The rolling hills around Charlottesville, Virginia, are glorious this time of year. It is springtime in the Virginia Piedmont – Jefferson’s beloved countryside and home to many of the state’s 250 wineries that endeavor to fulfill the founder’s vision. Among these is Early Mountain Vineyards, located in Madison, Virginia, along the Monticello Wine Trail just a stone’s throw from the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Early Mountain is owned by former AOL executives Jean and Steve Case, who purchased the property (formerly Sweely Estate Winery) in 2011 with a goal of not only producing their own estate wines but also of showcasing the wines of other Virginia producers and uplifting the Virginia wine industry as a whole. The Cases operate the winery as a social enterprise whose profits are directed toward “strengthening Virginia communities and encouraging continued growth, innovation, adaptation, and learning in the Virginia wine industry.”
Early Mountain Vineyards comprises 300 acres — 30 currently under vine, a winemaking facility, a combination tasting room, cafe, and gourmet shop, and a cavernous (and quite beautiful) special event facility for hosting weddings, fund-raising events, and other occasions. The tasting room (pictured right) is
spacious and comfortable, with a menu of small dishes fashioned from cheeses, meats, charcuterie, and produce sourced from local farms. The wine list features wines from the estate as well as other Virginia wineries participating in Early Mountain’s “Best of Virginia” program. Local bands perform in the tasting room or on the outdoor terrace on weekends, deepening the winery’s intimate vibe.
“Early Mountain’s tasting room is dramatic — but nevertheless casual and relaxing — rivaling some of the finest we have experienced in Napa Valley or elsewhere.”
Our recent visit to Early Mountain Vineyards was memorable, as we had opportunity not only to enjoy lunch in the tasting room but also to get acquainted with winemaker Steve Monson and production assistant Jake Pickett, gather some first-hand impressions of their approaches to winemaking in Virginia, and taste through their portfolio of wines. Steve and Jake both studied enology and viticulture at the University of Missouri’s Grape and Wine Institute. (Missouri, by the way, is home to the first federally recognized American Viticultural Area — the Augusta AVA.) They are clearly dedicated to crafting the highest quality wine possible from Early Mountain’s estate vineyards, and are paying particular attention to identifying the best vineyard sites on the property; selecting varieties best suited to the property’s red clay and quartz soils; correcting problems associated with how the vineyards were originally planted; mitigating excessive moisture and other hazards common to Virginia’s climate; and employing appropriate winemaking and cellaring practices to optimize flavor, concentration, and balance in their finished wines.
During our tasting Steve and Jake conveyed a keen creative impulse, emphasizing the importance of experimenting with varieties and styles in order to achieve the finest expression in Early Mountain’s wines. But while they are constantly tinkering in the background, the winery exercises admirable restraint in what it places on the market under the Early Mountain Vineyards label. You will not find an unruly assortment of varieties and styles on Early Mountain’s tasting menu, nor will you find native American varieties (vitis labrusca) or French-American hybrids often found at Virginia wineries. You will find, rather, a measured selection of bottlings — mostly whites — from their best lots of mostly traditional European varieties (vitis vinifera); varieties and styles they find have the greatest appeal to their customers. As Steve said, “we want to make wines that people are comfortable with. The most important thing for us is that people drink our wine.” All told, Early Mountain produces around 3,000 cases of wine each year.
Following our visit to Early Mountain Vineyards, our tasting panel evaluated several of their current releases. We recalled Steve saying, “we really like our whites on this site,” and our panel believed Early Mountain’s whites were, indeed, the standouts. We recommend two of the winery’s current release white wines and offer our tasting notes, below.
Steve and Jake have high hopes for producing aromatic white blends at Early Mountain, and their 2012 Block 11 suggests why. A blend of Petite Manseng (65%) and Muscat (35%) grown in the same vineyard block (“Block 11”), this wine is brimming with aromas of honeysuckle, honeydew melon, and pineapple followed by flavors of pear, peach, and candied ginger, with hints of butterscotch and coconut on the finish. It is just off-dry (with a hint of sweetness), medium-bodied, and fruit driven, with a lush mouthfeel counterbalanced by refreshing acidity. This wine has a mellow, easy-going flair about it and would serve well at a picnic or cookout. Serve it with mixed fruit, fruit tarts, creamy cheeses, pâtés, or spicy fare. (240 cases produced | 12.7% ABV)
Chardonnay is planted at Early Mountain Vineyards, but it is not yet mature. The winery sourced fruit for its 2012 Chardonnay from a neighboring grower, and aged the wine in French oak (16% new) for only eight months. The result is a clean and fresh take on Chardonnay that will appeal to fans of a lean, modern style. It offers aromas of orange blossom, apple, and vanilla bean which transition to flavors of Rainier cherry, roasted chestnut, and nectarine, with hints of cardamom and toasty oak lending a touch of spice on the finish. The wine is dry, full-bodied, and fruit-driven, with ample viscosity that leaves a smooth, creamy impression on the palate. This Chardonnay comes across as quite elegant, and given its moderate oak treatment will serve with considerable versatility at the dinner table. Serve it with medium-sharp cheeses, grilled salmon, or roasted poultry. (350 cases produced | 13% ABV)
“Early Mountain’s 2012 Chardonnay will make a believer of the traditional California Chardonnay drinker, that Virginia is producing Chardonnay worthy of serious consideration.”
Visiting Early Mountain: Early Mountain Vineyards is located in Madison, Virginia, just off Route 29, roughly 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., and 30 miles north of Charlottesville. The address is 6109 Wolftown-Hood Road, Madison, VA 22727. We recommend you visit them and enjoy their gracious hospitality, savory small dishes, and thoughtful selection of estate and other Virginia wines. To learn more about Early Mountain’s wines and winery and for a schedule of live music and special events, visit them virtually at www.earlymountain.com or call them at 540-948-9005. To learn more about the Monticello Wine Trail, visit www.monticellowinetrail.org.
WOTBH’s Wine Rating Scale: For an explanation of our rating scale, click on the Wine Rating Scale tab at the top of this page.