Is Virginia For Wine Lovers? Part 6: Valhalla

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. It was a rush against the clock to get from Fincastle to my final stop twenty miles back from where I’d come from and in the process, I found myself driving rings around Roanoke’s ring roads. Thanks heavens for cell phones and helpful staff at the winery or I would never have made it to Valhalla.

The view from the ridge: Valhalla sits on top of Roanoke, with a splendid view of its vineyards and the city below.

And that would have been a crime – not just because of the wines, but for the fact that Valhalla has arguably the most beautiful and certainly one of the most unusual locations I’ve seen on the east coast. The winery is officially situated in Roanoke, a big enough city by anyone’s standards, and it’s surprisingly close to the mess of strip malls and highways that are an unfortunate staple of every American metropolis. And yet it’s perched up on top of the city, looking back down on it from the site of an old peach orchard a couple of thousand feet above sea level. The steep drive up to the tasting room passes terraced vineyards and then meanders down a long driveway to a tasting room situated on the peak of the ridge. On a day like that August Friday, I could almost have convinced myself I was in southern France. If I lived in Roanoke, it would be all I could do not to drive up there at the end of every workweek, sit out on the deck with a glass of wine and to take in the view of the vineyards and surrounding Blue Ridge mountains.

Yet, apart from an advance guard for a wedding party, I was the only person tasting at Valhalla. Reasons were offered – it was the peak of summer, parents were busy taking kids back to college, it was too hot to drink and, I would hazard, the fact that the tasting room is only open from 4-7pm on Fridays (it’s closed completely Mon-Thurs) probably didn’t help – but I was hardly going to complain. Thanks to the paucity of customers, I had wine-maker and co-owner Debra Vascik to myself.

As you can no doubt tell from this introduction, Valhalla is not your average Virginia winery. Disregard its awful name (really, why Valhalla?) and you’re dealing with consummate professionals who bring an old-fashioned European sensibility to their wine-making and yet don’t eschew modern techniques or blending ideas. Certainly, not everyone can afford a winery like this: It takes very deep pockets to buy this much land (which Debra and husband James did back in 1994, purchases 21 acres of mostly decomposing granite), plant it with vines (which they did between 1995 and 97), and wait for them to produce yields so as to actually release some wine (as they did in 1999), all of which might explain why the tasting room wasn’t opened until 2004. It takes even deeper pockets – and a certain artistic stubbornness – to dig a natural cave under one’s mountain, and to then take advantage of its perfect cellaring conditions to age your wines for years rather than rush them into a marketplace that often doesn’t notice the difference. Of the sixteen wines Valhalla had on sale, only three were younger than the 2002 vintage.

The Valhalla tasting room sells wine and only wine: no peripheries or accessories of any kind. I hope that’s not the reason I was its only customer that Friday afternoon.

Those three youngest wines were all Viogniers, of a sort. One was a blend with Chardonnay, another a stainless steel bottling, and the third a barrel-fermented and aged 2002 “Library Selection.” When I suggested to Debra that Viognier generally doesn’t merit the oak treatment (you have to remember, I’d been at AmRhein a couple of hours earlier), she came swiftly back along these lines:
“I don’t know. Yves Gangloff seems to do pretty well with it.”

Touché. If I hadn’t already guessed by now, it was obvious at this point that I wasn’t dealing with an amateur. Turns out that Debra has a friendship with the Condrieu producer which, if I remember correctly, dates back to her working for him in the Rhône and now has him offering some kind of help and advice on Valhalla’s Viognier. I also learned from this exchange that silence might be the better part of valour, and for the next hour, asked questions and took notes but rarely challenged Debra’s strong opinions.

That still doesn’t mean I like my Viognier fermented and aged in barrel. Besides, Roanoke is not Condrieu. I found the 2002 Viognier Library Selection ($20) to have a lemon-ginger note reminiscent of an older Sancerre I’ve tasted. Or perhaps a Semillon with some age to it. It was full-bodied and, I guess had its qualities, but it didn’t taste like the type of Viognier I’ve come to love.

The 2005 Viognier ($17), all stainless steel, and the youngest wine on pour at Valhalla, was much more up my street. (Many of the notes that follow are from bottles I opened back home. I was sufficiently enamored with the winery to pick up a mixed case, which brought me a 20% discount.) A deep golden color, it offered up honeysuckle, apricot, peach and floral aromas, and yet, at 13.7% alcohol, was not too overtly powerful on the palate. It finished a little harsh – Viognier has that slight metallic touch at the back of the palate that’s not to everyone’s liking – but overall, the low acidity and prominent fruit made for a powerful and impressive young wine.

Ultimately, though, I preferred the 2004 Row Ten, 65% Viognier to 35% Chardonnay. ($15.) I’ve tasted a similar blend from Washington State and from France, and maybe other places besides, and in each case, the two classic grapes have perfectly complimented each other. This one was smooth and creamy – the Chardonnay characteristics shining through – with a soft aromatic complexity contributed by the Viognier. It was also damn quaffable, a lovely late-summer sipping wine, a good match for food, and as the most inexpensive wine on Valhalla’s list, a fine advert for the winery. I could buy this by the case.

