“These wines are all fragments of my memory.” Winemaker Riaan Rossouw is sitting with his wife, Rachel O’Neill, and a reporter upstairs at the Ivy Inn just before the dinner hour. The table, draped in white linens, is appointed with two elegant decanters, six wine glasses, three water glasses, and two red wine bottles each wrapped in a label-obscuring paper bag. There’s a platter of cheese and bread, too. He is describing how a “different Virginia is captured in this bottle,” an old-vine Virginia, if you will, that Rossouw is releasing after four years of bottle aging.
Lovingston Winery proprietors Ed and Janet Puckett, who have been his employers for five years, “realize it’s important for a winemaker to grow,” Rossouw says. They’ve been supportive all along of his solo project, which came to market this month.
Rossouw has been the winemaker at Lovingston Winery since 2005, following five years at Oakencroft. But his new wines—these two whose bottles are protectively enveloped so that biases or expectations about varietals won’t impede the act of tasting them—these are being released under his own label exclusively. The name? Simply r.
“My work as a winemaker is based on eyes, ears, mouth and passion,” he says. Rossouw speaks at length about roots, too. Raised in South Africa of French and German parents and with a winemaking lineage he traces to his great-grandfather and beyond, Rossouw believes a winemaker should “embrace tradition but never close the door on what’s next.”
As well as anything, that sums up Rossouw’s inspiration to make wine in Virginia—a place that’s about as “what’s next” and New World as you can get, enologically speaking. But in creating his two Bordeaux-style reds, Rossouw added to his challenges. His 2006 Cabernet Franc derives from the fruit of 26-year-old vines—elderly by Virginia standards. Many winemakers might avoid such vines, because, as he says, “as a vineyard gets older, they all have, if you will, their sporting injuries.” But for Rossouw, that fact is balanced by another idea: “I don’t believe a vineyard stands still.” The resulting wine has the unmistakably briar-like, foresty aroma of Cab Franc. But in the mouth, it surprises with elegance, soft tannins and a hint of a raspberry aftertaste, so much so that without seeing the label one might wonder if it’s Cab Franc, after all. “Nose-to-mouth: That’s what intrigues me about old vineyards,” he says. “It’s a beautiful twist; the thinking man’s wine.”
Rossouw’s other wine now coming to market—and the production for both so far is tiny at 65 cases total—is called Grand Vin. It combines the same Cabernet Franc grapes with a touch of Merlot. A dark purple compared to the Cabernet Franc’s garnet hue, it is more acidic, in a pleasing way, and speaks of cherries.
The Merlot, which Rossouw terms “very young fruit,” grew at Lovingston. Indeed, the Puckett family that owns Lovingston and has employed Rossouw since 2005 has been highly supportive of this venture. “They have really embraced it and allowed me to learn outside of just winemaking,” he says, referring to the many other aspects that make wine a business and not just a pastime, from marketing to labeling and distribution.
Speaking of labels, r sports a streamlined look, with the single lower-case letter presented in Minion Pro typeface above the vintage and the words Monticello AVA. Rossouw and O’Neill, who designed the label, hope to convey a modern sensibility that nonetheless embraces traditional elegance. “Inside, it is kind of old and outside it is very new,” he says, “very beautiful.”
Priced at about $24, r is now for sale at Whole Foods, Rio Hill Wine & Gourmet, Wine Warehouse and the Inn Shops at Boar’s Head, and is being served at Basic Necessities in Nellysford and L’étoile.