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One on One with Winemaker – Maya Hood White of Early Mountain Vineyards, Virginia

September 8, 2022 Leave a comment

Source: Virginia.org.

Virginia Is For Lovers.

This simple slogan, coined in 1969, became the foundation of one of the best marketing campaigns of all time. It is simple, it gets stuck in your head and once you hear “Virginia” the image of a red heart with the words “Virginia is for Lovers” automatically pops up in your mind.

Virginia is for lovers, but what many people might not realize, Virginia is for Wine Lovers. Virginia is probably the oldest wine-producing state in the USA, where Thomas Jefferson planted vineyards in the last quarter of the 17th Century, way before any wineries were established in New York and California. Virginia’s climate is one of the closest to Bordeaux out of all wine-producing states in the USA. But if you don’t live in Virginia or close by, you might not even know that Virginia produces world-class wines. But Virginia actually does, and we need to rectify this gap in your knowledge, one winery at a time.

Early Mountain is a relatively young winery, founded only 10 years ago, in 2012. However, it was founded by Steve and Jean Case – founders of AOL, the legendary early days Internet provider for millions of Americans. Early Mountain was founded with the vision and mission of representing and promoting the Virginia wine industry. In the Early Mountain tasting room, you can order Best of Virginia wine flights and taste the wines from the 10 vineyards around Virginia – of course, in addition to the full range of wines Early Mountain produces.

The original Early Mountain vineyard which gives the name to the winery was planted in 2006; the Quaker Run vineyard, the second major holding of Early Mountain was planted in 1999. Early Mountain farms about 350 acres of land, out of which 55 are planted under vines. The estate-produced fruit is also complemented by the fruit coming from the local Virginia growers, in an approximately 50/50 ratio.

I had an opportunity to speak with Maya Hood White, Early Mountain’s winemaker over a zoom session, and taste Early Mountain wines. As this was a live interview, below you will find pretty much a transcript of our conversation, not a detailed account that I manage to provide using an email interview format. I still hope you will get enough information, and most importantly, will be curious enough to go and find Early Mountain wines.

Why Early Mountain?
– The name relates to John Early, a historical figure who lived in Virginia in the second half of the 17th century. There is also a historic building on the property that relates to John Early.
What are those curved lines on your wine label?
– It is a topographic map. The lines represent the true topography of the land surrounding the winery.
What does the logo mean?
– These are letters E and M 🙂 (my reaction – duh…)
What is the meaning of the pointer arrow?
– Again, it is a map attribute, a locational arrow.

At this point, we poured our first glass, 2021 Early Mountain Rosé Virginia (11.3% ABV, $26, 72% Merlot, 10% Malbec, 9% Cabernet Franc, 6% Cabernet Franc, 3% Syrah) – Early Mountain site fruit is used to produce this wine. Grapes for Rosé are harvested earlier than the grapes for the red wines. Depending on the year some grapes are co-fermented. Mostly stainless steel but some Acacia barrels were used as well. The wine was beautiful, salmon pink color, leading with strawberries, cranberries, and cleansing acidity. Very present, balanced, and refreshing.

Speaking with the winemaker always offers us, mere mortal oenophiles, a chance to geek out and learn. When you hear about clones, the first thought is always Pinot Noir, maybe a Chardonnay. Maya works with clones of Sauvignon Blanc, and those clones produce dramatically different wines. She also works a lot with and was speaking fondly of Petite Manseng, the grape best known in Southwest France. Petite Manseng is producing excellent wines in Virginia, and it makes one of the flagship wines at Early Mountain. Petite Manseng grapes grow in such tight clusters that Maya prefers to harvest them after the rain, it helps to process the grapes better.

I asked Maya about Viognier, which is considered to be a star in Virginia. First, I learned an interesting fact from her: Viognier looks like a white grape version of Syrah – the same format of clusters, the same shape of leaves – I guess it is not surprising that Viognier is often used in winemaking to play together with Syrah. It appears that Viognier was growing before at Early Mountain, and it was pulled out and replaced – Viognier is a problematic grape that ripens irregularly and sometimes doesn’t ripen at all. It is definitely preferred to work with more reliable grapes.

