The Kings of Charlottesville (Part 2 of 2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 09-22-2014

Claude Thibaut. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

Claude Thibaut. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

This is the second post in a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

On a recent trip made with a group of friends to Virginia’s idyllic Monticello Wine Trail outside Charlottesville, we arranged to visit a gauntlet of the areas best wineries and to meet with some of the areas most interesting, important, and innovative winemakers.

We quickly discovered that King Family Vineyards’ talented winemaker, Matthieu Finot was a common thread between these wineries, placing him, I suppose, right at the heart the quality revolution. Born in Crozes Hermitage in the Rhone Valley and well travelled thereafter, Matthieu typifies the ambitious, worldly, tuned-in and connected culture of the new Virginia.

But if Finot represents the future, this is in part thanks to the fact that Virginia began to attract winemakers looking for a challenge and interested in making a difference, like Claude Thibaut from Thibaut-Janneson. Thibaut, a vastly experienced winemaker who makes sparklers with the traditional methode champenoise, has succeeded in Virginia in part because of his empirical and practical approach to traditional winemaking.

Listening to Thibaut speak about the intricacies of grape growing in Virginia, from pest regulation to the advantages and disadvantages of different biodynamic methods, is to receive a master class in marginal climate grape growing. Having made massive batches of champagne for years at champagne powerhouse Nikolas Foullette, Thibaut now produces only small batches.  Thibaut-Jannesen wines are difficult to find, and even harder to come by now that the White House is snatching it up by the case, serving Thibaut-Janssen to everybody from the President of France to the Queen of England. If you get your hands on a bottle, be happy.

I’m thrilled by these wines. I can’t believe that Virginia makes sparklers of such intensity and sophistication, and in an Old World style that I’d gladly take over many vaunted California sparklers. Enjoy the look on your friends’ faces when you blind taste them on a bottle and then tell them they’re from Virginia.

If the wines of Thibaut-Janssen are worldly but traditional, the wines of King Family Vineyards have one foot in both the Old and the New World. The region’s culture fosters collaboration, and Thibaut and Finot at King Family are more than just neighbors — Thibaut makes the champagne for King Family. While Finot was away during our visit, we were very lucky to have the knowledgeable James King to tell the story of his family’s wines and explain the connections. But judging from the wines, it would seem that some of Thibaut’s practicality and precision has rubbed off over the years on Finot.

The whites were all strong, and the Chardonnay — rich, elegant, Burgundian — was outstanding. But I was expecting this; what surprised me were the reds. We were privileged to taste a from the library of King Family Vineyard reds so that we could trace the development of Finot’s vision. The early offerings clearly oriented towards the Old World. The flagship Meritage wine has aged gracefully and still has plenty left to go the distance; the ’97 and ’98, Finot’s first vintages, typified the French paradox of power and finesse–wines to fool your Bourdeaux-loving friends at a tasting. Tellingly, the older Meritages also had some of the brett-funk that many associate with the Old World style. The newer wines, however, were totally clean, and I’d rather have them as a ringer in a tasting of California wines. Easy to love —  ripe, rich, and fruit forward — the recent vintages of the Meritage have more in common with certain trophy wines from Napa that cost twice as much. But these aren’t over-extracted floosy wines. With plenty of concentration balanced by uplifting acidity, they remain vivid and vibrant wines of class and distinction.

King Family Vineyards. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

King Family Vineyards. (Photo credit: Jordan Rongers.)

In short, if you don’t think Virginia can make reasonably priced, age-worthy, blockbuster reds, you need to try the range from King Family.  This is a forward-looking winery poised to make an impact in the wine world, a fact made evident everywhere from their sophisticated canopy work and careful by-hand vineyard management to James King’s professional tasting room strategies.

Add to this the idyllic setting on a Polo grounds that spills out from the Blue Ridge, and it’s clear that a visit to this winery should be at the top of your list of Charlottesville stops.

If you are willing to go a little more out of your way, down south to Virginia’s “Little Burgundy” in Amherst County, you’ll discover what is undoubtedly Virginia’s most interesting winery. As much a project as a winery (and here too there is a collaboration, this time between Finot and winemaker Nathan Vrooman), Ankida Ridge is dedicated to making world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the most unlikely of places — on the eastern slope a remote mountain side in the Blue Ridge. Like so many producers of honest Pinot Noir, there is something off-kilter about the place; it straddles the line between optimistically ambitious and downright fanatical. But if making expressive Pinot and Chardonnay is wrong, I don’t want to be right. The results speak for themselves.

After travelling down a long, little-traversed mountain road, continue your climb past the winery and up to the vineyards.  There, you’ll be treated to a spectacular vista of this sublime mountainous region (and a couple adorable vineyard dogs). Take a deep breath and smell the fresh mountain air and earth — because if you don’t, you’re missing the point.

These are terroir driven wines made on rare granite soil specially selected to yield premium Pinot Noir, a fact made immediately clear by the obvious correspondence between what you smelled on the mountain and what you are now smelling in the glass. The Pinots were richly and distinctly flavored; befitting the dramatic surroundings, they are wines of intensity of and wines of place. If you are a Pinot obsessive, you simply need to try Ankida Ridge.

I also enjoyed their most recent Chardonnay, which didn’t undergo malolactic fermentation, but instead was rounded out with a touch of new oak. Somewhat surprisingly, given my aversion to new oak, I didn’t find the wood to be intrusive. In fact, the wine was as sleek as a Chablis, and superior to earlier vintages that underwent malo.

A day later, under comfortably mild blue skys in August, we toured Monticello — itself located high up on a Blue Ridge foothill — and were struck by that same earthy smell we experienced in the granite vineyards at Ankida Ridge, a smell as clear and transparent as that stunning summer day. This, I thought, is what Jefferson knew, if only incompletely, when he gazed longingly on his own mountain vineyard.

Comments (2)

  1. Ed Comstock: I enjoyed reading both parts of your article and look forward to visiting Virginia wine country soon. But when you wrote: “More so even than California, perhaps, where a mostly monolithic soil and crowded real estate leaves winemakers to take whatever they can get…” it made me want to invite you to come for a visit. The soils in California wine country are far from monolithic. Right here in our small Diamond Mountain District AVA we have quite a range of soils. My immediate neighbor (Diamond Creek) bottles three separate Cabernet’s based on soil type within a 20 acre vineyard. And my own Dyer Vineyard has each of these soils (gravel, rock, and tuft, all derived from volcanic origins) within a 2.3 acre vineyard. Come visit us!

  2. Thibaut-Janisson is not that hard to get in Virginia. Margaux & Company are the distributors.