North Mountain Vineyard

My second stop of the day. North Mountain is one of the older vineyards in Virginia, founded in 1982 by a couple who loved Germany so much they built a German themed winery. I’d been there a bunch of times, especially because this is one of the few places that my dry and sweet-wine drinking friends could equally agree was a hit.

The tasting room looks like a Bavarian inn, but the similarities don’t stop there. This is one of the few places in Virginia that grows Austrian/German-style grapes, including Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt. They even have a yearly Octoberfest-themed event to top the theme off.

15 acres are planted, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and several hybrids. Situated right between two close mountain ranges in the Shenandoah Valley, it’s also in one of the best grape-growing regions in the state due to its low rainfall and high elevation. I’ve long been an advocate for Shenandoah wines; I just wish they were closer!

The winery is currently up for sale for $2 million – for those willing to become full-fledged farmers. I admire the dedication of those who can make that commitment. But personally, I’d rather just drink wine than make it.

2017 Zweigelt Rose: North Mountain is the only grower of this grape in Virginia. A cross between Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent (itself a child of Pinot Noir), it’s a soft-tannin red that grows well in cool climates.

2016 Vidal Blanc: Strong lemon notes.

2017 Grüner Veltliner: Another rarity in Virginia. Full bodied for a white; you might call this a white wine for red drinkers. White peppercorn and lemon notes.

2017 Zweigelt: Pink-orange in color, dry. Cranberry notes.

2017 Sonnenburg (Cabernet Sauvignon): Bright, almost sweet for a red.

2017 Cabernet Franc: Fruit forward.

Tom’s Brook (75% Chambourcin/25% Cab Sauv): Very fruity!

Spice Apple Wine: I’m a sucker for apple wine, and I especially liked this one. It reminded me of mulled cider with all spice notes.

Not tried this trip were the Petit Verdot, Riesling, or Mountain Midnight (a sweet, high alcohol Chambourcin that my sweet-wine loving friends loved).

Valerie Hill Vineyard

The first stop of a leisurely (if rainy) Friday of visiting wineries. I’m not saying that drinking wine isn’t a good enough reason to visit a winery – it IS, and I do it all the time. That said, I love scenic drives and historic homes as well. When you combine all three, it’s like a magnet.

Located at the northern edge of the Shenandoah Valley, Valerie Hill is a brick manor house dating back to 1807 and was used as a hospital during the Civil War – an important part of its history. Even now, it feels very homey. It’s not often you get to enjoy your wine & cheese plate while sitting in the drawing room of a manor, while looking at an authentic Civil War uniform on display (with bullet holes!).

Currently they have 6 acres of vines – all hybrids. This is supplemented by fruit from the Shenandoah AVA, allowing them to produce around 4000 cases/year. Mike Shaps is the winemaker, which is a good fit since it allows them to pull from a wide number of vineyards.

Besides the wine, Valerie Hill also famous for its ghost stories – including one of a child who was declared insane and sequestered to the attic. Add to this the apparitions of Civil War dead you have yourself a no-kidding haunted home. I haven’t done it yet, but they also have dinners where they go into greater detail about their paranormal sightings. And yes – guests HAVE been known to report such sightings.

Josh was the tasting room manager on duty, and he loved talking about his wines as much as I loved trying them. I lucked out that he even pulled a bottle of their 2012 Petit Verdot off the shelf. SCORE!!!

What I tried:

2018 Seyval Blanc: Lemon notes.

2017 Antebellum (50/50 Chardonnay/Viognier blend): Light and peachy.

2017 Chardonnay: Reminiscent of California Chardonnays, with a creamy butter finish.

2017 Manor House White: Vidal/Riesling blend with some Traminette, made in stainless steel. Green apple notes.

2017 Cabernet Franc: Light color and some cherry notes; I liked this a lot. Maybe it’s still young, but I was surprised to see this is a Cab Franc given the lack of spice, bell pepper or tobacco notes.

2017 Reserve Merlot: Earthy up front but smooths out; another winner. Josh described the taste as ‘wet slate’. Maybe I need to lick more chalk boards to be sure?

2017 Stone Chimney (Cab Franc/Merlot) Tasting young; very tart and bright. It was almost sweet but not sugar sweet. Sweet wine lovers would appreciate this red.

2016 John Barron (Petit Verdot): “Fat” was the key adjective here (high fruit but low acid). Dark berry notes.

2012 John Barron (PV): Bold, strong on the plumb. I really loved this one.

Rosemont of Virginia Winery

As they say – you should save the best for last. Rosemont qualifies for that distinction.

