Saturday, June 21, 2014

A Creek Runs Through It (Part I)

One common trait to several wineries in the Commonwealth is a creek, stream, brook, river (whatever term you wish to apply) running through the property. Visiting wineries in the country is always a treat; crossing a narrow one lane bridge that spans a creek is one of the driving pleasures. We can think of at least 15 wineries in Virginia where guests have to cross a creek, and after enjoying an intimate tasting with the owners, visitors can enjoy a bottle (or 2, or 3) on the banks of the same creek.

A few wineries in the state already spotlighted by the Notebook with creeks/streams/rivers running through them: Sharp Rock Vineyards (Sperryville), DuCard Vineyards (near Madison), Rogers Ford Winery (near Culpeper), Unicorn Winery (west of Warrenton), and Wintergreen Winery (south of Waynesboro).

To this list, we can add two relatively new locations in Virginia, the subject of this and a forthcoming Notebook blog. The first, Cedar Creek Winery, has been making wine for about five years and selling its product to retail outlets throughout the state for nearly as long. We've been intrigued with visiting Cedar Creek Winery for years, and prior to 2014, the winery was open by appointment only. We just never made it out there. Until recently. And yes, the trip was well worth the wait.

Owner/winemaker Ron Schmidt is a New Jersey native who moved to the northern Shenandoah Valley, southwest of Winchester, after falling in love with the land, views, and people. A visit to his winery is unlike any other experience you're likely to have in the state. Don't expect live bands, festivals, bachelorette parties, kids and dogs running around, and a spot that resembles an outdoor Wolf Trap concert; Cedar Creek is all about the wines. Specifically, two wines: Cab Franc and Chardonnay. He's perfected these two varietals and is adamant about not breaking off into growing other grapes. The land is perfect for Cab Franc and Chardonnay. If you're a fan of off-dry or off-sweet (or pure sweet) wines, you won't find much in the way of wine here to enjoy. So embrace your role as designated driver, and let your dry varietal fans go crazy.

Vertical tastings rule this tasting room. You will be treated to vintages from different years of both varietals. It is an educational tasting experience. All the while being entertained by Schmidt, who speaks passionately about his retirement "hobby" turned lucrative business. He explains that he does not allow any sub par fruit to enter his crush pad room. In fact, in 2011, a very wet and poor growing year for Virginia wines, a little less than half of his Cab Franc crop was dropped on the vineyard grass for the deer and birds to eat. Rot had invaded many of the grape clusters. What was left was crafted into a relatively lighter style of Cab Franc that was so noble, it won a Governor's Cup Bronze Medal in 2013. During our tasting, we enjoyed the 2011 and 2012 Chardonnays (the former with citrus fruit notes and on the crisp side; the latter with a more tropical and cream finish), and the 2008 through 2011 Cab Francs. Ron explained that 2013 was another poor year and visitors should not expect a 2013 Cab Franc. He will get by on his library of earlier vintages; he refuses to buy and offer wines from other nearby wineries.
Although he is not adverse to directing folks to other nearby locations. North Mountain Vineyards, another longtime favorite of the Notebook, is 15 minutes up the road, across the actual North Mountain, which boasts an incredible view of the Shenandoah Valley (although the road is narrow up the mountain and finding a spot for photo taking may be a challenge).

New vineyards at Cedar Creek Winery, June 2014:

A visit to Cedar Creek Winery includes a tour of the vineyards, and a fast-paced (again, that Jersey influence) but extremely informative visit to the barrel room. Then up to the tasting room, decorated with fascinating curios Ron has acquired over the years from antique shopping. His prices are extremely good: Not one bottle over $20. He commented that other wineries in the state price their bottles higher than they should be, because of their business model. This is absolutely true: Wineries set up as "jack of all trades" entertainment centers have higher overhead, hence their prices. There is no shortage of such locations in Virginia. Cedar Creek Winery is all about the wine, the best vintages he can create.

