Saturday, January 26, 2013

A Party in Richmond

The blogmasters have (more or less) given up on the festival circuit. Wine festivals, especially the ones in Northern Virginia, are great for large gatherings (provided there is a designated driver in the gathering), but the crowds can get obnoxious. If you've been to an outdoor wine festival in the state, you know the drill: People taking their time tasting, asking silly questions in the hopes of getting extra tastings and paying no mind to their holding up of the line; people behind you pushing you forward and holding their glasses in front of your face; the inability to ask serious questions about the wine or winery to those pouring (most pourers are volunteers anyway who know very little about the wine or winery).

Apparently many wineries in the Commonwealth feel the same way about festivals. A few winery owners we've talked to have also pretty much given up on the festival circuit. It's a good way to sell a lot of wine, and some very small wineries that may not have open tasting rooms move some product during the festivals. But many festivals (according to our discussions with a few winery owners) are poorly planned, have soft enforcement of "intoxicated in public" laws (which has led to violence according to one winery owner), and if it rains or is unbearably hot outside, the festival goes on (imagine tasting during a constant downpour, or during 100 degree heat--the blogmasters have been to festivals under both scenarios and they're not much fun).

But there is one exception to the "festivals by in large suck" philosophy of the blogmasters: The Virginia Wine Expo. A little less than a month away, this is a wine festival which even wineries that actively shun other festivals in the state attend. 2013 marks the 6th year of the Virginia Wine Expo. It's a big party.

There are numerous reasons why this festival is light years ahead from the others:

1. Climate control. The festival occurs at the end of February, which is not ideal outdoor time for Virginia. Having the festival indoors means the cold, rain, sleet, snow, or rare derecho, can't stop it (as long as the power stays on....)

2. Most wineries. You'll see wineries here from every corner of the state, versus just the usual festival suspects.

3. Best atmosphere. Being located in the center of the state, the people who attend this festival are serious about wine and the Virginia winery scene. For the other festivals, especially the ones in Northern Virginia, many people just go to get drunk, and could care less about the wine or wineries. We've read comments on Yelp and other review sites of Virginia wine festivals where the writers even confess they think "Virginia wine sucks, but [the festival] is a great cheap way to get completely trashed."

4. Downtown Richmond. If you shell out the dough for a room at one of the downtown hotels, you can walk to the Convention Center, which means no DUI concerns. And after a day of tasting all you can taste and learning about the wines, there are several great restaurants in walking distance.

5. More than "just a festival." This is a week-long conference: February 19-24. Many Virginia winery and vineyard owners attend all week. There are seminars on the weekend as well as the more typical "walk around tastings." If you're in the meeting planning business, you know what it takes to pull such a week long event off. No poor planning here.

We hope to see you there. Some helpful links below:

Click here for general information on the Virginia Wine Expo.

Click here for a list of the wineries.

Click here for the events list and ticket buying module.

Click here for hotel deals.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

What's In a Name?

Syrah...or Shiraz? Pinot Gris...or Pinot Grigio? Meritage...or Ameritage? Champagne.....or sparkling wine?

Anyone with even a passing interest in wine may know the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine, but what about the others? The difference is minor for Syrah and Shiraz; it's a geography thing. Syrah is the red varietal originally from France, and that name is used in most other vineyard-rich countries, including Italy, Spain, Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand. Shiraz is the name for the same varietal adopted in Australia, as well as South Africa and Canada (a dry red from Canada? Yes, they exist). In the U.S., most wineries that offer Syrah stick with the original name, unless you happen to visit a winery owned by an Aussie or South African.

Meritage and Ameritage is a unique distinction. In order to be classified as a Meritage, a winery must join the Meritage Association, founded by a small group of Napa Valley winemakers who became increasingly frustrated by regulations stipulating wines contain at least 75% of a specific grape to be labeled as that varietal. So in 1988, when the Association was created, members sought to create a recognizable name for their high-quality blended wines. The name Meritage was selected. It is a special name, so special that wineries that do not belong to the Meritage Association are literally breaking the law if they call one of their red blends a Meritage. To get around that, some crafty wineries in the U.S. have added an "A" to the front of the name.

