Exploring Mount Alto Vineyards

Picture this: an overcast and chilly afternoon laughing with strangers over incredible wine. I cannot think of anything better.

That is precisely what we had on Saturday the 8th.

My Sister came down the night before with Favorite Brother in Law (FBI) and we headed to Esmont. Back in February, I stumbled on a Facebook Post from Mount Alto that showed the construction of a foundation and asked whether it was going to be a tasting room. Little did I realize that would lead to an offer for a vineyard tour and tasting.

The many wineries around Charlottesville tend to be concentrated in groups in certain areas, but this was in an all-new to me area. In fact to get to the vineyard we drove up a gravel driveway with a big “no trespassing” sign and no sign indicating we had arrived at Mount Alto. I was a little scared that guys with sunglasses and machine guns may appear from the woods and we had instead stumbled onto a secret satellite intel site. As we got to the top of the drive we came to an open area. We arrived amongst the vines.

Mount Alto is not trying to be a venue. They don’t seem to aspire to offer $30k wedding packages with cute photo shoots amongst the vines. Rather this is a working farm that makes wine, and they are strictly focused on that. I had asked while setting up the visit if we could bring some food to sit and enjoy and they clarified that this is not really a tasting room experience, but rather a working farm. They are very clear about their purpose and keep their focus on the winegrowing and winemaking. Frankly, that shows in the wines.

As we walked towards a table set up with wine glasses, Robert shouted hello and offered us some 2020 petit verdot from an unlabeled bottle. That’s what I call a greeting! Who on earth would say no to that? Soon his wine-making partner David joined us from among the vines. And with that our tour began.

It seems this duo met and became friends in 2003 and began looking for sites to grow grapes. They took classes from Jim Law at Linden and learned about growing grapes in Virginia, and by luck, Robert was able to get Jim to this site to check the soil out. I would be overwhelmed trying to choose a place to set up a vineyard. They however, scoured soil composition maps for the right kinds of soil and compared that with land available for sale (and within a certain distance of Richmond for commute purposes!). As Robert told the story it feels like this plot of land was meant to become Mount Alto Vineyards because it sat there for sale while he was checking out other properties. But it was perfect for what they wanted.

The slope they have planted has about a foot of rocky soil and then rock underneath. This is perfect for drainage and makes the vines struggle and produce amazing fruit. As they are growing a lot of Cabernet Sauvignon, this is extremely important – if Cabernet soaks up too much water the grapes split and your wine is lost. Here the struggle is an important part of producing good wine.

These baby vines are in their their third leaf and being prepared to make amazing wine.

They have a second vineyard that is just now getting ready for third leaf (I’m not that well-educated about wine, but that is what they call the third growing season for the vines). The second plot is named “Sammy Smith’s” after a beloved family dog, and they are being very cautious with these vines, expecting that they are still two years from making wine here so as to not stress the vines and to be sure to bring strong fruit from them.

We walked among the vines and listened to the story of how they planted and learned about how to grow grapes in this place. They have many lessons learned from a string of unusual growing seasons. They’re also doing everything I love in wine. They have chosen a path of low-intervention, using no sprays and chemicals, with grass and clover and weeds growing between rows and under vines to compete for water. I think that these days, this is very important (I wrote about the panic around Round-Up in wine a few years ago) as we find out about the chemicals used in our food and drink and longer-term impacts on us and on the environment.

Mount Alto’s first vintage was made from Virginia’s ill-fated 2018 rain-soaked vintage. Because of the choices they made, their wine came together beautifully. Robert and David shared the story of harvesting and staying just ahead of the hurricane that sealed 2018’s fate. They’ve sold out of what they say is an amazing wine – most likely due to the excellent drainage there. While many Virginia wineries made only rosé or even nothing at all that year, they were able to produce a great vintage of their red blend. Sadly, there was none of this to try.

I’m very worried about these precious little darlings here.

After touring both vineyards, we returned to the area where they have their table set up and Robert brought out three decanters and three bottles — the 2019, 2020 and 2021 Manteo-Nason Red Blend. This is where the fun really began.

We started with the 2020, which is 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Petit Verdot. This wine began very simply – good taste, very drinkable, very restrained- I suspect the wine experts would say “great structure” because it fit together nicely. They told great stories of being so impressed tasting grapes right off the vine and then getting worried because of the way the wine developed while in barrel. 2020 was that weird year of the long cool fall (among other things). The weather seems to have done something interesting that made this vintage hide its real power. Over the course of our nearly three hours there, this wine changed dramatically and just got more and more interesting – more tannin became evident, and more depth showed in flavors. This is their current release, and it’s a really, really good one. Get this wine if you can. I’m planning to hold a bottle or two in order to see what happens.

This is a beautiful decanter. I need it. And more of this wine too.

We then tasted the 2021, which not yet been released. For a wine this young it’s amazing – I got a good bit more tannin off the first sips, and then it seemed to ease up over time. This one is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Petit Verdot. We talked a lot while sipping and savoring this one – I am very impressed by how good it was for being so young. I can only imagine it will continue to develop and refine – lose some of the young tannin “bite,” and become a good steak wine.

Finally we had the 2019. This one was 45% Cabernet Sauvignon and 55% Petit Verdot. For me, it was love at first sniff. It smelled so good I didn’t want to drink any because then there would be none left to smell. This had more depth and a richer, darker red taste to it. And as time went on it got even better. Bear in mind, all three had been decanting for an hour prior to our arrival. Even after that time to open, it continued to change. This wine is incredible now, and thinking about my experience with Virginia Petit Verdot, will likely continue to be solid amazing for several more years. As time goes on it will be interesting to see what their experience is here – how do these wines age. Right now, they seem good on release and just developing in amazing ways over time.

As time went on, we talked about their collaboration with Mathieu Finot through his custom crush program – he is making their wines with them now. They’ve been working with a number of Virginia winegrowers to build their background knowledge and share what they are learning. I love the strong sense of collaboration around winemaking, and Mount Alto is definitely contributing to that body of knowledge.

We asked about their plans for any other grapes. The vineyard is well planted with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. They also have a section with Petit Manseng planted, and they have plans for some Merlot in the future.

Two friends of the winemaking team arrived and joined the tasting, and one suggested we taste a bottled but as yet unlabeled 2020 60% Petit Verdot/40% Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Robert obliged, and this completely knocked my socks off. Of course with majority PV it was right up my alley with all the dark and rich flavor. I wish I recalled how much they have of this, because I will grab whatever they will let me buy when it’s released.

I have long wondered what kind of future Cabernet Sauvignon had in Virginia, given that it soaks up as much water as is available and we generally get way too much rain during the growing season in Virginia. Mount Alto has restored my faith in this grape as an option in Virginia. With their soil having as good drainage as it does and their extensive use of good groundcover to make the vines fight over water, Mount Alto is in great shape to produce excellent cabernet.

You won’t be able to drop by for a tasting. But watch their Facebook page for when they are pouring at a store or just trust me and order – I’ve never steered you wrong before! This wine will not disappoint.

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