Is Virginia For Wine-Lovers? Part 4: Fincastle
Visiting south-western Virginia this summer and seeking out winery recommendations, I had a couple of people point me to Fincastle for its small scale and, particularly, its Cabernet Franc. So on a scorching hot Friday afternoon in mid-August, having already visited two wineries that day, I pointed the car north up Interstate 81, out past Roanoke, up towards the town of Fincastle and then, like almost every other winery I visited in Virginia, further up and down some back roads with a couple of wrong turns (this one including the not-merely-proverbial rail tracks) until I finally found my destination.
The Fincastle tasting room is set at the front of the family house that doubles as their bed-and-breakfast. There I was met by Georgia Sawyer, whose husband Richard and son David grow the grapes and make the wine; indeed, in five of the six wineries I visited in Virginia, I got to talk with one of the family members involved in the production. A couple of lovely fat cats also kept us company as we worked through a very small portfolio.
To be blunt, I wasn’t taken by Fincastle’s whites. The Fincastle Chardonnay 2005, aged for six months in oak, had a steely character that was almost brittle and the oak rendered it, well, wooden. There were only 54 cases produced and for whatever reason, there is no new vintage planned. I was equally unimpressed by the Fincastle Hybrid Vigor 2005, a blend of Vidal Blanc, Chardonnel and Traminette with 1% RS. While I generally enjoy the first of these grapes, I’d had a most unpleasant introduction to Chardonnel earlier in the week, and though the Vigor had a spicy nose that indicated something interesting and a mineral quality at the front end of the palate, the rest of the experience was somewhat nasty. Georgia explained, almost apologetically, that it was their “token sweet wine,” for those (beer drinkers?) who drive all that way off the beaten path and don’t want to leave without buying something.
On, then, to the reds, the reason I came. At the winery, the Fincastle Cabernet Franc 2004, unfiltered, aged twelve months in American oak, had what I noted were “very appropriate aromas, right color, very pleasant taste, clean pure and simple Cab Franc.” As it was only $14 a bottle – a steal by American winery standards – I bought a couple and recently opened one at home, where it sang its charms with clarity and confidence. The nose offered up everything you’d hope for from a (east coast) Cab Franc: some tobacco notes, some dark cherry, a little touch of cedar, and that “pencil shavings” note that always confuses neophytes but seems perfectly apt when you’ve got your nose in the glass! On the palate, it was soft and delicious, perfectly vibrant, the oak unobtrusive, offering the same notes mentioned above, but then with that giveaway taste towards the back of the palate that I can never quite identify in words but which screams “Cabernet Franc.” (If anyone knows what I’m talking about, please offer the correct descriptors and metaphors.) Truly a joy, this was probably the best value red wine I tasted on the whole trip. The 2004 has apparently just sold out, but the 2005 has stepped in to take its place and, says David Sawyer, “the winemaker thinks the ’05 is going to be a superior vintage.”
Last on the portfolio was the Fincastle Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, aged thirteen months in American oak. The nose was more muted than the Franc, and the fruit itself tasted a little green; that said, the finish was quite lovely, showing off the grape’s darker textures and again, doing so without obtrusive oak. At $16 it was also well-priced, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the Cab Franc. And indeed, the side-by-side comparison was instructive. Though several of the wineries I visited do bottle it solo, I didn’t feel the same sense of fondness towards Cabernet Franc in Virginia as I have in my various visits round New York State wineries. Rather, I noticed that many wineries are persisting with Cabernet Sauvignon, despite the uphill struggle: at least a couple of the six that I visited admitted to enormous problems just getting the grape out from under its canopy and ripening properly –assuming the vines hadn’t been destroyed in this past May’s devastating frost. Given the Fincastle experience, and that of Villa Appalachia before it, I really hope more Virginia wineries focus on Cabernet Franc over the Sauvignon. To me, it’s the flagship red grape of the entire east coast.
In retrospect, I should probably have skipped visiting Fincastle as part of my one-day wine-tasting adventure; it added at least sixty miles to the odometer and, dealing as I was with I-81 traffic on a Friday and the overall heat, I was too hot and bothered to really enjoy the place, and certainly couldn’t risk swallowing the wine. I should instead have just stopped in on our 600 mile drive home (the next day!), done without the tasting, and simply picked up the Cabernet Franc on the good word of others. Any other red wine lover making the same drive down I-81 might like to take heed. In the meantime, congratulations to the father, son and wife team at Fincastle for making such a fine and truly honest Cabernet Franc at such a reasonable price.