Virginia Spirits: Distilleries, Ciders and Wines for Winter
Just as a horse trots steadily across an open field in the Shenandoah countryside, the reputation of East Coast wines and spirits is gaining momentum in the rhythm of national beverage communities. Granted, there is a lot of ground to cover.
Many drinkers have yet to acclimate to the regional texture and character of East Coast libations. Our terroir—the flavor of our land, if you will—is still new to the cultural palette, as opposed to wines from France, Spain or California, whose tastes, textures and subtleties are engrained somewhere deep within us. The bodies and flavors of wines up and down the East Coast are quiet and subtle, more comparable to offerings from Oregon’s Willamette Valley than to the bright and peppery fullness of France or the dense richness of Napa Valley. But anyone with a passion to develop a taste for our regional beverages will find a beautiful, personal relationship with our fruit, our land and our distinct character, like close friendship born out of long, thoughtful conversations deep into the night.
Unlike many regions around the world, whose techniques have been honed over centuries and are well established, East Coast regions offer us the opportunity to grow with the very drinks we sip. As the idiosyncrasies of climate and soil composition are still being worked out by area distillers, cidermakers and winemakers, the flavors of the drinks are developing and maturing noticeably with each harvest. And, in Virginia, there is no better combination of beautiful countryside, dynamic beverage offerings and knowledgeable professionals to make a distillery or vineyard visit an unforgettable winter getaway. And if you don’t feel like leaving town, you can always just pick up a bottle of the good stuff at your local wine shop.
Castle Hill Cider
Hard cider from Charlottesville might seem a strange place to start a discussion on Virginia libations. With almost 200 operating vineyards in the state, and more than 20 within a stone’s throw of Castle Hill’s neighboring Monticello Wine Trail, this cidery stands almost on its own as a representative for the fermenting potential of apples. But when you see what cidermaker Stuart Madany is up to, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the quirk, history and flavors of traditional cider from Virginia’s heartland.
Originally built in 1764, Castle Hill was the home of Colonel Thomas Walker, guardian and mentor to Thomas Jefferson. The estate and its great barn, recently and beautifully restored, now stand as a cidery, tasting room and premiere venue for weddings and special events, bringing the character of the past together with the hospitality and luxury of today. Located on a 600-acre plot of rolling, endless hills, the land is still entrenched in the natural beauty of Virginia, and a young apple orchard budding eagerly before the Southwest Mountains looks as natural and inevitable as Jefferson’s rise to the presidency.
“We’re held to the same standards as farm wineries, and so we have to grow 51 percent of our apples for cidermaking on our own land,” says Madany. “Because our trees aren’t bearing fruit yet, we have leasing agreements with other orchards, more than 75 percent of which are Virginia orchards.”
Two years ago, Madany planted 660 trees on 4.5 acres of the Castle Hill estate. Comprising 28 species of heritage cider apples, their predominant variety is the Albermarle Pippin. “This apple got here by the hands of George Washington,” Madany says. “It was originally from New York, and Washington gave a cutting to Colonel Walker, who planted it on this very property.”
The cider is, frankly, outstanding. Most hard ciders that I’ve previously experienced taste watered down and homogenized — it tastes metallic and “apple flavored,” but not like an actual, distinct fruit with subtle, leafy undertones and its own characteristics. Castle Hill Cider is different. You taste the specific acidity and crispness of each glass, the earthy finishes and astringencies, as distinctly as you can tell a Gala apple from a Granny Smith.
The Levity, the flagship cider of Castle Hill, is made with 100 percent Pippin. It is aged and fermented in clay amphorae from the Caucasus Mountains, called kvevri, which are lined with beeswax and buried in the ground. This technique is one of the oldest fermenting techniques in history. Rested for four months on full lees — residual yeast and other sediment that collects at the bottom of the kvevri and imparts complex and layered flavors — this cider expresses a surprising depth with robust body and a refreshing minerality. “The process has been amazing,” says Madany. “Cidermaking is still a learning process for me. When you already know something really well, you can tune into the nuances of it, which is what we’re working toward and have on many levels already achieved. But on the flip side, there’s something fascinating about the raw experience of taking something in right now from what it’s supposed to be. You’re freed from the preconception of having an ideal. Instead you’re just experiencing it.”