The varietals used by Virginia winemakers in Meritage/Ameritage are typically Cab Franc, Merlot, Cab Sauv, Malbec and Petit Verdot; percentages of the varietals used in each blend vary by winery. But Petit Verdot is usually on the low end (although that may change, as stand-alone Petit Verdot is becoming very popular in the Commonwealth). The underlying rule in creating a Meritage is that no varietal comprises more than 90% of the blend.

Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio are familiar names to Virginia winery hoppers, and have replaced the venerable Chardonnay as the to-go whites for many imbibers. Many wineries offer one or the other (and in one case, they offer both). The differences are subtle. Pinot Gris is the French variation, and Pinot Grigio is the Italian name. The grapes are red on the vine, but they are blended into distinctive whites. Pinot Gris tends to be a bit on the sweeter side, resembling an off dry Riesling in many cases. Pinot Grigio is usually drier, but in the end it depends on how the winemaker craft.

Where to try Meritage/Ameritage and Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio in Virginia:

Sparkling wines and Syrah can be found in some wineries scattered throughout the state, but they are not very common. For purposes of this post, we'll focus on Meritage and Pinot Gris/Grigio, which are very common and are getting better with each growing year. Our favorites:

Gadino Cellars

The name itself says it all--this is an Italian-themed winery. The family hails from the Old Country, so needless to say they call it Pinot Grigio here. Their grigio has soft citrus notes, is wonderfully dry, and goes quite well with both white sauce pasta dishes and cheese omelettes. Gadino Cellars is a blogmaster favorite, situated amongst meadows near the base of Skyline Drive in Sperryville.

Fox Meadow Winery

Care to compare Pinot Gris to Pinot Grigio? Fox Meadow is the place to do it. They've perfected both French style and Italian style; Gris is off dry, crisp, with notes of white delicious apples and nectarine. Grigio is bone dry, with notes of grapefruit and honeysuckle. Fox Meadow also offers a Meritage, a true Meritage; they are serious winemakers and have many awards (including a Governors Cup) to show for it.

Pollak Vineyards

A tad sweeter than the Pinot Gris at Fox Meadow, but with a creamy mouthfeel and notes of lemon. Pollak is another favorite of the authors, and also a proud member of the Meritage Association.

North Gate Vineyard

A relatively new winery in Loudoun County, North Gate makes a terrific Meritage, with a breakdown of varietals unique in that it brings out the Petit Verdot more, and lessens the content of Merlot. The result is something that even California wine enthusiasts are raving about. The formula: 47% Cabernet Franc, 26% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Petit Verdot, and 6% Merlot.

Unicorn Winery

A hearty Meritage is offered at Unicorn, a location more widely known for its whites and lighter reds. But the Meritage, with its formula of 40% Cab Sauv, 30% Cab Franc and 30% Merlot, is a fantastic steak wine.

Veritas Vineyard

An example of an "Ameritage," (although Veritas calls their blend "Vintner's Blend"), their blend is living proof that you don't need to be a member of the Meritage Association to produce a fine Meritage-esque :) wine.......their excellent, robust blend of 42% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc, 25% Petit Verdot, and 16% Cabernet Sauv, boasts notes of licorace, chocolate, and raisins.

Three Fox Vineyards

Another winery with roots in the Old Country (Italy), their Pinot Grigio has notes of citrus and apricot, and makes a great pairing with pork and chicken dishes.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Local Heroes

Happy New Year! As 2013 gets off to a typically cold and dark start, never fear: Local (for Fairfax County/Arlington/Alexandria/DC residents) wineries are here!

Three wineries within Fairfax County, or very close to the Fairfax County border, are open for business during the cold months and welcome visitors to escape the winter doldrums, if only for a few hours.

Two spots are relatively new: The Winery at Bull Run and Cana Vineyards.
The third has been open for a little over two years: Paradise Springs Winery.

