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Elevational and Climatological Challenges of Certain Vitis Vinifera in Virginia

In recent weeks I’ve spent some time reading wine related research papers for an upcoming series, and the terms ‘elevational‘ and ‘climatological‘ seem to be used with an above average frequency so I felt compelled to use these terms here for some unknown reason.

Though this title is a meager attempt at mad lib humor, there is certainly truth in the statement to be sure.  Virginia’s heat and humidity can be inhospitable and less than ideal for some varietals.  At the risk of over generalizing, the small-clustered thin-skinned fickle Pinot Noir grape is one such character that can have a rough go of it here in Virginia (called ‘minx of a vine’ by Jancis Robinson).

I am a fan of many (some) Virginia Pinots when used to produce sparkling wine, but have had a love/hate/dislike (mostly dislike) relationship with still Virginia Pinot Noir.  In past years, I’ve found many Virginia Pinots to be insipid wannabes, showing no resemblance to the varietal beauty that can be Pinot Noir.

I have mad respect for the experimental exuberance of Virginia’s winemakers who take risks by allotting valuable vineyard space (and their time) to new varietals, but am confused as to why some winemakers/vineyard consultants plant varietals that have proven not well suited for Virginia’s climate.  Editorial Note – I anxiously await a Virginia viticulture expert to challenge me on this point based on the potential of micro-climates that do not fit the standard Virginia climatological footprint.

This would be a great time to remind readers that I know absolutely nothing about viticulture or winemaking.  I am simply an observer of common sense and an avid fan of drinking wine.  To that end, I have a number of opinions about wine, in particular Virginia wine, based on many observations and much drinking.

I’m not sure I will ever be completely sold on Virginia Pinot Noir, but one of Virginia’s newest but not yet open wineries – Ankida Ridge Vineyard – is opening my mind to the potential of still Pinot here in the Commonwealth.

Ankida Ridge - affectionately referred to as their ‘little burgundy in the Blue Ridge Mountains’ by owners Denis and Christine Vrooman – is located about an hour southwest of Charlottesville just outside the town of Amherst, VA.  Ankida is an ancient Sumerian word that means ‘where heaven and earth join.’  Aptly named given the 1,800 elevation of their 100-acre property – just 1.5 acres of which is planted to Pinot Noir.  Since I am nearly finished with a series on biodymic viticulture here in Virginia, I will save some of the Ankida Ridge backstory for that series.

Christine first raised the idea of a comparative tasting a couple of months ago, but travel, family commitments, and work schedules prevented us from getting together until last weekend.  Finally our schedules aligned and we gathered a small group of local wine enthusiasts at the Vrooman’s home, including Denis, Christine, their son and winemaker-in-training Nathan, Virginian-Pilot wine writer Jim Raper and his wife Deborah, along with my wife and me.

To remove ingrained biases (mine) we went with a blind tasting format.  The tasting line up included Pinots from five different regions across several vintages – France, California’s Russian River Valley, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, New Zealand, and Virginia.  The tasting lineup included (in the order they were tasted blind):

Ankida Ridge 2010 Pinot Noir, Virginia
$35 (expected retail price when released). 14% alcohol.
Bright red in color – giveaway for youngest of the bunch. Bright cherry throughout. Nice earthy component, like walking through the woods after a rain.  Pungent alcohol component.  As one would expect from a 2010, this wine needs more time in the bottle. The majority of the grapes for this Pinot came from Ankida’s estate vineyard, with a small amount sourced from another vineyard in Northern, VA. Just 92 cases produced. The 2011 Pinot will be produced from 100% estate fruit.

Sequana 2009 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, CA
$38 (this wine was provided as a sample from the winery).  13.9% alcohol.
Yum. Smelled like a berry only farmers market – raspberry, dark cherry, and hints of blackberry.  Picked up a little barnyard and rose petal aromas as well.  Cherry lingers on the finish.  Nice acidity. Well balanced.

Coelho 2008 Paciencia Estate Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, OR
$34.99. 12.7% alcohol.
Hints of raspberry and cinnamon overpowered by the alcohol. Question if that 12.7% is correct. The aromatic and flavor profile was all over the place, like a drunk guy trying to stay in the lines of a ‘Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters paint-by-numbers painting kits.  I’ve had Coelho Pinots on a number of occasions and always enjoy them, which is why I was surprised and disappointed at how poorly this bottle showed at the tasting. Not flawed, just not good.

Allan Scott 2009 Pinot Noir, Marlborough, NZ.
$20.  13.5% alcohol.
Nice cinnamon, raspberry and cherry components.  Sour cherry finish.  Nice acidity, well balanced.  A solid QPR wine that I would buy again.

Louis Chavy 2009 Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Burgundy, France
$15. 12.5% alcohol.
This was my least favorite Pinot of the five we tasted. The muted aromas and watered-down flavors that seem so prevalent in the sub $15 French Pinot market were a giveaway.

Given the vintage variation of the Pinots included, this particular tasting lineup may not have met the technical definition of an ideal blind tasting.  However, the intent of the tasting was more about sharing wine and conversation with friends and discussing the various expressions of Pinot, especially Virginia’s expression of the grape relative to other regions.

For me personally, the Sequana Pinot was the standout of the tasting.  The aromatic and flavor profile, acidity and balance of the Sequana were unmatched in this tasting.  I would tip the hat to both the Ankida Ridge and Allan Scott as my second favorites.  Given the praise the Ankida Ridge Pinot received from a number of attendees at last month’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville, I’m not surprised such a young Pinot fared so well against more mature offerings from other regions.

It’s interesting to see how this wine has evolved/improved in the last few months since I first tasted this Pinot during the grand opening of the Appellation Wine Trail in April (see recap of that day at Virginia Wine Time).  Since the Vroomans live close by, I hope to spend more afternoons tasting the evolution of their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Thank you to Denis and Christine Vrooman for opening their home to us and for sharing their passion and fruits of their labor.

Virginia wine fans, you can follow the Vrooman’s journey and evolution of Ankida Ridge at the ‘Ankida Ridge Vineyard blog‘ maintained by Christine.  Keep you’re eye on Ankida Ridge…

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