New Releases at Gray Ghost Vineyards

Gray Ghost Vineyards has released several new wines, and this gave us the perfect excuse to pay the Kellerts a visit. Recent releases include the 2009 Cabernet Franc, the 2009 Seyval Blanc, and the 2009 Merlot.

Winemaker Al Kellert conducted our tasting, and that gave us the opportunity to catch up with Al about the latest happenings at Gray Ghost Vineyards. Of course, the newest releases were our chief interest, and the 2009 Seyval Blanc was the first to be poured into our glasses. Fermented for a short time in Hungarian oak, it resembled a California-style Fume blanc with a very faint smokiness and citrus characteristics. Perfect for summer, this Seyval Blanc should pair nicely with anything that would partner favorably with a Sauvignon Blanc.

The 2009 Cabernet Franc was the latest red to be released on the day of our visit. Gray Ghost Vineyards produces a stand-alone Cabernet Franc that is not blended with any other variety, and it presents qualities more akin to a Chinon-style Cabernet Franc. Aged ten months in French oak barrels, vibrant cherry and raspberry aromas and flavors abound with a characteristic spicy edge. I’d consider this one for fall menus, especially Thanksgiving dinner. Now what about the 2009 Merlot? Paul reserved a case of it in March when we participated in the barrel tasting; based on this sneak preview, he went ahead and ordered a case. However, on the day of our visit, the Merlot was not yet released and therefore not available for tasting. Not to worry, though, because Paul picked up his case while we were at the winery, and we had a bottle with dinner that evening! We decanted it first, and we noted a deep garnet color. After swirls, sniffs, and sips the word, “deep” came to mind for both of us. Rich, dark cherry and black berry characteristics prevailed with some vanilla at the finish. We enjoyed it that evening with filet mignon, and it was the perfect pairing.

As we sipped away at the tasting bar, Al Kellert revealed to us that all of the 2009 releases were produced from 100% estate grown fruit. This had been a goal of his for quite some time, and for the Kellerts, it represents a statement about quality. Anyone who has visited Gray Ghost Vineyards can attest to the immaculate state of the vineyards, and careful maintenance and management of the vineyards have allowed the Kellerts to achieve this milestone. We were also curious about the 2010 season and what appears to be an early veraison in the vineyards. Al acknowledged that the extreme heat that has been characteristic of the 2010 spring and summer led to early developments in the vineyards; however, he was confident that the upcoming harvest has the potential to produce complex and robust red wines. (Of course, that assumes no extreme circumstances like hurricanes!)

With our tasting done, we decided to enjoy a glass of the 2009 Seyval Blanc out on the veranda with a hunk of goat cheese and bread. We will return to Gray Ghost Vineyards soon, and readers should visit even sooner—just mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.

My Blends

Warren shared his blending experience with you in the last post. I’ll share mine in this post. I will agree with Warren about Al’s malbec. It’s one of the best I’ve tasted. It reminded me of Lori Corcoran’s malbec. Maybe in the future Al will plant enough to produce a stand alone. It’s definitely a great addition to the pieces he uses for blending.

My first blend was made up of 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc, 15% Malbec, and 10% Petit Verdot. I really liked the stand alone versions of these grapes and thought larger amounts of merlot and cab sauv would make a nice wine. Well, in the end this first blend had too much spice for my taste. I didn’t understand that because I only had 15% of the cab franc which were I thought most of the spice would come from. Al explained to me that when you put them all together, they bring out different characteristics and my blend just happened to bring out more spice. Of course I needed to change the percentages in my second blend.

Since I really enjoyed the malbec as a stand alone, I decided to make that one of the major components of my second blend. I went with 30% Malbec, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Petit Verdot. This second blend was so much better than the first blend. The spiciness was gone and replaced with some nice fruit and decent tannins. I was ready to bottle this blend. Warren said he enjoyed it as well.

Al explained how they create 15 different blends, make a gallon of each one, and taste them at three different time intervals. The blend for this year’s Ranger Reserve is 29% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Merlot, 20% Petit Verdot, 15% Cabernet Franc and 12% Malbec. We got a chance to taste it and of course it was wonderful. We had a great time at the blending class and look forward to blending again in the future.

Blending Makes Perfect

Ever wonder how Virginia wine makers come up with the combinations for their Bordeaux-style blends?  These blends may be recognizable to readers as Meritage blends, but these are indeed Bordeaux-style blends.  To be considered a Meritage (or Bordeaux blend), a wine must consist of a combination of any or all of these varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.  No single varietal can make up more than 50% of the blend. Readers may recall that we attempted to blend a Cabernet Franc at Sunset Hills, but this time we decided to test our blending talents at Gray Ghost Vineyards.  Our challenge here was to produce a Bordeaux-style blend that would mimic Gray Ghost Vineyards’ award-winning Ranger Reserve.  Of course, this challenge required tasting, blending, and then more tasting; needless to say, we were eager to participate!

