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Virginia’s Northern Neck – Many Stories To Be Told and Plenty of Elbow Room

Kick-off to Virginia Wine Week post…

“Charming area with lots of history, great escape from the crowded tasting rooms of Charlottesville and Loudoun areas, but a very long drive and far removed from everything.”

This is the reply I received from a wine friend who spends a lot of time on the Virginia wine trail when I asked him about the wineries of Virginia’s Northern Neck. My perception that the Northern Neck was ‘far removed from everything’ may have been the primary reason I haven’t visited the area sooner.   Although I am a fan of historical areas, especially if they happen to include wineries, I’m not so fond of long drives to remote places if there are other historical regions closer with more wineries.

My friend (and you know who you are ;)  ) is sometimes known for less-than-good advice and was only partially correct about Virginia’s Northern Neck – the area is charming with lots of history and is an escape from over-crowded tasting rooms, but it’s not a long drive or far removed.  (Editorial Note:  Although tasting rooms in the larger areas tend to be more crowded during prime Saturday and Sunday hours, I like the ‘energy’ of a busy tasting room.)

Last weekend my wife and I finally had the chance to visit the wineries of Virginia’s Northern Neck.  Also called George Washington’s Birthday AVA, the Northern Neck is home to nine wineries.   If it wasn’t for an email exchange and subsequent invitation from Maria Swain, Cellar Master at Ingleside Vineyards, the Northern Neck would likely still be on my ‘to visit’ list.

After meeting Maria at a wine festival, and then trading a number of emails about a visit to the area, Maria graciously offered to plan our visit including a tour of Ingleside’s property, a wine lunch & tasting at Ingleside, scheduled visits to other Northern Neck wineries, and dinner.   An offer no wine enthusiast could refuse.

We departed our home early Saturday morning, and arrived at Ingleside about 2 1/2 hours later.  Upon arriving at Ingleside on that cool Saturday morning, we were warmly greeted by winemaker Bill Swain and his wife Maria.  After a tour of the tasting room and museum, we then toured the property (over 3,000 acres in total) with Ingleside owner Doug Flemer.   This property has been in the Flemer family since 1890, and the vineyards were planted in the late 1970’s. Ingleside Plantation Vineyards is one of Virginia’s oldest and largest wineries.

What I found most notable about the Flemer’s property were the homes dating to the mid 1700’s and 1800’s.  After the tour, we enjoyed lunch provided by Maria from the Tides Inn Market paired with Ingleside’s Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sangiovese Rose, and the 2007 Cabernet Franc.   Of this group, the Cab Franc was my favorite – one of a growing number of more concentrated, fruit-forward Virginia Cab Francs that still offer (hints) trademark vegetal components.

To cap off a great lunch tasting, Bill, Maria, and Doug pulled out a major awesomeness finale – a five vintage Petit Verdot vertical.   Included in the vertical were 2001 through 2006 Ingleside Petit Verdots (sans ’03), plus the 2005 Reserve.  Due to Hurricane Isabel, the 2003 growing season was very difficult throughout Virginia so Ingleside, like many wineries, did not produce a Petit Verdot that year.

 

Ingleside Vineyards Petit Verdot Vertical.

I’m not sure there are many other Virginia wineries that could offer a Petit Verdot vertical like this one.  Of the group, my favorites were 2001 and the 2005 Reserve.  Both were excellent with pure dark fruits, solid tannins, and well balanced.  The Ingleside 2006 Petit Verdot, also good, just won a Silver Medal at the 2011 Governor’s Cup. I’m surprised it didn’t win a Gold.  From the research I’ve done, I believe that Ingleside is the first winery in Virginia to bottle Petit Verdot commercially (if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know).

 

Tasting after lunch with Maria Swain, me, Bill Swain, and Doug Flemer.

Ingleside produces around 18 wines each year under three labels – Reserve, Premium, and Chesapeake series.  Their wine lineup ranges from Rose to whites like Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay to a number of reds like Merlot, Cabernet Franc and of course Petit Verdot.  Although I did not taste through Ingleside’s entire lineup (will do that next trip), I feel their standout wine is Petit Verdot.  Would be curious as to what other Virginia Petit Verdot fans think about about the range of other Petit Verdots available throughout Virginia, but I’ve had a lot of them and the Ingleside is one of the best.

After the tour, great lunch, excellent wines and conversation, Maria, Bill, my wife and I set out to Vault Field Vineyards.  Our greeter was Vault Fields’ winery dog, but he seemed indifferent to our visit.

 

Vault Field Vineyards winery dog - not sure if he's saying 'feed me' or 'go away so I can get back to napping.'

