By Francois Steichen
Virginia Wine Tasting & Fox Farm Brewery:
Some books are meant to be re-read; some movies re-watched. Years later, maturity or perspective offer new rewards to the reader/viewer.
I recently revisited Fox Farm Brewery, and re-tasted some wines from Virginia. I was last at Fox Farm 3 years ago, and in Virginia over 25 years ago. At the time, neither was ready for prime-time. Both are now. In spades.
Uncommon Wine Wealth
I was gobsmacked at a recent trade tasting of Virginia wines at Veranda restaurant, on Grand Street in Manhattan. The tasting was sponsored by Williams Corner Wines, a distributor and cheerleader for the Commonwealth’s wines. The Virginia Wine trade association was also involved, as was the Virginia Tourism Corporation. (You’ll know the VTC from their longstanding “Virginia is for Lovers” campaign.)
Represented were Virginia’s Ur-winery, Barboursville Vineyards, as well as Ankida Ridge, Blenheim Vineyards, Domaine Finot – Virginia, Early Mountain Vineyards, King Family Vineyards, Lightwell Survey, Stinson Vineyards and Veritas Winery.
Most of these wineries are in the Monticello AVA (AKA, Thomas Jefferson’s country), which is centered on Charlottesville, but extends to the Blue Ridge Mountains several miles west. Another few wineries are in the Central Region of Virginia, both north and south of the Monticello AVA. And one winery is in the Shenandoah Valley.
The best wineries seem to be on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge – especially Ankida Ridge, which seems quite isolated from the other vineyard areas. Is this part of their secret?
The most obvious discovery at this tasting is the commitment to experimentation and development (and sheer love of wine) shown by the winemakers present.
Kirsty Harmon, at Blenheim, will try most any grape to see whether it works in Virginia’s emerging terroir. She is a tinkerer, and hearing her talk about all the vats she carefully nurtures almost made me miss the offerings at the last two tables.
Emily Hodson has a quiet, slightly nervous energy – one feels the hum of excitement under her calm exterior. It’s easy to understand her barely-contained joy, because her wines are gorgeously balanced, especially the 2015 Scintella sparkling wine. Fizz in Virginia’s clay soils? Who knew? No, really… how is this possible?
In fact, three of the seven winemakers at these nine wineries are women. The third – Maya Hood White of Early Mountain – was raised in Santa Barbara, California and graduated from UC Davis. Maya was just named Winemaker at Early Mountain Winery, an indication of how much talent is migrating to Virginia.
One wine simply rocked my world: the 2020 Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir. With the exceptions of Grand Cru or Reserve Pinots, this is one of the best Pinots I’ve ever tasted. I took a sip of it without knowing anything about Ankida Ridge, much less the 93 points that James Suckling gave an earlier vintage of this wine. I didn’t need to. The aroma of this wine was huge; the wine was exquisitely balanced; the taste experience was complex. I was wide-eyed. I believe I became invertebrate. I may even have frightened the pourer.
Ankida’s Nathan Vrooman learned how to make wine as an Assistant to Matthieu Finot, who was also present at the Veranda tasting. Finot makes wine for King Family Winery now. He also co-owns Domaine Finot with his brother, Thomas. The Domaine has land in Virginia and in the Isère, in the piedmont of the French Alps, near Grenoble. The brothers obviously enjoy challenges; the Isère is not otherwise known for great wine, and in fact, Domaine Finot is great Isère wine for all intents and purposes.
Matthieu’s Malbec made me smile by its inventiveness. Carbonic maceration Malbec that ends up tasting a bit like a really fine Beaujolais? Are you kidding me? Well… that’s what you do when you know that the Virginia rains are going to split your fruit open anyway. Yeah – these Finot boys are pretty clever.
Veritas’s 2015 Scintella, a Blanc de Blancs (i.e., 100% Chardonnay) sparkling wine, was delicious. It has a very pleasing touch of fruit on the end, but no sweetness to speak of – just autolytic bread created by a lot of viticultural forethought (picking in August when the grapes’ acidity was still high) and skilled winemaking.
Kirsty Harmon represented with three unusual wines: a Grüner Veltliner, an Albariño, and a Rkatsiteli – grapes normally associated with Austria, Spain and the country of Georgia. All were precise and delicious.