Our session was conducted by winemaker Al Kellert who began the session with a brief history of the Bordeaux varietals.  This was very informative, and I learned that Petit Verdot was the earliest of these varietals to be planted in France. This may have occurred in a time before the contemporary era (or BC for traditionalists).  Also, Al answered the question that many participants may have wanted to ask—why blend?  Wine makers blend for a number of reasons—one good reason may be to hide flaws of certain individual wines especially during poor vintages. However, another reason to blend is to create a “whole that is better than the parts”.  This last reason suggests an artistic component to the process, and it is one that Al Kellert embraces as a winemaker.  In fact, The Gray Ghost Reserve is the end result of at least 15 different blends that are tasted at different intervals in the aging process.  The winning combination is one that has met a predetermined goal—a blend of all five varietals that harmonizes the best qualities of each so that no one varietal dominates over the others.

Our task, then, was to create a blend that met the criteria for a Bordeaux-style wine.  We were not informed of previous blends used by Al to produce the Ranger Reserve, so participants were not pre-disposed to produce a blend that mirrored Al’s previous products.  We began with bottle samples of each Bordeaux varietal, and these samples produced from estate-grown fruit—even the Malbec.  After these individual samplings, we were then charged to create our own blends.  My own favorite of the single varietal samples was the 2008 Merlot with its fruit-driven profile; I decided that this one would be my “headliner.”  However, the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon provided backbone with its darker fruit characteristics, nice tannic structure and longer finish.  I ultimately decided that this one would be my co-star with the others acting as supporting cast members.  The supports added various degrees of smoke, spice, and berry fruits would complement the mix; so, armed with pipettes and a beaker I blended away!

So what did I create?  I must say that I was quite pleased with my end results.  I actually finished two blends, and both were dominated by the Merlot.  My first blend started with 30% Merlot with equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, but I opted to kick up the Merlot a notch to 40% in my second blend.  It was my second blend that I preferred. With this one, I also added in more Cabernet Sauvignon, decreased the Cabernet Franc a notch but added more Petit Verdot.  A relative splash of Malbec finished off my second blend.  As a result, I accomplished my goal, and I created a layered, fruit-driven yet complex blend that included dark fruit flavors, earthy/spicy aromas, and a generous finish.  And the color was dense to boot!

Of course, I was not alone at the blending table, and Paul was busy concocting his own vintner’s special.  I’ll let him describe his own process and results.  However, I will close by noting that I was very surprised at the quality of Al Kellert’s  Malbec.  In fact, more than one blender at our table featured the Malbec as the dominant varietal. This is a tough grape to grow in Virginia, and the Gray Ghost Vineyard has very few Malbec vines planted in it.  What little is produced each year is used in the Ranger Reserve, so an individual bottling would not be possible.  (There were requests to plant more Malbec, though!)

What were Paul’s blends?  How did we compare to the ultimate champion, Al Kellert?  I’ll let Paul provide those details.  In the meantime, plan a visit to Gray Ghost Vineyards, and mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.

Gray Ghost Barrel Tasting

Before our trip to Charlottesville we attended the barrel tasting at Gray Ghost Vineyards, in my opinion the most medaled winery in Virginia. Have you checked out the medals they’ve been winning lately?

At the barrel tasting, Al Kelert opened the barrel room and a few barrels to allow us to taste certain wines in their current state. We started with the 2009 Chardonnay. We noted apple and tropical fruit flavors. We can’t wait for this one to make it in the bottle.

We moved onto the reds and started with the 2009 Merlot. We noted lots of cherry, smoke, and smooth tannins. I’ll be getting a case of this one when it is released. We then moved on to the 2009 Cabernet Franc. Here we noted raspberry fruit and smooth tannins. Another one I’ll be adding to my case list.

Next up were the two 2008 Cabernet Sauvignons…one in French oak and one in American oak. The French oak presented bright berry fruit flavors on the nose and on the palate. We noticed smooth tannins. The American oak was a bit more tannic and presented blackberry fruit, and a spicy edge. Warren wrote down chewy tannins. We were then able to blend the two together. The blend consisted of 60% from the French oak barrel and 40% from the American oak barrel. This made an amazing blend. The two compliment each other. The blend softened the tannins and brought out the fruit. Warren noticed some smoke as well. We look forward to this one making it in the bottle in the future.

After the barrel tasting we had a regular tasting conducted by Amy. We were able to taste the most recent releases: the 2009 Riesling, the 2009 Vidal Blanc, and the 2009 Adieu. All of the wines were wonderful and made it difficult for us to pick a wine for lunch. We finally decided on the 2008 Chardonnay. It went well with our grilled chicken. We finished the day with the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon with a handful of chocolate kisses…SO GOOD! If you haven’t been to Gray Ghost lately, you need to plan to visit them soon. And if you do, tell them Virginia Wine Time sent you!