For more information, visit CastleHillCider.com.
It’s no coincidence that vineyards have been clustering around the Monticello and Charlottesville region. Jefferson envisioned this part of the country as a Viticultural Area (AVA) that stood with the great wines of the Old World. Today, Virginia is the fifth largest producer of wine in the U.S., and more than half of its 2,000 vineyard acres grow within the Monticello AVA.
If you’ve made the trip down to Monticello, Keswick Vineyards is a perfect stop to plan in conjunction with your visit to Castle Hill Cider. Just across the street from Castle Hill, its cozy tasting room, full-access winery and breathtaking views of the surrounding country paint the scene, and in the autumn you can observe the harvest activity firsthand. In the winter, it’s their selection of silky, bold red wines that will hold your attention. Keswick Vineyards uses a minimalist approach in making their wines and have focused the bulk of their attentions on the vineyards to produce the best possible fruit to work with. Established in 2000, 43 acres are currently “under vine,” with the main grape planted being Viognier. Most of their wines are fermented using natural or native yeast, and all of their current red wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered, giving it a maturation period of five to 10 years. But don’t worry — there’s still a lot of good flavor if you drink them young. Try the Chambourcin. Its earthy aroma is intoxicating, and its rustic, hearty flavor with waves of dark fruit is the perfect winter drinking wine, whether served with beef stew or cheese, crackers and a roaring fire.
For more information, visit KeswickVineyards.com.
Catoctin Creek Distillery
Founded in 2009 as the first legal distillery in Loudoun County since before Prohibition, Catoctin Creek Distilling Company is a certified organic distillery in the heart of the Loudoun Valley. Often called the District’s wine country, Loudoun County now has a distillery to throw into the mix.
Catoctin’s grain and fruit, free of pesticides and chemical additives, are sourced locally when possible, and its quality is being recognized on a national level. Its whiskies have a laundry list of silver and gold medals from a number of different competitions, from Whiskey Advocate Magazine to the American Distilling Institute. A tour of its facilities, only an hour’s drive from the District, is worth the trip. Their Organic Mosby’s Spirit, a clear grain rye “white whiskey,” is incredibly versatile as a mixer, giving a new grainy sweetness to traditional vodka or rum cocktails. Their Organic Roundstone Rye, one of the only organic whiskeys in the nation, took home a silver medal at last year’s American Distilling Institute Whiskey Competition.
*For more information, visit CatoctinCreekDistilling.com.
Virginia Distillery Company
A small-batch, artisan distiller, Virginia Distillery Company (VDC) in Nelson County, just 25 minutes south of Charlottesville, has brought notoriety to the region with its award-winning selection of double malt whiskies. Its Eades Double Malt, finished in fine wine casks, demonstrate that two malts can create an experience that actually heightens and refines each region’s flavor profile. But as with all whiskeys, wines and spirits, the process does not finish overnight. And what is happening at VDC right now is a great way to be a part of a burgeoning culture as it is being forged. The company is working on a Virginia Single Malt whiskey, which will be available within the next three to four years.
Unlike blended double malts, a single malt whiskey is a pure expression of the land from which it comes. And so while VDC’s single malt is being traditionally produced, its taste promises to be unlike any whiskey to come before it. Whiskey production welcomes Virginia’s damp, sticky summers and cold, dry winters (which can be tough on the winemaking community). As whiskey ages inside the cask, the dramatic seasonal fluctuations in temperature and humidity cause the wood storing the whiskey to expand and contract. These dynamic forces will draw the whiskey into and out of the wood of the cask much faster than in a typical Scottish warehouse, where single malts are most commonly produced.
The first batch of their authentic, double-distilled single malt whiskey is now aging, and will hibernate and mature for a minimum of three years, turning from the clear spirit to the subtly aged amber whiskey we all know and love, but with the distinct characteristics of Virginia. In the meantime, keep yourself warm with VDC’s sweet, tangy Eades Double Malt.
For more information, visit VADistillery.com.