I first encountered Rosemont’s wines while visiting Early Mountain. It’s rare for me to not immediately recognize the name of a Virginia winery; when I looked them up I realized why! Located in the far southern reaches of the state, it’s definitely…out of the way…shall we say?

Roots go deep here – and I’m not just talking about the vineyard. Now on its sixth generation, the Rose family has owned this land since 1858, with patriarch Stephen turning the historic family farm into a vineyard in 2003. Son Justin is the wine maker, and his wife Aubrey is their marking manager. Aubrey was kind enough to invite me over for a pre-opening tasting before I returned home (obviously I was quick to accept).

The drive in rewards you with a fantastic view of the tasting room overlooking rows of grape vines. The building looks historic but that’s slightly deceiving; it was finished in 2008 using wood from old tobacco barns, making it a mix of the old and new.

Good wine needs good grapes, and this place delivers. They have 27 acres of vines, mostly French varietals. It’s not a matter of luck this is one of a handful southern Virginia wineries that has successfully focused on vinifera; famed viticulturist Lucie Morton helped set their vineyard up years ago. A few hybrids are also in the mix, including Chardonel (the lovechild of Seyval Blanc and Chardonnay). Not seen often enough, Lucie is a big advocate for Chardonel as it does well in the state’s climate.

I could probably do an entire blog on Rosemont’s geography – it’s just that fascinating to me. Aubrey called their location “The Bracey bubble”, named after the local town. See, Rosemont is very close to Lake Gaston, a man-made reservoir whose beaches are also a major tourist draw. As lakes are helpful in deflecting storm fronts (cold lakes can generate a dense pocket of cold air that steals the ‘fuel’ needed for warm-air generated storms), it’s not unknown for rain to be pouring just a few miles away but leave Rosemont relatively unscathed.

Rosemont is this area’s biggest producer by far; 6000 cases/year, 1000 of which goes wine club alone. Their customers are a mix of tourists, part-time residents with second homes around the lake, and locals who are more casual wine drinkers. I imagine this eclectic mix of wine drinkers requires Rosemont to be flexible in the styles of wines they produce.

Lucky for me, lots of bottles were opened. Of course I had to try them – it would have been impolite not to.

Brut Chardonel: I really enjoyed this one; green apple notes. Made in the Charmat method (a cost-effective means of producing sparking where secondary fermentation is done in a large tank vs the bottle; it’s the same method used for prosecco). Very dry.

Traminette: As is common with this grape, it had a big nose coupled with soft mouthfeel and good acid. Made in steel. At 0.5 sugar it could satisfy a sweet-drinker.

Virginia White: 70% Vidal/30% Chardonnay. Easy drinking.

Block A: Fancy name for their Pinot Grigio/Chardonel blend (OK not so fancy, but they needed a name and this worked in a pinch). Strawberry notes.

2018 Lineage (100% Chardonel): Hits that sweet spot of having juuuust enough oak without overpowering it. Zesty, hazelnut notes. I ended up taking a bottle home with me.

2018 Rose (Chambourcin): Dry but the brightness fools your palate into thinking it has sweetness to it.

Virginia Red (Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Chambourcin): Fruit forward but with some bite.

2017 Syrah: Complex, chocolaty.

2016 Cabernet Franc: The fruit notes were practically jumping out of the glass. Fruity but not pepperty.

2017 Merlot: Bold, black cherry and bramble fruit notes. Strong finish.

2016 Kilvarock (Bordeaux style). Signature red blend. Great complexity! Very good.

1858 (red blend): Club red blend with Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Petit Verdot/Tannat. Also very good.

Vidal Blanc: Semi sweet, easy drinking.

Blackridge Red: Semi-sweet Cabernet Sauvignon.

Vermouth: Fun fact – vermouth is actually a wine! And only the second one in Virginia that I know of (along with Flying Fox). Great nose with powerful botanical notes. I liked it but probably better as a cocktail mixer.

Virginia Tasting Cellar

The last stop of my southern Virginia AVA trip. But this stop wasn’t to a winery – it’s something unique in my Virginia travels.

See, not all Virginia wineries are accessible to the general public. Some have tasting rooms, but are in the far reaches of the state. Others don’t have tasting rooms at all. Many sell the wines via retail, but that takes away the most fun part – tasting the wines before you buy them.

