Is Virginia For Wine Lovers? Pt 5: AmRhein Wine Cellars

From Tuscany to Germany in under thirty minutes: following my illuminating tasting at Villa Appalaccia, in southwest Virginia, I drove further up the Blue Ridge Skyway to AmRhein, which translates easily enough as “On The Rhein.” The web site tells you that the owners, being of Teutonic descent, “specialize in unique Virginia-style wines with a German influence,” but in reality, the closest AmRhein comes to producing a German-style wine is a Traminette, and that’s a hybrid. Otherwise, AmRhein offers a little bit of everything, and yet not enough of any one thing to suggest it has a true focus.

In addition, and this is not a complaint as much as a mild disappointment, AmRhein was the only winery of the six I visited in Virginia where I did not get to meet with one of the owners and/or winemakers. This should certainly not be held against my pourer, who was most helpful and eager to please. But, in an almost comic continuation of my whole Virginia wine-tasting experience, he readily offered up (without my asking!) that until recently, he’d considered himself a beer drinker with only a preference for heavily oaked wines. To his credit, he’d come to work at AmRhein largely to educate himself, but he couldn’t help suggesting that some of the wines would benefit from even more oak than they already had. I enjoyed his company but, given the huge variety of wines on show, I might have preferred that of someone who could really tell me what went into them all – and, more to the point, why they went for them all in the first place.

(I understand that AmRhein serves as contract growers for some of the smaller local producers; presumably they can’t resist the temptation to keep some of each grape for themselves.)

The tasting room at AmRhein

I started with a Pinot Grigio 06, which I found had a good solid lemon-apple flavor but was nonetheless a little heavy. As a great fan of Sauvignon Blanc, and not seeing it elsewhere on my travels, I jumped eagerly into this wine (no vintage note) but was immediately repelled; rather than the “new Zealand style and the terrior (sic) of Virginia,” I got a wooden taste. I don’t know whether I was poured from an old bottle or whether it had oak treatment, but either way it was shocking. I then took a brief sip of an 03 Chardonnay and made the note “Not happening.” (I should have skipped it entirely based on the tasting sheet’s description: “vanilla and buttery French oak notes.”)

Much more interesting was the 05 Petit Manseng, a grape one rarely sees bottled on its own in its native France, though apparently it is showing up in ever greater numbers in Virginia. The aromatic nose threw up immediate comparisons to Viognier, though it was a little more creamy than that grape on the palate, perhaps a result of being barrel fermented. In only its second vintage at AmRhein, this might be a wine to watch, if they can tame the oak.

In fact, maybe they just throw the oak out entirely when it comes to the white wines. The 04 Viognier, freshly opened on my behalf, suffered from barrel fermentation and ageing, a treatment that doesn’t work unless you really know your Rhône routes and roots. (See upcoming post on Valhalla.) Here I was, five wineries into my Virginia tasting trip and my first Viognier – Virginia’s signature white wine and my favorite blanc grape – was drowned in wood. Maybe another year they’ll let the fruit sing instead.

Somewhat more honest was the Saffire, a “harvest medley of Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc and other white wines” which I noted was very bright and crisp and acidic and probably not a bad deal at $11. (The next vintage will apparently include Viognier rather than Chardonnay.) The Traminette seemed interesting, with some natural residual sugar hanging around (and a reference on the tasting sheet to the “German Spätlese style of winemaking”). I got a lot of pineapple and grapefruit up front, which impressed me, but then I got a foxy taste on the back, which canceled that positive impression out. You can dress a hybrid like a vinifera but when you get it naked, its still a hybrid.

The vineyard directly outside AmRhein; the winery owns three vineyards, rising to an altitude of 2500 feet.

So far, so bad. But as I found elsewhere on my travels, Virginia seems to be making more interesting red wines than it is whites. The 2005 Aglianico, for example, was “not quite as ‘purple’” as the 2006 barrel sample I’d just tasted up at Villa Appalaccia (“purple” being for me not just a color but a whole flavor profile), but still showed what I noted was a “strong nose of plum and black-currant.” It was clearly lighter and more acidic than the Villa Appalaccia barrel sample, but nonetheless had that distinct Italian bitterness. There may well be a market for this grape in the region. At $15, not a bad wine.

