May MUSEings: Almost Heaven in Western Virginia

Muse is owned by the dynamic husband and wife team of international barrister Robert Muse and Sally Cowal, read about their winery here!

A visit to Muse Vineyards is veritably sunshine on a cloudy day. The stunning tasting room with its own art gallery is rivaled only by the wine and the views. (Photo: Kelly MacConomy)

Alexandria, VA – Most intrepid Alexandria Z~oenophiles making the 90-minute pilgrimage west to Woodstock, passing through the Blue Ridge Mountains, crossing the Shenandoah River, are not thinking “Take me home country roads!” Although they may be singing it.

What they’re most likely thinking is, “Take me to Muse Vineyards!” Situated at a bend in the North Fork of the Shenandoah River (where when the water has risen over the causeway, the more determined vineyard visitor parks along Route 609 and traverses the suspended bridge on foot), Muse is not only a premier winery along the Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail but a stand-out in all of Virginia. What makes Muse so very special?

Muse is owned by the dynamic husband and wife team of international barrister Robert Muse and Sally Cowal, former Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago and currently Senior Vice President of Global Cancer Control at the American Cancer Society. Robert is a legacy American farmer with agricultural roots traced to the 17th Century when his French Huguenot forebears settled in Virginia tobacco country. They farmed land adjacent to George Washington’s birthplace in Westmoreland County.

As Almost Heaven as it gets, the Blue Ridge of the Shenandoah River Valley produces incomparable vistas and vines. (Photo: Kelly MacConomy)

Robert and Sally purchased a rundown vineyard in 2003, then expanded the estate by an additional 30 acres with the purchase of a 200-year-old Mennonite farm adjacent to the re-cultivated vines.

Muse Vineyards’ address is 16 Serendipity Lane. A confluence of exceptional terroir, keen instincts, and more than a few leaps of faith and serendipity combined to produce award-winning wines from among the most diverse varietal plantings grown anywhere. Aside from proven Virginia-grown red varietals and Bordeaux blending grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec, and in addition to tried-and-true whites (Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc), Muse cultivates more eclectic vines.

Aglianico, a red grape native to the Campania region of southern Italy, is commonly blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to produce IGT wine. IGT stands for Indicazione Geografica Tipica, an official Italian quality designation by region. In Tuscany, this grape is added to French varietals to formulate the famous Super Tuscans. Clio is the flagship wine of Muse Vineyards. This aromatic, smoother than velvet, fruit (of every vine including summer tomato) forward, peppery, gently acidic wine with understated oak and unassuming tannins singularly raised the bar for Virginia winemaking.

From dormancy to bud break and veraison (when the firm green grapes turn color) to harvest, the vineyard visitor is beckoned by the muse of the four seasons. (Photo: Kelly MacConomy)

Muse veteran winemaker Tim Rausse, son of the owner of Gabriele Rausse Winery, blends Clio with equal portions of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot and a smidge of Malbec, aging it 24 months in 40 percent new French oak and 60 percent neutral barrels. After a year, an oak barrel loses most of its signature “oakiness.” After three years, the wood is essentially neutral and unlikely to impart any oak flavor to the wine.

Much like the accomplished chef withholding the secret ingredient to a coveted recipe, every winemaker has a special undisclosed varietal or method. Could it be Grenache or Petit Syrah? Some Sangiovese? Perhaps something more esoteric, like Austrian varietals Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch? Or Mourvèdre, which explains Clio’s hints of the herbaceous with notes of violets and peppers, black or even poblanos. Neither Aglianico nor Mourvedre nor Teroldego, which Muse also cultivates, would be a surprise because Robert and Sally specialize in small-batch premium estate wines inspired by the Muse of French and Italian domain wines.

Talk about flights of fancy! Muse has the most elegant presentation sampling of their fine wines – red, white, rosé, even sparkling! (Photo: Muse Vineyards)

Clio isn’t merely an aMUSEing Virginia wine. It’s exceptional. Versatile enough for the most epicurious plating and a persuasive bottle to serve guests who still scoff at Virginia winemaking excellence. The 2009 Clio, the first vintage to be bottled, won the Governor’s Cup in 2015, the most prestigious wine award in Virginia among 390 contenders. At the time Merlot, not Malbec, topped off the blend. In consultation with King Family Vineyards’ Matthieu Finot, Robert racked the Clio directly in 50 percent new and 50 percent neutral French oak.

When then-Governor Terry McAuliffe awarded the 2015 Governor’s Cup to Robert Muse and Sally Cowal, he said, “I am honored to present this year’s award to Muse Vineyards for their 2009 Clio. Robert Muse and his wife, Sally Cowal, embody the entrepreneurial spirit of Virginia winemakers: a vision for excellence, a relish for hard work in the vineyard, and an aptitude for risk and experimentation. Thomas Jefferson would be proud of Robert and Sally’s efforts, and I congratulate them for winning the 2015 Governor’s Cup.”

This year Clio was awarded Gold in the competition. With 544 wines entered from more than 100 Virginia wineries, the highly esteemed Barboursville Vineyards 2015 Paxxito, a blend of Muscat Ottonel and Vidal grapes, took home the Governor’s Cup for their dessert wine.

Canine connoisseurs of Muse Chardonnay and charcuterie are welcome inside the tasting room as well as the expansive winery grounds along the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. (Photo: Kelly MacConomy)

Dessert wines have dominated the Governor’s Cup prize the last few years. Muse has yet to produce a dessert wine. Knowing Sally, with her consummate graciousness and can-do perspicacity in partnership with Robert’s irrepressible oenological pioneering esprit-du-vin, Muse may one day surprise the Governor’s Cup Case competition with a dessert winner. This Muse aficionado would most assuredly give them a two thumbs-up vote!

Until then, come to Robert and Sally’s superlative oenological oasis in Woodstock for the delectable menu of artisanal cheeses, locally sourced feasts upon charcuterie boards, and salted rocky road brownies complementing the amazing wines that go with everything under the Shenandoah Valley sun. Stay for the stellar views, fine art, live music, a hike, a paddle, a bottle of Clio, and the unparalleled hospitality that upholds Virginia’s celebrated welcome-mat fame. You’ll be more than aMUSEd. You’ll be enchanted!

ICYMI: The Wineries of Madison County

Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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