I decided to skip on the two Chardonnays, a 2000 (!) Estate Chardonnay for $16 and a 2002 “Rheingold” Reserve Chardonnay ($22). That put us straight on to the red wines, evidently Valhalla’s main priority. The first wine Debra poured me was the 2002 Sangiovese (released only this summer, $18), which I noted at the time was “soft and friendly.” The bottle I opened back home in October was much more than that: it was sensational. A near translucent orangey-red with a slight brick, its color indicated its relatively low alcohol content, and its bouquet initially gave up some dusty bitterness and not too much more. On the palate it delivered a solid chocolate earthiness that fought through the immediate impression of old age and reinvigorated the senses at the back end. And then it really came to life, tasting better and better the longer it breathed. Cherry, chocolate, dry herbs and strawberries all fought for attention with a lovely dance through my senses and made for one of those occasions where I simply could not go to bed without seeing the wine through to the end. (Fortunately my wife helped me!) Considering the similarly encouraging quality of Villa Appalaccia’s Sangiovese, I think we should all be on the look-out for this grape in Virginia.

Valhalla’s bottles, all gold ink on green glass, are hard to photograph, but each is shaped according to the properties of the wine. This one is the Syrah.

A pause for vintage observations. 2001, said Debra, was a “hot, dry vintage.” 2002, by contrast, was “cool and tolerably dry.” All the reds are from these two vintages and the differences are indeed apparent. 2003 was a wash-out, literally – hurricanes tore through the region and while other wineries tried to rescue their crops, Valhalla wrote off the entire vintage. I believe I mentioned 2004-2006 in some of my other reports. 2007, as also previously discussed, was marred by a late spring frost in this region that decimated many red grapes: Debra estimated that only 30% of her Syrah has survived and maybe not even that much of the Cabernet Sauvignon. The subsequent long hot drought of a summer may or may compensate with intense wines from much lower yields.

Back, then, to the reds. The Gotterdammerung is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. (Debra does not think Cab Franc merits bottling on its own. I disagree, but I kept that thought to myself.) The 2001 Gotterdammerung ($18) favors 60% CabFranc over 40% Merlot. Being from a hot vintage, the wine pushes it a bit at 14% alcohol. (Generally, Valhalla keeps it alcohol well in check.) There were some gingerbread leathery notes teasing me on the tongue with this wine, with a lovely plummy and “purple” texture, and some tar, some coffee, and some cedar. The bottle opened at home produced a slightly different note, in which I commented on the “menthol-like nose,” the acidity, “the very marked chocolate finish” and that I “would not spot the Cab Franc in this.” Left overnight, it came back with continued notes of chocolate, while still smooth and bright, and left behind a bucketload of tannin. Excuse my lack of poetry but I think you can read between the lines: either the hot vintage or the oak or the chocolate nature of the Merlot masked the Cabernet Franc flavors.

By comparison, the 2002 Gotterdammerung was quite light in color when poured at the winery, very bright on the palate, with soft tannins, that vintage difference quite evident. (I still have this wine at home waiting to be opened – notes to follow.) Priced at $24, Valhalla clearly believes it’s the better wine. Indeed, the back label states that “When you hear that enemy missiles will impact in thirty minutes, this is the wine you will want to open and drink,” a rather ludicrous piece of markting claim that nonetheless provokes the question: “What would you do with your last thirty minutes on earth? (and would it really include drinking wine from Virginia?)”

Norton is a native American grape with an uncertain but ancient history. Valhalla offers a particularly fine example.

The 2002 Valkyrie Bordeaux Blend would appear to be the flagship wine, judging by its $28 price tag. 40% Merlot, 30% Cabs Franc and Sauvignon, it saw a massive forty months in oak, each component vinified separately, using the best barrels of each grape from the vintage. (Valhalla uses American oak with its Cabs, and French oak otherwise.) My notes at this point were, by necessity of how much I had tasted already that day, quite simple, and I have written here “some chocolate, coffee, smooth, again very soft tannins.” I didn’t buy a bottle as I’m generally not excited by east coast Bordeaux blends.

The 2001 Cornucopia, 47% Cab Franc, 41% Cab Sauvignon, with a dash of Virginia’s native Norton grape and some Syrah to round it out, seemed a more interesting combination at a better price. ($18.) “Red table wines for fall foods,” said Debra. “A little more cedar but plenty fruit, wrote I. “Good texture.” Opened at home, we got a lot of chocolate on the nose (again!), and a smooth, light, vibrant, tasty, juicy, succulent wine in the glass. Unlike the Gotterdammerung from the same vintage, the Cabernet Franc characteristics made themselves readily known, and I would claim that this understated and food-friendly wine is by far a better blend. Or perhaps I just don’t like Merlot.

