A Visit to RdV Vineyards
The wines of RdV Vineyards first came to my attention at the Best of Virginia offline tasting. In a year-long thread leading up to the tasting and various planning emails, RdV Vineyards was mentioned several times. I had never heard of them, for I do not drink that much wine from Virginia, so I checked out the website. I saw the comments from Jancis Robinson and became quite excited. The tasting itself turned into an increasingly faster paced race through almost three-dozen wines. Three different wines from RdV were included. I did not rate any of the wines I tasted particularly high but I did think the 2008 Rdv Vineyards, Rendezvous had rather captivating flavors. Towards the end Lou and I got to chatting with Jon Gonzales from RdV Vineyards who had brought the 2009 Lost Mountain and 2009 Rendezvous. Jon invited us out for a visit which we scheduled for right after the New Year. On a bright and crisp winter day we headed out west along I-66. We drove through Delaplane on windy country roads to come to the entrance of RdV Vineyards.
The winery appears as the driveway curves from the entrance to the right. It is revealed as a pair of modern white barns flanking a white silo. Upon inspection the silo appears at the center of three radially extending barns each of different lengths. The one story barns are located on stone foundations, with white vertically seamed walls, tall windows, batten shutters, and black standing-seam metal roof. The foundations, walkways, and chimney are of local stone. The walls are of white vertical boards in alternating widths which gives pleasing interplay with the regularly spaced roof and horizontally patterned silo. I was surprised to find such an interesting building.
We followed the left walkway which gently curved and headed uphill to the center of the winery. Through a pair of double glass doors we were greeted by Andrew Camp. Inside the winery the various spaces radiate around a two story exposure concrete structure which supports the silo. The silo itself acts as a giant skylight flooding the winery with light. We were led into the smallest barn which is brightly lit by windows on all sides. It features a tasting area with table, couch, and fireplace. More importantly it offers stunning views of the property and distant farms. We were soon joined by Jon Gonzales and winemaker Joshua Grainer.
By tradition tours begin with a glass of Thibaut-Janisson, Blanc de Chardonnay so with stem in hand we followed Josh. The working spaces of the winery are accessed by walking down a central stair case which lands in front of the entrance to the tank room. Down here the exposed concrete continues with a dark wood floor. Several supporting beams and posts are visible, expressing the functional nature of this level.
We first entered the tank room which is the tallest space ranging from the floor at the basement level all of the way to the roof. The floors are of a darker tile or brick (matching the wood floor just outside), the walls are of exposed lighter concrete, and the ceiling is of a crème color bead-board. The ceiling is supported by a wood truss whose metal elements are incorporated into cylindrical and gorgeous toroid pendant lights. Just beneath the ceiling are the windows which sit just above the stainless steel gangway and fermentation tanks. The cylindrical shape of each fermentation tank is reflected in the gangway above and the suspended toroid pendant lamps. The cold temperature, the reverberation of voices, the lighting, and the high ceiling are all evocative of a cathedral. I was certainly captivated and distracted. Andrew held my flute so that I could take some pictures. I went to start taking pictures and instead sent my camera skipping across the floor.
There are 12 stainless steel fermentation tanks with six arrayed on each side. The far wall acts as a backdrop to a rather large, deep red basket press. Josh explains that there are 11 parcels so all of the tanks allow each of the parcels of fruit to be fermented separately. The largest Cabernet Sauvignon parcel will be split across two tanks. At first all of the parcels were inoculated with neutral yeasts to allow for a controlled study of the parcel characteristics. Today he may introduce yeast into the first tank or two but in general there is enough yeast on the fruit and in the winery for fermentation to start within 2-3 days. With each successive tank, fermentation starts sooner as the winery fills with yeast. He does not employ enzymes. The wine is fermented for approximately nine days followed by two to four week maceration. They employ both punch-downs and pump-overs two to three times per day.
To continue learning about the parcels they occasionally ferment in small lots with puncheons. The puncheon is turned on end then one head is removed so that it may be used as a mini-tank. They may conduct general experiments or investigate a small section within a block which exhibits particular characteristics.
The tanks are constantly monitored so that the free-run juice may be pulled before it reaches its peak. The typically obtain eight to nine barrels per tank. The remainder is then basked pressed to yield one barrel.
We exit the tank room then stop in front of seven glass cylinders containing core samples. These samples reflect the composition underneath the surface of the vineyard. There are 18 inches of clay and gravel then almost 40 feet of decomposed granite which is at a consistent depth throughout the knoll. Beneath that is the infamous Virginia greenstone.
