Is Virginia For Wine Lovers? Part 3: Villa Appalaccia
On a scorching hot Friday in August, I set off on a self-driving tour of Virginian vineyards that put over 200 miles on the clock and, in the latter half of the day, as I found myself stuck on Interstates and in inner-city rush-hour traffic, tested the limits of my tasting patience. However, the first and last stops were more than worth the effort, and the morning drive was delightful, taking me through the musically historical and eminently groovy town of Floyd and up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, off which Villa Appalaccia sits by just a few hundred yards, its 3500 foot elevation offering a stunning view of the surrounding mountains.
The name Villa Appalaccia seems like something of a marketing man’s joke – an upscale play on the region’s rural roots – but the intent is deadly serious. Winegrower Stephen Haskill, a former biology professor from Chapel Hill, and winemaker Susanne Becker, his wife, are dedicated Tuscan experts (and homeowners) who were not far behind Barboursville in seeing the potential for Italian grapes in Virginia vineyards. The couple started planting in 1988, opened the vineyard in 1996, and since then have secured a healthy reputation for quality and experimentation. I was fortunate to have Steve pouring for me and he provided a wealth of information as he took me through a, frankly, stunning portfolio of wines.
The 2005 Pinot Grigio got us off to a great start. Stainless steel fermented, grown (as per all the Villa Appalaccia wines) in the couple’s vineyards that sit on a shale ledge of about 1600 foot elevation, it had a lovely clear hue, a highly aromatic nose that combined solid pear and apple fruit with evident minerality, an almost cleansing acidity that never quite dominated the fruit, and a vibrant finish. Steve claimed, with pride, it was more acidic and tannic than the wines he and Susanne had just been tasting in Tuscany, and it was certainly a cut above the very average Italian Pinot Grigios that show up at so many cocktail parties. At $15 a bottle, it was also very well priced. I snapped one up.
The Simpatico 2006 was a blend of Trebbiano, Malvasia Blanc and Pinot Grigio, that to my mind ended up impersonating a Gewürztraminer, in that it had flavors of citrus, ginger and lichi, plenty acidity, lots of fruit on the palate, and a creamy, soft finish. A lovely wine for those who like that style with their spicy foods; I prefer a Viognier.
Finally among the whites, the late harvest Vidal Blanc marketed as “Alba” defied the usual late harvest Vidal Blanc taste test. Maybe it was the addition of some Moscato that did it, perhaps the soil, but it had an unusual (and quite alluring) amount of mint sticking out amongst its sticky tropical fruits and 3% Residual Sugar. At $13 a bottle, you could definitely do worse.
Villa Appalaccia makes good whites, but it excels at the reds. The Mercurio Sangiovese 2005 (vintage not listed on the bottle) is co-fermented along with Trebbiano and Malvasia, somewhat per the old-style Chianti, and it’s fascinating. With an opaque, almost cloudy texture reminiscent in color of a summer Sangria, it offers up a cornucopia of bright red berry flavors, a hint of orange peel, vibrant acidity but plenty earth, and even a touch of chocolate. (These notes come from the bottle brought home and subsequently enjoyed with a barbeque.) At $16, I thought it extremely well-priced.
The 2005 Primitivo was not your typical (Italian) American Zinfandel; it was much lighter in texture, with some Pinot Noir aromas to it, and zippy acidity. I called it ‘friendly’ and am sure it would have gone down just as well with the barbeque. My gut instinct though is that I can get better Primitivo all the way for Italy for less than Appalaccia’s $17 price tag.
Steve and Susanne’s flagship wine they call Toscanello, a blend of Cab Franc, Sangiovese and Primitivo that we can safely assume is their attempt at a Super-Tuscan. The Toscanello 2004, aged mostly in old oak, I found peppery and smoky on the nose, but quite light and even a little green on the palate. I was more impressed by the Toscanello 2002, from a generous vintage, which was still quite light in color, offered up some cedar-smoky aromas, and had the not-unattractive bitterness and chocolate that one often gets from Tuscan wines. Both retail for under $20.
The most expensive wine is the Francesco 2002 Cabernet Franc Reserve, aged in French and American oak and from which, while I certainly caught the wood, was still chock full of tannins, with lots of spicy tobacco touches and deep dark fruits. A full-bodied wine in every sense, and perhaps not typical of your average east coast cab franc, I picked up a bottle, at $23, and look forward to a good occasion for which to open it.
I passed up the dessert blackberry wine and was rewarded with two barrel samples from the 06 vintage: an Aglianico, that was purple in hue and color and aroma. You see, I have a thing about my Rhône wines in that I often describe them as smelling “purple” (hey, whatever gets you through the tasting!), and this was extremely similar. Steve agreed, saying he got a lot of Provencal herbs off this wine, as well as cassis, licorice, black plummy fruits, and spice. So far, they’ve planted but 1 acre of Aglianico, enough for 225 cases, and seem to be intrigued by the fact that their clusters are showing up much smaller than those of other VA wineries growing the grape. Indeed, Steve thinks they inadvertently latched on to a micro-climate with their land, which he says gets the most rainfall in Virginia. (Given the almost total lack of rain where we were staying 40 miles away for the week, this should not be considered a bad thing.) That micro-climate is not perfect though, Steve admitting that they have had problems with their Sangiovese vines in the past, and have started experiencing them again, which is why the ‘06 Mercurio has some 30% Monetepulciano in there. (Similar problems with the Vidal Blanc explains why it was recently pulled up to make way for the Aglianico.) Steve poured me a barrel sample of this 2006 Mercurio, which was much darker than the ‘05 (as you’d expect), much fuller too, but also much brighter. A little bitter right now, I nonetheless thought it was a damn fine wine, and I look forward to tasting it once it’s bottled. Indeed, when the weather cools down, I may yet get in and order more wine from Villa Appallacia. Or maybe go one step further and rent the couple’s villa in Tuscany. These are fine wine-makers who walk it like they talk it, and that’s a rare (and beautiful) thing on the modern tourist wine trail.