Ankida Ridge Vineyards grows uncommon Virginia grapes and treats you like family

Ankida Ridge Vineyards in Amherst is one of the only nearby wineries growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Photo courtesy Ankida Ridge Ankida Ridge Vineyards in Amherst is one of the only nearby wineries growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. Photo courtesy Ankida Ridge

“This is God’s country” is a phrase uttered all too often, with varying intentions and levels of reverence. Some use it literally in reference to the biblical homelands, while others use it as they crack a beer and fire up the barbecue in their own backyard.

Heretical as it may sound, I for one find it perhaps most apropos when used to describe the ancient rolling peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains that are home to some of Virginia’s best wineries. It would seem that Dennis and Christine Vrooman, owners of Ankida Ridge Vineyards in Amherst, would agree, considering they named their winery after the Sumerian word meaning “the joining of heaven and earth.”

On a recent visit to Ankida Ridge, I was so focused on navigating the steep, winding gravel road that led up to the winery that I drove right past the tasting room and soon found myself talking to Dennis in the Vroomans’ front yard. Instead of turning me around and showing me to the tasting room, he eagerly invited me onto their deck and showed me the vineyard, which was in the process of being mowed by a small flock of sheep. In an effort to minimize the amount of sprays and pesticide used and limit environmental impact, the sheep, along with chickens and guinea hens, are employed to help maintain growth and pest levels.

Dennis and Christine’s son Nathan is a promising young winemaker. Christine tends to the vines with a harmonious touch that is almost Zen-like. And Dennis—who takes an active role in the winery but maintains a veterinarian practice in Virginia Beach—“pays the bills,” as Christine says. The tasting room has a very homey feel to it, with a large dining room table in the center, pictures of the family sheep hanging above the mantel, and a large deck that looks out onto the holler below. It was at this bar that Christine and Nathan joined me to taste the wines, and in no time I felt like I was part of the family.

Of course none of this would matter if it weren’t for the wines, and I am happy to report that Ankida Ridge more than excels in this category. In fact, I would go so far as to say that its wines are some of the best I’ve had in Virginia. Offering only a handful of different wines and production hovering under a thousand cases annually, the term micro-boutique really is fitting. But the small size allows them to pay the utmost attention to what’s going on in the vineyard, and the wines are certainly better for it.

Nathan demonstrates a balanced hand with the Chardonnay, using partial malolactic fermentation and moderately seasoned French Oak barrels for aging. The wine exhibits notes of ripe pear on the nose and apple on the palate, with just a hint of citrus and butterscotch. The most remarkable thing about the wine, however, is the minerality that Christine and Nathan are able to achieve, matching but not mimicking its Burgundian counterparts.

I truly was surprised when I first tasted the Pinot Noir. The quality and ripeness of fruit was impressive to say the least, and it was lightly structured but retained the firm tannins found in pinots from more heralded regions. Again aged only in French Oak barrels, the Pinot Noir has a delicate nose that hits all the classic pinot notes with lots of bright cherry and fruit up front, and a hint of iron and gaminess on the backend.

We tried multiple vintages of the Pinot Noir, and each successive vintage proved a little deeper and more complex. While the 2011 vintage was perhaps the most readily drinkable, the soon-to-be released 2012 pinot was a little richer, and possessed a slightly deeper sense of terroir. The 2013s were a bit young and still in the barrel, but show a lot of promise and have the Vroomans excited for their future. This is noteworthy because of the relative age of the vineyard, only planted in 2008 it is still in its infancy, and promises to provide even more earthiness and minerality as it continues to mature.

Unfortunately, the tasting room at Ankida Ridge is not open to the public on a regular basis. The Vroomans instead opt to open their home to visitors four times a year for large parties that celebrate the changing seasons.

For those eager to try the wines, fret not, for Ankida Ridge recently opened a satellite tasting room in the heart of Downtown Charlottesville. Located at 209 Second St., SW right next to Bang! and the Wine Guild, 22Brix opened in November of this year. Named after the brix level at which they like to harvest their Pinot Noir, the new tasting room remains a family affair with Christine’s sister Cindy on hand to curate your tasting experience. Tastefully decorated and offering a large porch for patrons to use while they enjoy a glass, 22Brix gives winos a chance to try the wines from Ankida Ridge without the lengthy drive. So if you can’t make it to “God’s country” to visit the winery, at least you can stop by the Downtown tasting room for a little sip of heaven.

On the wine list

Only the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grown at the estate are bottled under the Ankida Ridge label, but Nathan also produces three wines at the winery under the name Rockgarden Cellars, aptly named the voyage series because the grapes find their way to the winery from other vineyards in the area.

  • The Voyage de Vert is a light, crisp white wine inspired by Portugal’s Vino Verdhe, made primarily from Vidal blanc. Very bright, with a sharp acidity that dances across the palate and a slight effervescence, this wine exudes tart green apple and a bit of citrus, making it best suited as a refreshing quaffer on a sunny day.
  • The Voyage de rouge is a claret blend like those found in Bordeaux, predominantly consisting of merlot with both cabernet sauvignon and franc rounding out the blend. Rich, juicy and appropriately structured, the rouge offers dark stone fruits with a touch of tobacco and soft tannins that give it a very smooth finish.
  • The final wine offered under the Rockgarden label is the vin Doux, a port-style dessert wine that is surprisingly balanced, despite its sweeter nature.

While the Rockgarden wines were enjoyable in their own right, the stars of the show are undoubtedly Ankida Ridge’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.