A cloud of road dust, stirred up by an early blast of summer heat announced our arrival at La Vigna Estate Winery, just outside of Higginsport, Ohio. Higginsport is a dot on the map along US 52 – the road that traces the curves of the Ohio in the southeastern corner of the state. We were greeted warmly by John (short for Giovanni) Brunicardi, a clear-eyed and charming 80-year old Italian man.
Within the first few minutes of meeting John, the Sweet Partner in Crime and I had the scoop on how a winery on a hill overlooking the Ohio River ended up with its name. Leaning on his quartz-topped cane, John explained to us that “La Vigna” was the name of one of his father Antonio’s two vineyards outside of Lucca in Tuscany. “It tickles me that they name the wines after my family’s old vineyards.” Antonio emigrated to the U.S. after World War II. John’s daughter, Armanda, married La Vigna’s winemaker, Brad Hively.
Brad was manning the tasting table, so we got the lowdown on the place. Brad, a straightforward, confident storyteller, told us that he had been in Charlottesville doing some consulting work for the University of Virginia when he caught the winemaking bug. He started doing home wines from a kit, then purchased grapes, and finally started growing his own. He moved to that corner of Ohio in 2002 and established the first vines on his property three years later. Since tasting traffic was a bit slow, once Brad learned that we were semi-knowledgeable, he offered us a tour of the vineyard.
In the vineyard, which sports an absolutely gorgeous view of the river below, Brad was quick to point out that all of his wines were “estate” wines, meaning all the grapes were grown on the property. “We wanted to do something different. We didn’t just want to make a bunch of fruit wines or import a bunch of juice. We wanted something that worked. With the soil and climate of this particular piece of land, we were pretty sure we could make European style wines.” La Vigna currently has two acres planted with expansion plans for 15 additional.
Brad said his biggest initial challenge was finding vinifera grapes that would grow in the challenging climate of Ohio. “We needed grapes that were resistant to mildew and rot. We could grow chardonnay, but everyone does that. Sauvignon blanc and pinot noir wouldn’t work at all here – they wouldn’t survive the winters. Riesling rots pretty easily. We didn’t want to do “hybrid” grapes, because those wines aren’t usually very good. I was frustrated until I remembered one of the grapes that they were growing in Virginia – Petit Manseng.”
Petit Manseng is a white wine grape grown largely in the Jurancon region in southwestern France. The grape traditionally produces a sweet, late harvest wine, somewhat like a Sauternes. However, the concentration of juice comes from long hanging on the vines rather than noble rot. The La Vigna 2010 Proprietary Late Harvest Petit Manseng is sweet, but a honeyed sweetness like a Sauternes rather than a sugary one. There are plenty of apricot and peach flavors along with a little bit of baking spice in a rich, smooth package. Lovely. It’s available in 375ml bottles for $12 -- a great value.
Brad also concocted a dry version of the Petit Manseng – his 2009 Proprietary White. He was only showing this wine, not selling it, since “we’re down to our last three bottles.” Brad said people ask all the time, “’What does it taste like?’ I tell them, ‘It doesn’t taste like anything else.’” I thought he was on the mark. I couldn’t really put my finger on the flavor. Perhaps it would be helpful to say that it was an interesting cross between a Viognier and a Pinot Grigio – floral, lemony, and with an interesting “nutty” flavor. I enjoyed. Normally retails for around $19. Apparently there may be a few bottles still around in Cincinnati-area wine stores. If I see one, I’ll be snagging it.
La Vigna also does two red wines. The first, the 2008 Proprietary Red, is a blend of estate-grown cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. It’s a big frickin’ wine. Powerful flavors of blackberry, leather, and a slight herbal flavor that sometimes pops up in wines from Bordeaux. The wine needed a big, big swirl to open up. Brad said that it was still a bit in bottle shock – that it needed about another month in the bottle to integrate, but that it would cellar for years of someone took a notion. I thought it was a very solid “big red” that’s made for big meat dishes. Since it’s available by the bottle at Jeff Ruby’s steakhouses in Cincinnati, other folks seem to think so. Retails for about $23 a bottle.
Finally, there was Carnevale 2009, the La Vigna “drink now” red wine. Made from 100% cabernet franc, this is a light, fruity, easy to quaff red. While Brad said that he makes it in a French style, it reminded me of something that might have come from “Carnevale”– another of his grandfather-in-law’s Tuscan vineyards. I thought it was similar in flavor to a light Italian red like a Valpolicella. While we were there, “Fireside Pizza” had its portable oven up and running, so we had a couple of glasses with a Naples-like margherita pizza made on the spot. The Carnevale would be an excellent food wine with any kind of red sauce. I thought it tasted good with a slight chill on it, especially on a 90+ degree Memorial Day weekend afternoon. For $12, an excellent summertime red.
Brad said his next challenge would be to clear more acreage to expand his planting. The next grape varietal he wants to get in the ground was Albarino, one of my favorite Spanish/Portuguese grapes. What an interesting and potentially fruitful (I know, I know…) choice.
I thought La Vigna was approaching these wines in the right way. Rather than going for a quick turnaround, they’re trying to find “real” wines that will work. Of the wines from Ohio that I’ve tried so far, only Kinkead Ridge (which is less than 15 minutes further down the road if you’re making a wine-tasting day of it) has matched what La Vigna is accomplishing. Since La Vigna is a relatively young winery, I’ll be interested in following their progress over the coming years. They’re definitely worth checking out. The winery is open for public tastings on Saturdays throughout the summer from 12-6 pm.