Friday, June 29, 2012

Wines from Idaho, Hawaii, Michigan, and Virginia--In One Spot

Little Washington Winery is a unique spot on the Route 211 Wine Way (home of other well-known spots, such as Unicorn Winery, Gray Ghost, and Narmada Winery). Named after the nearby yippie-dominated town of "Little" Washington, VA, this winery has none of the pricey pretention of the town of its namesake. In fact, the owners are incredibly down to Earth people, serious about their new venture, eager to talk about their plans and their wines, and happy to have their guests enjoy their mountain vistas from an assortment of multi-colored Adirondack chairs scattered along their numerous hillsides. What makes their winery unique is their "Dirt Road Wine Club." They wanted to bring something different to the Virginia winery experience, so they dispatch their sommelier Andrew to other states to seek out small batch wineries (and not just nearby states, although he was in North Carolina visiting vineyards when we visited).

Their goal is to bring these wines, which you cannot find in even the best wine shops in Virginia, to the Commonwealth. They offer what appeared to be random samples from their extensive "Dirt Road Wine Shop" when we visited; they change their offerings each day. We tried a semi-dry riesling from Michigan, which seemed very dry to us despite its location in the middle of the dry--sweet scale on the back of the bottle. Next was an interesting, very dry, and perfect summer rosé from Italy, followed by a crisp chardonnay from Long Island, and finally a pineapple and passion fruit wine from Hawaii - no grape base. We thought we would have to spit this wine out, but served on ice cubes, it was very refreshing, not as sweet as it could have been, and tasted a bit like a vineyard version of a pina colada. On their racks are wines from up and coming grape-growing states like Idaho and Arizona, as well as some international offerings from smaller vineyards in Austria, New Zealand, and Spain. You can literally travel around the globe with their wine options. As for their own wine, they have two chardonnays they love to serve back to back, in paper bags, during the tasting process. They call it the "fork in the road" tasting, and ask guests to pick which one is aged briefly in oak, before returning to steel, and which is aged completely in steel (the owner and winemaker is not a fan of what he calls "Parkay buttery wine from California").

In the end, we picked the pure steel variation as our favorite, and it was so crisp it had effervescent bubbles - the true sign of a bone dry wine. Little Washington also makes their own red, something called "George" (an appropriate name given their location). It's a smooth, soft tanins blend of Merlot and Cab Sauv. They have no highway signs yet - they just opened several months ago. But keep a keen eye out for this spot on the way to Skyline Drive or Luray Caverns (or Gadino Cellars, which is about a quarter mile down the road from Little Washington Winery.)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Battle of the Foxes

Virginia is home to three fox-themed wineries, all three unique and blogmaster favorites for several years (and we were tempted to make a "Fox and Friends" crack but decided to keep politics off this board). Fox Meadow, Three Fox and Flying Fox with an honorable mention to Twin Oaks Tavern, which has a fox as its mascot.

The stats: Fox Meadow and Three Fox are both part of the Fauquier County Wine Trail, and both can be enjoyed the same day. Flying Fox is south of Waynesboro, and Twin Oaks Tavern is off Route 7, a few clicks up the road from the very popular Bluemont Vineyards. So which Fox rules the farm....we mean vineyard? Fox Meadow Winery, by a nose. Every visit to Fox Meadow has been special and the view "looking down on the mountains" (their slogan) is one of the best in the Commonwealth. Fox Meadow was the recipient in 2008 of the Governor's Cup, for their outstanding Le Renard Rouge, a meritage-like blend of Cab Franc, Cab Sauv and Merlot. Their elevation is perfect for Pinot Grigio or Pinot Gris, and here they didn't have to pick just one varietal. They offer both. The Grigio is the drier version, although the Gris, with its apricot and honeysuckle notes, is perfect chilled and makes a good summer wine. This is a dry wine spot, although their "Freezeland" options (red and white) were created with the sweet wine fans in mind. The best thing that can be said about sweet wine is it didn't make the blogmasters want to spit the wine out, and that was the case with the Freezeland wines.

Setting: Big balcony overlooking the mountains, with shade provided by umbrellas and a gazebo. Picnic tables under large trees on the lawn for spillover. Inside, an airy tasting room and several tables (reserved for wine club members). The appeal of Fox Meadow is aesthetics. When leaving Fox Meadow, take the right turn out of the lot, and drive through the "Blue Mountain" community on the way down the mountain, for a real treat. This road will end up hugging the Shenandoah River, before dropping drivers off on Route 50.

Follow signs on route 50 to Three Fox, which is our second favorite Fox winery in the state. Three Fox Vineyards is an Italian themed winery named after playful foxes that were on the property when the owners surveyed their newly acquired land. The reds are the stars here, particularly the Cab Franc and Sangiovese (they currently offer both a regular and reserve Sangiovese). Also, their port-like wine "Dolce Chambourcin" is high on character, but surprisingly low on alcohol content. As for the whites, not as strong as the reds, but all with an Italian twist. Their Leggero Chardonnay is a perfect summer chard, with notes of butterscotch. They have more sweeter wines than Fox Meadow, following the "the closer to DC, the more sweet wines they have" principle. And their rosé is sweeter than the drier versions we've become accustomed to in Virginia, but excellent chilled and perfect for taking to Wolf Trap.

