Virginia Malbecs vs the World

Malbec is a grape that’s grown worldwide but seldom bottled alone. Cahors is its spiritual home but it’s since been adopted by Argentina, one of the few places that bottles 100% Malbec wines. Even Bordeaux considers it something of a stepchild, the least planted grape out of the 5 noble Bordeaux reds.

Out of 3000 planted acres of grapes, Virginia grows only 17 acres of Malbec – in the entire state. Saying its rare in Virginia is an understatement.

The reason for this rarity is simple – it generally does poorly in Virginia’s humidity, struggling to ripen in most years. In all my travels I’ve only seen 7-8 places in Virginia & Maryland which are either willing to put in the extra work to grow large plantings of Malbec, or possess the ‘Goldilocks’ combination of terroir it needs to express itself. More than a handful of wineries have since ripped out its Malbec vines or were forced to replant due to frost damage.

Still, the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison of Malbec poised an interesting dilemma. Are there any defining characteristics for Virginia Malbec? How will it compare to France and Argentina?

To answer this question, some friends and I tasted 9 wines from three different regions, including Mendoza (Argentina), Cahors (France), and Virginia (mostly central VA but also one from Fauquier).

The contenders:

  1. Argentina (Mendoza) 2017 El Enemigo
  2. Argentina (Mendoza) 2017 Mascota
  3. Argentina (Mendoza) 2019 Phebus
  4. France (Cahors) 2015 Chateau de Mercuès
  5. France (Cahors) 2016 La Caminade
  6. France (Cahors) 2018 Clos La Coutale
  7. Virginia 2015 DelFosse
  8. Virginia 2016 Arterra
  9. Virginia 2016 Horton
  10. Bonus: California 2016 Schweiger

The tasting was done completely blind. We did 3 flights, with each flight consisting of a wine from each region. We conducted a “Finalist’s Round” of the winners from each of the three flights.

First off, nearly all of these wines were nearly the same jet-ink color. A few were slightly lighter than others (possibly because some had some other grapes blended in), but any differences were going to have to be determined by nose and palate.

Flight #1

  • 2015 DelFosse ($26): Earth floor on the nose. Tobacco notes yet fruity. Overall not especially complex but still a well-received wine. (2.5 votes)
  • 2017 El Enemigo ($22): Earthy notes and some funk on the nose. Lighter bodied than the previous one but still strong tannin. Some fruit notes on the palate. Favorite of the 1st flight. (3.5 votes)
  • 2015 Chateau de Mercuès ($28): Blended with Merlot. Raspberry notes but also some bitterness. I picked this up at Total Wine and while it had good reviews it wasn’t well received here. (1 vote)

Flight #2

  • 2016 Arterra ($35?): Spicy and bright. Arterra makes their wines via natural yeast fermentation, which I’ve found is a love-it-or-hate-it quality. I enjoyed it but not the winner of this round. (2.5 votes)
  • 2019 Phebus ($16): This was the youngest wine of the night – and it showed. Despite that, we seemed to really enjoy the fruitiness. A bit tart and minerally as well. Overall it was on point, and twice in a row Argentina takes the win for favorite of the flight. (4 votes)
  • 2018 Clos La Coutale ($18): One of my participants gave it the weirdest tasting note descriptor of the night; “mash potatoes”. Another said notes of herb garden and tart on the palate. I thought it had a ‘weird’ nose and fruit notes. Not a winner for us. (1 vote)

Flight #3

  • 2016 “Cy” La Caminade ($22): I picked this up at a local wine store based on their recommendation. Different participants provided different descriptors, ranging from bell pepper, blackberry, and/or leather on the nose. One participant noted a bit of sourness. Not my favorite but got outvoted! (3 votes)
  • 2017 Mascota Vineyards ($15): One of the most widespread commercial producers in Argentina. Tobacco nose, black cherry palate. (1.5 votes)
  • 2016 Horton ($30): Bright, fruity. My favorite of the night! Words were hard for me by then, but I crowdsourced the tasting notes “Earthy nose and cranberry notes on the palate”. Sadly, this was Horton’s last vintage of this grape. (2.5 votes)

Finalist Round

  • Argentina 2017 El Enemigo: Funky nose. Words were hard by this point so no tasting descriptors. 4 votes
  • Argentina 2019 Phebus: Musty. 3 votes
  • Cahors 2019 La Caminade: Slight must, some fruit, brighter than others. Zero votes.