We continued our tasting with 2021 Early Mountain Five Forks Virginia (12.9% ABV, $27, Petit Manseng 59%, Sauvignon Blanc 38%, Malvasia Blanca 2%, Muscat 1%) – rich and inviting white fruit nose, followed by a crisp, clean, playful bouquet on the palate. I loved the plumpness, roundness of the wine, reminding me of my favorite Roussanne bottles. The wine was perfect cold, and it was very tasty at room temperature – this is my standard hallmark test of good white wine – good white wine is delicious cold or not.

And then there was time to ask more questions:

What is your winemaking philosophy?
– Maya oversees grape growing as well as production. Listening to the vineyard – not set on what should be produced from the specific lot. Sites are closely watched for what they can do best – vines can be pulled and replaced.
What does the line of Young Wines represent?
– Approachable, low-intervention, fruit is sourced from the growers in the Shenandoah Valley. Wines are often made using a whole cluster approach. Also, the wines in the Young Wines line appeal more to younger wine drinkers.
Where do you stand on sustainability/organic?
– The low-touch approach, use biodynamic teas, certain blocks are processed only in an “organic” way. The holistic approach to the overall vine growing – over cropping, etc. low touch is a key.
What is your take on biodynamics?
– There is a lot to learn. Compost teas, herbal teas, oak bark – many things work, but the approach is more “what makes sense” than religious.
What winemaking vessels do you use? Oak barrels, amphorae, concrete tanks, stainless steel?
– I gravitate towards bigger casks; we have concrete egg, which is used primarily for whites. We also work with Northern European oak, Acacia wood

Next, we had two Cabernet Franc wines. Cabernet Franc is one of my favorite grapes and a staple of Virginia winemaking, so I was definitely looking forward to trying the wines.

We started with 2020 Early Mountain Cabernet Franc Shenandoah Valley Virginia (13.3% ABV, $30) – pulled from different sites in Shenandoah Valley. Uses larger size barrels, 500 liters or larger, Northern European oak barrels. 2020 was a rainy vintage, and the wine was rather on the mellow side. When I tried the wine during our zoom session, I was not terribly impressed. While the wine had all the traits of Cabernet Franc – cassis, bell pepper – it was a bit underwhelming. The next day, the wine really came around offering a lot more depth and structure.

My second Cabernet Franc was supposed to be a 2019 Cabernet Franc Quaker Run Vineyard, which Maya was absolutely raving about, defining the 2019 vintage as an epiphany. However, the bottle I got was the 2018 Early Mountain Cabernet Franc Quaker Run Vineyard Virginia (12.5% ABV, $45). 2018 was a very challenging vintage – too much rain, even the road was washed away. I never thought of Cabernet Franc in terms of clones, but it appears that this wine was composed of 2 different clones with different aromatics. Despite the vintage challenges (or maybe thanks to? :)) the wine was superb from the getgo – a good amount of dark fruit, good structure, cassis, eucalyptus, herbal underpinning – this Cabernet Franc was more expressive than a typical Chinon or Saumur, but less fruity than a typical west coast Cabernet Franc. Delicious.

Another interesting note from Maya – there is completely anecdotal evidence that in Virginia, even vintages are lean, and odd vintages give you bigger wines. I will need to pay attention next time I will be drinking Virginia wine, to see if this observation would hold true.

And a few more questions to complete our conversation.

How is the harvest in 2022? What to expect?
– Ha! Harvest is still ongoing, 10 days to 2 weeks later than last year, and some of the white grapes are still on the vine. Rain showers got in the way. Reds have another month. Hard to tell yet. There was a got fruit set, some fruit was dropped, so it is too early to tell.
What’s ahead? Single block wines? New varieties?
– New hybrids are coming from Italy – Merlot Kanthus, Sauvignon Rytos, VCR Tocai, The new grapes will account for about 1%. Will be planted in 2023. These new hybrids are important as they are disease resistant, and with grape diseases, the question is not if, but when. There will be also a new wine made from Petite Manseng which was planted instead of Cabernet Sauvignon.

That concluded our conversation with Maya, the time flew by very quickly.

If you are familiar with Virginia wines already, the Early Mountain can offer an excellent refresher course. And if you are not – what are you waiting for? Virginia wine has lots to offer, start your journey already.

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