The Winery at Bull Run

Not many Virginia wineries (or wineries in the entire country, for that matter) can lay claim to being located on a battlefield. With the Manassas Battlefield surrounding the winery on nearly every side, and the historic Stone Bridge and Stone House a stone's throw away, The Winery at Bull Run offers not only terrific wines (particularly impressive since they're new on the wine scene, and not even listed in the 2012 Virginia Winery Map), but a history lesson. The tasting room resides in a centuries-old log cabin, which seems to double as a battlefield artifact museum. The wood absorbs the sound nicely (being the closest winery to Washington DC means this winery gets extremely busy, in all seasons). The wood floor includes several window panes that look down to the barrel room - a nice touch.

As for the wines, Chris Pearmund, a Virginia vino master, oversees the winemaking. That would explain why they are so sophisticated and balanced (despite the youth of this winery). Being a new and already expanding spot, the wines are priced a bit higher than the norm (being so close to recession-proof DC helps). Not a bottle under $28 as of this writing, but all are worth trying (most are dry, so if you come expecting a lot of whites or sweets, you may go away slightly disappointed). The Meritage blend and the Cab Franc were our favorites, and both have well-deserved medals. On the white side, the "Delaney" blend (of Traminette, Vidal Blanc, Viognier, and Riesling) will satisfy the sweet fans, but is more of a summer wine. Another sweeter option is a wine not found in many locations in the Commonwealth: Chardonnel, with distinctive notes of peach. Charonnel is a cross between Seyval and Chardonnay, and is quite popular in states north of Virginia, particularly New York.

The owners are rightfully proud of this spot, and are planning for the long haul in the VAVINO business. A "Battlefield Viewing Deck" for wine club members opened last fall.

Cana Vineyards and Winery

The blogmasters were surprised to find this new winery (open since October 2012) on the way to Middleburg a few weeks ago. There is a Biblical aspect to this location (look up the word "Cana"), and if Jesus turned water into wine, maybe it would resemble a fine Virginia Cab Franc? As is the case with the Winery at Bull Run, the Cab Fran was our favorite wine here, with soft tannins and a smooth oaky finish. Cana has more whites and sweeter wines than Bull Run, and the prices are a bit lower.

They also dabble in fruit wines; currently Apple and Raspberry Apple are offered. The winery is already buzzing, perhaps due to its easy to find location directly off U.S. 50, east of Middleburg. Live bands are offered on most weekends, and with so many outdoor seating options, this winery will probably get very crowded in the warmer months.

Tastings are conducted in a cold barrel room - the tastings are very informative and highly entertaining, but wear your coat.

Paradise Springs Winery

Located near the historic Fairfax County village of Clifton, Paradise Springs Winery emerged in late 2010 and conducted its tastings in a small log cabin, which was pretty tight. Several months later, the owners revealed an airy tasting building, complete with a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, watching over the impressive tasting room. The wines have already won numerous awards, including the 2011 Virginia Governors Cup for their chardonnay.

There is something for everyone in your group: From bone dry to sweet. Fans of sweeter styles will love the wine that is slowly becoming popular in the state: Petit Manseng. Winemakers are discovering how this varietal loves the soil in the Commonwealth, and it does especially well on the eastern side of the state.
Our favorites were the chardonnay and viognier, and we've never met a Cab Franc in Virginia we haven't liked or loved. Paradise Springs is no exception.

Paradise Springs does not require visitors to be wine club members in order to use their warm enclosed deck (complete with a wood burning fireplace, although they ask that you don't tend to the fire yourself, unlike other wineries with wood fireplaces or firepits). Actually, as of this writing, Paradise Springs does not have a wine club, but one is coming soon. Hopefully they'll keep the deck open to general visitors.

Since all three of the wineries in this post are located close to Washington DC, events and wedding bookings are common. Unless you visit during the week, expect large crowds at these locations. Be patient and arrive early - secure your seat inside the Winery at Bull Run, Cana or Paradise Springs and drink the winter blues away.