Archive for April, 2009


The Mighty Oak

Posted on Apr 29 2009 | By

oak-tree1Aged for 15 months in French and American oak.

This line—or one similar—is seen on the back of countless wine bottles, or accompanying tasting notes, to describe the importance of the marriage of wine and oak.  No other wood has achieved the ability to enhance the aroma and flavor of wine.  After the vine, oak is the most important plant in producing quality wine.

So how did this committed relationship begin?  And why has it endured so long?

While many woods can be used to craft a barrel, among them cherry, walnut, chestnut, and pine, only oak emerged as perfectly suited for the transportation and storage of wine. Other woods were either to porous, which led to leakage, or too overpowering aromatically, conveying odors that detracted from the enjoyment of the liquid stored therein. 

The use of oak barrels to transport wine has a centuries long history.  The vessels were watertight and easy to move.  The casks could be transported by wagon or ship with little risk of loss or breakage.

A lamentable tale turned golden, occurred in the 1980s when Chile first began focusing on exporting its wines.  Sadly, the initial efforts were a failure.  It seems the Chileans had grown accustomed to their wine being aged in a type of birch wood called rauli. While the natives enjoyed the wine’s odd aroma and flavor, international markets rejected the musty character it displayed.  When vintners realized how the world perceived their wines, they quickly switched to oak and the ascent of Chilean wines began in earnest.

wine-barrel1Among the numerous benefits of oak is that wine slowly evaporates in the vessels.  Care must be taken to add back any loss since the liquid oxidizes in the presence of air.  Up to three percent of wine can be lost through this process.  The French call this loss the “angels’ share.”  Of course, they do not begrudge the Seraphim and Cherubim their little dollop of evening wine, obviously enjoyed after the winemaker leaves for the evening.  But, the angels know they are making a valued contribution to the wine’s ultimate taste.  Evaporation enhances flavors, creates depth and softens mouth feel, producing qualities not as easily attained when aged in stainless steel tanks. Virtually all quality red wines, and many whites, especially Chardonnay, undergo oak aging.

Over time, winemakers learned that smaller casks possessed the perfect wine to oak ratio.   The most popular barrels today are the Bordeaux, holding 225 liters, and the Burgundy, with a 227-liter capacity.  Each vessel produces about 300 bottles of wine.  The familiar scene of a wine cellar, containing row upon row of sleeping oak barrels, has come to embody our image of a winery.

As oak became the wood of choice for enhancing the quality of wine, two particular species became favorites; French and American white oak.  French oak has a more subtle effect on a wine’s character because it is tighter grained and the staves are hand split.  American white oak is a bit more porous and the staves are machine cut, producing more intense flavors of vanilla and coconut.  Both woods produce a wide range of aromas and flavors, enhancing the final product.  Because of their distinct qualities, winemakers often age their wines in both types of barrels, and then blend the final product to build complexity.  You might say in the world of wine barrels, Maurice Chevalier and John Wayne work together to provide us our finest wines.

The creation of a barrel is performed by an artisan called a cooper.  It is a highly sought after skill that is reflected in the cost of a barrel.  An American vessel runs around $400 a piece and its French companion can exceed $1,000.  If you have ever pondered why some quality wines are so expensive, consider that highly rated château in France often use new barrels exclusively to age their wines, adding dramatically to the cost of the finished bottle. And a barrel will last only about five years.  After that, the oak elements that contribute character fade, and the barrel can only be used for neutral storage. 

barrelCoopers create barrels by forming the staves in a circle while slowly forcing metal bands around them.  Simultaneously, the barrel is rotated over a small fire to soften the wood and make it malleable enough to bend the staves into the traditional barrel shape.  This adds strength and produces a tight seal to prevent leakage.  However, over the last forty years or so, coopers have learned that the intensity of heating-—or toasting—-conveys a wide range of flavors to aged wine.  Today, barrel toasting has become both art and science.  Wineries can order barrels capable of producing specific flavor and aroma profiles.  The range of these components is impressive and includes almond, clove, vanilla, pepper, chocolate, tobacco, cedar, coffee, walnut, bacon, toasted bread and more.   Vintners order them light, medium or heavy toasted, depending on the characters they wish to highlight in their wines.

culpepercourthouseCulpeper County contributes in a unique way to the production of wine barrels used around the world.  Just north of the city of Culpeper, on Route 229, a lumber mill owned by the Ramoneda Brothers, specializes in the harvesting of Virginia White Oak.  The firm produces staves that are ultimately shipped to California and Europe for wine barrel production.  Next time you pass by the mill, take note of the neatly stacked tall racks of oak staves undergoing air aging.  In a few years, you might well be drinking a wine that was aged in a barrel crafted from staves produced in our county.  Not only is Virginia producing some wonderful wines, but it’s also contributing a key ingredient in their production elsewhere.