We move counter-clockwise to walk through the doors leading to the radially extending barrel cave. It is quite a change from the contemporary feel of the winery and is indeed made by a cave specialist. Immediately on the floor you find “semper fidelis” which reflect both Ruger’s military past but also the motto of Chateau Cos d’Estournel. This barrel vaulted cave is spaced by stone and cement ribs. The central walkway is of triangularly shapes cement pieces which are flanked by the barrels against the walls. The barrels rest on supports over rocks.
The barrels look new, they are barely stained, the metal is gleaming, and the cane is perfect. In fact the initial vintages were aged in 100% new French oak barrels to eliminate any issues with purchasing older barrels. As the barrels age the goal is to have 60-70% new oak for each vintage. The barrels themselves are from several different cooperages so no single style shines through. This first cave currently contains the 2012 vintage which is organized by parcel. As if to match the barrels there is only the faintest of scents. You do not get that permeating aroma of wine and wood.
The long room is lit by sconces on each wall with each centrally located between each rib. The lights themselves are on hooks. The coiled cords reflect the ability to be used as trouble-lamps. Through the shadows damp is evident in the seams of the walkway and the rocks. Josh explains he can control moisture by spraying down the floor or opening doors.
The parcels and press wine are aged separately and all undergo malolactic fermentation. The barrels are racked once every six months. The amount of oxygen exposure, which is controlled through inert gases like Nitrogen, depends on the individual lot and point during elevage. When young they may encourage aeration of the wines but with time oxygen exposure is limited or completely avoided. The wines are typically aged 18-22 months depending upon the vintage.
The first cave ends in a small room. To the right is a small arc of a cave where the pressed wine is aged. To the left, continuing counter-clockwise, is the back cave which arcs to a second radially extending passage. This cave features a solid concrete walkway with simpler cement ribbing. This back cave contains the 2011 vintage. The back cave eventually leads to the bottle aging cave. The spartan design of this cave frames the back wall of exposed rock. Here we are some 40 feet beneath the surface of the vineyards. During our visit the rock was dripping with water. This wall gives an indication of the water content in the hill for during the driest months the wall is dry. This cave is more utilitarian with a working cement floor, no ribbing, and industrial pendant lamps. Alongside the walls are bins full of unlabeled bottles of wine.
Blending typically occurs during the late winter to early spring following the vintage. Press wine may be used to add body and structure to the blends. There is no blending across vintages. When bottling occurs there is no filtration. They may fine the wine using egg whites.
We return to modernity through a set of double-doors. Here we enter the labeling and bottling room which is just off of the center of the winery. The bottling line itself is located within a small glass enclosed room, brightly lit with palates of wine stacked about. It is a clean room within a spotless a winery. Here we find bottles of the third wine the 2010 Exsurgo, previously known as Friends & Family for the 2008 and 2009 vintages. This wine draws inspiration from The Foreign Legion Winery in Provence. While Rutger cannot dedicate an entire vineyard to our veterans he can donate all of the proceeds of this wine to support Hope For The Warriors.
Just outside of the bottling room, to the right, is the laboratory. It too is glass enclosed. Samples are always sent out to Eric Boissenot in Bordeaux but the laboratory allows Josh to check on things in parallel. It looks unused right now though evidence of use is chalked on the back wall. “M CF CS PV”. The tables, chairs, cabinets, and counter tops are all of stainless steel. The back wall features stained concrete which matches the color of the support beams. It is lit by a combination of recessed and track lighting.
The final room is the wine cellar. The space appears to have the same footprint as the laboratory and shares similar lighting. Along the walls are floor to ceiling, irregularly spaced bins. They are, of course, stocked with wine. Wooden crates of wine are arrayed on the floor. There are bottles and magnums from the Rhone, Bordeaux, Germany, California, and Virginia amongst others. We do not walk in but there are glimpses of Chateau Leoville Barton, Domaine de Chevalier, Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, and Chateau Palmer. The standards of comparison here are established and set very high.
We return upstairs to put on our jackets for a vineyard tour. RdV Vineyards is located on one of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Lost Mountains is a series of granite knolls coming off of the Blue Ridge Mountain. Rutger’s knoll rises to 900 feet with vineyards planted from 650 feet at the base to 850 feet at the top. This is the highest elevation in the area with panoramic views from the mountains to Dulles Airport.
The property consists of 100 acres of land that was originally home to cattle. The lower pastures were originally clear but the hill was covered with scrubland and trees. The soils are weak. Because they were incapable of supporting any crops the previous owner fed his cattle hay on the hillside during the winter. Josh comments that he can still see the effect of the hay storage in certain vines. After purchasing the land the hill was extensively sampled and mapped. To prepare the site the hill had to be cleared then the soil was ripped and slightly augmented to provide consistency.
