Early Mountain Vineyards has stood out in the Virginia wine landscape since early in its history. Sure, Steve and Jean Case’s noteworthiness might be among the reasons it earned quick attention (he’s the former CEO of AOL, and she’s a philanthropist, investor, and champion of women), but their keen taste has certainly steered it in the right direction since they purchased the property in 2010. And much of that has to do with the team of folks who believe not only in the future of Early Mountain but also that of Virginia wine.
Leading the group is Maya Hood White, who was named winemaker last August after working her way up from vineyard manager and enologist to associate winemaker and viticulturist, a role she held for four harvests. White, a Santa Barbara native, has advocated for Virginia wine since 2014 when a role with the Winemakers’ Research Exchange saw her delve deeply into the region’s industry. The group is made up of established winemakers who collaborate on experiments in winemaking and viticulture.
At Early Mountain, she’s made magic across the brand’s portfolio, leading the sparkling wine program and helping to incorporate sustainable approaches in the 55 acres of estate vineyards. Among the latter efforts, she and vineyard manager Dustin Wade implemented a cover-crop program to improve soil health, attract beneficial insects at the Early Mountain site, and reduce erosion at the Quaker Run site.
“One of the things I am most proud of when we walk through the vineyards is the biodiversity you see, and cover crops contribute in so many significant ways,” she says. “We strive for balance in every sense, and part of this is a general equilibrium of life in the vineyard.”
Her goal for the winery? Not to spoil all the work done in the vineyard. “Our approach in the cellar is rather simple, to focus on what each site can give us and not try to force anything,” she says. Here’s a sampling of her handiwork.
2021 Pétillant-Naturel White:
For those unfamiliar, Pétillant Naturel is French for “naturally sparkling.” The wine begins fermentation like other white wines but is then bottled under a crown cap to finish fermentation in the bottle rather than going through a second round of fermentation and aging. The pet-nat is made of 48 percent malvasia bianca, 28 percent petit manseng, and 24 percent muscat and has a cloudy appearance due to the yeast deposits that remain after fermentation. The wine has a beautiful aroma- loads of green apple, lemon rind, orange blossom, and a splash of passion fruit- mirrored in the glass. The bubbles are tight, creating a delightful zippiness with each sip. It’s funky and raw (in a good way), with a restrained playfulness- a light and easy pairing for a mellow afternoon in the sun.
This wine sings of its terroir- it tastes of Virginia and makes no bones about it. There’s no attempt at creating a berry-forward Provençal rosé here. Instead, the brilliant pinkish-red blend sings of citrus and juicy peach with savory herb notes in addition to uber-ribe strawberries and even some crushed watermelon. Early-picked merlot (72 percent), plus malbec, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and Syrah, make up the wine, creating an overall refreshing and well-rounded experience. I paired this with vegan sushi- a nigiri made with dehydrated strawberries- and found the complexity of this drink well-matched to the alternative sushi experience.
Soif means “thirst” in French; indeed, it’s an easy-drinking quencher. According to White, this wine is made in the style of “vin de soif,” with low tannins and juiciness. Merlot leads the mix at 69 percent, 28 percent cab franc, and 3 percent cabernet sauvignon. Mellow herbal notes of cracked pepper and sage dissolve into perfectly ripe red and black fruit on the palate- think crushed black cherries with mints of raspberry and strawberry. What’s fun about this wine is its versatility- it can be served chilled or at room temp. I tried it both ways and preferred it unchilled, as the layers of alternating fruit and savory flavors were more pronounced, creating a languorous experience. Soif is only available in the tasting room, and the 2022 vintage will be available in the spring for you to savor chilled or unchilled on the patio.