From the ocean to the bay to the hills and mountains, towns and villages in Virginia offer something for everyone. In Part 2 of our wine weekend getaway series, we will spotlight another section of the Commonwealth: The Northern Neck.
The Northern Neck is the peninsula surrounded on three sides by water: The Potomac River to the north, the Rappahannock River to the south, and the Chesapeake Bay to the east. This is a very historical area, rich in both Civil War and Revolutionary War sites, and is home to George Washington's birthplace. The terroir here is similar to that on the Eastern Shore, albeit a bit more clay mixing with the loamy, sandy soil found on the Eastern Shore. This means bold, Old World style reds and crisp, dry traditional white varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio.
The Northern Neck is bisected by state route 3, which passes through several towns before meandering to the base of the peninsula near Kilmarnock, Irvington, and White Stone (near the mouth of the Rappahannock). Like the Eastern Shore, this area is a waterman's paradise, and as a quick getaway for the weekend could be preferred over the Eastern Shore, as there is no bay bridge (or bridge tunnel) to traverse.
Crabs and peanuts reign supreme here, and several wine varietals fare surprisingly well with both foods (including spiced crab flavored peanuts).
Despite the geographical size of the Northern Neck, it is easy traveled. There are no really big towns and no cities, and the roads rarely get congested. You could drop anchor at the lower end of the NN (in Irvington or Kilmarnock), or closer to the middle part of the peninsula (in Warsaw, or Tappanannock, which is across the Rappannock but only a stone's throw away from the river).
Because of the geographical scope of this region, we will violate our earlier rule and spotlight three wineries. If you begin the jaunt at the far end of the Northern Neck, Athena Vineyards is a perfect place to start. Athena is the perfect name for a winery owner by three nurses: Ada Jacox, Carol Spengler, and Ruth Harris. All three of these extremely gracious ladies possess PhDs, and their backgrounds must come in handy when negotiating the three branches of science involved in grape growing and winemaking: Geology, biology and chemistry, with a healthy dose of meteorology in there for good measure (respectively, from planting to wine creation).
The influence here is definitely Mediterranean, with the Chesapeake Bay being not far away and the vineyards overlooking one of its tributaries, the Great Wicomico River. Their spectrum of red and white varietals through the years includes nearly every wine the Commonwealth is known for: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Tannat, Chambourcin, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Vidal Blanc, Chardonnel, Seyval Blanc, Traminette, and Vignoles. Missing are Norton and Petit Manseng, although we understand the latter could be arriving in the future. Of the reds, all were solid winners, but our hands down favorite is Galleon's Treasure Red, 70% Chambourcin and 30% Cabernet Franc. This is an aromatic dry red wine that works great with ribs and other barbecued meats.
As for the whites, their Pinot Grigio was a favorite, very crisp and refreshing with notes of grapefruit and honeysuckle. We paired it with a grilled beer brat, and the pairing was perfect. Athena's White is an off-dry style (Vidal Blanc and Seyval Blanc) that pairs well with Chesapeake soft shell crabs. Their most intriguing wine is "Safe Harbor Red," an 18% port-style wine, available in a ship-shaped bottle (a perfect holiday gift). The tasting room is charming and and low-key and the hospitality of the owners makes it hard to leave.
But moving on.........driving back up the peninsula, through the town of Warsaw, look for signs for one of the most unusual wineries in the state, Belle Mount Vineyards. This location is unusual from the moment you pull into their gravel road. Belle Mount Vineyards is located on a camp ground that also rents full-furnished cabins (a steal at $95 a night during off-season). Owners Ray and Catherine Petrie bought the campground in the '90s and began experimenting with grape growing in the early '00s. Their wines are unique; there are no other wines in the state quite like them, despite coming from familiar varietals (Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot). This could be because their "picnic wines" (table blends) seem to overshadow the others in their tastes and labels (one wine comes packaged in a lighthouse bottle, which nicely compliments the ship bottle from Athena for those looking for gift ideas). The "Lighthouse White" is an off-dry blend similar to Athena's White.
The two table reds, Lighthouse Rouge and Workboat Red, are off-sweet Chambourcin-based blends, good for pairing with spiced shrimp, crabs or oysters that are the staple foods of this region in Virginia. The Notebook's favorite style here was the Chardonnay, just the right amount of oak, with notes of vanilla and nutmeg.
The location is directly on Cat Point Creek, a finger of the Rappahannock River. And completing the winery-in-a-campground vibe, a Coke machine is located right outside the tasting room.
The final destination on this wine tour of the Northern Neck is the creatively named The Hague Winery. Taking its name from the nearby town (Hague, VA, not "The Hague," VA), this location has its roots in tobacco history. Many vineyards in the Commonwealth were once tobacco fields, but you really feel the tobacco vibe here (in fact, the day we visited, the Great Dismal Swamp was burning due to a lightning storm, and the smoke carried as far as 100 miles north—the smoke in the air added to that tobacco sensation).
The Hague Winery vineyards:
Like Belle Mount, The Hague Winery offers a cottage for nightly rentals, making this another intimate alternative weekend getaway destination over the more crowded Charlottesville and Shenandoah Valley winery spots.
This wine is making its mark with Chardonel, a hybrid developed at Cornell University made from Chardonnal and Seyval grapes (hence the name) along with Petit Manseng. Currently, two Chardonels are offered: 2011 and 2013. The 2011 is the preferred (by the Notebook, at least), and won a Silver Medal at the 2013 Virginia's Governors Cup. Crisp and floral, with notes of almonds. The 2013 is not shabby either, drier in mouth feel than the 2011.
Merlot, Cab Franc and a very hearty (and worthy of comparisons to the best French Bordeauxs) 2010 Meritage represent the reds at The Hague. This Meritage is comprised of Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Cab Sauv, and seeing how 2010 was one of the best growing seasons for Virginia, the bottle will age for years. For the wine lover in your family, pick up a bottle ($29, which is about the average price of a less impressive wine from a Northern Virginia winery) and complete the trifecta you started with the Galleon's Treasure Red from Athena and Lighthouse White from Belle Mount.
The Hague is really a wonderful experience. Their outdoor seating is under a large pergola with a view of the vineyards, remaining plantation buildings and farm. Most likely you will not encounter the smoky air from a burning swamp when you visit, but you will most certainly get the feeling that this was a Colonial working farm.
Winery links (click on winery name):
Belle Mount Vineyards
The Hague Winery
Besides the cabins offered at Belle Mount and The Hague, there are several motels found in the towns on the Northern Neck, not to mention B&Bs.
Northern Neck Inn (Warsaw)
Holiday Inn Express (Kilmarnock)
Whispering Pines Motel (White Stone)
Days Inn (Tappahannock)
Other wineries to visit on the Northern Neck:
Southern peninsula (Kilmarnock/Irvington area):
Good Luck Cellars
Middle peninsula (Warsaw/Montross area):
Vault Fields Vineyard
General's Ridge Vineyard
Northern peninsula (Colonial Beach area):
Oak Crest Vineyard