On then to the 2002 Syrah, aged in 100% French oak. ($20.) I brought a bottle home and upon opening it in October, was taken aback by its nose, which sizzled with the cooked bacon aromas that, I had thought until now, made Cote-Rotie one of the most uniquely identifiable wines in the world. As I had learned from our tete-a-tete viz-a-viz the Viognier, Debra knows her Rhône wines and clearly she’d planted the right grapes in the right soil, and vinified them the right way, to get this remarkable impersonation of arguably the finest and most distinctive Syrah in the world. That was on the nose, however. Regrettably, the wine was little more than a Crozes-Hermitage impersonator on the palate, with considerable acidity and some tired dark fruit. Given the aroma, I’d expected so much more from the wine itself. I’m still surprised that it let us down in the glass, but there were four of us sharing dinner and our disappointment was unanimous after the initial thrill.

I didn’t taste it at the winery but brought home the 2001 Cabernet-Shiraz ($20), a 60-40 blend obviously made in homage to one of Australia’s flagship blends. As produced down under, it’s a wine I greatly enjoy, and this one was certainly “fun”, with a bright peppery profile, and the heat of the vintage kept well in order, though it was unquestionably a more powerful wine than the Cornucopia, which we opened on the same night. Interestingly, this was the third wine to use some Cabernet Sauvignon in which I didn’t really notice that grape’s usual dominance; I now regret that I passed up tasting the winery’s pure Cabernet Sauvignon from 2001 as it would have been interesting to see what Valhalla did with that grape in isolation, especially from a warm vintage.

Finally from the reds, a 2001 Norton. (This grape grown at 1700 feet; the others are all up at the 2000 foot “base camp.”) Given its status as a native American grape actually worthy of wine-making, I’d been keenly anticipating a well-made example on my travels. There’s 10% Merlot in the blend to round it out, with what the winery notes on its tasting sheet as “aromas of lilac and lavendar,” though Debra described it as “like a Cab turned up.” Understandably given its age, it had seen considerable time in barrels. The bottle I brought home brought immediate comment of “lavender” from a part-time botanist friend, and we all agreed that it had so much acidity it was almost metallic. The fruit was certainly not like your French vinifera, but up back of the palate, it delivered an orange chocolate vibe that was far from unappealing. It’s a $16 wine, it’s a six year old vintage, it’s peculiar to Virginia, it’s highly drinkable and totally atypical… it’s got my name written all over it.

Alicante Bouschet, a cross between Petit Bouschet and Grenache, was prominent in America during prohibition. Valhalla claim to be the first winery on the east coast to replant it – and then bottle it as a late harvest wine.

To round events off, a 2001 Late Harvest Alicante Bouschet, grapes picked December 4th that year. Valhalla say they’re the first east coast winery to (re)plant this French-crossed grape that was popular during prohibition for its profilic production. Tasted in Virginia, I commented on its “port-like nose, cassis and black/blueberries, lovely lovely prickle and finish” – which is reasonably eloquent considering it was about the 30th wine I’d tasted that day from four wineries, it was almost 100F outside, I was drinking red dessert wine, and it was still only 6pm! The bottle I brought home left behind an enormous amount of residue and, I wrote, offered up “port-like raisins, but smooth and cedary with a polished finish.” I don’t always take the best notes,, but I have a good memory, and I likened this immediately to a late harvest Mourvèdre from Cline that I had a few years back in similar 375ml size. At only 13.9% alcohol, this wine doesn’t deliver the head-ache inducing hammering that you get from real ports and its juicy prickle was more than alluring. At $20, I can’t complain.

Indeed, I can’t complain about the winery overall – except perhaps to say that because I stayed late and Debra followed behind me down the driveway to lock the gates, I couldn’t stop and take pictures of their beautiful vineyards. You’ll just have to take my word for it. I would perhaps, more seriously, suggest that Valhalla do away with some of the tourist-baiting wine labels and offer up a few more wines in their youth so that we can taste the fruit; while the ‘01s and ‘02s on offer were all well-balanced wines that, with the possible exception of the Syrah, were drinking perfectly well, surely there are a couple of bottles that could merit earlier release to let us, the customer, choose whether to age them or not.

As with Villa Appalaccia earlier the same day, Valhalla offered an example of a modern Virginian winery where ambition, enthusiasm, knowledge and passion ensured that, even if not every wine was a winner, certainly every single one was worthy of attention. A strongly recommended destination for anyone passing through Roanoke (on a weekend); just be sure to take a map and a cell phone if you expect to find the place! Thanks to Debra for taking so much time out with me, and I look forward to a return visit.

Previous Virginia wine reports:
Part 5: AmRhein
Part 4: Fincastle
Part 3: Villa Appalaccia
Part 2: West Wind Farm
Part 1: Davis Valley

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November 2021