all words: Laura Herman
all photos: Kimberly Cadena
My first introduction to “local wine” was at a Virginia Wine Festival last year. You know the deal: board a bus with a crowd that could easily be mistaken for Spring Break-ers, drive an hour, grab your sampler glass when you arrive and start tasting wines aggressively…end up sunburnt and dehydrated at the end of the day without a clear sense of what you actually tried.
My experience at a tasting of local Virginia and Maryland wines last week, kindly hosted by Blue Duck Tavern as part of their Masters of Food & Wine weekend, could not have been more different. Here, we learned about the burgeoning local wine industry and sampled some of the region’s best. I walked way with a completely different perception of local wines: that there’s a compelling selection of high-quality, affordable, and serious wines being produced just outside of the District.
The wines were carefully selected by Dave McIntyre of The Washington Post to provide a representative showcase of local wines. This dovetailed nicely with Blue Duck Tavern’s conscientious focus on preparing and serving locally-sourced food. If you’re going to pay attention to where your food comes from and make an effort to support local farmers, then why shouldn’t the same rule apply to wine?
When you think about wine produced in the United States, California obviously comes to mind. Though Californian wines account for nearly 90 percent of the domestic industry, wine is actually produced in all 50 states. Virginia and Maryland wineries are making a splash, growing in popularity and in the breadth of their offerings.
Oenophiles like McIntyre feel that this is an exciting moment for local wine producers. Today, Virginia boats over 200 wineries and Maryland over 40– a dramatic increase from only ten years ago.
These local wineries are at a crossroads, because many planted their first grapes within the last two decades, so the plants are just now starting to mature and produce world-class wine. The local climate is also accommodating to a range of different grape varietals, allowing local producers to make single-varietal (e.g. Cabernet Franc or Chardonnay) as well as blended wines that are reminiscent of their cousins produced elsewhere domestically and abroad.
The first wine we tasted was a crisp 2009 Sauvingon Blanc from Glen Manor, a winery just south of Shenandoah. The wine wasn’t aggressive, but had a complex flavor with pleasant grassy, apple, and herbal notes. Definitely not what I expected from a “Virginia wine.” Right away, I started to think that my impressions of local wines (admittedly formed under a tent at the wine festival) were probably wrong….
We moved though several more whites and the surprises and changing impressions kept coming. I loved a 2008 Hardscrabble Chardonnay from Linden Vineyards that had a rich, honey taste with citrus notes. I imagined enjoying this on its own–preferable outdoors on a patio–or pairing well with food.
The 2010 Veritas Viogner (Trivia fact: the viogner grape is the official state grape of Virginia) was a bit too sweet for my taste, but had a lovely warm quality, with notes of peach, jasmine, and honey. This bright full-bodied white wine, along with most of the wines we tasted, retails for under $20, which was impressive. Nice to know that you can get high-quality local wines at an affordable price point.
My favorite white of the evening was a 2009 Petit Mensang from Chester Gap Cellars. The Petit Mensang grape is a little-known varietal, originating in Southwest France. This wine blew me away; it turned the tables on what I expected out of a sweet white wine AND a local one at that. The Chester Gap Petit Mensang is sweet and enjoyable, but not cloying, on its own and also pairs well with cheeses, spicy dishes, or even dessert.
Moving on to red wines, we sampled a Petit Verdot (another little-known varietal from Southwest France), a Cabernet Franc, and three red blends from Maryland and Virginia.
Personal highlights included a 2007 Michael Shaps Cabernet Franc that was full-bodied, with notes of warm spices like nutmeg and white pepper. This was definitely a food wine—I started craving something meaty and delicious to complement the wine at this point—but its complex flavor and range of different tastes on the palate also made it really enjoyable on its own.
I also need to give a shoutout to Maryland, which isn’t quite as established in the wine world as neighboring Virginia, for Black Ankle Vineyard’s 2008 Crumbling Rock. This Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvingon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot is aged in French oak barrels, of which 75 percent are new, for 16 months. It’s a great example of a rich, full-bodied red.
McIntyre suggested that it serves as the “yes, we can!” poster child for serious Maryland wines. At about $40 a bottle, the Crumbling Rock was one of the pricier wines we sampled. Given overall competition in the local, domestic, and foreign wine market, it remains interesting to see how local smaller-production wines are priced, and what consumers are willing to spend on these bottles.
My favorite blend was the last red we tasted: Boxwood Winery’s 2007 Topiary, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot. This one had rich notes of currant, cocoa and mulling spices and called out to be paired with food. Another rock solid wine from a Virginia winery that retails for under $25.
The wines’ complex flavors lingered on my palate as our tasting came to a close, and I started making mental plans to check out VA and MD wine country firsthand…and as soon as possible. The cherry on top of the evening of discovering really excellent (and affordable!) locally-produced wines, is that all of the vineyards are within an easy drive from DC. Most have tasting rooms, offer tours, and encourage visitors to come sample.
Here’s some info on where to find these wineries so you can get out there and try these for yourself:
- Black Ankle Vineyards, Mt. Airy, Maryland
- Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyard, Dickerson, Maryland
- Boxwood Estate Winery, Middleburg, Virginia
- Chester Gap Cellars, Front Royal, Virginia
- Glen Manor Vineyards, Front Royal, Virginia
- Linden Vineyards, Linden, Virginia
- Michael Shaps Wines and Virginia Wine Works, Charlottesville, Virginia
- Pollak Vineyards, Greenwood, Virginia
- Thibaut-Janisson Winery, Charlottesville, Virginia
- Veritas Vineyard & Winery, Aftron, Virgina