Hillsborough Vineyards and Brewery

When it came time to pick sites for a vineyard, Hillsborough hit the jackpot. Resting on a hill at the base of Loudoun Valley, Hillsborough looks like what you’d think a winery SHOULD look like. Great views of the sunset. Long rows of vines in front and behind you. Picturesque stone farmhouse tasting room. Even before tasting the wines (and beer) – how can you not love this place?

The Baki family are the owners. Transplants from Izmir, Turkey, they arrived in the D.C. area in 1978 and eventually founded the farm that would become their vineyard. Their oldest son Kerem may have been the inspiration for this venture; he was studying enology at the time so a vineyard was a good way to support his ambitions.

Zeynep’s art

Today, the Bakis are still very much involved in the business. Kerem is the wine maker, his brother Tolga is the brewer (more onthat in a moment), and Kerem’s wife Asli is their wine club manager. Owners Bora and Zeynep are retired, but the place is decorated with Zeynep’s art.

I’m as much of a vineyard geek as a wine geek, so this place was a huge find for me. Hillsborough loves to experiment with different styles of wines, and grows several varietals of grapes that are difficult to find in the area. I hardly ever see white Merlot – but there’s one here. Roussanne is exceptionally rare in Virginia, but they have a full acre. In fact almost all their wine is produced from their 15 acres of vines.

But their Fer Servadou deserves its own shout-out. Usuallyfound in south-central France (home of Tannat), Hillsborough has the largest planting of Fer in the United States. Dark skinned, medium-bodied but with good tannin, I’d never even heard of this grape until I visited here. But the owners did their homework, and chose Fer as they recognized it would do well in their terroir.

Asli was kind enough to give me a run-down of the family’s history, as well as what they are up to now. I was surprised they no longer host weddings; while it was lucrative weddings were simply too distracting for their regular patrons. Fortunately that means more space for the rest of us to enjoy the patio views that otherwise would have been unavailable.

But what was really fascinating was something much more recent; in late 2018 they opened a brewery on premise! Tolga is their brew master (he also owns Belly Love brewery in Purcellville), so this is one of the few places in Virginia you can enjoy both a pint of beer as well as a glass of wine in the same location.

Of course, no visit to a winery would be complete without talking about the wine.

2016 Vidal Blanc: Light and citrusy

2015 Opal (Petit Manseng): Dry but has what I’d call a heavy nose and body. Notes of honey and figs are good descriptors.

2016 Serefiina (90% Petit Manseng/10% Tannat): Interesting combo; think of it as Petit Manseng with extra bite.

2015 Ruby’s Blush: Very interesting combo of red wines that includes Tannat and Fer Servadou. Very fruity, reminded me of a sangria.

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon: Low tannin for a Cab, lingering pepper notes. Good roundness on the palate. Very nice overall.

2016 Petit Verdot: Smooth, almost chocolaty. Not a bold ‘in your face’ PV.

Not tried this time is their signature wine “Ruby” – a blend of Tannat, Fer, and Petit Verdot. But I’ve had it before and it’s yummy!

Hiddencroft Vineyard

Hiddencroft is about as ‘authentic’ as it gets when it comes to farm wineries. Owners Clyde and Terry Housel are nearly always in the tasting room (at least when he’s not tending to the vineyard) and often have corn bread or another snack on hand as a treat. So hospitality – check. It’s set in an old farm that dates back to the mid-19th century, so rustic charm – check.  Their 6 acres of vines produce 90% of their wines (they have apples, blackberries & cherries too), making them mostly estate. So ‘authenticity’- check; the trifecta is complete.

Clyde’s philosophy is “no wine before its time”. One of the qualities that defines his wines is how long he lets them age; anywhere from 22 months to 42 months. One of my favorites was his (now sold out) 2009 Merlot, which was available for purchase until very recently. I mean seriously; where else can you find a wine that is nearly 10 years old in Virginia? I’m happy to find places serving wines that are 3 years behind the current date. But here – for the reds think 4 or 5 years, and even older wines are available by the bottle.

