Northern Virginia Wine Country
Jim Law founded Linden Vineyards over 30 years ago and seems like the kind of guy that has his priorities in the right place. Like most great vigneron his biggest concern is not wine marketing or scores, his priority is the health of his vineyards and the quality of his wines. Without the former, there won’t be the latter. Jim Law carved out and planted the “Hardscrabble” vineyard way back in 1985 with grit, passion, and a determination to make great wine.
Linden was the first winery in northern Virginia, well before the recently created Middleburg AVA was demarcated. The wines speak for themselves, thus Jim and Linden are highly regarded in and out of the Virginia wine scene because of Jim’s dedication to making world-class terroir driven wines. Not much marketing is needed when you are great at what you do, so this allows Jim to focus on his three vineyard sites Avenius (5 acres), Boisseau (5 acres), and his home vineyard Hardscrabble (20 acres).
The tasting room staff is friendly and informative, happy to speak about each wine in regular or wine-geek-speak. The tasting room itself is clean, bright and simply laid out with warm-hued wood floors, walls, and counters giving the room a very natural feel. It comes as no surprise to see that after walking through his vineyards and speaking with him about his philosophy on making wine.
Jim is less concerned about many of the trappings you see in so many tasting rooms, especially in Virginia where many wineries require additional revenues from other businesses to survive. There is no kitsch, pasta, sauces, jams or other food items for sale. He also does not rent the facility for weddings or corporate events, a boon for other Virginia wineries, especially in Charlottesville. There also are no restaurants and overnight accommodations. Jim lays it out clearly on his website that his winery is also his home and thus not for rent. He does not have to worry about that because he has and continues to put the work in that results in Linden’s wines being held in very high regard critically and at the top of the heap in terms of quality and expression in Virginia.
Fortitude alone won’t bring about great wine consistently, site and know how are important as well. Site, just like any other successful vineyard, is the vital key to the next level of Virginia wine that Jim had unlocked. Like most stories about making a living with wine, it’s not all sunshine and roses. It took about 15 years of experimentation and more mistakes than most people would stomach to figure out the ideal planting sites. Jim is now looked upon in reverence as a pioneer as one of the most influential people ever for the Virginia wine industry. As much as he has “figured it out”, be it site location requirements, soil-stock-vine harmony, or “water evacuation” in his vineyards, Virginia is also a fringe climate for wine chock full of endless threats every growing season ready to ruin a vintage’s crop. Humidity, pests large and small, hurricanes, shorter seasons for ripening, and frost can wipe out a crop in no time.
Those kinds of battles take perseverance and fortitude, both traits in Jim that helped him persist all these years in an unknown and new wine region. To complicate matters, some battles fly under the radar. One such battle Jim conquered that from my talks with some insiders in the region is one many in Virginia at this point may be fighting and may not even be aware of it. That battle I am talking about is in regards to site selection, or simply terroir or a lack of good terroir being used in Virginia.
When I asked Jim to take me through the evolution of Linden, the most important point in its history was when Jim told me the following: “I liked my wines early on but they were never getting better than a certain level. I had this one section of Cabernet that overlapped onto the soil type most of the Merlot and Chardonnay (Wente and Dijon clones) were planted on and was always my best fruit that made my best Cabernet wine”. After some research, he knew what he had to do. Cabernet vines need soils that drain well. As it turned out the Chardonnay and Merlot were planted on the well-draining granite soils and thus were replanted with the Cabernets. Chardonnay and Merlot were then replanted on the moisture retaining, but rocky, greenstone soils. After another 4-5 years to allow the young vines to produce good enough fruit for wine, the proof was in the bottle as the wines performed well, blowing through that initial ceiling held in place by unfortunate site planting choices. Most would just shrug their shoulders and do nothing or maybe sell, deciding to stop at mediocrity. Jim did not settle then and even today he continues to evaluate his vineyard sites as he is still continuing to strive to make better wine.
Winemaking in the cellar is also pretty hands off but can follow different paths dictated by what the fruit is like in a given vintage. As an example, the Chardonnay grapes are harvested and stored in a cooling shed until ready to be crushed in an old automated chain-driven press. The crushed grapes and juice go into steel tanks where the solids settle as gross lees and are removed. Fermentation can start in tank, or later in barrel once the juice is racked. MLF is blocked in the Chardonnay wines to preserve fruit and acidity to allow the expression of the vineyard terroir to shine. Jim does not play around with fermentations, he likes them steady and clean so he does not rely solely on using native yeasts. The oak regimen for Chardonnay is moderate, rarely using much new French oak that would obfuscate the delicate aromas and flavors of the wines. The Chardonnay will age for around 10 months sur lie, with maybe a stir of the lees in that duration. Of the white wines, the Chardonnay and the Late Harvest are the only wines to see oak. The other whites are steel fermented and bottled. The red wines ferment in steel tank and age in a combination of 30-50% new French oak with the rest a mixture of 1-3-year-old seasoned French Oak barrels for 9-22 months. To help with all of this, Jim recently hired a winemaker so he can focus mainly on the vineyards and the aspects of running a business.
