Friday, December 20, 2013

Video Clips: Monticello AVA Southwest Quadrant

A few short video clips of the Notebook's adventures in Nelson County and the Southwest Monticello Quadrant:

Afton Mountain Vineyards (spring 2011):

Democracy Vineyards (spring 2013):

Wintergreen Winery (fall 2012):

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Monticello AVA Quadrant Series: Southwest

The Monticello AVA is officially "Virginia's Napa." With over 30 wineries (and more to come) surrounding the Charlottesville area, the Monticello AVA contains more vineyards and wineries than most other states. Those who plan to "hit C'Ville for some wine tasting" should plan their trip accordingly. It's very easy to get lost in the world of Jefferson country wineries. For that reason, we've split the AVA into four quadrants. Each quadrant offers the full spectrum of winery experiences: From industrial, working vineyard vibe, to romantic and intimate, to big event focused spots. With so many wineries in the area, even breaking the AVA down into four sections isn't enough spotlight every location. We'll zoom in on our favorites and also suggest the best route.

The Southwest quadrant sits south of Interstate 64 and the village of Crozet. Most wineries are located in Nelson County, and the vineyards share the land with several microbreweries (Blue Mountain, Wild Wolf, Devil's Backbone). Every time we visit this section of the Monticello AVA, we're torn between Virginia beer and wine. Sometimes we go for both - the view at Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton is second to none, and nothing caps a perfect wine tasting day than a brat and icy cold Full Nelson while looking over the mountains. But back to the grapes....

The Southwest Quadrant houses several of the Notebook's very favorite wineries, so it will be difficult to pin down just four for this spotlight. Your main highways will be route 29 (follow signs for Lynchburg) and county routes 6 and 151. 6 and 151 share the road for several miles until they split near the village of Nellysford. There is adequate signage for the wineries and the routes in this region; Nelson County is proud of its wine trail and makes it easy for anyone, with or without map or GPS, to find their wineries.

At the northernmost trip of this quadrant lies Afton Mountain Vineyards, which changed hands about four years ago and upgraded its tasting room (which formerly was a tight cabin along the private drive leading to the vineyards). The updated tasting room offers one of the finest views in the area, of the mountaintops and a large pond. The Mediterranean-style tasting room is inviting in every season, and the owners are usually on hand to welcome guests. This location grows varietals that are unique (for Virginia), due to its elevation (1000 feet above sea level) and shielded from excessive rain by the Blue Ridge "rain shadow," and dried by the prevailing breezes flowing through the nearby Rockfish and Humpback gaps. Virginia is not particularly known for Pinot Noir, but Afton Mountain Vineyards offers one that is intriguing; the Pinot Noir vines were planted in 1978 and therefore can be labeled "old vines" (for Virginia). Don't expect Oregon or Russian River style here; this Pinot is more akin to traditional French Burgundy, relatively lower alcohol, with a kiss of sweetness, but not overly sweet. Another unusual (for the Commonwealth) wine here is Festa di Bacco, a Super Tuscan style blend of Sangiovese with Merlot, offering wonderful notes of coffee and prunes.
The reds are the star here (they also offer a few Virginia mainstays such as Petit Verdot and Cab Franc). However white lovers won't leave disappointed--they are one of the few state vineyards that has mastered Gewürtztraminer (again thanks to their elevation) and the up and comer alternative to Viognier, Albariño. And they begin their tastings with a sparkling blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

View from Afton Mountain Vineyards:

You will pass several other vineyards (and a brewery) on the way to the next three spotlighted locations, which are deeper in the southwest quadrant, but well worth the effort to find them. Stop #2 is Democracy Vineyards, which was a presence at state festivals for several years before opening its doors as a winery in 2012. Located on a long and winding road off route 29, Democracy Vineyards boasts one of the most unusual tasting room buildings we've experienced. Their wine is exceptional; having Monticello AVA maestro Michael Shaps as the winemaker isn't too shabby for a relatively new spot. The wine is well-priced too, meaning you can grab a case here and not feel broke. The theme here is recent U.S. history; the winery owners have deep political roots and regardless of your party affiliation, you will find some fascinating newspaper and magazine clippings and posters in the tasting room. The wines have names like Emancipation and Declaration, and the labels are adorned in red, white and blue and patriotic images. The view from the tasting room is more "looking up" compared to Afton Mountain, and because of its young age, you could very well have the place to yourself during your visit. Our favorite wines were the Suffrage, an extremely tasty Chambourcin with notes of strawberry and cinnamon, and the aforementioned Declaration, a wonderful white blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Petit Manseng; a sweet beginning (courtesy of the Petit Manseng) and a satisfying bone dry ending, perfect for shellfish. The tasting room offers a highly unusual touch - garage doors. They open up during warm months and provide a spectacular view:

The unusual tasting building at Democracy:

Stop #3 is a ten minute drive down the gravel road from Democracy, and has the distinct reputation of being the oldest operating tasting room in the state: Mountain Cove Vineyards. Al Weed (who has dabbled in local politics as well as crafting wine) offers visitors a truly Virginia wine tasting experience. The tasting room is located inside a ramshackle cabin that hasn't been updated since the mid 70s (the tasting room opened in 1974). Al's wine selection has not changed for many years - a red blend called "Tinto," a delicious (and light) red blend of Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin, and Skyline White, their signature wine and the only winery in Virginia still producing this much wine from Villard Blanc variety, slightly sweet with a touch of effervescence. And then there are the fruit wines: Apple, peach and blackberry, which will please fans who may have been disappointed at the dry offerings at stop 2 (Democracy). The name Mountain Cove derives from the location; the vineyards and winery are surrounded by peaks of the Blue Ridge and one feels as if he or she has been temporarily beamed to southern Germany. Al doesn't plan on offering new varietals anytime soon; these are the wines he does best. And with no bottle over $15, you can load up.

