for the 1993 vintage, there wasn’t a clear favorite at the end of our formal tasting.

Yet our conclusions further confirmed the reason we went to such great lengths to plan this event: Corison Cabernets are all special bottles, meant to be swirled and savored. It was fascinating to taste the evolution of a particular wine and just begin to understand a hint of how each year’s harvest impacts the components of the wine (I’ll address a few of our lessons in a future post).

As much as our goal was to “Crush the Corison,” as was repeated in all our planning e-mails’ subject lines – our generous host noted (with the accompanying gif) what truly happened that night: It’s the Corison that crushed all of us. Cheers to Cathy for creating such special wines!

image

Blame It On The Pyrazine!

I may have mentioned this already, but I have a hard time with Cabernet Sauvignons. As a California wine lover, who loves visiting Napa, this can be a bit frustrating. Even in blends, when it’s not the dominate grape, I can easily detect its presence.

The reason? I’m not a fan of green bell peppers, and whenever that flavor is present, it leaves behind a terrible bitter taste. No matter how lush the fruit and other flavors that may waft from the glass, just a tiny taste turns the entire experience sour for me. 

Fortunately, there have been a few exceptions. I recently had a glass of Stag’s Leap Hands of Time Napa Valley Red Blend, which I gladly accepted a second glass of; and I’ve been able to tolerate some Cabernets when paired well with food.

But it turns out, there’s a name for this flavor – and a reason it’s detected in certain wines. More importantly, I may not be the only one who’s sensitive to it (see this 2010 blog post on the subject). It’s a chemical compound called Pyrazine.

The chemical often appears in Sauvignon Blancs, too. But I’m much more likely to tolerate it there. In fact, I’ll actively order SBs and love the crisp mix of high acidity with citrus flavors and some light herbaceousness.  Given my choice, I’ve always enjoyed California SBs to those from New Zealand. And wouldn’t you know it: Pyrazine is more apparent in Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough than those from California (So why can’t winemakers do the same with their Cabernets?).

I’m guessing there are probably additional chemical reactions that happen in red wine, which make it less approachable for me. I hope to research this further and learn more about it. For now, however, I’m glad I can put a name to it.

(Photo by Manfred Moitzi via flickr and creative commons.)

Wine School – Week 2!

image

(Photo: A 1996 bottle of Chateau Sociando-Mallet bottle from Haut Medoc, in Bordeaux. It was opened at a gathering I went to last week. Little did I realize, later that week I would be learning about the region. )

Last night’s class was all about varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. But it’s impossible to talk about those grapes without lessons in winemaking, climate and geography. It served as a wonderful reminder of how well-rounded studying wine can be. 

As I mentioned last week, I don’t want to rehash my classes, but I do think it’s fun to leave behind some random facts (not necessarily part of the lesson plan). Here are a few from last night:

  • There’s less sulfer in a bottle of wine, than in trail mix. The sulfer dioxide that many people are afraid of helps keeps grapes oxidized, it fights mildew in the vineyards and fights against yeast and bacteria in the wine.
  • Even though Burgundy is usually associated with Pinot Norir, more than 60 percent of the region is planted with Chardonnay.
  • The hotter the season, the more rapidly acid falls. Wines from cooler climates have higher acidity levels than those from warm and hot climates.
  • A lot of Chardonnay now grows in China and North India, too.
  • Irrigation is not (or very rarely) allowed in Burgundy, unless you obtain special permission, which is hard to do.
  • A fair guestimate that about 95 percent of all wines don’t get better with bottle age.
  • New Zealand now makes more Sauvignon Blanc than France.  
  • Our instructor highly recommends trying a White Bordeaux from the Pessac Leognan winegrowing area of Graves.
  • 2012 was a fabulous year for Oregon Pinot Noir.

Probably the most important take away from this class – not related to the formal lesson plan – is that it confirmed my general dislike of many Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux (red) wines (we tasted both a Bordeaux and a California in class). Even when blended with other grapes. Sadly for now, those green bell pepper flavors don’t agree with my palate.  I’m not going to give up on them, and with food pairings and age, maybe I’ll eventually grow to like them.

As for that empty Bordeaux bottle I posted at the top of this page, I did enjoy the wine, but I didn’t ask for a second glass. Instead, I reached for some Burgundy.

Cheers!