Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Boxwood Winery: A Southern Belle in Northern Virginia

A Virginia July can be brutal: temperatures in mid 90s to 100s, humidity topping 98%, give or take. I tasted some of the best wines on just such a day at a wine conference, from Boxwood Winery of picturesque Middleburg, VA. After living in California the past twenty years and tasting some of the world’s highly regarded wines, I found something quite intriguing about Boxwood. By now, we’re all familiar with the story: In 2001 John Kent Cooke, with his wife Rita, purchased the former horse farm and began plans to construct a state-of-the-art winery on the rolling hills and forested property. With guidance from successful viticulturist Lucie Morton, Executive Vice President Rachel Martin, who runs the winery, said that what sets the winery apart is it’s “quality level of our plant material and rootstock , our practices in cultivation and selection of site on the property.”

Of Granite and MicroclimatesI’m no stranger to Virginia, and living farther south and driving up on a cool, somewhat overcast Virginia Wine Month October day, I was unprepared for the rock outcroppings that dotted the landscape. When I reached the winery I asked winemaker Adam McTaggart if it was granite and he confirmed. Middleburg, where Boxwood resides, sits on a bedrock of granite, with sightings of limestone and of course Virginia’s ubiquitous clay. And although clay is ideal for food crops, which Virginia is known for, it’s not the ideal soil-type for growing wine grapes, although just the right amount can work perfectly. Middleburg bears a unique microclimate: mountains and rolling hills combined with a primarily granite and limestone geography, produce an ideal terroir: spring rains, dry summers and mountains to break up rainy weather patterns. Include 2010 vines per acre, like the Bordelaise use, and you get dense planting which controls the vine’s vigor and concentrates grape flavor, which means more complex wines.

It Takes Only a FewAt the moment, Boxwood creates five wines, and as vintages differ, so does the blend—that’s the beauty of what’s going on at Boxwood: the result is not 100% varietal, because frankly, in such a varying climate, that just won’t do. It’s not the varietal itself that matters, rather the combined end result—intelligent wine making at its most refined.

2010 Topiary Rose, Cabernet Franc, Malbec
2010 Boxwood Rose, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
2009 Boxwood Trellis, Petit Verdot and press wine
2009 Topiary, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec
2009 Boxwood, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot

The grapes are nurtured with whole berry fermentation and the end result is evident in the finished product. “The fruit is harvested based on its ripeness and maturity”, says Martin. “When berries are not crushed, wine ferments little by little and adds to the complexity.”

It’s in the GlassRachel’s enology studies began at Napa Valley College and at the University of Bordeaux. In 2006, she convinced flying winemaker / consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt to visit Boxwood: “I met Stéphane through my friend, Jean Baptiste who I met while at the University of Bordeaux. I explained to Stéphane about Virginia and her history in wine. But most importantly I told him of our passion to make a wine true to our Virginia terroir and more pointedly Boxwood terroir. He was hooked. When he came to visit Boxwood and saw our plant material, rootstock selection, vine spacing and site selection, advised by our vineyard consultant, Lucie Morton, he fell in love and took the job.”

So what grabbed my attention during my first taste of Boxwood, was that it reminded me of a Bordeaux. Varietal correctness spot on: graphite, blackberry, tobacco…and what really struck me was the structure. Acid, tannin, mouthfeel, lingering finish—all were present. Those extra phenolic scents and tastes are gorgeous, and they’re present as well, but ultimately, the structure of a wine tells the full story. Good wine ages, good wine pushes you to sniff again and again until the wine evokes a long-forgotten memory, and once it hits the palate it sings even louder.

What’s the Price for a Talented Singer?One look at the stone, glass and wood modern building, with a nod to the property’s past farm roots, and you know that a great deal of money was spent: from an award-winning architect to advanced systems of weather-recording, planting, pumping and bottling. And yet, Boxwood’s wines are priced to move, and move they do. As Rachel points out: “The Virginia wine industry is young and hungry for knowledge and exposure. Having new wineries with ownership that can fund the highest quality in grape growing and winemaking is naturally a positive addition to the Virginia wine industry and we all recognize that.” Boxwood has gone one step further and applied for a new American Viticultural Area (AVA) designate for Middleburg, Virginia. It’s a big boon for Boxwood Winery and the thirteen other wineries included within the proposed AVA.

Names on a MapAccording to viticulturist Lucie Morton: “Once you really understand things from the vine's perspective, you are better able to help someone create a vineyard according to their criteria, from the cheapest scenario to shooting-for-the-stars. You also know that there are some things money can't buy," she said. "The real core issue beyond viticulture itself revolves around the people--their goals, temperaments, values, intelligence and vision." With vine and wine lovers like John, Rachel, Adam, Lucie, Sean and Stéphane, Virginia certainly has the makings to plant itself and grow roots in the fine wine arena, with Boxwood shepherding the way.



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