Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Two coasts, same inspiration, utterly different wines

                                           THE COMMON GRAIL                                                                       
                                Photo by  Francois Peschon

              (Note: Next year I will visit a number of wineries
               and vineyards of real environmental distinction
               whose wines attest to the value of such an
    Several years ago I tasted two young cabernets from opposite sides of the North American continent - Napa Valley, and northern Virginia near the hamlet of Delaplane. I was reminded that most any American winemaker outside sunny, temperate California has trouble matching the marvelous fruit that's a gift there, but also of the fact that the stretch of Virginia piedmont from Middleburg to Charlottesville and beyond now produces a few really fine wines that have more in common with the Medoc than with Napa.
    The wineries were Volker Eisele Family Estate in Chiles Valley east of the Napa River and tributary to it, still one of the best deals around for medium-priced, top-notch, classically structured wines in the Bordeaux style. The other wine was from RdV - for Rutger de Vink, the founder - in Virginia's Fauquier County. The Eisele ’07 was lighter in color, brighter on the palate, and more inviting at the outset. The RdV '08, too, had good structure, remarkable body, and an appealing black cherry quality.
       But the longer both wines stayed in the glass the better they got, showing more in common with the wines of Bordeaux than the “cult” wines of NoCal. Both had the power and grace, the Eisele subtle and the RdV soft almost to a fault but with a very long finish. Both wines were impressive, and neither really characteristic of their home state.
         Recently I returned to the wines of these two, hoping they had maintained their individuality and exemplary quality. This is what I found, starting with the Eisele:

    I first met Volker Eisele back in the late '80s, when I was working on Napa, the first volume of what has become a trilogy about the place and its all-American aspirations and vulnerabilities. In those days information wasn't as easily obtained as it is today, and I called him by mistake, thinking he owned the Eisele vineyard down on the valley floor that belonged to another Eisele who later sold to Bart Arauo. One of the many ironies of this story is that the Eisele vineyard up in Chiles Valley (Volker's) produces a better structured wine than the one down on the valley floor (Arauo's, before he sold out), and costs about a sixth as much.
    So I said, "Sorry, I must have the wrong Eisele." And Volker said, "No, you have the right Eisele," which was of course true. He invited me up to talk and have a glass of wine, and from that chance encounter I learned much about the valley that I would not have garnered otherwise.
     Sadly, Volker died in 2015, but his son, Alexander, carries on in his stead, with the able assistance of winemaker Molly Lyman. Their wines still embody the balance and finesse of old. The 2012 cabernet sauvignon is denser in color and, as would be expected, more expensive ($52) than the wine I wrote about a few years ago, and has more body. Made with 87 percent cabernet picked during five separate passes through the vineyard in early October, with an additional 13 percent merlot, it was  aged for two years in 50 percent new French oak.
          I like to think I recognize the mineral quality of the former wine in this one, both made from the same plot organically farmed by the family for forty years. other Eisele red is Terzetto ($75), named for Mozart's operas and the achievement of three perfectly harmonious voices. Made from equal parts of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot, it more closely resembles a Bordeaux in the sense that the cuvee is not recognizable by any of these varietals. An artful synthesis, dark and sumptuous, redolent of dark stone fruit and roasted coffee, with a long, lively finish, it is drinkable now and should be for years to come.
    Volker's environmental legacy is huge. It's nice to think his wine, too, lives on in the place he spent so much time trying to save from development.                                                                          

       "Neither Bordeaux nor Napa, but  uniquely our own."
     So claims the mailer in which the wine arrives: a bottle each of Rendezvous, the second son of RdV in the foothills of the Blue Ridge just west of Middleburg, Virginia, and Lost Mountain, the more substantial offering from the progeny of a Dutch pharmaceutical family, former United States Marine, and devotee of the wines of the Medoc.                                                                           
    Rutger de Vink studied viticulture under the tutelage of Jim Law at nearby Linden Vineyards and while there conducted an extraordinary search for good vineyard land the length of the Virginia piedmont. For the full story of how Rutger put together RdV - and managed to get the critic, Jancis Robinson, to taste and comment on it - see my piece from Garden & Gun (
     His decision to spend years - and money - searching for a truly exceptional vineyard site paid off and serves as a good example for other hopeful artisanal projects in Virginia. Much of the piedmont's soil is underlain with clay, which doesn't drain well, but Rutger and his consultants found a hill near Delaplane made essentially of crushed granite that absorbs water beautifully. Visitors (by appointment only) to RdV's striking stealth winery - it looks from a distance more like a dairy operation, with converging faux barns and a white "silo" that glows at night -  can see this vineyard foundation through a glass panel at the rear of the tasting room.
    RdV makes only two wines, a more typical Bordelais blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petite verdot, called Rendezvous. Slightly less expensive ($75 ) and readily drinkable, the 2013 is bright and complex, with the signature RdV softness and lengthening finish.
    The other wine, the 2013 Lost Mountain, is half cabernet sauvignon augmented with cabernet franc (27%) and merlot (20%). More substantial than the Rendezvous, it commands an attention-getting (in Virginia) price of $125 and offers the characteristic, alluring RdV softness that shouldn't be confused with lack of complexity. The 2013 has an even longer finish than the '08 and, with that velvety quality that has become the enduring RdV signature. Yes, it's demonstrably different from both Napa's cult wines made from often over-ripe fruit, and harder-edged Bordeauxs.                                              



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