Named for a vault dating back to the 1800’s thought to be located/hidden somewhere on the property, our second stop was Vault Field Vineyards in Kinsale, VA.   One of the more interesting ‘how I got started‘ stories belongs to Vault Field Vineyards owner and winemaker, Keith Meenan. It all started in 2002 with a trip to K-Mart – in addition to the normal stuff one would buy at K-Mart they happened to have potted grape vines.  Seems a natural evolution – from potted K-Mart Concord grape vines for home wine experimentation, to a six-acre vineyard on the Northern Neck.  Keith’s experience is a great example of a hobby gone really wild (I’m thinking this sort of behavior would lead to the end of marital bliss at the Morgan’s).

 

Enjoying the wines of Vault Field - Keith pouring, Maria Swain in the foreground.

Three years after purchasing those few experimental vines from K-Mart, Keith broke ground at Vault Field vineyards with an initial planting of 4,000 vines in 2005, followed by 4,000 more vines in 2006.  As part of working his way through the learning curve of grape growing and winemaking, Keith and Dan spent time volunteering at one of our state’s most notable wineries, Linden Vineyards.  Linden founder and winemaker, Jim Law, no doubt provides an excellent training ground for budding winemakers.  I asked Keith his primary takeaways from his time volunteering at Linden – he noted, learning to evaluate fruit ripeness based on taste, skin and seeds, and he also learned the importance of grape sorting.  Like many winemakers, Keith also relied on the expertise of many others, including Tony Wolf of Virginia Tech, consultant Lucie Morton, and Jason Murray, vineyard manager at Chateau O’Brien.

Vault Field produces a Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc, a white blend, a Rose, a Merlot/Cab Sauvignon/Chambourcin blend, and a Bordeaux blend.   My favorite of the tasting was the Vault Field 2007 Reserve Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot.

I suspect at some point Keith will eventually start digging around the property to locate that vault, so maybe this will serve as a subtle hint that I am a big fan of operating heavy digging machinery.  I will be following Vault Field to see how the wines evolve as the vines mature, and to see if Keith ever finds that hidden vault.😉

Our third and final winery stop of the afternoon was just down the street to The Hague in Hague, VA.  In 2004, Stephen and Cynthia Madey planted Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Muscat and Chardonel on their farm with the assistance of vineyard consultant Lucie Morton (beginning to see a trend of leveraging Lucie’s expertise throughout Virginia).   Stephen leverages the expertise of Michael Shaps of Virginia Wine Works for winemaking, and that expert touch shows in The Hague wines.

Call me old fashioned, or one dimensional, but I typically prefer the ‘classic’ vitis vinifera and am not a fan of hybrids and rarely find one that I enjoy.  I find many hybrids off putting because of the contrived aromas and flavors.  However, The Hague Chardonel – a cross between Chardonnay and the hybrid Sevyal developed in 1953 at Cornell University – has opened my eyes to the potential of this particular hybrid.  I found the Chardonel bright, crisp, with white flowers throughout.  At $14.95/bottle this is a nice wine, and is going to go great this summer with fresh Eastern Shore seafood.

I found Stephen to be interestingly interesting, and he strikes me as a guy with a number of great sea stories.   Stephen and Cynthia joined Maria, Bill, Doug, my wife and I for drinks at the Swain’s home and dinner at Good Eats Cafe housed in a refurbished 1930’s gas station. To pair with the excellent, well made dinner, was an ample supply of wine from The Hauge and Ingleside.

To cap the off the evening, we stayed at The Point at Liberty Farm guest house – a rental home on the edge the Rappahannock River, and just a couple miles from Ingleside.   I spent Sunday morning on the deck; reading, enjoying the quiet, and watching hawks search for their breakfast swimming below in the Rappahannock.  I look forward to returning in the summer when the surrounding foliage is green.

View of The Point from the Rappahanock River. Photo credit: Ingleside Vineyards

 

View of the Rappahanock from the top deck (imagine this view in the Spring and Summer)

For the ‘rest and relaxation’ seekers, I highly recommend this home as a great weekend getaway for rest, wine, and even some history.  Like much of Virginia, the Northern Neck is rich with history including George Washington’s birthplace, to Robert E. Lee’s birthplace Stratford Hall (great place to rent a cabin as well), historic homes dating back to the mid-1700’s and 1800’s are spread throughout the area.

 

Inside view of The Pointe.

View from inside The Pointe living room with view of Rappahanock.

Thank you to Bill, Maria, Doug and everyone on the Northern Neck for your hospitality and sharing your wines with us!

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