Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Village Wine Stop #4: Sperryville

If you've made the trek to Skyline Drive or Luray Caverns, most likely you've driven through Sperryville, a picturesque village on U.S. highway 211. Located at the base of the mountain you'll drive up after entering Shenandoah National Park (longtime Virginia residents may remember the Panorama cafeteria-style restaurant near the Skyline Drive interchange), Sperryville and its historic district is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Registry and the National Register of Historic Places.

And yes, several vineyards with incredible views are not far away. U.S. highway 211, past Warrenton, will soon be "one winery after another" (similar to Sonoma and Napa), at the rate the wineries are opening. Sperryville is usually mentioned in the same breath as "Little" Washington, Virginia, a yippie-dominated village with a swank inn that needs no introduction.

After exploring Sperryville on foot for an hour, drive south of the village on route 231 (about 12 miles) to the village (more of a crossroads) of Etlan. Follow signs (or your map) to DuCard Vineyards. This "green" winery (in terms of the environment, not the wine or the experience of the winemakers) is another in a series of newer Virginia locations that utilizes sustainable practices in its operation to keep it "off the grid" as much as possible. The first thing many people notice are the solar panels on the tasting room roof. The wine isn't too shabby either. The Viognier is a dry winner, with a slight nuance of honeysuckle and apricot. Our favorite red is Popham Run Red (named after the creek that flows through the property), a rich blend that would be perfect with a steak cooked on charcoal (not gas grill---charcoal).

There are old apple trees on the property that still bear fruit (an apple orchard called this spot home many years ago). But as of this writing, there is no apple wine offered...maybe in a few years, after the owners master grapes, they'll take a crack at the steadily growing apple wine and hard cider market in Virginia.

Doubling back towards Sperryville on route 231, the next winery is about ten minutes from DuCard--Sharp Rock Vineyards. This is the oldest winery in the Sperryville area, and is so close to Old Rag Mountain you can practically touch it. The tasting room is a lot more rustic than DuCard, with a tight tasting room, but you will have a memorable exchange with one of the owners (the owners are a husband and wife team) - ask Jimm about the old winery/mead operation Smokehouse Winery, which used to exist up the road from Sharp Rock, of if you encounter Kathy, ask her about her animated neighbor and her chickens.

The wines are exceptional, and well priced. The chardonnay is unoaked and delicious, especially slightly chilled. Other perfect summer picnic winners are the Sauvignon Blanc and their two rosés. Snag a spot by the Hughes River (you'll cross it a few times during your drive) and cue up the John Denver. Almost Heaven should be the name of one of their wines. (And if you drink too much, they have a guest cottage overlooking the stream you can book for the night, provided it hasn't been is a popular spot).

The next two wineries are east of Sperryville, heading back towards Warrenton. Gadino Cellars, about a mile off route 211, is a family-friendly, Italian-themed location with views of rolling foothills and meadows (it's hard to believe the spot is only a mile away from a busy U.S. highway). Every now and then you may hear the rumblings of motorcycles on their way to Skyline Drive, but don't let that distort your experience here. There is a wine for everyone here: Dry, semi dry, sweet, dessert. Pinot Grigio was our favorite white, and for more picnic sipping, Sunset and Moonrise (a table white and red) are perfect. By far the best red we've had here is their Imagine, a blend of Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Zesty and delicious, and further proof that Virginia has come a long way with their reds.

The final stop is Narmada Winery, also off 211 on the way back to Warrenton, which has been open for about two years now, and promises a cultural experience as well as a wine experience. The winery is owned and operated by an Indian family who frequently pair their tastings with savory food from their country. Chambourcin rules supreme here: Reds named "Midnight," "Reflection," and "Primita" are three examples of how versatile this Virginia favorite is. Narmada also offers several red blends, all on the hearty side. And what would go well with a curry infused dish? One of their whites, particularly the off-dry or off-sweet options: "Lotus" or "Dream" (try them chilled).

There are a few other locations off 211 you may have time to wander into, or visit the next day if you're well off enough to check in to the Inn at Little Washington: The new Little Washington Winery (offering wines from Virginia, as well as other "new" wine states like Idaho), Grey Ghost Vineyards, and Unicorn Winery. And if you have a designated driver, you can always return to Sperryville and Skyline Drive for some "Virginia Mountain High" life.

