About forty miles south on U.S. Route 29 from Charlottesville, a right turn on State Route 56 and then twenty-two miles along scenic winding country roads through Nelson County, a right turn on U.S. 60 followed by a few miles of twists and turns up a tree-lined gravel road, at 1,800 feet in elevation, sits one of the most special vineyard sites in Virginia — Ankida Ridge.
An ancient Sumerian word meaning ‘where heaven and earth join,’ Ankida Ridge is situated on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Amherst County. Dr. Dennis and Christine Vrooman, who operated a busy veterinary practice in Virginia Beach, purchased the 103-acre property in 1999 as a retirement retreat.
“We had no plans for a vineyard when we purchased the property,” said Christine Vrooman. “It wasn’t until we attended the Neptune Wine Festival in Virginia Beach in 2002 and tasted a Cab Franc from Veritas winery that we realized the potential of wine in Virginia.”
A visit with Andrew and Patricia Hodson, founders of Veritas Vineyards & Winery, in Afton, VA, about 25 miles west of Charlottesville, to learn more about their approach to wine and the potential of viticulture in Virginia soon followed.
“I loved how the Hodson’s children were involved in the winery and they were building Veritas in to a family business. We had always hoped for a multi-generational family business. Since none of our kids were interested in taking over the veterinary practice, we thought a vineyard might become that family business,” said Vrooman.
Luck, or perhaps Dionysos, would soon send another signal that viticulture was their future. An excavator working at Ankida Ridge to clear trees for the construction of the Vrooman’s hilltop home took it upon himself to clear another plot, just below the top of the hill, as a potential alternative spot for their home.
The Vroomans used the original cleared site for their home but the decision by the excavator proved fortuitous. This second small patch of cleared land would, in a few years, be the site of the Ankida Ridge vineyard.
“Had he [the excavator] not cleared that extra acre we most likely would never have embarked on this journey,” remarked Vrooman.
In the winter of 2007, the Vroomans met with noted Charlottesville-based ampelographer Lucie Morton for viticulture guidance.
“We didn’t want to plant what everyone else was planting, we wanted different grapes to express this special place,” said Vrooman. “We did not necessarily want a winery or a tasting room; we wanted to grow the very best grapes possible for this special site.”
Morton recommended planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A curious recommendation since Virginia’s intense humidity and harvest-season rains are not ideal for thin-skinned, fickle grapes like Pinot Noir.
“Site matters! Whether it is called ‘terroir’ or ‘place,’ a particular site needs to be matched with the right variety in order to grow grapes with the highest potential for crafting the best wines. What we are doing up here on this mountain can’t be accomplished in lower, hotter regions with clay-based soils. Pinot needs cooler temperatures of higher elevations, well drained, porous soil, air movement and ideally a sloped terrain to help drain away the water and air.”
If Pinot Noir has a chance of being cultivated for fine wine in Virginia, it would be on the steep hills of well-draining sandy loam and decomposing granite soils at Ankida Ridge where temperatures tend to be cooler than other regions of the state.
On May 10, 2008, the Vroomans planted the first grapevine at Ankida Ridge in the rich soils of the site cleared years earlier by the excavator. Over the next seventeen days, they would plant 3,429 vines at their little Burgundy on the mountain. In total, about two acres — half acre of Chardonnay and the rest planted to Pinot Noir.
Today, those vines are in their tenth leaf and this family-run, micro-boutique vineyard is known for some of the most distinctive wines in the Commonwealth.
Each bottle of Ankida Ridge Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is an expression of the rich decomposing granite and sandy loam soils, the aspect and slope, the microclimate, and the thoughtful vineyard stewardship of Christine Vrooman and collective efforts of the entire family.
The Vrooman’s son Nathan is the winemaker, having studied under noted Charlottesville-based winemaker Matthieu Finot, and their daughter Tamara serves as sales director. Their grandkids are learning how to read the refractometer and have become expert grape sorters at harvest.
The Vrooman’s approach to farming and dedication to biodiversity are as important as the topography and geology of the site.
“We are as organic as we can be in the vineyard and include some biodynamic farming practices. Unfortunately there is not an organic treatment for black rot (a vineyard fungal disease common in high humidity regions). We focus on biodiversity in and around the vineyard.”
A flock of sheep grazing in the vineyard for weed abatement (but only until budbreak), chickens and guinea hens roaming about the vines for insect control, beehives, and cover crops contribute to vineyard biodiversity.
Adding to the character of Ankida Ridge are the stunning views from tasting room deck (at 1,450 in elevation) of the holler below, Pierce Mountain to the east and Tobacco Row, a chain of hills that run south along Route 29 to Lynchburg. The stillness, the refreshing mountain air, the sounds of nature echoing about the trees, the heaviness of the morning fog that blankets the property also contribute to making Ankida Ridge unique.
The Vroomans have recently expanded their commitment to growing more wines of place with a significant vineyard expansion. In late May, they planted four acres of vines at Ankida Ridge adjacent to the original vineyard, bringing the total acreage under vine to six acres.
The new planting includes about 1,000 chardonnay vines, 6,450 pinot noir, and 350 gamay vines (yes, gamay!). Spaced about seven feet apart, the densely planted rows run south to north for maximum sun exposure.
The south end of the vineyard sits at 1,630 feet in elevation; the rows climb 200 feet uphill, atop granite rocks, boulders and orange-brown soil.
The top of the new vineyard sits at 1,880 feet in elevation and slopes downward at 15% (but seems much steeper when walking through the rows) towards the winery and holler below with a view of Tobacco Row Mountain in the distance framed by surrounding poplar, ash, hickory and oak trees.
The new vineyard will be farmed with the same care to cultivate grapes for wines with a sense of place. Most exciting may be the 350 gamay vines. Like Pinot Noir, if the thin-skinned, light-bodied grape from the Beaujolais region of France has a chance of producing notable wines in Virginia, it’s on the slopes of rich soils at Ankida ridge.
The first vintage from the new vineyard is expected in 2019 or 2020. The current Ankida Ridge releases — 2014 Pinot Noir and 2015 Chardonnay — are showing well and offer a taste of this special place.
The Ankida Ridge tasting room is open on Saturdays from 1pm – 5pm. Check website or call to confirm hours.
Postscript — Newest Releases:
2014 Pinot Noir. Of the five vintages of Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir that I’ve tasted, the 2014 is the finest. Light, full of energy, with flavors of raspberry, and cherry around an earthy mineral core and lively red berry acidity. The 2015 Chardonnay is equally vibrant, offering notes of pear, melon and apple with hints of saline around a mineral core. The mineral acidity indicates it’s best years are yet to come. To the extent a Virginian wine can be Burgundian, this is it (Linden Hardscrabble Chardonnay among this select group).