We opt for the full vineyard tour on foot which is a delight for the dog. It is planted with 11 parcels spread over 17 acres. There are some greenstone inclusions rising to the surface. We walk up a gravel road passing a Cabernet Sauvignon parcel to our right and a Cabernet Franc parcel to our left. We come across an orchard. This inclusion is productive but the others are left grassed.
The vines are primarily oriented north-south with the slope determining the degree of variation. The vines are trained double Guyot cane pruned with vertical shoot positioned. The vines are spaced every four feet and the rows seven feet. Due to the volume of rock brought up during ripping they decided to put it to good use. Rocks work well in many vineyards so they use it in their own manner. Thus on the ground you will find a low line of rocks connecting the vines. In a steeper eastern parcel these low lines actually become a structural element of the terraces. Grass covers the ground. While it helps control erosion it can be used to stress the vines through letting it grow or cutting it back. In the winter the area around the base of the vines are cleared out with a blow torch. Irrigation was installed though it is periodically used only for the Merlot vines. The water itself is sourced from a well on the hill.
Josh is clearly passionate about RdV. If he is not working in the winery he will work outside in the vineyard. There is even a crew of six vineyard workers who have been employed since the vines were first planted in 2006. Josh continues to answer our questions with depth and enthusiasm. The rootstock is mainly Riparia Glorie with one block 420A, the goal being low vigor. The vines themselves are mostly of ENTAV heritage though one parcel is planted with UC Davis Cabernet Sauvignon Clone #4. The clones were chosen to provide lower yields, small/loose clusters, and small berries. The parcels are planted with 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 12% Petit Verdot, and 8% Cabernet Franc. The steepness of the knoll allows water to run off during downpours.
The harvest generally starts with Merlot in mid-September and ends with Cabernet Sauvignon in mid-October. Everything else is picked in between. This distribution acts as insurance against the weather. The fruit is hand harvested by the employees of Rdv. The harvest occurs during the daylight hours for the temperatures are not too hot. The harvested clusters are cooled overnight. This has two benefits, the skins on the berries are tightened up for the conveyor belt and it allows the same people to both harvest and sort. There are two sorting passes followed by the complete destemming of the fruit.
We ask about vineyard issues. The parcels are planted above the elevation of the frost line which is visible during the colder months near the red barn. They can see the frost line visibly move but it does not come near the lower parcels. The entire property is surrounded by an eight foot deer fence. This leaves birds as the only wild life which samples the grapes. The hill is located in a gap so that a constant breeze from Paris touches all of the vines keeping them healthy from the effects of humidity. This sounds well managed but in 2011 they suffered highly-localized hail damage. The fruit and canopies were extensively damaged.
We return to the tasting room where Andrew has poured glasses of the 2009 Rendezvous and 2009 Lost Mountain along with a plate of charcuterie, cheese, and bread. The bottles were opened and decanted in the morning so at this point they had experienced several hours of air. The wines were very good. The flavors I found in the 2008 Rendezvous promptly came back to mind. I would have been content to simply taste these two wines but I was glad that Jon had invited us out to visit the winery. The determination to produce outstanding wine is certainly evident in the winery, vineyard, vinification, and the wine itself.
2009 RdV Vineyards, Rendezvous – $75
This wine is a blend of 35% Merlot, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Cabernet Franc, and 12% Petit Verdot. There was a dark red nose which was a bit more lush and open. In the mouth there was racy, black red fruit, good weight, and a little tart note towards the finish. It had fine grip. With air the finish became a bit racy with a dark aspect. There was a minerally and perfumed aftertaste. It has an overall brighter personality. *** Now-2018.
2009 RdV Vineyards, Lost Mountain – $88
This wine is a blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, and 9% Petit Verdot. The nose was a little lush but firmer with a very fine, dark, earthy quality. In the mouth the wine was obviously more structured with very fine tannins and integrated acidity. There was firm red fruit, which was a little chewy, some tartness, and good weight. It is a serious wine. There were drying tannins in the finish which were citric like and a bit spicy. There was a dark aftertaste as well with serious weight. The ripeness of the fruit starts to come out with air. Drinkable now with air but I would cellar a few more years. ***(*) Now-2023.
Several weeks later Lou and I finally met up with Rutger. It was befittingly at a Chateau Leoville Barton and Chateau Langoa Barton dinner. During a pause in the tasting we chatted about the architecture of the winery and more on Exsurgo. Rutger’s winery itself reflects the vernacular architecture of Delaplane. Through its large windows there are views of the vineyards and surrounding farms. And from the top of the knoll is a commanding view of the county. It was after the tasting was complete that the conversation turned towards drinking wine. But not Rutger’s wines. While his wines get mentioned in the same breath as that of Bordeaux and Napa, Rutger has chosen to ground himself in Virginia. I shall be curious to try future vintages as the roots reach deeper in to the decomposed granite. I encourage you to visit as well.