DuCard Vineyards
Sharp Rock Vineyards
Gadino Cellars
Narmada Winery
Little Washington Winery
Grey Ghost Vineyards
Unicorn Winery

Monday, April 9, 2012

Village Wine Stop #3: Waterford

Waterford is in the middle of Loudoun County, but it may as well be in the middle of rural central Pennsylvania. There is something decidely Lancaster Dutch-like about this village. Maybe it's the age of the village itself (1733). Or maybe it's the Quaker history of the village. Or the rolling hills leading to narrow streets in the village itself. Having the town as a home residence name on your address instantly increases your property value. This is the quiet Middleburg. Don't expect fancy dress shops and restaurants here. But there are several unique and highly underrated wineries surrounding the village.

Corcoran Vineyards was actually named Waterford Vineyards several years ago, until a certain crystal manufacturing company took note and sent them a not-so-nice letter. Lori Corcoran is the popular winemaker here, and in addition to making the excellent product at her winery, acts as a tasting room manager at nearby Sunset Hills Vineyard on an ad hoc basis. There are several fun "summer whites" here, perfect for chilling: Traminette, Cello (Petit Manseng), and a delicious apple wine. But the stand outs are the reds, in particular their Chambourcin and rosé, made from the Chambourcin. The tasting room is rather tight, inside a small cabin, and the property does have a few McMansions within sight (welcome to Loudoun county), but there is an intimacy here missing from many wineries in the county. Corcoran recently got into the brewery mold, and you can dabble in craft beer on the same visit as their brewery is very close to the winery.

Sunset Hills Vineyard is a totally different world than Corcoran - bustling, full of wine enthusiasts as well as what we call "the amateurs," there for one reason and one reason only--get sloshed. But Sunset Hills proves that bustling and commercial does not equate to inferior. Many of their wines are award-winners, and the tasting room is located inside a barn restored several years ago by Amish builders (another link to Pennsylvania). The owners, Mike and Diane Canney, are frequently onsite. Mike left a lucrative career as a nuclear physicist in Reston (Sunset Hills is actually named after the road his company was located on), and also races cars in his spare time. Being a scientist, he is very analyical and admits that his first vineyard was planted improperly. Now he has four distinct vineyards and specializes in Viognier, Cab Franc, and Cab Sauv. A Petit Verdot is on the way.

Village Winery is properly named, just a stones' throw away from the Waterford village limits. Owner/winemaker Kent Marrs is a Kansas native with planting and harvesting in his blood. All of his wines are entirely hand-crafted - no mechanical pumps (more Amish influence, perhaps?) His Petit Verdot stood out as a big bold red, and he has a fun apple wine as well as a few typical Virginia offerings (Viognier, Merlot, Cab Franc). However the big draw here is his elderberry products: Not only wine, but chocolate/elderberry syrup for desserts, a sparkling beverage with no alcohol, and a vinaigrette salad dressing. The tasting room is located inside a quaint, rather drafty barn, and there are plenty of picnic tables surrounding the rustic barn.

Casanel Vineyards is a blogmaster favorite, sandwiched between the Waterford area of Loudoun county and the small town of Hamilton. Named after owners Nelson and Casey DeSouza, the tasting room is a family affair, and usually every member of the family can be spotted there. Nelson is an entertaining native of Brazil who came to the U.S. and spent years as a successful construction contractor. Currently Nelson is working on an adjacent tasting room for buses, limos and loud bachelorette parties, "so our loyal longtime guests can enjoy a quiet tasting and we can still expand to appeal to big groups." It's a great idea and would be fantastic if other wineries followed his lead. Their Viognier is excellent--crisp with just the right amount of citrus tartness, and perfect chilled. The reds are the stars here: Norton and Merlot, in particular. Both are recent award winners. Grab a bottle for their gazebo located in a pond (you read right). Three Fox has its table in the sky. Casanel has its table in the pond.

The last stop is only a mile from downtown Leesburg: Dry Mill Vineyards. The horse on the label comes from the history of the barn that serves as the tasting room--this was once home to the horses of the Loudoun Hunt Club. The barn is a combination of the very rustic spot in Village Winery and the restored, highly impressive barn at Sunset Hills. And a corporate meeting room exists above the tasting room, for your next business meeting. Wines are good to outstanding, most under $20. Their two chardonnays (one steel barrel aged, the other oak) are worth trying back to back, to get a feel for what your palate prefers (steel vs. oak). Dry Mill is another location doing great things with Chambourcin, which is well on its way to join Cab Franc and Petit Verdot as official Virginia reds.

Loudoun County now has more wineries than many U.S. states. Waterford is a perfect starting point to branch out and experience a few lesser-known spots in the county.

Corcoran Vineyards
Sunset Hills Vineyard
Village Winery
Casanel Vineyards
Dry Mill Vineyards