Setting: You will be impressed with this place the minute you cross the little bridge over Crooked Run. Shift your vehicle into overdrive to get more tork, and climb up that hill. Rolling Piedmont vineyards and meadows surround you. Crooked Run babbles down the hill, and Three Fox has two hammocks and several picnic tables by the creek. The tasting room is housed in a small barn-like structure, a bit cramped but during the warm months, they have an outdoor tasting tent. Do your tasting under this tent, overlooking the vineyards, for the full wine tasting experience. A few tables with umbrellas are situated between the vineyard rows (a nice touch!), and ample tables with umbrellas surround the tasting room. And then there's the Table in the Sky--you can't miss this table. Hike up the hill, past the beanbag and bocce games, and sit yourself down for a treat. Green Fauquier county fields surround you. Three Fox gets high marks on the "unwineding" scale!

Flying Fox Vineyards is located south of Waynesboro, in a winery populated section of Nelson County (not far from better-known spots like Cardinal Point and Veritas). They're a small operation, easy to overlook on your way to Wintergreen (winery or resort). But the wine are incredibly good; something for everyone. For the sweet fans, a Vidal Blanc called Fox White. Fox Red is a table wine perfectly suited for pizza, off-dry. An amusing label adorns these blends; each year, their mascot is featured in various acts of flight (in a World War I-era biplane; in a hot air balloon; being shot out of a cannon; or this year's image, clinging to a bunch of helium balloons, "sailing over Afton Mountain"). Their artist must love coming up with an image each year! On the more serious wine side, they offer a pure Petit Verdot, which stands up to some bold Old World reds as a prime rib or porterhouse wine, and will age nicely for up to 10 years in the right conditions. At $19, this wine is an absolute steal! "Trio" is a perfect blend of Petit Verdot, Cab Franc and Merlot, and our favorite wine on their menu. Their rosé is dry and refreshing.

Setting: A small garden area with a few tables, and a magnificent vista of the Blue Ridge beyond a large pasture. The tasting cottage sports a weather vane on the roof that gave this winery its name: The fox on the vane looks like he's flying, especially after a few glasses of their Petit Verdot.

The runner up in this battle of foxes is Twin Oaks Tavern Winery, which has a fox on some of its bottles, but appears to be moving away from the fox theme to an oak leaf theme. Still, the winery is young and deserves a shout-out. Located off route 7 on the way to Winchester, this spot offers some incredible reds: Cab Sauv, Norton and Raven Rock Red meritage blends. Their recently expanded tasting room offers a fireplace for colder days, and the decks and patios hug the hillside. The view here is northwest - the Blue Ridge and on a clear day, you can see into West Virginia. And as a final note, next time you visit the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, say hi to their fox counterpart: Fox Run Vineyards!

Enjoy a short video from Flying Fox Vineyards:

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Winery Spotlight: Virginia Wineworks

Virginia Wineworks, or "Wineworks" (their new official name), is unlike any other winery you'll visit in Virginia. No "Keg Buses" full of overgrown frat boys, bachelorette parties, or live bands to be found here. This is a Working Winery. And you're aware of it the minute you pull into their gravel driveway. To enter the tasting room (more like tasting basement) of Wineworks, you walk through the barrel storage and tank area. Wineworks makes wine for other Virginia locations, and some barrels have masking tape indicating the names of those other wineries. We were surprised at the geographical reach of some locations - Wineworks is located south of Charlottesville, yet they evidently make wine for some locations in the Northern Neck.

There are two labels here: Wineworks, and Michael Shaps. Michael Shaps is one of the founding fathers of the Virginia wine scene, and his winemaking skill is well-known by anyone with even a passing interest in Virginia wine. The wines on his own label are a little pricier, but we actually preferred some of the blends on the more economical Wineworks label (we had a similar reaction to Ingleside and their Chesapeake label). Wineworks features wine in a box - the first Virginia location to do this. The boxes hold up to three liters of wine. Currently viognier, chardonnay and cabernet franc are offered in boxes; a good start for the Virginia box market as these are three signature Virginia wines. Wine snobs may be put off by the box concept, but for entertaining at a party, or dragging to Wolf Trap, box wine does just fine. Just make sure it's chilled (even the cab franc). The wines are good to excellent here (the boxed wine being in the good category), and the price is right (all box wines are $30 each). As for the bottled wines, our favorite Wineworks offerings were the Merlot/Malbec blend, "half a Meritage" (it's missing two varietals to be considered a Meritage), at $16 a steal and perfect with red meat, whether it's a filet mignon or burgers on the grill. On the Michael Shaps label, the chardonnay was excellent with faint notes of almond and pear. Viognier is produced under both labels. If you go for the full tasting in the tasting "basement," you can try the Wineworks and Michael Shaps viogniers back to back. Both beautifully done, but we preferred the Michael Shaps viognier (not as acidic).

The location is about half a mile through the woods past First Colony Winery, south of Charlottesville. First Colony makes fine wine and their set up is more conducive to "hanging out" (First Colony has been a favorite of the blogmasters for years). Start with a visit to Wineworks, and buy several bottles to go, and then meander back to First Colony to wrap your afternoon up.

Watch our short video on Wineworks: