Big vin: West of Charlottesville, Crozet vineyards are making a splash

King Family Vineyards wins this year for best winery, with its covered veranda and expansive lawn—and of course its vino. Photo: Jack Looney King Family Vineyards wins this year for best winery, with its covered veranda and expansive lawn—and of course its vino. Photo: Jack Looney

In a recent poll of local oenophiles that, in reality, shouldn’t really be called a poll, but more an informal inquiry in which I badgered friends about where they go for a top-notch vineyard experience, it was surprising how many echoed Horace Greeley in telling me to “Go west, young man.” Except, they weren’t referring to Manifest Destiny, but rather just a few miles west of Charlottesville to exit 107 in Crozet—a matter of minutes from a multitude of excellent vineyards.

Between Crozet and the nearby unincorporated communities of Afton, Greenwood, and White Hall, avid wine aficionados have almost a dozen wineries to explore, as well as some of Virginia’s top bottlings to enjoy. My friends and C-VILLE readers have something in common, since Crozet’s King Family Vineyards and Veritas Vineyard & Winery took the winner and runner-up spots, respectively, in this year’s Best of C-VILLE. And they’re no strangers to winning: In 2012, KFV and Veritas were named to the Governor’s case, and this year the distinction went to KFV and Greenwood’s Pollak Vineyards. It’s clear that some of Virginia’s top wines are consistently coming out of this little pocket in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

To begin with the obvious: It’d be pretty hard for anyone with the means to start a commercial winery to ignore the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and not get caught up in the idea of patrons sipping vino in the shadows of their azure peaks, although perhaps azure mounds is admittedly more apropos. Actually, this grandiose notion belies a hidden advantage: The mountainous terrain leads to diverse soil types that diverge from the red clay and dense soils that constitute a large part of Central Virginia’s landscape.

According to Matthieu Finot, King Family’s winemaker, the granite and dyke loam soil that’s found in his vineyard and are common to the area promote drainage and are not too nutrient rich, which in turn prevents excessive vine vigor. Counterintuitive to this term, excessive vine vigor does not refer to the strength or size of the grapevine, but rather when the vine puts too much energy and nutrients into the proliferation of vegetative growth, instead of focusing on the increased yield and improved ripening of the grapes themselves. This can lead to muted flavors and an overall, undesirable vegetal quality.

Anyone who’s spent his fair share of time at KFV (or one of its neighbors) has noticed that afternoons can get pretty windy. It can be a pain for guests enjoying the patio, but it offers a slight advantage for winemakers: The wind helps to regulate the temperature in warmer months and to prevent excessive moisture on the berries, too much of which can lead to mold and mildew.

All that in mind, does this particular part of Albemarle County warrant recognition? The Premier Crus of Bordeaux and the Grand Crus of Burgundy refer to the particular vineyard sites considered the absolute best in their regions. Should similar distinctions be made of our own? Matthieu, for one, doesn’t think so—at least yet. While he readily admits the Monticello AVA is currently producing some of the best wines in all of Virginia, he’s hesitant to say that his neck of the woods deserves any sort of elevated “Cru” status. And he flat out refused to acknowledge that his immediate area was the “best” in the AVA, pointing out that Barboursville Vineyards, for one, is located on the other side of Charlottesville and consistently makes excellent wines. Regardless of this reticence, it is undeniable that Finot, his neighbors, and friends are truly starting to come into their own. Maybe someday Virginia vineyards will earn “Cru” status, but in the meantime, we might as well enjoy the progress.

Two to try

2012 King Family Vineyards Crosé Rosé ($17.95/bottle)

Not only does the Crosé rosé possess one of the more creative and marketable names in Virginia wine, but it is also one of the most remarkably consistent rosés if not just in Virginia, then possibly the entire United States. Made each year from 100 percent merlot grapes, you can count on this rosé offering fresh cranberries in abundance with distinct Meyer lemon citrus notes on the nose, and plenty of grapefruit and that expected cranberry and tart red brambles on the palate. With a fairly light body and crisp finish, it is most often this wine that I find myself sitting down to when I visit the vineyard.

 2012 Veritas Vineyard Saddleback Chardonnay ($22/bottle)

While the Harlequin Reserve is arguably Veritas Vineyard’s top Chardonnay offering, and it is perfectly balanced and enjoyable in its own right, I happen to prefer a livelier style of Chardonnay, and with the somewhat lighter body and brighter acidity afforded by the stainless steel fermentation, the Saddleback delivers. While it hints at the green apple and minerality found in the great food wines of Chablis that it looks to emulate, it also offers aromas of ripe pear and tropical fruits usually exhibited in the easy drinking, readily enjoyable Chardonnays of the new world.

Andrew Cole is the manager and wine director at tavola.