Given the cost of barrels today, it should come as no surprise that some wineries are switching to oak chips and staves, placed inside stainless steel tanks, to create the effect of an oak aged wine at a fraction of the cost.  Australia is a leader in the use of oak chips. This has enabled many of its producers to lower the cost per bottle, while creating wines with oak impact.  Producers of fine wine eschew using such shortcut methods. But, if correctly employed, certain elements of an oak aged wine can be crafted using less expensive alternatives such as chips.

As we reflect on the qualities of our favorite wines, let’s keep in mind the role oak plays. An oak tree used for barrel making can easily be over a hundred years old.  It’s possible to taste a wine today that was aged in oak that was just a young sapling during the civil war. So the next time you open a bottle of wine, take a moment to contemplate the history of the barrel in which it was aged.  If you focus hard enough, you might even hear the joyful strains of Dixie as you sip your Cabernet.

img_0149_1Could it possibility be the oak enhanced wine singing the praises of the cocoon in which it was nurtured?





Published April 30, 2009, in the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

John’s April Pick of the Month

Posted on Apr 29 2009 | By


wine-bottles-4Old House Vineyards

Native French winemaker, Damien Blanchon, has brought his skills to bear in the production of this red blended wine named in honor of Bacchus, and the legendary celebrations held in his honor. A mélange of Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Tannat, the wine opens with raspberry, cedar and spice aromas and follows on the palate with silky cherry and currant flavors. Aged for 18 months in French and American oak. Pair with stuffed pork chops or grilled blue cheese burgers. Drink now through 2012.

Old House Vineyards is located in a beautifully restored 19th century farmhouse at 18351 Corkys Lane, Culpeper.

The winery is open Monday—Thursday, 1-5 PM
Saturday 11-5 PM
Sunday, Noon to 5 PM

Telephone: (540) 423-1032

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

Hagarty Cellars

Posted on Apr 26 2009 | By


Man has fermented grapes into wine for over 7,000 years.

caveman3Imagine the scene.  A prehistoric man picks up a rustic bowl filled with wild grapes that, serendipitously, had been left outside his dwelling for a few weeks.   It was a unique moment in history.  Our ancestor must have tentatively tasted the new wine.  And perhaps handed the vessel to his mate to sample.  Then, after a few  more sips, both of them most assuredly broke into satisfying smiles.  From that moment on, the quest to pursue the marriage of yeast and grape has gone on unabated.

I feel some kinship to that ancient winemaker because the joy of turning grapes into wine is, indeed, gratifying.  To create, enjoy and share this special beverage embodies hospitality worldwide.

The process of making wine is not all that difficult.  But, making good wine…ahhh, that is a bit more challenging.  Today in the United States, there are over 5,500 commercial wineries, not to mention untold thousands of home winemakers.  But all of us, amateur and professional enologist, pursue our passion for the love of the finished wine and the joy it brings to those who sip from the glass.

On my HAGARTY CELLARS  link  I will share stories of my adventures, pitfalls and successes in making wine at home.  And who knows, as you follow my experiences you may also be drawn into the alluring pursuit of turning the vine into wine.img_00772

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

An Evening at the Inn at Meander Plantation

Posted on Apr 25 2009 | By

plateOn Tuesday, April 21, 2009, Jean and I were fortunate to host a wine dinner at one of the finest historic inns in Virginia, the Inn at Meander Plantation.  Proprietors Suzie Blanchard and Suzanne Thomas have created a most unique bed and breakfast in the heart of the Virginia Piedmont.

Colonel Joshua Fry, a member of the House of Burgesses, patented the plantation in 1727, the first in Madison County. Thomas Jefferson was a frequent visitor, as was General Lafayette.  To walk the grounds, with the Blue Ridge Mountains as backdrop, is to be taken back to the early years of the birth of our nation.

Our dinner was the culmination of a two-day Inn cooking school.  Chef Blanchard and Executive Chef, Alexander Morris, hosted twenty-one guest “students” from points up and down the East Coast, sharing with them the secrets of gourmet cuisine, Virginia style. The entire dinner was prepared with an emphasis on locally produced ingredients. The five-course repast was paired with wines from Rappahannock Cellars.

A particular favorite of the guests was the third course, Pan Seared Rockfish, with Red Pepper and Onion in a White Wine & Orange Butter Pan Sauce, served with Roasted Fingerling Potatoes and Baby Carrots and matched with our 2007 Viognier.

chefs-hatThe Inn’s cooking school program is conducted once a month–on Mondays and Tuesdays–year round.  If you are looking for a romantic, and restful excursion back to the early plantation days of Virginia, the Inn at Meander Plantation will not disappoint.  A full description of all the Inn’s services and accommodations is available on their website here.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

John’s March Pick of the Month

Posted on Apr 16 2009 | By



Rappahannock Cellars
Cabernet Franc
$ 24

Winemaker Jason Burrus has created a stellar rendition of a Virginia Cabernet Franc, as testified by his Best of Category and Double Gold win at the San Francisco International Wine Competition—one of the most prestigious events in the nation. The wine opens with aromas of raspberry, spice and a veil of smoke and blossoms on the palate with a medley of black currant and mocha. The seamless integration of wine and oak showcases its 15 months of aging in French and American barrels.  Pair with Beef Wellington or grilled lamb.  Drink now through 2012.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES

The Virginia Twosome

Posted on Apr 06 2009 | By

dancersThere’s a new craze sweeping our state–The Virginia Twosome.

