Richard Croasdale takes a journey of discovery through Virginia's famed wine country
Monday 13 April 2020
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Not far from Devil’s Backbone along Route 151, I see the turning for Bold Rock Cider, one of the state’s biggest craft cideries, and a name I’ve already seen on tap handles everywhere. The cidery is around the same age as its neighbour and at a similar point in its development, from the look of things. The brewery and taproom building is certainly impressive, with massive wooden beams criss-crossing the high ceiling, and an impressive slate fireplace at the far end. On the path up to the main entrance is a sign which reads “Blue collar. White collar. Dog collar. No collar. ALL ARE WELCOME.”
Thanks to Hayes, Bold Rock manager Alex Osterhoudt is on hand to meet me for a tour and a tasting, starting with a quick introduction to the company’s illustrious founders, Brain Shanks and John Washburn. John had owned the land since 1986, and had always felt it was a special spot. In around 2008, when the craft alcohol movement was really taking off across the US – and particularly along this corridor of highway – someone had reached out to him with the idea of opening a brewery on his land.
“John didn’t want to part with it, but he did think the idea of making a craft beverage was interesting. He looked at the breweries that were opening up, and all the nearby wineries, and asked himself ‘what’s missing here?’ The answer, of course, was cider.
“John really felt that hard cider was about to experience a resurgence in the United States. Back in the days of the founding fathers, it was the preeminent alcoholic beverage, but then prohibition came and it never really regained steam after that. But around 2008 there was a growing sort of enthusiasm for hard cider nationally, which would reach a fever pitch around the time we opened.”
Girded by his unshakeable belief, John apparently Googled ‘world’s foremost cider maker’, and Brian’s name came up. The two men met and formed an instant bond. Brian went away and did a lot of the groundwork in terms of licensing, financing and distribution, and around six months later they agreed to push the button and make Bold Rock happen. It finally opened its doors for business in June 2012.
We take a whistle-stop tour through the ciders on the bar, which range from dry and delicate to the more mainstream sweet varieties. There’s something to suit every palate, but they all share that fresh fruit zing that you just don’t get in the ubiquitous mass produced ciders. Great care and craft is clearly taken across the entire range here.
“We're in every man's cider,” confirms Alex. “We're practicing a great and industry-leading craft, but we're doing it in a humble way. We're not too big for our britches. And that's been underlying our growth over the past seven plus years, and that is that we want to maintain: authenticity and our humility.”
As luck would have it, today is pressing day, so we head down to the red-roofed barn where large containers of various varieties of apple are waiting to be loaded into the juicer. This is a pleasingly manual process, in which two workers physically shovel the fruit into a stainless steel hopper, from where it is carried along a conveyor belt and into a crushing drum. The spent flesh drops into a bin, while the fresh juice disappears into a hole in the floor, which runs to a holding tanks. During production, Bold Rock gets through 220,000 pounds of apples every week.
Alex hands me a plastic cup of cloudy, freshly-pressed juice. It is heavenly. “We don’t just use cider-specific apples here,” he says. “If you look around these containers, you’ll see varieties like Granny Smith. We also buy a lot of our apples in from cold store, which effectively extends the season all year round.”
The grounds really are genuinely stunning, and we stop a moment to admire the golden afternoon sunlight.
“You should be here in summer,” says Alex, gazing out toward the river. “You get people sitting down on the bank with a cider and a bit of food, dipping their toes in and sort of basking in the splendour of the property. That’s really at the heart of what John wanted for this place. He really wanted people to forget their technology and their worldly issues, drink cider and enjoy nature. Smart guy, really.”
In Vino Veritas
I’m really excited about my next stop, having never tried Virginian wine before and hearing only great things about Veritas. Founded 20 years ago by Andrew and Patricia Hodson from the UK, Veritas is now a true family business, with children and partners heavily involved. I’m here to meet Andrew and Patricia’s daughter Emily Pelton, who now runs the winery day-to-day. Her enthusiasm is entirely contagious and I’m instantly sucked into the unfamiliar world of viticulture and winemaking.
Brushing past the lush tasting room, with sculptures, a roaring fire and comfortable sofas, Emily all but drags me out of a side door to “where the interesting stuff is”, handing me a glass of Veritas’s Scintilla sparkling 2015 vintage.
“This is a traditional method sparkling wine. So all of the secondary fermentation was done in the bottle. It's our first sparkling wine that we designated with a vintage. I've been doing sparkling wine since 2006, and it took me until 2015 to get it absolutely right. I very much respect the tradition of vintage-dated sparkling and so I knew in my first years that I wouldn’t reach that level. But when I made this in 2015, I kind of know… I was like, ‘this is my first vintage’. I could just tell the acid quality was beautiful. Every time I opened the tank, I was like I just wanted to smell it.”
Emily talks me through the painstaking process of bringing the grapes in from the fields, how the stalks are removed (or not, in some cases), how the grapes are tenderly pressed over a period of time to properly extract their juice, which is finally piped down into the cellar. It’s a delicate natural product, and this initial stage is crucial; even moving the juice by an electric pump could spoil it, so everything is done by gravity.
Moving down into the cellar, the next wine we sample is a newly bottled Sauvignon Blanc. It’s crisp and heavy with wet stone minerality – just how I like it.
“So, the most important thing about Sauvignon Blanc for me is acid quality, right? So that's why it's one of the first whites to come in. I could care less about how much sugar it's acquired or how ripe it is; I really just want it to be clean and linear and just all about acid quality.
“This is a great variety to grow here because of the geology. All the green blue stone sticking out the side of the mountain? That's a granite base. And this farm specifically is on what we call a ‘rotten rock’, which is a granite, but in layers. When you grab it, you can actually break it, because it's not metamorphic at that point. It’s a lot of work, but it's a beautiful base for grapes.”
We venture deeper into the cellar, Emily guiding me expertly though each variety, from Viognier (“this is the opposite – I could care less about the acidity. I just want sugar and aromatics”) to Chardonnay. There are racks of barrels everywhere, and everything is recorded and tracked on specialised software, which Emily’s team uses to draw off samples for testing and blending.
When we get into the reds, I see there’s already an array of bottles set out for us, with glasses. I rue my decision not to take a taxi here.
“I don't know how much time you spent on the West Coast but so it's more of a desert out there, we’re much more lush and green. What I love about Virginia is that, with the classic Bordeaux varietals, it's the ones that are in the smallest percentages in Bordeaux that do the best here. So we're a little bit backwards. So Cabernet Franc is one of our flagships, which we do as a single varietal. Then we have Petie Verdot, which is also a classic Bordeaux grape, on the heavier side. And then in the middle we have our Bordeaux blend.”
Each of the wines I try brings something new to my palate, and Emily even climbs the stack of barrels at a couple of points to retrieve samples that illustrate – for example – the difference a dry year and a wet year can have on the same grape.
Amazingly, somewhere between 80 and 90% of Veritas’s entire output is sold through the vineyard itself. As well as being much better commercially than selling through distributors, the area’s thriving agro-tourism industry means customers come to the winery, rather than the other way around. It’s a nice business model, if you’re in the right location.
“What you'll see on your trip is we have this beautiful agritourism aspect. I honestly don’t know how that happened. People flock out here on the weekends, and actually, I set this up tasting for you down here because I wasn't sure we were going to be able to speak upstairs. And it’s the same with the breweries, and the distilleries and the cideries. It's a destination – people plan their day around it.”
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