For our bonus round, we tried the Napa 2016 Schweiger. Very ripe! It was a totally different wine than the rest- and not just because we had an evening full of Malbec.

Overall, I’d say our tasting notes were all over the place. I knew this would be a challenging grape for Virginia to compare, but I still think it did well. Notably, Virginia Malbecs were voted in the middle of each flight, while Argentina was consistently #1 and France ended up last.

My personal favorite was Horton but I did like the Phebus as well. I suspect younger, more fruit-driven wines appealed to the crowd I was with so that may have impacted the results.

The winner!

Port of Leonardtown Winery

Since it’s Women’s History Month it seems appropriate to end March with an interview with winemaker Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown.

If you aren’t following Lauren’s Instagram (@laurenwinegirl), you’re missing out. Her stories are incredibly fun to follow along, whether you’re a wino or not. But in person, she was every bit as fun as her stories are.

My visit was inspired by news of their recent Maryland Governor’s Cup awards, but more broadly because I was curious about Maryland wine in general. Port of Leonardtown had recently earned the Jack Aellen award for the state’s best fruit wine, and best in class for their 2020 Sauvignon Blanc. While that Sauv Blanc made the entire trip worthwhile, there was plenty to love here.

I started with a barrel tasting, chatting with Lauren about the state’s wineries in-between sips. She explained how Maryland has over 100 x wineries and 1000 x acres of grapes, making Maryland something of a ‘little brother’ to Virginia’s own wineries. Since many Maryland wineries are closer to me than Virginia counterparts in Charlottesville or the Shenandoah, I began to wonder why I don’t visit here more often.

But even within Maryland, Port of Leonardtown is a unique enterprise. It’s comprised of 13 x independent vineyards from around the state who banded together to form a winery co-op under one roof (and one winemaker). The wines resulting from this cooperation showcase a variety of terroirs from coastline to mountains to flat farmland.

Unlike most winery tasting rooms, Port of Leonardtown is set in a suburban area. While they have a picnic area and some ‘show vines’ in front, don’t expect the sweeping vineyard views that you might see elsewhere. But not to worry; they make up for it with great wine.

One observation about Maryland wine is since its terroir has a little bit of everything it’s hard to define a signature ‘Maryland’ style. Fortunately, this suits Lauren well. While she comes from Canada (and definitely misses Riesling) Lauren has jumped between wineries all over the world before finding a cute guy and settling here to start a family, so she’s accustomed to dealing with a range of styles and grapes.

Lauren’s most consistent grape is definitely Chambourcin – which she praised for its versatility. She also felt Chambourcin grown in eastern Maryland was richer than what you can find elsewhere. Port of Leonardtown’s vineyards also produce Barbera, Vidal, Albariño, Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot.

Since I had her full attention, I took the opportunity to ask her own favorite wines. The unreleased 2020 Sauv Blanc and her steel-fermented Chardonnay were up there, along with her Governor’s Cup-winning 2015 Barbera.

Since it was Women’s History month I also asked her a few questions about women’s representation in the Maryland winery scene. She agreed that while the field is dominated by men, that trend is dying out. She also pointed out that women generally have better olfactory skills then men, so biology seems to be on her side here.

As for the wine, I enjoyed the entire lineup. We started with the whites, with the 2020 Sauvignon Blanc quickly becoming my favorite – young and juicy, with lots of grapefruit notes. The 2020 Vidal was also good, leaning towards a more citrusy style.

For reds, the Cabernet Franc was bright and peppery, while the 2019 “Old Line” red (Merlot / Cabernet Franc / Petit Verdot) was richer. Finishing things off were the Vidal dessert wine, which Lauren called a ‘porch sipper’ because it wasn’t overly sweet. Finally we had a dry, rich port-style made with Chambourcin.