A dance?  A card game?  A vacation getaway?  Two golfers?

My, those were all good guesses.  But wrong.

The Virginia twosome rapidly gaining fame is a pair of wine diamonds, Viognier and Cabernet Franc.  These are grapes–the first one white and the second one red.  And they are increasingly being recognized nationally as Virginia’s contribution to fine wine.

Less you think identifying a geographical area with certain wine grapes is odd, consider the following wine matches:  Napa & Cabernet Sauvignon; Mendoza & Malbec; Australia & Shiraz; Burgundy & Pinot Noir; New Zealand & Sauvignon Blanc; Germany & Riesling; Tuscany & Sangiovese.  Just to mention a few.

The French call this bond of grape and land, terroir, pronounced tehr-WAHR.   It identifies the somewhereness that a wine grape is grown.  The climate, the soil, the slope and sun exposure of the vineyard, the seasonal changes–even the trellis systems employed–all contribute to the quality of the fruit produced.   Perhaps an easier way to picture what terroir means, is to think of the Georgia Peach.  The firm, deliciously sweet, fragrant and juicy summer fruit.   It’s not a peach grown elsewhere.  It’s a peach that reaches its highest level of aroma and taste simply because it’s grown in Georgia.  That’s terroir.

In Virginia, we are fortunate to have two wine grapes that are performing beautifully in both the vineyard and the wine cellar.  Let’s take a closer look at the fruit that is changing the landscape of the Old Dominion’s vineyards.

As with many French names, this grape can be a bit difficult to pronounce at first.  Simply say vee-own-YEA.

The grape hails from the northern Rhone Valley in France and is thought to have originated from the Romans who introduced it into Gaul over 2,000 years ago. It was once widely planted in the Rhone Valley but slipped into obscurity as it became more difficult to grow.  During the 1960s, there was less that thirty acres of Viognier planted in all of France, a nation with over two million acres of vineyards. The grape was clearly in decline.

In the mid 1980s, a California winemaker of wide repute, Joseph Phelps, adopted the vine and anticipated it might be the next Chardonnay, which is one of the most popular white wine grapes in the world.  Unfortunately, it did not achieve the popularity he had anticipated.  Then about fifteen years ago, it was introduced into Virginia’s vineyards.  Here it has taken to our terroir like a kitten to catnip.

The Virginia wine produces a medley of luscious aromas and flavors redolent with honeysuckle, peach, pear and melon.  It can be vinified in oak or crafted in a clean, crisp style that eschews oak undertones.  In either case, its ancient lineage glows with a creamy mouth feel and soft spice finish.  It is a wonderful alternative for those drinkers known as ABCers–Anything But Chardonnay.

Perhaps more importantly, Virginia’s Viognier is being hailed in some circles as even better than the French original.  Numerous gold medals have been awarded to our state’s viogniers from prestigious competitions across the country.  Look for this white wine to gain even further acclaim in the years ahead.

wine-glass51CABERNET FRANC
This grape has been the workhorse of red blended wines for centuries. The majority of appellations around the world use the grape to enhance other classic reds.  Since it produces a wine somewhat lighter in color and tannins than Cabernet Sauvignon, many Bordeaux reds contain 20% or more of this grape.  It is aromatic with a wide range of flavors centered on raspberry, plum, cherry and spice. And its lower but firm acidity produces a food friendly beverage.

The attributes that favor growing the grape in Virginia are its cold hardiness and early ripening traits.  Coaxing the best out of a wine grape requires meticulous management of the vineyard, and having inherent strong qualities in the vine itself eases the vineyard manager’s work.  Cabernet Franc’s uniqueness is well suited to our state’s soil and climate.

To burnish the grape’s reputation even further, recent DNA testing has revealed that Cabernet Franc, along with Sauvignon Blanc, are the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Clearly, the acorn did not fall far from the tree.

In Virginia, many Cabernet Francs are blended with a touch of other reds.  For a wine to be labeled the name of a grape it must contain at least 75% of that specific wine.  Often you will find our state’s Cabernet Francs contain a dash of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot or Malbec.  This blending strategy mirrors in reverse the technique used in Bordeaux.

As with Viognier, Cabernet Franc has garnered a host of competition medals and awards.   We can count on even finer bottlings in the years ahead as our winemakers learn more about showcasing this wine’s unique character.

img_0146So the next time you are visiting one of our local wineries, take the time to linger over this winsome twosome.  Experience more fully the magic these two wines are displaying in our state.  There’s no need to travel to France or California to experience world-renowned scenery and wine. And the reward for your enjoyable pursuit may be the discovery of your next favorite bottle of wine.

Published March 26, 2009 in the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES