The Northern Neck of Virginia is a peninsula between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Breezes coming off the two rivers, plus the Chesapeake Bay to the east, and the rich soil, make this region of Virginia different from the central plain and mountainous wine-growing regions. An early morning drive south (on I-95, U.S. route 1 or U.S. 301--pick your poison) will take you to route 17 north of Fredericksburg. Once you clear Fredericksburg, a charming town that unfortunately has become a traffic-clogged exurb of Washington, D.C., the traffic lights give way to flat terrain with marshland and creeks criss-crossing the highway.
We heard from Athena Vineyards, near the bottom of the Northern Neck, that the Bordeaux region of France is actually closer to this region of Virginia than California, and the latitude, soil and waterways are similar. As a result, this area of Virginia amazed us with their red offerings. Hearty, spicey and perfect fall and winter varietals: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (of course), Petit Verdot and Pinot Noir. These wines excel on the Northern Neck. You won't get mountain views here and fancy, limo-ready tasting rooms. But what you will get are (mostly) small, quality-focused wineries, laid-back vibes, and all the Virginia peanuts you can indulge in while tasting.
After attempting to visit White Fences Vineyards, which we've seen at numerous festivals in the Commonwealth but sadly closed its doors (another winery will be taking its place---"Dogs and Oysters," or something to that affect), we continued northwest on state highway 3 and paid a visit to Vault Field Vineyards. This is a bare-bones operation; we asked about their tasting room and picnic area (both non-existent; the tasting room is in their barrel room and no tables are available): "We'll get around to that after we perfect these wines" was their retort. The wines are uniformly excellent and well-priced. The white that stood out was their Vidal Blanc: Crisp, not too sweet, and nice notes of tangerine and honey. The reds were the star. One simply called "Red," a blend of Merlot and Syrah, available as a regular blend and a reserve blend (bolder and drier).
Next stop, the new General's Ridge Vineyard. They were busy picking pinot noir grapes when we visited. This pinot noir has a kick: Don't expect smooth northern California or Oregon. The fruit does well thanks to the cooler evenings between the two rivers. But General's Ridge makes it bold. The reds once again were the stars. A table red and our favorite of the bunch, named after the county and General (Westmoreland). A Bordeaux blend, and at $14 a bottle, an absolute steal. They have big plans for General's Ridge Vineyard. The wood in the events building still smelled fresh. Trees hug the events building at every angle.
On to The Hague Winery, a clever twist on the town within a stones throw away from the tasting room (Hague). Smoke engulfed the vineyards (due to the Great Dismal Swamp fire, which was 100 miles south of us). The staff apologized for the "smoke on the vineyards" (cue music), but after two wineries, smoke wasn't an issue. Once again, the reds blew us away. This time, a pure Petit Verdot (a steak-lover's varietal), Merlot and a Meritage blend. Not to be eclipsed by the reds, The Hague offers an intriguing white we've seen in only a handful of wineries on the east coast: Chardonel. A hybrid of Chardonnay and Seyval, this varietal was developed in the Finger Lakes region and, like pinot noir, thrives in moderated microclimates. The two rivers of the Northern Neck allow these wineries to offer varietals you rarely see in the rest of the Commonwealth.
Final stop: Ingleside Vineyards. This is one of the original Virginia wineries and is a large commercial operation, complete with a "Virginia Indian museum" near the courtyard. A wine for everyone: Red, white, rosé, sweet, dry, inexpensive, pricey. Ingleside has two labels (Ingleside and Chesapeake) and offers two different tastings ("table wine" tasting and premium). Strangely enough, the red that worked best for us after this day of inhaling smoke and soaking up Bordeaux-like vintages, was their $12.95 Cab Franc/Merlot blend (on the Chesapeake label). You've probably seen their wines at Safeway and Harris Teeter; they are the "Horton" of the Northern Neck. And their courtyard is a perfect place to "wined down."
For the upcoming fall months, will it be a mountain getaway, or a waterman's paradise getaway? Decisions, decisions......another Northern Neck spot that deserves a mention is Belle Mount, the only winery we've visited inside a campground. The owner and winemaker, Ray Petrie, was incredibly hospitable and even gave us a free DVD spotlighting the Northern Neck wineries. His wines were a bit on the sweet side, but a white wine inside a lighthouse shaped bottle? Sold!