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WineLine No. 13
Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
Sept. 3, 2001
Welcome to WineLine #13, in which your intrepid scribe profiles a new winery that is raising the bar for Virginia. As always, please feel free to forward this to others who might be interested. To subscribe, send a blank e-mail to join-wineline@clio.lyris.net. Back issues of WineLine are posted at Robin Garr's Wine Lover's Page. And please feel free to contact me directly.

Cheers!

Dave McIntyre

"Whatever you do, don't get any of this on you," said Jennifer McCloud.

She withdrew the turkey baster from the barrel and squirted some of the dark, inky liquid into my glass. Holding it up, I saw the light did not penetrate the wine, obviously a mortal enemy to khaki pants, light-colored shirts, and tooth enamel.

McCloud stuck her nose in her glass and took a deep sniff. "The fruit, the cherry and plum flavors, that strong initial attack," she said. "That's why I'm so jazzed on Norton."

McCloud is "jazzed" on a lot of things, I learned as I spent three hours with her recently touring her winery, Chrysalis, near Middleburg, Virginia. One doesn't need to spend more than a few minutes with her to know that enthusiasm is not lacking here. Enthusiasm for Virginia wine in general, enthusiasm for "alternative grape varieties," but most of all, enthusiasm for Norton.

"Norton is, after all, America's grape," she said, citing the history - developed in Richmond in the 1830s and winner of some European expositions in the 1870s and 1880s. Never mind that Norton is virtually unknown outside Missouri and Virginia, that it garnered nary a mention in the original edition of The Oxford Companion to Wine and only a scant paragraph in The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America. For Jenni McCloud, Norton is the future.

She's not the only Norton enthusiast out there. Jim and Debra Vascik of Valhalla Vineyards in Roanoke are also banking heavily on Norton, and Horton Vineyards near Charlottesville makes an inky bottling notable not only for the rhyming value. ("Horton Norton".) But this enthusiasm among winemakers has not yet caught on with consumers.

McCloud has yet to release a bottling of Norton from Chrysalis, the winery she founded three-and-a-half years ago on a rambling horse farm just east of Middleburg, in the hunt country of Virginia's Piedmont. But she is raising eyebrows - and winning awards - for her Viognier, the white grape of Condrieu that proved a decade ago that Virginia can make wine with the best of them.

The 2000 Chrysalis Viognier, produced primarily from purchased grapes, just won the Jefferson Loving Cup for Best of Show at the Vinifera Grape Growers Association annual contest. (This writer was a judge on the contest panel.)

Chrysalis wines, including a Chardonnay that eschews the total barrel treatment and malolactic fermentation for a more "fruit-driven" approach, and the Rubiana, a Spanish-style red blend, are made mostly from purchased grapes for the time being. But with the 2001 vintage, more of the vines McCloud planted three years ago will begin producing, including her beloved Norton.

She claims to have made the 1999 Viognier, which also won acclaim and garnered her winery some initial press, in the garage of the guest house on the estate. But McCloud is no garagiste in the sense of the cult wines now the rage in Bordeaux. Witness the hands-free telephone she's wearing as she greets guests in the winery's new (too-small) tasting room or the high-powered Strohman hose nozzle that shoots hot water across the extremely clean winery with a power that would make the DC Police Department envious during IMF protests.

The current winery is 10,000 square feet, with the capacity to produce 20,000 cases of wine (she now makes about 12,000 cases). But McCloud has plans to erect a new facility on the property big enough to produce 75,000 cases. Tourism factors into the business plan, too. A massive propane-fired barbecue beckons visitors to cook their own picnics to enjoy on the patio (with Chrysalis wines, natch), and McCloud hopes to refurbish the old horse stables, though whether she'll allow visitors to gallop down the rows of Norton, Viognier, Tempranillo, Graciano, Albarino or Fer Servadou vines remains to be seen. The old grain silo, still structurally sound, could in her imagination become an observation tower for tourists besotted on Viognier to totter up and gaze admiringly across the rolling hills of the Piedmont and marvel at the prolific Norton vines that are likely to dominate the 99 acres of vineyard she has planned.