The solution? Have a multi-winery tasting room which incorporates wines from not just southern Virginia but all over the state. It’s actually a common practice in California and Oregon, but seen limited visibility here. It’s sorta like a wine bar, except nearly all the wines are from places you can actually visit.

You pay a $12 fee and get a wristband with 10 pull-off tokens. There were around 9 bars, all showcasing a different winery (plus a cidery and a brewery). You use your tokens in whatever order you want, one token per tasting.

Jamie and Shannon took turns pouring for me as I (literally) wandered from bar to bar. It was late and bottles were open, so instead of stopping at 10 tastings I had some mini-tastings of a few extra places. My notes are unusually thin because I floated from bar to bar so quickly.

I really love the concept. Virginia wineries tend to be centered on agro-tourism, but unless you love driving that’s not feasible for everyone. Visiting a place like this makes it easy to taste a wide selection in one spot.

The diversity of wines and styles was good too. While I ended up with a lot of fruit-forward wines, I did see some dryer, bolder wines at certain stops (hello again, Hunting Creek! Nice to meet you, Rockbridge Meritage!).

The beer and cider were the biggest surprises. Apparently they change the beer options frequently (it was late so I’ll have to try another time). But I did love those ciders on tap.

Hunts Vineyard

  1. Sauvignon Blanc: Light, pear notes
  2. 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon: Light, strawberry notes

Stanburn Vineyard:

  1. Big A Red (Cabernet Franc and Chambourcin): Fruit forward
  2. High Fly (Traminette and Vidal): Soft, almost citrus notes.

Thatch Vineyard (formerly First Colony)

  1. 016 Meritage: Fruit-forward

Thistle GateSt George: Fruity but bold (80% Chambourcin/20% Cab Franc)

Rockbridge:

  • 2014 Dechiel Meritage (58% Cabernet Sauv, plus Merlot and Cab Franc): Very good!
  • 2014 Tuscarola Red (Chambourcin/Cab Franc/DeChanc): Smooth. DeChaunac a  new grape in my travels

Courthouse Creek:

  • Rostico: Very good; bright but dry with only a hint of sweetness
  • Amuse Buche: Different…
  • Endless Summer: Dry apple and some peach notes
  • Easy breeze: Hop-forward
  • Bella Vita: Ginger infused

American Way Country Wines

When it comes to wineries, American Way is about as different as you can get from your competitors. Not only do they lack vineyards, their wines lack grapes! Every wine is made from fruits or vegetables. If it can be made into a wine, American Way will find a way to do it.

The tasting room is, shall way say, humble – a very non-descript wooden building right off Highway 47. This is strictly a sales room – not a party place. Owner Bill Hill sources his wines from his 15 acres of blackberries, raspberries, apples, pumpkins, strawberries, watermelons, cantaloupe, pear, tomatoes, elderberries and (if that’s not enough) persimmon, making 500-800 gallons of wine a year.

Bill gave me the low-down on his wines as he poured. He started it as a hobby in the 1970s, slowly expanding as he realized he could make a business out of it. Most of his sales comes from festivals, although he takes special orders as well.

18 wines were available for tasting – more than I could possibly try. Instead he guided me through some of his more popular concoctions. A few I tried almost on a dare!

Elderberry: Tart. Cuz your mother was a hamster, and…

Persimmon: Made as an ice-style wine.

Pumpkin: Actually really good; reminded me of a pumpkin donut.

Tomato wine: Yes, really! And it tastes like it sounds.

Sweet plum: Another winner for me.

Sweet blackberry: Very long finish.

Altillo Vineyard and Winery

Altillo (formerly known as Alta Vista) produces some of the best Virginia wines you’ve tasted but didn’t realize the true source of. That’s because its business model is unique in the state; rather than focusing on selling Altillo-labeled wine to customers, it produces wine for other Virginia wineries – a process called custom crush.

Photo cred: Altillo Vineyard

Don’t get me wrong – Altillo DOES have its own wine, and it’s excellent (and at $20/bottle a steal). First planted in 2001, their vineyard has 5 acres of French varietals, including ½ acre of Shiraz. The location is actually an especially nice looking home – just go around the side to access the tasting room.

