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Flint Hill’s Secret [Vineyard] Revealed

Virginia winery Berry Hill Vineyard dormant

Dormant vines at Berry Hill Vineyard in Flint Hill, VA.

The quality of the light seems different here. In Italy’s coastal region of Bolgheri, they call it luminosita: “luminosity.”

But we are miles from the sea — we are in the mountains in fact, the Blue Ridge Mountains above the village of Flint Hill, Virginia.

The light is different, the very air is different: it seems cleaner, fairer, softer. I observe the well spaced rows of vines, and pause to breathe for just a moment. I’m standing in the two acre plot belonging to Dave and Joann Hilty of Berry Hill Vineyard. Dave is tall and a bit imposing, maybe a leftover vestige from his career in the military and at the Pentagon. But he is warmly engaging when he speaks of his winemaking endeavors. Joann, a petite, gentle woman with a charming smile, treats these vines delicately, with keen attention to every nuance.

I had met them both on other occasions and different circumstances. But most recently I encountered Dave at a sensory seminar put on by Dr. Bruce Zoecklein of Virginia Tech. I have to say I was probably not very enthusiastic when he began telling me of his retirement into the wine trade. A long, successful career in the Navy, living all around the world, working at the Pentagon, settling in Rappahannock County to enjoy the kinder pace of life in the country, etc. I have an annoying prejudice towards people who haven’t lived and breathed wine as I have over the past few decades. I was frankly not looking forward to a visit.

But then I had the wine.

Virginia winery Berry Hill Vineyard

Luscious fruit from a recent harvest.

At a sleek refurbished eatery in Flint Hill, where Rt. 522 cuts through the mountains ranging on both sides. No pressure, no one looking over my shoulder. It was on the short, randomly selected wine list, and available by the glass. And it was yummy.

Berry Hill Vineyard is situated on a small plateau on the eastern side of the mountains, and is about 15-20 minutes away from Chester Gap Cellars and the mecca known as Linden Vineyards. It’s not new, though Dave only opened his doors in 2009: the vineyard dates to 2000.

Til quite recently, the harvest was sold to the region’s other wineries. But, as with many, Dave’s hobby got the best of him. “I had to become a bonded winery when word of mouth got a little out of hand,” he chuckled.

Virginia winery Berry Hill Vineyard Cab Franc

Berry Hill Vineyard's Cab Franc in summer.

Berry Hill Vineyard produces a scant 200 cases of wine each year. These are split between Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It was the Cabernet Franc that got my attention that day in Flint Hill.

We’ve heard it a million times: wine is made in the vineyard. Vines must be carefully fertilized, pruned, leaf-pulled; under no circumstances should the fruit be allowed to remain wet, to be put in danger of becoming musty or moldy. Don’t overcrop; wait til the berries are fully ripe.

Here in Virginia, the waiting is not without anxiety: hurricane season is upon the commonwealth at that critical time the fruit needs to achieve maximum potential. Dave quotes a winemaker colleague: “Let ‘em hang as long as you can stand it!” At Berry Hill Vineyards, these precepts are a way of life, and it shows in the wines.

Dave is a garagiste, literally. [ed. note: I think the Wikipedia definition is way off-base, and I use the term in the complimentary sense of super-cuvée or microchâteau.] The last two bays of his multi-car garage have been turned into a tasting room and an aging cellar. One needs an appointment to come visit, and it’s easy to understand why. Two couples would constitute a crowd.

Virginia wine: Berry Hill Vineyard Cab Franc

Berry Hill Vineyard Cabernet Franc: lush, full-bodied, delicious!

The Hiltys are currently pouring 2010 Cabernet Franc and 2010 Petit Verdot. At the Flint Hill Public House, I had some of the last remaining 2009 Berry Hill Vineyard Cabernet Franc. It was incredibly rich and full, tending toward cassis and blueberry flavors and tinged with a note of coffee. Very round and smooth, luxurious in mouthfeel.

Not at all lacking in acid, but without that sharp, green note often found in less ripe Cab Franc. I’d call it lush, overall.

The Berry Hill Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2010 had similar character, but with more apparent cracked pepper notes, and roasted spice on the nose. The wine was fermented over 7-8 days with no pre-soak (too warm in the facility), and spent extra time on the lees. It was well extracted and jammy, full in fruit, and quite supple.

Berry Hill Vineyard Petit Verdot 2010 was intriguing, with irresistible blueberry-cherry-strawberry notes. There is 15% Cab Franc in the blend. This is a balanced, elegant and concentrated wine.

Dave uses both wide-grained American and Hungarian oak and prefers medium toast. Yeasts are specially selected. He reports that brix at harvest in 2010 reached 24 ½ – 25.

Virginia winery Berry Hill Vineyard

Make sure you check for the dimple in the cork!

As a special treat, I was taken into the barrel room where I sampled Cabernet Franc 2011, both free run and press versions. Still a bit grapey, but developing notes of spice, smoke and even meaty bacon.

The dark purple Petit Verdot was all free run juice, with captivating mocha, pepper, and chocolate flavors.

The whole Hilty family gathers to bottle and label and even cork the wine by hand themselves. Dave demonstrated what looked like an antique corker. “You can tell it’s been hand done,” he said, as he demonstrated with a new cork, “because the cork gets a dimple.” That’s something new I’ll be on the lookout for!

Virginia winery Berry Hill Vineyard owners

Joann and Dave Hilty dote on their two acres of vines outside Flint Hill.

Dave and Joann Hilty have an obvious love for what they do. The vineyard is pristine and lovingly manicured. The tasting room is an authentic space meant to share an intimate experience with both the wines and the winemakers. I asked if they’d consider planting more, since 200 cases isn’t nearly enough.

“No,” they both laughed. “We are at the perfect size for what we want to accomplish.”

By appointment
Berry Hill Vineyard
466 Dearing Rd.
Flint Hill, VA 22627
540 675 2205

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