History is another defining feature here. Hiddencroft has seasonal history tours of the farm, taking you to the renovated spring house, summer kitchen, and curing house, with storytelling and wine/food pairings at each stop. Even while I was visiting, the family of the previous owners came by and were telling stories about how they would visit the place years ago. If you’re lucky Clyde will bring out the old farm ledger that goes back to 1875, or show you the sketch of the original property boundaries.

Clyde says he’s a self taught wine maker. You could fool me though; there’s nothing ‘amateur’ about what he makes. Hiddencroft produces 1,500 cases/year and grows a number of varietals. But in addition to making mostly off dry or dry wines they have a large assortment of fruit wines. Before anybody scoffs at fruit wines try these first because DANG…these are really good!

What I tried:

2017 Cabernet Franc Rose: Very light, which surprised me coming from this grape

2017 Chambourcin Rose: Lots of zing, with watermelon notes

2016 Chardonnay: Made in steel and oak

2017 Traminette: Reminded me of drinking flowers

Dutchman’s Creek (NV): Great nose, big mouthfeel, fruity; simply amazing

2014 Chambourcin Reserve: 4 years in barrel. Big and bold for a Chambourcin but not a fruit bomb.

2014 Cabernet Franc: Very smooth, not spicy, and lighter than I expected

2015 Petit Verdot: 3 years in barrel. I would have expected this to be bold but it wasn’t; in fact it was downright fruity.

2012 Tannat: Very different from other Tannats I’ve had lately but loved it. Expresso notes, f ull bodied

Blackberry wine: 2/3 blackberry and 1/3 Chambourcin; great combo that I never would have expected, and one of the best of the lineup

Vitus Rubus: Lots of fruit! Raspberry/Chambourcin blend

Persephone’s Punch: 100% blueberry wine, very intense.

Not tried today but old favorites of mine are the amazing cherry wine and “Grandma’s Love Potion”, which is a blueberry wine made into a port-style.

Casanel owner Nelson DeSouza

If Nelson DeSouza wrote an autobiography, nobody would believe it. Born in 1942 in an impoverished part of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the man is a rags-to-riches tale come true.

I first met him around 2014 when I started exploring the Virginia wine scene. The guy was – is – charismatic as heck. Even today, at 76 years young Nelson still mows the lawn and does handiwork around the property (ask him about the tables he’s crafted from wood taken from the property – he’s very proud of them). Nelson started off by telling me how he was born with a hammer in his arm; at first I thought he was bragging. An hour later, I came to believe it.

Nelson first visited the U.S. in 1957 on a 90-day visa to visit his father, a naval officer who at the time was stationed in the here as part of a submarine purchase deal. The culture shock was profound, but it left enough of an impression on him that he resolved to return as soon as he could. That turned out to be a 5 year delay, but eventually he made it.

He started off doing carpentry and other odd jobs until moving on to construction. From there, he became a businessman (he still brags about his concrete business) and eventually starting Casanel Vineyards – joined by two daughters who also work with him.

To me, Neslon is the epitome of the “American Dream”. He was kind enough to share part of his story.

“When I was a baby, my parents didn’t have a crib; they took two chairs and put them together and put the box on top of it. That was my crib. We didn’t have electricity. But when you’re born an American, it’s like you’re born in a golden crib.”

“I didn’t know how poor I was until I asked my father for a bicycle. But a new bike would cost him 6 months of his salary. So when I was 12 I worked some jobs until I could buy my own bicycle. It’s not like here in the USA, where you can get a new bike every year. That bike was at least 10 years old, but I had my bike”.

“My father worked in the naval attaché office in the USA. I visited him in September 1957 on a 90 day visa. I didn’t know what to do, so I worked little jobs, building things. America was paradise! So after I left, it was like going to hell. I had to wait 5 years in hell until I could get back to paradise.”

