Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Drinking in Virginia's Eastern Shore

Virginia's Eastern Shore, the pencil-shaped peninsula surrounded by the Chesapeake on the west and south, the Atlantic on the east, and the Maryland border on the north, is one of the most unique landscapes on the east coast. Rolling farmlands, creeks, marshes, bogs, and bays share the peninsula with country roads and quaint towns and villages. If you've only experienced the Eastern Shore by traveling north or south on U.S. highway 13, you haven't experienced the Eastern Shore. The peninsula is a land of wild ponies, crab pots, and villagers who still have faint English accents. And now it's home to three wineries - and more are most likely in the future. The Eastern Shore has proven to have rich loamy soil that serve chardonnay, petit manseng and other whites very well - similar to the north fork of Long Island.

You can arrive on the Eastern Shore two ways from the DC area - take the long southern route, through Hampton and Virginia Beach, and over the famous Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, or the shorter (albeit less scenic) route through Maryland. Most folks come out here to visit Chincoteague, Wallops Island and Assateauge Island, or the artsy town of Onancock. For the best tour of the Shore, get off U.S. 13 and follow state highways 318, 178, and county highway 618, through towns with strange names like Parksley, Painter, and Exmore. And if you're coming from the DELMAR (Delaware and Maryland), your first stop to imbibe will most likely be Bloxom Winery, named after the nearby village.

The gentleman who owns Bloxom is French Morrocan, a bit on the gruff side but not unfriendly. Depending on the time of year, you will be offered as many as five wines, or as few as two. His biggest seller is a red, despite the Shore's growing reputation as a white grape region: Merlot. Wonderfully complex yet smooth. His Cab Franc is good as well, if a bit watery compared to the mainland Virginia counterparts. Red Kiss is a sweet wine that is probably his most popular (for those "amateurs" from Ohio and Michigan visiting the ponies in nearby Chincoteague). He has a pizza oven he fires up three seasons of the year, and there is a welcoming sipping patio surrounded by plants.

Driving further south (prepare for about a 45 minute drive), the next stop is Holly Grove Vineyards, an exceptional and very low key spot that hugs a creek that dumps into Chessie. During warmer months, you can actually rent kayaks from Jonathan, the owner and winemaker, but for colder months, most likely it will be just you and the winemaker. He stores his wines in very large European barrels (nearly twice the size of regular barrels), and every wine on his list is exceptional. Genesis, a Bordeaux blend with a nice low alcohol content (translation: You can finish the bottle yourself and not feel utterly trashed), was the favorite red. On the other side of the coin, his petit manseng, at 14.8% alcohol, is delicious but totally creeps up on you. We imagine many overturned kayaks after a bottle or two of this stuff. Of the three wineries on the Eastern Shore, Holly Grove was our favorite. Bonus: You can order online! At blog entry time, he's sold out of Genesis, but we will watch his website with a keen eye.

The final stop on the Eastern Shore trek is Chatham Vineyards, owned by Jon Wehner, a Great Falls, VA native, who rightly deserves the reputation as the Godfather of Eastern Shore wineries. His tasting room is deceiving - he makes a lot of good to great wine here. Let's cut to the chase: The 2010 Steel fermented Chardonnay....hands down the BEST chardonnay we've ever had in Virginia. 2010 was an exceptional year for Virginia wines, thanks to a hot, drier than usual climate in late summer that allowed the grapes to reach maximum potential. The 2009 wasn't too shabby either (according to the website, only the 2009 is currently available). Perhaps he has some 2010 onhand at the winery - you must visit to find out. Other favorites are his merlot and rosé.

Drink in the Eastern Shore this spring, and watch yourself on those kayaks!

Bloxom Winery
Holly Grove Vineyards
Chatham Vineyards

Sunday, February 5, 2012

If We Build [a Winery], They Would Come

The blogmasters have visited over 115 wineries in the Commonwealth, and we have our favorites (there are many), and our not-so-favorites (ditto), but we have yet to come across the Perfect Virginia Winery. Usually over several bottles at a particular winery, we conjure up our image of the Perfect Winery. A few in Virginia come close, but it's a tall order. What makes a Perfect Winery?

1. Wine: A no brainer. Good variety, crisp and dry whites, bold and dry reds. And maybe one or two sweets to appease those looking for what we now call Charms wines. And a dessert or port offering.

2. Interior Set Up: A large airy tasting room that absorbs sound. A real wood fireplace, that is actually used. A long tasting bar. Eco-friendly design. Plenty of tables and chairs. NO TV. NO LIVE BANDS. An iPod with a good winery-themed mix, or a DJ playing classics at a decent volume, works wonders. We find it amazing that so many wineries opt to be venues for live bands, particularly the ones in Northern Virginia. The wine, tasting room, and the view should be enough of a draw for visitors.

3. Exterior Set Up: A nice view (mountains, a body of water, the vineyards, meadows, forests - we'd use the natural setting to the best advantage). Plenty of picnic tables.

4. A Resident Cat and a Resident Dog. To please 100% of the pet lovers.

5. No Limos, No Keg Buses: Keep the drunkards who want to turn the tasting room into an alpha male frat house or loud, vulgar bachelorette party out.

It's unlikely that we'll find such a winery in the future of Virginia's growing industry, but we can dream.

What is your idea of a perfect winery?