From that stream of consciousness paragraph you can probably garner that McCloud is tough to follow, in all her enthusiasm. Here's the nutshell:

  • She is not a "winemaker," per se, but an entrepreneur. Chrysalis, she says, is the 13th business she started since 1979. I didn't ask about the first 11, but number 12, a software development firm, apparently did well enough, and she sold it in 1995 and decided to devote her next venture to her longtime love of wine. She hooked up with Dennis Horton, of Horton Vineyards near Charlottesville, and caught his enthusiasm for "alternative" grape varieties. The wines at Chrysalis now are made with the help of consulting winemaker Allan Kinne, who put Horton on the map a decade ago and whose name is always uttered by Virginia winemakers with a respect rivaling Thomas Jefferson's. But it's obvious that McCloud is intimately involved in every aspect of the business, including winemaking.
  • She's an experimenter. Along with Horton, McCloud is emphasizing Iberian grapes, in her case Spanish. She planted an Albarino vineyard last year because of her enthusiasm for the grape, even though she was not yet sure that it would survive the sometimes harsh winters that strike Virginia. (Albarino is attractive because of its resistance to humidity and rot, and because it's downright delish.) The verdict is still out; the Albarino crop was suffering this year, for reasons yet undetermined, even though 2001 was shaping up to be an ideal vintage for Virginia. Other plantings include Graciano, Godello and Tempranillo.
  • She doesn't like Cabernet Franc, the red grape that many, including myself, believe will be the main red grape of American wine outside the West Coast. "Cabernet Franc makes an incomplete wine," McCloud says. "It does well in Virginia, but it ultimately is better as a blending grape rather than the main grape of a wine."

I couldn't disagree more, as consumers will be more attracted to a wine that has the magic word "Cabernet" in its name and the lush, peppery fruit of a well-made Cab Franc. (Witness the noteworthy bottlings by Barboursville, White Hall, Valhalla and Tarara in Virginia, or New York's Lamoreaux Landing and Fox Run in the Finger Lakes or Schneider and Palmer on Long Island.) I told her as much as she pulled that sample of Norton from the barrel. The Norton was smoky and inky, with some cherry and plum aromas and flavors and a long, caramel/cola finish. Most notable was the extremely acidic attack that dropped sharply on the mid-palate.

McCloud then wriggled the bung from a barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon and mixed me an impromptu blend of about 60 percent Norton, 40 percent Cab. It was much more complete: I could see the bottom of the glass, not so much to think the wine was light but enough to think there might be a tomorrow. The acidic attack was muted, and the mid-palate was strengthened. The improvised wine's finish featured more fruit, some currant and blackberry, with the cola notes sneaking up on the end.

When Chrysalis markets its Norton, it is more likely to be blended with Tannat and some Fer Servadou, grapes McCloud feels will strengthen that mid-palate and the tannic structure even more than Cabernet Sauvignon. Stay tuned ...

As someone "jazzed" on Albarino, I'm rooting for that grape to succeed in Virginia. But for now, Chrysalis is making headway with the following wines:

  • 2000 Viognier: Lush and long, redolent with peach blossom and jasmine aromas and delightful tropical flavors. McCloud calls it "kick-ass Viognier," although she admits preferring the 1999 she made in the garage. I disagree, if only because the 2000 is fresher and more vibrant. It avoids the high alcohol levels that plague many California bottlings while combining American richness with French floral qualities. Bravo! (Jefferson Loving Cup winner for Best in Show at the 2001 Vinifera Grape Growers Association Virginia Wine Festival.) Worth the $26.
  • 2000 Riesling: Not a "shlock-plonk sweet wine", McCloud says. Indeed. This is a nice picnic quaff, tasting of lime and only 11.5% alcohol. Still, a bit pricey at $14.
  • 2000 Chardonnay: From a difficult vintage, 20% tank fermented, yet still buttery with some barrel character. Give it until the new year to soften a bit. Quite nice at $16.
  • 2000 Rubiana: A red blend in the Spanish style, mostly Graciano with some Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Fer Servadou and Tannat. A light, spicy red with lots of cherry fruit, good for picnics or pasta dishes. Tasted from tank before bottling, this has a bit more oomph to it than the debut 1999, which is now sold out. $18.

In future vintages from Chrysalis, look also for Petit Manseng, which McCloud is "jazzed" about for dessert wines, as well as Albarino (I hope) and some other Spanish varieties. This is a Virginia winery to watch.

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