04 May Blenheim Vineyards in Virginia Wine Country
The day started as overcast. We began with the amazing views from Monticello, without the sun, but without actual rain also. The world was covered in the gorgeous bright green of spring. It’s that shade that pops against the gray, turning even a completely overcast day into something bright! It was spring in Virginia, with the ground covered in pink petals washed from the trees. It’s especially magical for those of us who have been so long away from the green.
That changed as we drove our way to Blenheim Vineyards. The sky started to leak. Not a full on rain storm, just steady inconvenient rain. But that was okay. We didn’t get to sit outside at the outdoor tasting bar at Blenheim, but wandered down into the main tasting room. It is an A-frame building with the front full of windows as well as windows along the peak of the room. When you walk in you can also look down through the glass floor at the center to see the winery, it’s tanks and barrels. The windows here allow for natural light even on this rainy day.
The end of the tasting room holds the bar so you can enjoy your tasting looking out through the huge windows overlooking the vineyard. The bar was full, so we were guided to a table. I asked if we needed to go to the bar for our tastings and was assured that we did not. They have pourers assigned to the tables who come around. The staff, which seemed to be all female were helpful, friendly and knowledgeable about the wines and the vineyard. Out came the glasses and the tasting menu.
The pours here were generous and the atmosphere was relaxed. It was a place you could come and enjoy a tasting with friends, which was what we were doing. Those types of tastings lean more toward conversation with your friends, and less about in-depth tasting and contemplation. This of course is rather new to Michael and I, wine geeks who typically taste with just the two of us and take copious notes. I did manage to scribble a few down and when I did ask about the blends, the staff were quick to pull out the vineyard map and show us where each block was located.
The grapes of Blenheim Vineyards
They are growing 13 varieties of grapes here. You have the standard Cabernet Franc and Viognier which are the varieties that seem to grow best here in Virginia. In addition they grow, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Roussanne and then surprisingly (at least for me) Pinot Noir. Yes, I’m still two short. They also have a block of Teroldego and a block of Garganega which are new and have only been in the ground for 3 years. Teroldego is a deeply colored red grape from northern Italy in the Province of Trentino. Garganega is a white grape also from Northern Italy from the Provinces of Verona and Vicenza. It will be interesting to see how these grapes do.
The tasting at Blenheim Vineyards
I fell in love with the Rosé ’16. It does 48 hours on the skins. This is a blend of 46% Merlot, 31% Cab Franc, 12% Pinot Noir and 11% Syrah. It was complex on the nose and tart on the palate. ($17)
The Chardonnay ’15 was partially (30%) aged in Hungarian and American Oak for 5 months. While you got a little oak on the nose, the palate was clean and bright. ($17)
The 2015 Painted white has a totem on the label. It is 58% Chardonnay, 21% Viognier, 12% Albarino, 9% Sauvignon Blanc aged for 9 months in French and Hungarian oak with 35% tank aged. ($25)
Petit Verdot ’14 was 10 months on mixed oak; 75% American Oak and 25% French Oak. It had a yummy nose, was milder on the palate with a quick finish but was very nice. (My dear friend Mess, has discovered that she likes Petit Verdot and after searching for a term, decided that they were chewy!)($24)
The Painted Red ’15 also features a totem. The Painted Red 2015 was 44% Cab Franc, 31% Petit Verdot, 13% Merlot, 12% Cab Sav, 76% aged for 10 months in French, American and Hungarian Oak. This was very nice but our favorite of the reds remained the Petit Verdot. ($30)
They also sell “growlers” here. Yep, they have 2 wines, the Claim House White (83% Chardonay, 10% Pinot Noir and 7% Viognier (un-oaked) and the Claim House Red 84% Cabernet Franc, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot (un-oaked) that are available at $6 per glass or you can buy a growler for $7 and fill it for $19. The growlers are becoming popular in this area. You buy the growler itself once and then can return to have it refilled! These wines are not all estate, but include fruit from some other vineyards. Both are NV (non vintage).
