Grapevine & Vintner Profile, Wining & Dining

Ankida Ridge – Virginia’s Little Burgundy!

Tucked far away from the cities on a steep eastern slope of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains is the home of Ankida Ridge Vineyards.  A self-described family owned and operated micro-boutique winery, Ankida Ridge takes its name from an ancient Sumarian word meaning “where heaven and earth meet”.  Spending a little time with any member of the family and one begins to understand the passion and energy they infuse into this project.

After founders Christine and Dennis Vrooman acquired their 100-acre farm in Amherst County, wine growing was not paramount in their mind.  As they got to tasting local wines and contemplating crops for the property, they researched the concept of growing grapes.  Their digging led them to Virginia Viticultural Veteran Lucie Morton, who helped discern that the historic grapes of Burgundy (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) had the highest likelihood for success on the ridge.  Such success with Pinot Noir is not unheard of but is rare in the Old Dominion.

At an elevation of 1,800 feet, the rocky mountainside vineyard is densely planted.  Preparing the uneven ground for planting required multiple tons of rock to be moved away from the site.   With the planting completed in 2008, the family worked and waited.  Even with a small vineyard, the nurturing in the first, non-fruit bearing, years can make a difference in fruit quality and quantity.  Despite the challenges, the rocky soils have proven to be a net positive in the level of character expressed in the fruit.

According to the Virginia Tech Extension office, “Soil affects grapevine productivity and wine quality; but soil, like climate, comprises many components.  The best vineyard soils are those that permit deep and spreading root growth and provide a moderate supply of water, released incrementally over time.”

Christine nurtures the vineyards with a mother’s passion.  Writing on her blog she said,

“These vines and the fruit they create, the earth and granite beneath my feet formed eons ago, all offer me the gift of connection…a link to something much greater than myself. I find this to be for me, a spiritual inspiration, a source on unending joy; yes, even in the heat of the summer or when we struggle to battle fungi and other pests, joy is still my fuel, albeit a bit diminished at those times. It is all a part of something so grand”.

Beyond mere platitudes, Christine is dedicated to both sustainability and biodiversity by integrating the farm and vineyard into the larger ecological system of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  They emphasize biodiversity by planting cover crops and perimeter flowers, fruit trees and a small vegetable garden in the vineyard grounds, all providing habitat for beneficial insects (and healthy snacks).  They use sheep at designated times to graze the vineyard floor, thus weeding and fertilizing the low-nitrogen vineyard soils and beehives for pollination. In addition, chickens and guinea hens roam the vineyard to feast on the insect pests.  Bluebird houses and Martin houses are placed near the vineyard to help with the bugs as well.

While not an organic operation, they attempt to hold their eco-friendly ideals while balancing the reality of the situation and the desire to end up with a crop.  The French have a term for this “reasoned struggle,” La Lutte Raisonée.

With the vineyards in place, Dennis and Christine turned to son Nathan to serve as the winemaker for the enterprise.  Working with award winning winemaker Matthieu Finot Nathan produced Ankida Ridge’s first vintage in 2010 with just under 200 cases of production from their vineyard.  Currently producing just over 300 cases annually from their own vineyards, Nathan augments this production with three wines from leased vineyards he produces under the Rockgarden Cellar label.

While the Amherst County farm hosts four events a year (December 7th is the Holiday fete), the family thought there had to be another way to reach out to the public.  Thus the 22 Brix Wine Room of Charlottesville was born.  Christine’s sister Cindy Wells recently moved out from Ohio to assist the family winery.  On a visit to the local wine guild Cindy noticed a room was for rent in the share use house on 2nd Street just off the downtown mall.

The family quickly assembled a lovely tasting room with elegant fixtures and a cozy feel of home.  Cindy is quick to credit both her daughter Cody Rogowski and Marisa Vrooman for assisting in the interior design as well as Nathan’s carpentry skills (clearly he can do much more than just make wine).

22 Brix just opened in November and is operating Thursday-Sunday afternoons.   The reception has been very positive.  A word of warning the business grows the seasonal hours may be adjusted, always check their website.

The wines of Ankida Ridge have received rave reviews.  Jansis Robinson called them One of “Virginia’s Top Picks, … a new and exciting producer ”.  Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post gushed “Amazing Pinot Noir,” An insider’s pick… that “wowed the crowd”.

The Rockgarden Cellars 2012 Voyage De Vert is inspired by the popular “Vinho Verde” wines from Portugal, this light, crisp blend of (85% Vidal Blanc and 15% Pinot Noir) has well balanced flavors of citrus and green apple with a hint of effervescence. A great summer deck wine it would also make a lovely aperitif.

I was quite taken with the 2012 Ankida Ridge Chardonnay.  Aged in neutral oak, only ½ of the wine was allowed to go through malolactic fermentation.  This restraint provides a solid backbone to this well-structured wine without the big buttery finish often evident in barrel fermented chardonnays from the left coast. A true Burgundian style of winemaking that is rare in the Old Dominion.

The 2011 Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir is a great example of the potential for this grape. Medium ruby color in the glass the soft fruit forward attack includes highlights of red cherry and licorice.  The midpalate expands to expose strawberry and a hint of white pepper.  The balanced finish lingers nicely with additional red cherry notes.

Other than the Chardonnay, Nathan’s winemaking touch (and Finot’s influence) may be most evident in the blending of the 2012 Rockgarden Cellars Voyage De Rouge.  A Bordeaux style blend of 40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Cabernet Franc, this wine’s somewhat reluctant nose required a bit of swirling to release dark plum aromas and a hint of dark chocolate.  The nice silky attack led a midpalate that showcases raspberry, strawberry and rhubarb.  The lingering finish includes dark stone fruit, tobacco and hints of white pepper.

Considering the unique qualities of the vineyard site and the laser like family focus in the vineyard and the winery it is of little surprise that the wines of Ankida Ridge Vineyards are quite extraordinary.  The addition of the 22 Brix Wine Room will likely accelerate the sales of these fine vintages.  Limited production means the amount of wine available is equally limited.  I encourage regular Grapevine readers to make a road trip soon because, to paraphrase a line from The Washington Post, if you don’t get it, you won’t get it.

Vintner Profile – Nathan Vrooman
Hometown:  Cazenovia, New York
Item that is always in your fridge: Beer, open bottle of wine and fermenting vegetables
Best thing about the Virginia Wine Industry: Rachel Stinson, winemaker at Stinson Vineyards (and fiancé)
Worst thing about the Virginia Wine Industry: Recent shortage of high quality fruit
Comfort Food: Meatloaf
Most embarrassing moment: Flipping my ATV on bottling day of our 2010 Pinot Noir
Most over rated virtue: Excessive Organization
Favorite Wine (yours or anyone else’s): I don’t have a favorite but if pressed I am partial to the 2010 Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir

~ Written by: Neil Williamson

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