The final stop must be in the top ten of Notebook favorites, based on the number of times we've spotlighted this location. Wintergreen Winery is located off county highway 151, near the entrance to Wintergreen Resort. Nestled along the babbling Rockfish River, Wintergreen offers the best of both worlds: A large events building and an intimate tasting room and gift shop perfect for finding holiday gifts for the wino in your family. The star varietal here is Chardonnay; Black Rock Chardonnay offers the perfect combination of crispness and mellow oak (and the bloggers are not fans of oaky whites). Blends rule supreme here and on the red side of the scale, Three Ridges Red gets two enthusiastic thumbs up; a blend of Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, with distinct notes of cigar and tart cherry. This red can be paired with pretty much anything, from shellfish to pasta, mainly due to its blending of lighter and more mineral reds (Chambourcin and Cab Franc, respectively). The picnic tables next to the Rockfish River are inviting every time of the year, including winter if you've brought your coat. Things don't get more relaxing than imbibing in Wintergreen's blends and listening to the babbling river.

There are many other stops in this quadrant of the Monticello AVA that we've spotlighted before. Really, you can't go wrong with this section of Virginia. Wine it, and/or beer it - enjoy the fruits of Jefferson's beloved Monticello AVA.

Featured winery links:

Afton Mountain Vineyards
Democracy Vineyards
Mountain Cove Vineyards
Wintergreen Winery

Other Southwest Monticello AVA wineries:
Veritas Vineyard
Cardinal Point Winery
DelFosse Vineyards
Flying Fox Vineyard
Lovingston Winery

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


The Notebook confesses that The Barns at Hamilton Station Vineyards is not exactly new, especially since wineries in Loudoun County are opening faster than we can keep track of. However we thought for the past two years that The Barns (as they like to be called) was an offshoot of nearby Hunters Run Wine Barn, partially due to its name. We also knew that Hunters Run's owners, Geri and Greg Nolan, were planning to expand their location, so color us confused.

The Barns, like Hunters Run, is technically located in the small town of Hamilton, which has a distinctive yet small "downtown" that straddles business route 7 between Leesburg and Purcellville. Most folks skip the business route in favor of the more familiar bypass, but there are some charming old homes in Hamilton. Postal codes are wacky in Loudoun County. Notaviva Vineyards, a mere 2 miles from the West Virginia border, is located in Purcellville, according to the post office. However the downtown of Purcellville is about 15 miles away from Notaviva. Sunset Hills Vineyards, which is very close to the Hamilton-listed Barns at Hamilton Station, also has a Purcellville address. One day we'd like to see a historic map of the county to see how these town limits appeared; probably similar to the large "townships" found in other states like Pennsylvania (townships are more like mini counties than traditional towns).

Enough geography....on to the location, and the wine. The Barns at Hamilton Station is, big surprise, located inside a barn, like so many wineries in the county. As the case with nearby Sunset Hills Vineyards and Willowcroft, the barn has been lovingly restored, and the builders incorporated artifacts found scattered around the pre-restoration barn (such as old license plates and rusty tools) into the tasting room décor. While the barn at Sunset Hills received a rather slick upgrade courtesy of crafty Amish carpenters, the barn at Barns at Hamilton Station retains more ruggedness. Plus, a gas fireplace (real wood fire being understandably too hazardous). Wood naturally absorbs sound, so even when the location gets crowded (and the inevitable live band is playing), you can still hear your table's conversation. Needless to say, the interior of The Barns works wonders during the cold months:

The Barn has a lower level that is rented for events (there was a wedding supply "Expo Hall" type exhibit going on the day we visited). Wedding supplies and winery....sounds like a match made in heaven. If there is an event in this space, the parking lot of the Barns at Hamilton Station may look busier than the tasting room itself is, so don't let that discourage you from visiting the winery.

The wine offerings are fairly typical of what you would find in Virginia: Viognier, with notes of apricot and fig; Chardonnay, slightly oaked and a bit more complex than other Chardonnays found in the area; Cab Franc, a bit lighter than other Francs offering notes of cherry; Merlot, a bit light and with a nice hint of oak. Nothing truly remarkable (yet...) about these wines but all good and satisfying. This is a new location and their prices are more competitive than other new wineries, which frequently price their wines on the high side ($25 and up) to make up for initial expenses. You can get away with that pricing in "recession proof" Northern Virginia, so we were pleased with The Barns' decision to keep prices a little lower (however no bottle is less than $20).

Since this winery is in Northern Virginia, expect to wait for a tasting. This is becoming the norm in the area, unless you get out to winery country early (arrive by opening time, 11 AM for most locations). Despite the number of new wineries in Loudoun County, the tasting rooms are always hopping. And Loudoun County now unfortunately suffers from "winery gridlock" on the roads, particularly route 9 (Charles Town Pike) heading from route 7 towards Harpers Ferry and Charles Town, where many wineries dot the highway. The Barns compensates for their busy factor by offering an ancillary tasting table, created with flat piece of wood and two barrels, as well as their regular tasting bar on busy days.

Outside, a deck, with a view of an unusual shaped pond, lets you forget you're only 8 minutes from downtown Leesburg. We were happy to see no McMansions in sight, which is becoming rare for wineries in the county. With such close proximity to the DC area, The Barns make a terrific all-day getaway, and if you crave other wineries, the aforementioned Hunters Run Wine Barn and Sunset Hills Winery are only a few minutes away (relatively speaking, depending on the traffic on route 9....).

The tasting barn at The Barns. Firepits await you outside, but arrive early to grab one:

The deck at The Barns:

Link for winery:
Barns at Hamilton Station