If you haven’t been to Maryland wineries before, start here!

The Winery at Sunshine Ridge Farm

Sunshine Ridge is Virginia’s newest winery, located along the edge of Lake Manassas and very close to Vint Hill. And I’ll say it out loud – it also has some of the most stunning views of any winery in Virginia.

Owners Maria & Tom Rafferty bought the property with an eye for building a new home, but they felt the space gave them the opportunity to do something hospitality related as well. Fortunately their friend (and future business partner) Tom Schrade was looking to do something similar, so they were able to team up and build Sunshine Ridge Farm.

You can tell that Tom is a landscaper by trade, because the location has great views of the lake and a lot of attention to detail. Tom must also be a carpenter because he helped build the tasting room – using wood harnessed from the property. He did a great job, although Maria can’t help but poke fun at the single support column that is just a little bit crooked. I’m sure he could fit it but she won’t let him because it’s a better story that way.

I particularly loved the garage doors that opened up towards the lake, as well as the fireplace. It was chilly when I visited so the doors remained closed, but I did grab a prime seat near the fire.

I get the sense that Sunshine Ridge is designed to entertain large crowds, both inside the tasting room and on the extensive lawn outside. Maria gave me a tour and I was impressed by the building’s coziness. They also have a large upstairs area for club members and a separate room for the brewery. I can only imagine how this place will be in the summertime, with the breeze coming off the lake and maybe a concert going on.

Right now Ashton Lough of Bull Run Winery makes their wine, and that will continue to be the case for a while. While Sunshine is planting a quarter acre of Vidal Blanc, most of their fruit will come from 11 acres leased from Bull Run’s vineyard in Rappahannock or purchased elsewhere.

Another item that is certain to be a crowd-pleaser is they are a brewery as well as a winery. Right now Cedar Run Brewery is supplying the beer, but Sunshine will brew their own beer in the future. Add some food trucks. music, and maybe lounge chairs near the lake, and this place is a one-stop-stop for all your recreational needs.

I sampled the wine lineup and was particularly taken with the Meritage (nice complexity) and the Chardonnay (which hit the right balance of new and used French oak). They also had a citrusy Riesling, off-dry rosé with strawberry notes, a Pinot Gris, Cab Franc, and a Norton. The last one surprised me; I’m rarely a Norton drinker but I would drink this one again as the 20% Merlot they used cut through the ‘foxy’ characteristics that I don’t like. It was a Norton for those who don’t usually try Norton!

Right now all their wine is from the 2019 vintage so several reds tasted young, but give it some time and they will mellow out. Most of their wine use Virginia fruit, with the exception of the Riesling (100% Washington State) and the Pinot Gris (a mix of Virginia and Washington fruit).

Since I would be remiss not to try the entire lineup, I also tried the beer. My favorites were the Trice Ax Stout (nice coffee and earthy notes), Farmhouse Saison, and the Light Lager, which is served in a room styled after an Irish-style pub.

While I anticipate Sunshine Ridge will a favorite for those planning to meet groups of friends, for the time being they are reservation-only. That said they was plenty of space to spread out. They also have a no-children under 16 years old policy, specifically due to the risk that small kids will wander off to close to the water.

RdV Vineyards

Saying you’re a fan of RdV is basically Virginia wine code for “Yes, I have a taste for very luxurious bottles – and I’m not ashamed to say it”.

Many would argue RdV is Virginia’s most famous winery, at least outside the state. It’s its certainly the most expensive. But put this into context; RdV provides a curated experience with wines that easily match up to very expensive bottles from Bordeaux or California, so you’re getting what you paid for.

RdV also has an amazing lineage, since owner and namesake Rutger de Vink was mentored by Jim Law of Linden Vineyards – one of the few acceptable alternatives for those who don’t point to RdV as the best winery in the state.

“How I found my vineyard”

Rutger comes from a well-heeled Dutch family but in his younger days apparently felt the need for some personal direction – so he joined the U.S. Marines and became a member of their Force Reconnaissance element (think Navy SEALs or Army Special Forces-level training). This background (that, plus an MBA and experience in a tech company) explains his devotion to methodical planning, which no doubt paid off here.