Doesn’t Somebody Famous own this winery?
So here I am two thirds of the way through this post and I have just gotten around to telling you that Dave Matthews owns this vineyard. I am a Dave Matthews fan from way back and was lucky enough to see them play on Brown’s Island in Richmond with Widespread Panic back in the ’90’s. Dave draws the totems on the labels for the blends.
Dave designed the winery with William Johnson and finished it in 2000. The winery, that you see though the glass floor in the center of the tasting room is nestled into the hillside to help with climate control. The place is made from reclaimed wood and those south facing windows mean that they don’t need to use lighting in tasting room at all in the summer.
Dave Matthews moved to Charlottesville when he was 19. He formed the Dave Matthews band here. Did you know their first concert was on Earth Day in 1991? Without knowing the connection we had dinner (and great burgers and beer) at Miller’s in Charlottesville where he bartended before he started the band.
The Vineyard and Winery were meant to make good wine, not necessary to make money. Success had hit and they had the luxury of not needing the money. So they focused on the wine, and in my opinion succeeded. Inspired by Farm Aid, he started out with the BOWA (Best of What’s Around) farm outside of Charlottesville that they rehabilitated and had certified organic. He planted Blenheim Vineyards on the remnants of an old vineyard that was on the property.
But why is it named Blenheim Vineyards?
Ok, while it seems like this should be an easy question, I found the answer to be a bit ’round about.
So…John Carter was the Secretary of the Colony of Virginia. In 1730 he obtained a large parcel of land in what is now Albemarle County Virginia. His son Edward, of Blenheim built the first Blenheim house, which was named for the Duke of Marlborough who won the War of the Spanish Succession for Britain. The Duke’s family seat was Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Blenheim Farm & Blenheim Vineyards are located on this property.
It is said that Thomas & Martha Jefferson stayed here when their coach had to stop nearby in a snowstorm. The house burned down in the mid 1840’s.
The Women of Blenheim Vineyards
I mentioned that the tasting room staff was primarily women. Well the winery staff is also female dominated, which is a rarity these days. Their Winemaker and General Manager Kirsty Harmon, graduated from UVA with a degree in Biology in 1998. She apprenticed with Gabriele Rausse (who has his own winery in Virginia and was the director of gardens and grounds at Monticello and is often referred to as “The Father of the Modern Virginia Wine Industry”). She then studied at UC Davis in California getting a degree in Viticulture and Enology in 2007. She spent a bit of time in France and New Zealand working in the industry and then became the Winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards in 2008.
The remainder of the major members of the staff are also female (I’m lovin’ the girl power!). Tracy Love runs the Sales department, Ellen Houle is the tasting room manager, Amanda Gray is the Event Manager & Mimi Adams is the Vineyard Manager.
So if you are an environmentalist, a feminist and like good music, good people and good wine (like me) than you should definitely stop by Blenheim. If it is a pretty day you can see the grounds, but even if it’s raining, it’s well worth the trip.
Blenheim Vineyards is located at 31 Blenheim Farm, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
They are open daily from 11 am to 5:30 pm, tastings are $7 per person and you can bring your dog, as long as they are on a leash and friendly. They are on the Monticello Wine Trail
It is well worth it to make it a day! Visit Monticello in the morning, stop at Blenheim Vineyards and have lunch at the Historic Michie Tavern. Find another winery (there are plenty in the area) and then go for dinner downtown in Charlottesville. We had amazing burgers the first night at Miller’s (you remember I mentioned the Dave Matthews connection there earlier) and the 2nd night we had an amazing meal at the Downtown Grill (and a great bottle of Frank Family Pinot Noir from Carneros) followed by drinks upstairs at the Sky Bar. This is a college town so it is eclectic and busy. If the weather is nice I highly recommend enjoying a table out on the Downtown Mall which is one of the longest pedestrian malls in the country. It is located on Main Street and the center is set with tables for outdoor dining for all of the restaurants.