“Would you take responsibility for someone you didn’t know? Maybe for a month? How about a year? My father knew an Argentinian-Brazilian man named Julio Gallo. He convinced Julio to write me a Letter of Call so I could immigrate to the USA.  Julio figured he could find work for me since he saw me working when I was visiting. He had to sign a document promising to take responsibility for me for 5 years. Would you take responsibility for someone you barely knew for 5 years?”

“I went to the US embassy in Rio for my interview. The ambassador was the most important man in the country. He asked me a lot of questions; I only had a 2nd grade education so I thought I was going to fail. Then he asked me if I was a communist. I told him – my father was a Naval officer; I wanted to go to the USA to work. How could I be a communist? Eventually he had me raise my right hand and swear. Then I got to return to paradise. I was born again on September 22, 1962. That’s my American birthday”

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Casanel Vineyard and Winery

I’m biased when it comes to discussing Casanel; not only is it the very first winery I’ve ever been to, it set a high bar for every subsequent winery I’ve ever visited. It’s small enough that the owners greet you and remember your name, yet also produces high-quality wine. Heck – EVERY winery should be judged by this standard.

While a lot of wineries are family-run businesses, few of them put the owners as front & center into their story as this places does. Even the name “Casanel” is a combination of the first names of the owners (Casey + Nelson = Casanel).

Speaking of which, you can’t talk about Casanel without discussing owner Nelson DeSouza. Nelson is an immigrant from Brazil who arrived here when he was 20 and worked various construction jobs until he became a businessman himself. He’s also one of the most charming, colorful guys I’ve ever met. Nelson can say he literally made Casanel from the ground up; it was his business that built the tasting room, he renovated the old log cabin into a home, and he personally crafted the wooden tables from trees taken off the property.

While the place brims with his personality, the ladies of Casanal balance things out. Both daughters work here; Katie is the winemaker; Anne their general manager. A third lady was also a key contributor; Katell Griaud was their wine consultant for several years, and hers and Katie’s names are the initials of their “K2” red blend (Katell now works at nearby Slater Run). So “machismo” – this palace is not.

Katie guided me through a tasting. With 7 acres of vines & a production of 1000 cases/year, they are mostly estate but still get some fruit from elsewhere in Virginia (including Muse – one of my favorite vineyards in the state). The view was really picturesque as well; I mean seriously; who gets tired of looking at a vineyard next to a pond?

As you can expect, Katie was really proud of her wines; she’s one of the few lady wine makers in all Virginia. Between herself and Katell you might say their wines have a feminine touch; the reds tend to be low on tannin as opposed to in-your-face bold, and they were willing to experiment with styles and varietals you don’t see elsewhere in Virginia.

Casanel also holds the distinction one of the few places in the state that grows Carménère; a grape that originated in Bordeaux but now basically extinct there. To date their Carménère is the only 100% varietal made in Virginia. She also makes Loudoun County’s first vintage sparkling wine. You WON’T find wine slushies or sangria here!

The wines were generally dry, but were soft enough that my sweet-wine loving friend enjoyed a lot of the samples. What I tried:

2017 Elliana: Pinot Gris; bright & summery, lemon notes. Made without malolactic fermentation to retain the fruitiness.

2017 Patricia Marie: Another Pinot Gris but this one has some American Oak, French Oak, and some steel. Toasty and some vanilla notes; nice complexity

Full Nelson: Norton port-style made in Cognac barrels. Sweet but not overly alcohol-y.

2017 Chardonnay: Light, bright and good acid

“Jose” Rose: Strawberry notes and great color but otherwise clean

2016 K2: Bordeaux blend: Medium body with a long finish. Strong fruit notes; enough so that my sweet-wine drinking friend really enjoyed despite it being a dry red

2016 Cabernet Sauvignon: Plumb and spice notes but no pepper.

2016 Carménère: Spicy! Also notes of clove and cherry. Not coincidentally, declared the best Carménère in North America by the San Francisco Wine Competition.

2016 Petit Verdot: 18 months in oak (half that new French oak). Well rounded but lower on the tannin. Katie called this a “feminine PV”

White Spark sparking (made in the methode champenoise): Full of mineral and apple notes; I liked it a lot!