RdV also has perhaps the most famous “How I found my vineyard” story in Virginia. As the legend is told, he was driving on a back road in search of a vineyard site when his car was halted by some sheep crossing the road. After pausing he looked around, only to realize the hills around him seemed to have all the things he needed.

Turns out the property belong to a sheep farmer who only used this location for grazing as it was too barren for farming. Initially this gent wasn’t interested in selling, but not long afterwards the farmer realized his kids weren’t interested in keeping the land so he called Rutger asking for an offer. The rest is history.

Rutger must have gone ALL IN when designing this place; the winery is one of the most picturesque in Virginia. But it isn’t just about looks; a lot of thought went into the design, be it the long underground passageway or the tower/lightwell in the middle of the building. These are just a few of the details that come together perfectly.

The Tour

I’d visited before, but that was before I learned to appreciate Virginia wine in the way I do now. At $75 a person (now up to $125!), you aren’t just signing up for a tasting – you sign up for an education.

You start with a personal tour of the building, while the guide explained why this location is so special for viticulture. Put simply – it comes down to rock. Lots of very, very hard rock.

The winery sits on a large hill of granite. This is actually perfect for a vineyard; granite minimizes water retention and soil nutrients, forcing the vines to struggle. It’s a counter-intuitive way to farm; ‘happy’ vines don’t produce good wine grapes, but vines that struggle put all their effort into ripening their grapes –which results in great wine.

The tour continues through an underground tunnel which doubles as their long-term storage and barrel aging area. The most interesting part of this walk is the bare rock face. While it may have been planned more for show, RdV realized this wall serves a useful purpose – it shows how deeply rainfall has penetrated the ground. That’s the type of info that vineyard managers love, so ‘art’ here serves a purpose.

After that, you finished with a stop by the bottling line and chemistry lab then moved upstairs for a tasting.

The Wine

RdV is known for two wines; it’s Rendezvous (right bank, Merlot-heavy blend) and Lost Mountain (left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon-heavy blend). No white grapes are grown; their 16 acres of vines is entirely composed of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc (no Malbec either).

RdV does make several other wines, although those aren’t typically sold to the public. The best known is their more price-friendly Friends and Family red blend found at wine stores and restaurants – made from grapes that aren’t used for the two main wines. But on rare occasions RdV also makes a single-varietal wine (I’ve had their “Outlier” Petit Verdot at Field & Main restaurant) and even a dry Rosé they serve to club members.

Their blending master is Eric Boissenot. I admit I didn’t know the name, but wine snobs likely do – he decides the blends for 4 out of 5 of France’s “First Growth” wineries. RdV is his only American client – that’s how fancy this place is.

Normally I go into long tasting descriptions of the wine; but here I won’t. Suffice to say, RdV wine is world-class. I tried the 2017 vintages of the Rendezvous and Lost Mountain and both were amazing – although I actually leaned more towards the right bank style than the left bank one (much to my wallet’s relief). I’m actually in deep regret not getting more bottles – it was that good.

Your tasting is accompanied by a small charcuterie board and a serving of Dom Pérignon.

Some would say that this event is overpriced. My response – it depends what you are looking for. If you just want to drink some wine, skip the tour and buy a bottle. But if you enjoy being feted and receiving a full on wine education (that I enjoyed almost as much as the wine), make a visit. You’ll walk away with confidence that Virginia really can make wine on par with the best in the world.

Linden Vineyards 2017 Wine Release

Another Virginia winemaker recently called Jim Law “The guru on the hill”, who’s dedication has elevated the entire Virginia wine industry. The roster of those who’ve worked for him at Linden is something of a who’s-who of Virginia wine royalty, including (but certainly not limited to) Rutger de Vink of RdV Vineyards and Jeff White of Glen Manor Vineyards. Two of Jim’s Chardonnays received 94 points from Robert Parker – the highest score he’s given any Virginia wine. So when the guru speaks – you listen.