For our tasting Jim walked us through each wine, making up a large majority of the portfolio. Undeniable proof is in the bottle of Linden’s diverse offerings of Bordeaux blends or varietal reds, and what many consider the best white wines made not just in Virginia, but the east cost (straight from the mouth of a Master Sommelier). Wines made from Riesling and Vidal show true varietal typicity with a cool climate sensibility. Even an exceptional late harvest Vidal made its way into our glasses. The stars of the portfolio were the Chardonnays that shine with a verve, showing a depth and focus uncommon in Virginia wine. The Hardscrabble Chardonnay is a world class version of this grape, worthy of standing side by side with its Burgundian cousins from the Beaune.
Should you find yourself in DC or traveling along highway 95 or 81, Linden is not a far detour from either of those and is a must see for any wine enthusiast!
Linden Vineyards Tasting Notes
Chardonnay Avenius 2014
North of Linden in the Blue Ridge foothills at 1400-1450 feet of elevation. Fermented with 500L puncheon on its lees so as to reduce the impact of reduction, usually not racked. Juicy, bright, elegant, good persistence, medium+ acidity, a long, clean finish. 12.2% abv and from 20-year-old vines.
Sauvignon Blanc 2015
Made with 17% Semillon from young vines less than 5 years old. Typical grassy and gooseberry notes, lemon pith and some grapefruit, highly aromatic florals. The Semillon seems to cut the pungency and adds body and texture to the wine which shows a nice touch of stone on the finish.
Made from the Bordeaux varietals it is made from both direct press and saignee juice. I sense good viscosity without added weight, while also being completely dry. The combination of the earlier picked direct press fruit and its higher acids blended with the thicker, higher sugar content of the saignee create an easy drinking, mildly complex rose showing strawberry and watermelon notes.
2/3 Riesling, the balance Vidal make for a fun, bone dry Trocken-like ode to Germany. Peach and loads of ripe lime citrus, the wine comes across broad, yet linear on the palate. Juicy and mouthwateringly high acids provide a tension and verve.
44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot, NO new oak
In the nose, the Cabernets align nicely with good varietal typicity of red currants and cassis, while the Merlot and PV add some plum and a little blueberry. For sure influenced by the Loire and Bordeaux, the body and alcohol are medium/medium+, with medium+ acidity and tannin. Elegant, but persistent with good density this sails on to a clean, fruit, spice and earth finish.
Hardscrabble Bordeaux Blend 2006
61% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 11% Petit Verdot, 11% Cabernet Franc; new and used oak barrels and puncheons (French & Hungarian) for 18 months
10 years on and this has moved less than I would have thought into maturity, with a shade less in body as the tannin seem to linger a little longer than the 2012, some bones are indeed showing. Fresh and bright red cherry and currants, dried wild flowers, some mint and forest floor notes. The majority of the Cabernet in this vintage is from the single plot of the old vines of the original plantings that overlapped before everything was replanted.
Hardscrabble Bordeaux Blend 2012
56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot; 30% NFO for 21 months (Cabernet S.)
A beautiful nose of cassis and red cherry, fragrant herbs and light toast, the density of youth prevails yet still harks to the old world in style even at 14.4% abv. Very well balanced and complex, the sum of the parts really add to the benefit of this wine, which is what a blend is supposed to do. Ripe, medium+ tannin is long and finely grained, good acidity adds to the medium+ body with a structure to age. Drink now, but will shine in 4-5 years and easily go 10+.
Hardscrabble Chardonnay 2013
The best wine of the day for me, a revelation of sorts as it was not like any Chardonnay I have had before as it held its own and expressed site so well. It was uniquely Hardscrabble terroir from Virginia. Wonderful intensity without trying hard, the effortless balance and complexity on this is a true wine of terroir and balance. To talk about this in terms of just flavors and aromas would do it no justice, this is a world class wine that can proudly stand next to its cousins from Burgundy, California, Oregon or New Zealand. Loads of dry extract and layers of complexity deliver a persistent wine with focus, clarity, and pure density, simply outstanding.
Petit Verdot 2012
Purple flowers and fruits, violets come to mind with hints of blue and black fruits like huckleberry, blackberry, and blueberry. The biggest wine in the lineup, as one would expect from a mono-varietal Petit Verdot, it carries the weight and the spotlight well, even basking in the glow. On the palate savory notes and spice come into play with tobacco, beef and iron adding layers to the complexity. A fun and delicious wine, PV shows a lot of promise for this kind of style in Virginia. It made me recall a barrel sample in NJ I had of PV that was quite dense and powerful, maybe there is something to single varietal wines made from Petit Verdot on the east coast?
Late Harvest Vidal 2006
The Late Harvest Vidal has 110 grams os residual sugar, calling to mind the great sweet wines of Tokaji with notes of honey, peach, and orange marmalade. The nose and palate are pronounced, with high acidity to offset the sweetness, balancing the wine with cut and tension. A touch oxidative with 10 years under its belt, this enhances the wine’s core of complexity allied with finesse. A long, fresh finish delivers at length the peach and honey notes that fade out after a minute or so.