While penning this month’s column, the Wall Street Journal published an article with the attention-grabbing headline, “Who Can Afford Napa Now?” The article went on to describe rising prices for everything in the storied wine region – from luxe hotel accommodations and Picasso’s model of second home ownership driving up housing costs to the wine tastings where thousands flock each day.
The author, a noted wine columnist, concluded the piece by saying she’s now exploring more affordable wine regions and eschewing a place where the “region’s main crop is cash, not grapes.”
While I can’t quite make that leap, I get the sentiment. A weekend in Napa, as swoon worthy as its wines can be, is also coming at a higher cost than even just a few years ago.
Still, in the spirit of looking beyond Napa, let me offer the unconventional…Virginia. Yes, Virginia.
About an hour outside of Washington, DC, and driving west toward the lush and verdant Shenandoah Valley, wine country awaits. Over a dozen wineries and vineyards are within easy access from Interstate 66 as you depart the nation’s capital. Yet, it wasn’t always so and while a getaway to the region’s wineries may result in a fun experience, planning is required to explore the incredible wines to be found. It’s not that they are rare, but over the past several decades, the drive toward wine tourism in the area has outpaced the careful and thoughtful cultivation of vines that takes patience, time and talent. But to be sure, the gems are there.
Most histories of Virginia wines always somehow begin with Thomas Jefferson. Founding Father. Philosopher. Stateman. President. Jefferson was many things, including being the epitome of a Renaissance man. This includes of course, attempting to plant grapes for wines. History has it, however, that Jefferson was a terrible viticulturalist. His attempts failed miserably, and some even implicate his own failure as being complicit in the massive devastation of vines in Europe by helping to export the phylloxera vine louse to France.
What we do know is that overcoming the inhospitable ecosystem in Virginia for cultivating wine-worthy grapes took nearly two centuries.
Now, the state has 10 distinct wine growing regions, eight designated AVAs, and more than 4,000 acres of grapes. The Middleburg AVA in northern Virginia is home to eight vineyards, 24 wineries and nearly 230 acres of commercial vineyards.
Linden Vineyards – Linden, Va.
One of the pioneers who ushered in this new era, and my favorite vineyard in the region, is Linden Vineyards (www.lindenvineyards.com). In the early 1980s, Linden’s founder Jim Law and his family purchased 76 acres that had once been an apple orchard. Law is a genius, but also shirks from the praise and attention his talent has generated in putting Virginia on the proverbial “wine map.” I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him several times and enjoyed tastings at the vineyard with him as our guide. I recall his joy on one such occasion, in describing the concrete egg from which we tasted a delicious and soon-to-be-bottled rosé.
Linden grows several varietals on three separate vineyards. The original, Hardscrabble Vineyard, is the property where Linden’s beautiful tasting room is nestled into the hillside and surrounded by some of the original vines planted in 1985. Where many other newer vineyards in the region focus on volume over quality to satisfy the explosion in wine tourism, Linden does the opposite. Its annual yield, while diverse in type and profoundly consistent in quality year to year, is not large.
Linden’s Hardscrabble Red, year after year, is one of the best reds to be found in Virginia and rivals the best of red blends from the west coast. The 2017 vintage is 57 percent cabernet sauvignon and 43 percent merlot and aged in both new and slightly used French oak barrels. Fruit-forward and herbaceous, its perfect alongside braised meats and rich stews and only gets better with more time in the bottle.
Another of Linden’s red blends that showcases the region’s winemaking prowess is the claret. With grapes sourced from Hardscrabble as well as Linden’s two other partner vineyards – Avenius and Boisseau – the blend is typical of the moniker, bringing together cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and petit verdot. The 2019 was aged for a year in used French oak barrels, which has imparted upon the wine a wonderfully deep broodiness of dark fruits and hints of cedar and balsam.
Linden’s whites have also been perfected over the years, but their Late Harvest wine is a true standout. A blend of petit manseng and vidal blanc, it bursts with tropical notes of pineapple and guava. Perfectly drinkable now, a bit of bottle aging creates a complexity that rivals sauternes as the perfect accompaniment to seared foie gras.
Check Linden’s website for current hours for the tasting room which is open to the public. However, staying and enjoying the property beyond the tasting is reserved for Friends of Linden which requires the purchase of a case per year. I keep my status by stocking up on the claret.
RdV Vineyards – Delaplane, Va.
One of the most beautiful and scenic drives in this region takes you through the Crooked Run Valley, which over the past two decades has turned into a mecca of great Virginia wines. Foremost among them is RdV Vineyards (www.rdvvineyards.com), where the focus on quality over quantity is front and center with a reservation-only tasting room and a laser focus on perfecting the Bordeaux style of wine in two bottlings – Rendezvous and Lost Mountain.
What can be said about these two wines other than you won’t believe they are from Virginia? The only perceptible hint, and then only slightly so, that you’re in Virginia is the incredibly unique flavor imparted to cabernet franc grapes grown in Virginia’s piedmont. It’s as unique a flavor as is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a Willamette Pinot Noir and for me, a delicious indulgence that solidifies the sense of place.
For both Rendevous and Lost Mountain, the blend changes from vintage to vintage but maintains its focus on the traditional Bordeaux varietals – and here, in particular, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and petit verdot. Master winemakers are at the helm, perfecting the blends for each vintage and achieving astonishing consistency. James Suckling gave both 2016 bottlings a 96.
Reservations can be made at RdV’s website.
Fox Meadow Winery - Linden, Va.
On the opposite side of the mountain from RdV sits Fox Meadow Winery (www.foxmeadowwinery.com). I’ve been coming up to this area for nearly three decades and I remember when the picturesque site that Fox Meadow calls home was an old apple orchard. I was sad to see those craggy old trees come down, but what rose in its place has become my go-to. Like most wine regions and wineries when they first take off, I’ll own that in those early years, the visits to Fox Meadow were more an investment in what could happen with support from patrons and with time. While the view into the Shenandoah Valley from the deck of Fox Meadow has, since inception, been an incredible way to spend an afternoon with friends or a good book, the wine and the vines needed some time to work out some kinks. And that is exactly what has happened.
Fox Meadow’s Chardonnay can go toe-to-toe with most of those from the West Coast. For the 2020 vintage, Fox Meadow produced two different Chardonnays, one done in stainless steel and another in oak. Both are exceptional and speak to the artistry of the winemaker in creating two different and exquisite experiences. The stainless-steel aged bottling is bursting with fresh fruits and showcases what the grape can do in Virginia.
Fox Meadow’s red blends, especially the Le Renard Rouge and Meritage, are, year after year, among the best to be found in the state. Having been going to Fox Meadow for nearly 15 years and seeing the aging potential for the earlier vintages of the Le Renard Rouge, I collected… and continue to do so. One evening, I surprised dinner guests at my home in Santa Fe with a bottle (or two) but didn’t share where it was from. Only after rave reviews and speculations as to its pedigree did I share that it was from Virginia. Inky and opaque in the glass, Le Renard Rouge screams Bordeaux, but again with the unique characteristic of Virginia-grown cabernet franc.
Finally on Fox Meadow, many Virginia wineries and winemakers attempt to capitalize on how well cabernet franc grows in the state and rather than use it in blends, bottle it on its own. In the wrong hands, it is undrinkable. But at Fox Meadow, their Reserve Cabernet Franc is perfection and uniquely Virginia. Stone fruits, toasted vanilla, and oak essences round out the experience.
I know, I know. You may still not be convinced. But trust me, Virginia is the best kept secret in U.S. domestic wine production. Consider yourself informed and enjoy.