I’d been a member for several years, so when Jim announced he would be releasing his 2017 vintages I rushed to get my tickets. In a very socially-distanced event, Jim introduced 3 x Chardonnays, 4 x Bordeaux blends, plus a dessert wine. He also treated us to a long discussion about his wine and winemaking philosophy in general.

For background, Linden draws from three vineyards; Hardscrabble, Avenius, and Boisseau. Hardscrabble is their 20 acre estate vineyard located at the winery, primarily growing Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (although less Cabernet and more Chardonnay than it used to have) but home to several other varietals. Avenius a cooler 5 acre site down the road with soil composed of shale, granite and greenstone; they have a mix of vinifera but the largest planting is 1.5 acres of Sauvignon Blanc. Boisseau is the warmest site near Front Royal, its 4 acres likewise a mix. Many of his wines are bottled according the vineyard they came from; it’s not uncommon to have vertical flights of the same varietal but from different vineyards.

Although most Virginia wineries designate their red blends as their flagship wines, Jim’s first love is Chardonnay so his Hardscrabble Chardonnay is the wine he’s often proudest of. In my opinion, this is the best Chardonnay in Virginia – and I dare anyone to show me otherwise.

Jim explained that 2017 was a great vintage for both reds and whites, which is an unusual combination – usually it’s one or the other. Fortunately they were blessed with cool nights and warm days, particularly in September/October. He actually likes his 2017s better than his 2019s, mostly because the weather in 2017 was more even.

He also discussed climate change and his vineyard replanting project. Regarding the former, he has a small experimental vineyard where he’s planted several hybrids and Italian varietals, and discussed how unpredictable Virginia’s weather has become. Jim even installed several huge solar panels outdoors, in an effort to not be a contributor to the problem of global warming that has beset his own vineyards.

As for his replanting his vineyards, right now Jim is on ‘year 20 of his 15 year plan’. He freely admits to undergoing a long period of education which resulted him in revising his methodology for planting vineyards, and how water retention is the single most important factor in planting vines in Virginia.

He spoke at length about his Chardonnay planting from decades ago; right now there’s only around 10% of the original vines. While he enjoys the freshness that younger Chardonnay vines offer his wines, they lack the depth and character of older vines.

Usually I try to take my own notes for tastings – but the descriptors Jim provided were so dead-on that I decided to use them.

What I tried:

2017 “Village” Chardonnay: Jim’s “Village” is a mixture of all three vineyards, but this year drawing heavily from Hardscrabble. “Creamy” was the optional word.  He said this wine will improve over several years but damn, this was easy to drink now. This was also my favorite wine of the day (which I was rather grateful for, since it was one of the cheapest).

2017 Avenius Chardonnay: This had an almost Sauv Blanc quality to it. Higher acid and mineral notes. Has lots of personality.

2017 Hardscrabble Chardonnay: His flagship wine. Some newer oak to give it some toastiness, which is unusual since he’s usually a fan of neutral oak. Apple notes and long finish.

2017 Claret: Usually half of Linden’s reds are Claret but the 2017 vintage was so great he used most of his fruit for his site-specific vintages. I got currant notes, although his tasting sheet said red fruit (close enough).

2017 Boisseau: Fresh, not as heavy as I would have expected from a Petit Verdot/Cabernet heavy blend.

2017 Avenius: Black fruit notes and the acidity was on the higher side.

2017 Hardscrabble (red): “Rose pedals” was the tasting note. I’d keep this one for a few years though.

Chateau O’Brien and the 2014 Northpoint Red

I started exploring the world Virginia wine in 2013, mostly as a social experience. Don’t get me wrong – during this time I found wine that I liked, but only seldom did I find one that I loved.

That changed after visiting about a dozen locations and I found Chateau O’Brien. After sampling several wines on their tasting menu, my friends and I looked at one another and were like ‘Waaaait a minute…this place isn’t like the others’.

I’m not certain what bottle I loved the best; probably the Tannat (talk with owner Howard O’Brien and he’ll happily explain his love for this grape) but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was his Petit Verdot or Vintner’s Reserve. Whatever it was, it was super smooth – certainly more balanced and integrated than anything I’d found in Virginia thus far.