The 2005 Chambourcin asked the same price, which seemed a little high to me for such a generously productive hybrid. I noted that it was “light and peppery” and that it grows at a height of 2500 feet, the highest altitude of AmRhein’s three vineyards. A 2004 Merlot proved very aromatic, quite serious in its intent, with generous plum flavors on the nose, but something of a tart and lean finish. Much more rewarding was the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon which, like West Wind Farm’s example before it (and I couldn’t help but wonder, is this where West Wind gets most of its Cabernet grapes?), was much better than I thought it had a right to be. The wine was a very dark deep red, with a real plumminess, some evident blackcurrant, and a strong cedary aroma. Definitely a big, full-bodied Cab rather than your typical north North American wimp.

Yet that said, my pourer freely admitted that the Cabernet Sauvignon vines are currently in a state of disaster, buried under their canopies and shade and fighting for nitrogen, and that whatever was recommended as a solution by their consultant had only compounded the problem. The likelihood was that the vines would fail to produce a crop in 2007 and might be pulled up thereafter. Given similar tales of woe from elsewhere regarding this grape, there’s clearly a quandary taking place in the region: Cabernet Sauvignon appears to be an absolute bitch to grow, but is capable of delivering surprisingly serious wines. Watch this space, I suppose.

Similar problems appear to be befalling AmRhein’s other illustrious red grape, Syrah. They’ve planted five acres of it, but have not yet felt sufficiently satisfied as to bottle it solo. The 2005 Melange, therefore, is a blend of 60% Syrah and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, the balance made up with Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc; the 2005 Veranda is a more equal blend of Cab Sauvignon and Syrah, with just a splash of Petit Verdot. (And yes, that does make eight different red grapes already on the tasting sheet to add to the seven white ones!) Yet had I not known that AmRhein was struggling with the vines, I might have thought all was well with the actual wines: they were both smooth on the palate with big coffee-cocoa textures. Though I either didn’t get or was beyond being able to notice the Syrah influence, I was nonetheless impressed, and certainly not insulted by the $20 price tag.

AmRhein’s “signature wine” bodes well for the Petit Verdot grape in Virginia.

Last on the list was AmRhein’s “signature wine”, a 2005 Petit Verdot, the Bordeaux blending grape that you rarely see on its own. (It should be noted though that, like the Petit Manseng mentioned above, it seems to be making its presence felt in Virginia; Horton Vineyards, among the State’s pioneers, is also bottling both Petit Manseng and Petit Verdot as single varietals.) I was suitably impressed by the immediate notes of plum and violet and its full-bodied texture as to pick up a bottle. Opened recently at home, I noted that the nose was “quiet,” yet on the palate, “tons of dark fruit but bright fruit too” showed exuberantly. There was considerable acidity to the wine – something I’ve noticed of all the reds I brought back home with me – and “toasty oak” at the back end. As the wine gained in temperature and air (we may have opened it a little too cool), so the floral aromatics appeared, and all was right with the world. In conclusion I’d describe it as a “warm” and “sociable” wine that we were as happy sipping pre-dinner as we were having accompany an eggplant based pasta dish. Petit Verdot typically needs very warm climates and ripens late in the season; given Virginia’s problems with Cabernet Sauvignon, it seems something of a risk to ask it to do its job down there and yet AmRhein has clearly got this grape under control. Kudos – and maybe reason to revisit some of the other reds another time.

I skipped the semi-sweet red-white Ruby blend but enjoyed a couple of dessert whites. The 2003 Late Harvest Vidal Blanc had a dark caramel color, some toffee and tea notes, and a good unctuous body to it. It’s a taste I generally, genuinely enjoy, but I was hard-pressed by this point to compare it to other $25 late-harvest wines from the east coast. I would offer the same guarded endorsement of the brand new 2006 Ice Wine, Vidal picked in October, then stuck in the freezer and bottled in July. I gather that wine-maker Steven Bolleter was excited to get this opportunity, and for my part I was certainly impressed by its tropical fruit profile and light touch.

Ultimately, it’s obvious that AmRhein is growing far too many varietals and bottling far too many different wines to be viewed as a serious contender. And yet there are hints of real promise here, especially in the reds, which take to their oak much better than the brutally-handled whites. Let’s hope AmRhein is learning from its own experiences; it would be interesting to revisit in a few years and see whether the wine list is that much shorter in length, and that much higher in quality. In the meantime, someone bring me more of that Petit Verdot.

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December 2021