Photo cred: Altillo Vineyard

Owner Bob Schenkel was pouring for several guests and I joined in around half way through their flight. He explained how years ago he tried running it as a ‘regular’ winery but there wasn’t enough foot traffic in the area to keep it profitable, leading him to focus on custom crush. He’s actually luckier than most – there were more than a few wineries in his area that are no longer in operation, so this move saved the business. Now, wineries elsewhere in Virginia reach out to Altillo when they are short of their own estate wine, or lack the ability (or desire) to make wine themselves.

Photo cred: Altillo Vineyard

Bob’s son is the wine maker; they only use this building for wine making. Hopefully they also rent it out as an Air B&B, because who wouldn’t want to stay overnight in a winery?

What I tried:

16 Chardonnay: My notes fail me except to say made in oak.

17 Viognier: Made in steel. Full bodied for a Viognier, and not a lot of the honeysuckle notes that often define this wine.

17 Cabernet Franc: Spicy – in a good way. No green pepper notes here.

17 Meritage: Also spicy; my palate fooled me into thinking it was Cab Franc heavy but actually it’s not.

17 Shiraz: One of the rare Shiraz plantings in Virginia; a difficult grape to grow but they do it well here. Earthy.

17 Petit Verdot: I can’t wait for this one to be bottled because it’s awesome! Good balance, bold but not too bold, just all around great.

17 Merlot: 2nd favorite after the Petit Verdot, with definite earthy notes.

Rose: Semi-sweet, strawberry-cherry notes.

The only picture I remembered to take!

Hunting Creek Vineyard

Hunting Creek broke the mold of what was in danger of becoming a very repetitive series of Southern Virginia AVA wine blogs. In nearly all my previous (and many subsequent) visits to local wineries, the vineyard was an old farm now growing hybrid or American grapes, or they focused their production on wines using sources other than grapes. But at Hunting Creek, they are dedicated to wonderful, wonderful vinifera.

Owners Milt and Sandy Ligon first planted in 2002 as a purpose-built vineyard. Unlike their neighbors, they knew early on they wanted to focus on vinifera. Fortunately they picked a great location for it – a low hill overlooking the nearby farms. I was shocked to hear that Jason Murray – co owner of Arterra Wines and one of my all-time favorite wine makers – was one of their early consultants. I knew I was going to like this place, but my jaw dropped when they mentioned him.

Finding the winery is a bit of a challenge. The road looks like the beginning of a driveway (somehow I missed the big sign saying “Hunting Creek Vineyards”), and your phone signal is likely to be weak. But after a half mile or so, I found the tasting room – a reconstructed barn that was brought here from New York. Sadly they are only open on Saturdays, so plan appropriately.

Sandy (who’s also the wine maker, BTW) brought me up to speed on the wines. Currently they only have 5 acres of vines (plus a pair of local growers including Pinehaven Vineyard) and make 600-800 cases/year. If they wanted to they could expand a little more, but she seems to like it on the small side. And fun fact – her son Jeremy is the winemaker at Creek’s Edge.

I forget how it got started, but most of the wine names follow the same theme; Decadence; Innocence; Repentance; Indulgence; Confession; Forbidden; Seduction. It’s like going to church, but with better wine! Actually the barn doors did come from an old church, so maybe there’s something to that.

What I tried:

Pure Luck (Viognier & some Chardonnay): Liked it a lot; very dry.

Pinot Gris: Very flowery.

Innocence (Traminette): One of only two hybrids they utilize. I liked it even though I’m not usually a fan of this grape. Kudos for lacking the overpowering nose I’m usually accustomed to.

Rose: Made of Chambourcin (the second hybrid they use).

2017 Indulgence: Signature red blend. Good body, big mouthfeel; I liked it so much I bought 2 bottles. That little bit of Malbec went a long way!

2017 Decadence: 95% Petit Verdot and – unusually enough – 5% Viognier. Unlikely any other PV’s I’ve had recently; very soft.

Repentance: Light, semi-sweet Merlot and Cab Sauv blend (probably from 2018). Not my style, but I bet my sweet-wine drinking friends would go for this.

2016 Seduction: Chambourcin port-style.

Three Sisters of Shiney Rock Winery

Three Sisters is Virginia’s most Southern winery – in geography and character. Once you experience their hospitality, you’d understand why I make that later statement.

Susan – one of the “Three Sisters” – was my wine pourer. She explained how the extended family were long-time tobacco farmers and decided to open a winery to keep the farm going when the tobacco trade died out. Her brother in law Ed is the wine maker, although various family members all help out.