Fresh vineyard, up close, at Cedar Creek:

Cedar Creek itself was the location of one of the bloodiest skirmishes during the Civil War. Located only 8 minutes from the West Virginia border, you are in the heart of the mountains here. And the aura of Civil War spirits fill the air. Going along with his "not an entertainment venue" policy, Cedar Creek Winery offers no food sales. He welcomes outside food, but during our visit he and his wife were generous with bags of Lance brand cheese crackers, which worked just fine with the bottle of Chard we consumed.

The line up at Cedar Creek Winery:

Experience some of the best creations the Shenandoah Valley AVA has to offer. And if you crave entertainment and can tear yourself away from this little piece of "almost Heaven," North Mountain Vineyards is a perfect second stop.

For URL click here: Cedar Creek Winery

Friday, June 6, 2014

CHAM-BOUR-CIN Good Times Come On!

Chambourcin is a red hybrid that is becoming extremely popular in the Commonwealth - particularly in the northern part of the state, the region close to Washington DC. This is due to a variety of factors: The soil in northern Virginia (as well as Maryland, and especially Pennsylvania, where Chambourcin has pretty much become the state red) is perfectly suited for it, more so than the southern and central parts of Virginia, and as a Chianti-like lighter (but complex) red wine, it's been called "the red wine for white wine drinkers." For new wine fans just discovering Virginia vino, but still accustomed to bottles of wine with flip flops and cupcakes on the labels, Chambourcin is a great crossover wine to introduce them to drier style reds.

The history of Chambourcin is a bit of a mystery. If you visit a winery that produces the hybrid, you will get a different story about the grape. One winery advised the blogmasters that Chambourcin originated in the Finger Lakes region of New York, in a laboratory at Cornell University to be exact. We have visited the Finger Lakes area numerous times and have found the red varietal in only a few tasting rooms there, so we wonder about that theory.

Another theory provided by Virginia's Claude DelFosse (who we recently discovered passed away last year after a short bout with cancer) has the hybrid's origins in his native France. Being French and possessing that notorious strong opinion, he was quite adamant about this theory.

Based on our research, we found that DelFosse did in fact speak the truth. Chambourcin was developed by Joannes Seibel in the Loire Valley of France, based on a number of undetermined Native American species and Seibel hybrids. Released in the early 1960s, plantings increased steadily in the cool coastal Nantes region of the western Loire Valley in France. It is very possible then that Finger Lakes wine pioneers such as Dr. Konstantin Frank worked with the hybrid, as many Finger Lakes region wineries had their first plantings in the '60s (although as of this writing, Dr. Frank does not offer a Chambourcin).

Pennsylvania realized its soil and climate are quite perfect for the grape, and most wineries in the Keystone state offer it in their tasting rooms. In Virginia, the wine can be found in many Northern Virginia spots as well as higher elevation locations in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains.

Our Top Five Virginia Chambourcins:

It's always a challenge to select five wines in Virginia that stand out as Best of the Best. We have yet to come across a Chambourcin that is not dangerously drinkable in the Commonwealth. This said, five are a little more interesting (complex) than others, and more likely to win over a serious California bold red wine fanatic.

5. Willowcroft Farm Winery (south of Leesburg)

4. Hiddencroft Vineyards (northern Loudoun County near Lovettsville)

3. Fabbioli Cellars (northern Loudoun County near Lucketts)

2. Old House Vineyards (near Culpeper)
"Wicked Bottom" is the name of their Chambourcin and it's the best wine Old House offers (although all of their wines are good to excellent). Complex but approachable enough for those new to (or comfortable with) red wine. Notes of black currant, plum and smoke.

1. Zephaniah Farm Vineyard (south of Leesburg near Willowcroft)
This is one of our favorite wineries in Northern Virginia; in all of Virginia, as a matter of fact. Once you turn on to their gravel driveway, you are transported to a scene that is European in atmosphere, but laid back California or Oregon in vibes. Their chambourcin has won over diehard red varietal (Red Zin, Pinot Noir and Cab Sauv) fans in the blogmasters' families. Bold yet smooth, with notes of black cherry, pepper and leather.

Get out this weekend and open your taste buds up to this intriguing red wine!