Virginia wineries experiment with a lot of Petit Verdot and Petit Manseng, and I wasn’t as blown away with some of those. But Barboursville – not to be knocked off its perch as the O.G. of Virginia wine – showed up with a refreshing Vermentino, a very well done Nebbiolo Reserve, and a classic example of super-sweet Passito Moscato they call Paxxito. Again – grapes you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in Virginia.
Fox Farm Brewery is located in Salem, Connecticut. It’s an apt locale, because what they do with malt and hops is spellbinding witchcraft.
Salem is also close to the summer beaches of Old Saybrook, Lyme and Niantic. Fox Farm makes a nice afternoon or evening stop for a relaxing beer or two.
But let’s back up a bit. Until two weeks ago, I had been to Fox Farm once – about 3 years ago. It was a weekend day, there were large crowds, I had already visited at least 10 breweries that day, and I was probably a bit cranky.
I didn’t enjoy the beer. Not a one of the four I tasted. So either Fox Farm was still getting the kinks out or my taste buds went on hiatus that afternoon.
Fox Farm is now universally considered the best brewery in Connecticut. And it’s not even close. I’ve had the Brewers at two of Connecticut’s biggest breweries tell me so, as well as a dozen or so other friends. I knew that I had to go back and re-evaluate. Which I happily did last Friday.
The “Gather” German Pilsner has the attenuated bitterness characteristic of the German Pilsners, in counterpart to the more forceful bitterness of the Urquell (“original source”) beers from Plzen. Gather has perfect carbonation. It is very long on the palate, is not overly alcoholized, and has no false notes.
Some will argue that typicity is overrated; that it is slavish adherence to an easy recipe. I find such arguments to be cover for poor beer making. Kind of like people who claim that Brahms was just a Beethoven copycat.
Fox Farm has not just one, but two smoked beers. One Doppelbock that is heavier on the smoke, and Helles Lager that is lighter. The difference between them is quite discernible, whereas at some other breweries, one wonders whether such similar brews aren’t taken from the same vat, and renamed to pad the beer list.
My favorite on the day was a Pale Farmhouse Ale that was created with mixed-culture fermentation. Huge lemon and pineapple fruit, with apple flavors and even golden syrup. But what’s this? No fruit thrown in. The flavors came naturally out of the yeast autolysis and aging. It had massive acidity, but no unappetizing tartness. There was none of the flabby sweetness that rings false on so many “sours,” but makes them palatable for many customers.
Fox Farm also produces a Norwegian Kveik-style ale, and a Finnish-style Sahti that I was able to purchase. These are also types of farmhouse ale. I can’t wait to tell you about them!
Greenwich Wine & Beer Calendar:
The Study (1071 North Street) will hold their renowned Rosé Class and walk-around tasting in July. The Study’s tequila class is taking place Thursday, May 26th, from 7 to 9 pm.
Rye, NY: Rye Town Park
“Suds on the Sound” will take place from 2 to 6 PM tomorrow (Saturday) at the Rye Town Park, 95 Dearborn Avenue, next to Rye Town Beach / Playland. The Beer fest is an excellent chance to taste 100+ beers from over 50 Breweries without having to drive to the breweries. Organizers are saying it will take place rain or shine. The Barley Beach House is the force behind this event. Tickets are $55 ($15 for designated drivers). A buffet is served, and guests receive a tasting glass.
Fairfield County: Personnel News
Hartley & Parker, one of the biggest wine & spirit distributors in Connecticut, is ramping up its fine wine offerings. In a major coup, they have tabbed Adrien Chiota to head their Fairfield County team. Adrien was Sales Director at Independence Wine & Spirits in Manhattan, one of the tri-State area’s finest national-level wine importers/distributors. Adrien lives with his family near Newtown.
New Canaan: Jamie Oliver Food Revolution
This event is not wine- or beer-related, but it’s in nearby New Canaan tomorrow, and it just sounds like a blast, with a clever objective: to have kids try food (by way of a “Bravery Passport” check-off of each food sampled) they might otherwise recoil from because it doesn’t sound or look appetizing. (Haven’t we all been there!) Learn more at: New Canaan Food Revolution.
François Steichen founded and owns Frenchy’s Wine Road. At 10 years of age, he took his first sip of a sparkling wine. Since that moment, the magic of fermentation and spontaneously-produced bubbles has never truly relinquished its hold on his curiosity.
François is a resident of Old Greenwich with almost 20 years’ experience in the Wine Industry. To learn how he can help you with wine- & beer-related matters, feel free to check out his webpage or reach out to him at: [email protected].