All of Three Sisters’ wines come from their 2 acres of Muscadine and Scuppernong (a white version of Muscadine), along with acres of blackberries and apple orchards. You’ll most likely find them at festivals south of Richmond. That said, a few out of towners also dropped by during my visit, mostly likely traveling to Virginia Beach or local campgrounds. They are otherwise open on Saturdays – “Or whenever you call!”, according to Susan.

Susan praised Muscadine for being easy for wine making and a good fit for the area’s drinking palate – the locals here seem to enjoy their wine on the sweet side. No food is sold on site, although they have a BBQ grill with picnic tables next to the winery.

What I tried:

2016/2017/2018 Muscadine wine flight: Definitely for sweet wine lovers. The 2017 was the fullest bodied, while the 2018 was least so.

2017/2018 Scuppernong. Super clear – which might make you think its light on alcohol. I’m sure it’s a trap to get you to drink a lot without realizing the bottle is already gone.

Pomegranate/Muscadine blend: The pomegranate notes definitely shine through.

Blackberry wine: Very nice! Had a natural sweetness to it.

Apple wine: Tastes like apple pie.

Tomahawk Mill Vineyard

Tomahawk Mill Vineyard wins the award for coolest tasting room – a 19th century flower mill that looks like it can get right back into operation. Winemaker and co-owner Corky Medaglia was already pouring for a visitor, but other than that I had the place to myself. I wandered around the lovely grounds first before I headed inside.

The Medaglias purchased the mill in 1996 in what must have been a pique of madness – the same madness that seems to overcome many aspiring wine makers when they lay their eyes on a piece of historic property that also has a vineyard. Currently they have 4 acres of vines and make around 800 cases/year.

Corky was unintentionally hilarious. A Navy vet who spent some time in Greece, he obviously spends a lot of time chatting up his patrons. While he originally wanted to put the mill back in operation, Corky seems content to let it be while he concentrates on the wine. Tomahawk is open nearly year round, but festivals seem to be where they move most of their wine.

The wines were an eclectic mix of sweet, dry, plus a few outliers. What I tried:

Anister: A Greek-inspired wine that was gin-like. Made of Chardonnay but fermented in pine. Saying it was ‘different’ is an understatement, as that pine really came through.

Non-vintage Chardonnay: Oaked, light with an almost honey flavor.

Chambourcin: Very fruity.

Tobacco Road blues: Chambourcin and Cabernet Sauvignon blend; reminded me of the 100% Chambourcin but not quite as fruity.

Apple wine: Favorite of the lineup. This tasting continued a trend of fruit wine being some of the biggest hits during my visit to this area.

Vidal Blanc: No offense to anybody, but this is just not my grape!

Sweet Concord: Sweet but actually had some bite to it.

Mead: “Old Style” mead; nothing but water and honey.

The Homeplace Vineyard

The Homeplace Vineyard is a small family business / local hangout / winery all wrapped up in a log cabin. The vines were planted in 2005 so they’ve likely been selling wine for a bit. While I bet they do brisk business at festivals, they also have a large event space that seems like a good place for a party. Even after only visiting for a short while, you could tell the place had a laid back, home-away-from-home vibe.

The name is a callback to how the tasting room is on the original location of family’s homestead. Built from the logs of an old tobacco barn, it now looks like a camping cabin. That actually sounds like fun; who wouldn’t want to spend overnight in log cabin on a winery!

The land around us was once produced tobacco, although that industry has long faded away. In need of a way to keep the land productive, the family set up a vineyard instead (another common theme for the area’s wineries).

Penny was my server, and she adeptly talked me through their wine selection. Most of their 9.5 acres of vines are hybrids, although they have some Cabernet Sauvignon as well. This continued a trend in this area of focusing on varietals that are both weather resistant and don’t need expensive chemical spraying. It’s a smart move for smaller operations, especially if their target crowd leans more towards sweet wine.

The wines tended towards sweet, which is a preference in this area. What I tried:

Vidal: Semi sweet, light and easy drinking.

Viognier: Light, but unusual as it lacked the overpowering honeysuckle I find on the nose.

Traminette: Sweet but almost overpowering nose to it, as is common with this grape.

Old Green Tractor (white blend): Traminette heavy, but also with some Viognier.

Strawberry wine: Made from local fruit; great nose and very yummy.

Rockn’ Rose: Tart!

Old Red Tractor: Chambourcin and Cabernet Sauvignon; the biggest bodied red of the bunch.

Chambourcin: Fruity and light.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Light but with some spice.