This is due to how Howard’s reds don’t go on the tasting menu until they’ve been aged at least 2 years in the barrel, then usually stay in the cellar another 3-4 years. With aged reds like that, no matter when I’ve visited I’ve found an ‘average’ tasting at Chateau O’Brien tends to be the equivalent of a special library tasting anywhere else.

Howard O’Brien behind the tasting bar (pre-Covid)

Although he’s best known for his Tannat, Howard offers a full range of single-varietal wines and Bordeaux blends. So when he told me about an extra special wine he wanted me to try, needless to say I was intrigued.

The wine he was referring to was his latest Northpoint Red. This was his premium red blend, made only in 2007, 2009 and 2014. He used all five Bordeaux grapes, fermented separately for 24 months before being co-blended and given further barrel time. Bordeaux blends are common in Virginia but finding one with all five grapes aged for this duration is practically unheard of, so I knew this was something special.

I’d heard about this blend during previous visits but this was the first time I’d had the opportunity to sample it. Only 75 cases of his 2014 vintage were made, priced at $218 a bottle. This price point didn’t surprise me; when he released his 2007 Northpoint, at the time it was the first Virginia wine to be sold at more than $100.

Sampling the 2014 Northpoint Red

Howard explained that 2014 was a ‘perfect year’ for him. Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec are especially difficult grapes to grow in Virginia, so you need perfect conditions for them to make great wine. Fortunately Howard has excellent locations for his vineyards, so he’s one of the few Virginia wineries that can usually grow these grapes to full ripeness.

2016 Cabernet Franc, 2014 Northpoint Red, and 2018 Tannat Rosé

Since this was a special bottle, it needed to be opened for a special event. So I broke out a few bottles from the wine fridge and decided to throw an O’Brien-themed wine dinner, accompanied by his 2016 Cabernet Franc and 2018 Tannat Rosè.

My Chateau O’Brien wine night!

My tasting notes:

2018 Tannat Rosé: Very dry; softer and less fruit-forward than I thought it would be. Tannat Rosés are rare in Virginia, partially because you don’t see a lot of this grape and it’s also hugely tannic. But while this rosé had power, it was still easy-drinking. Lighter fruit notes, mostly strawberry I think.

2016 Cabernet Franc: Howard introduced me to his 2014 Cabernet Franc at an earlier tasting, so I bought his 2016 Cabernet Franc on trust alone. I was well rewarded because I used this in a subsequent blind tasting lineup of six Virginia Cabernet Francs and this was my favorite of the bunch.

This Cabernet Franc had a pale ruby color, and on the nose I detected a tad bit of mustiness that I often associate with older vintages. Nice fruit notes on the palate. But more than anything I thought this wine had an excellent balance of fruit notes, acid, and body.

2014 Northpoint Red: The big gun of the night. The nose started off as reserved despite over an hour of decanting. Long finish, lots of complexity and depth, yet I could still detect a moderate amount of fruit notes. Zero oak; Howard used neutral French barrels to start with but whatever oak notes were once there are now fully integrated. This was a wine that was hitting full stride.

This is not your typical Virginia Bordeaux blend. The great majority of them tend to stay maybe 12 months in barrel and served two years after bottling, so the Northpoint was clearly in a different classification than what I’m accustomed to. There was only one other Virginia wine that I could think of that would be comparable, and my curiosity got the better of me how they compared.

So I pulled out my 2013 RdV Lost Mountain (left-bank style Bordeaux blend with 4 grapes, minus Malbec) and my trusty Coravin and did a blind tasting of the two.

Blind tasting the 2013 RdV Lost Mountain vs the 2014 Northpoint Red

For background, RdV is one of the most famous – and certainly most expensive – wineries in the entire state. When the big-league wine critics visit Virginia, they inevitably visit RdV. RdV even utilizes the same French blending master who blends four of the five Premier Grand Cru Chateaux in Bordeaux. This was what I was putting the Northpoint up against.

To make things fair, I marked two sets of glasses (for my date and I) and we poured the other’s wines. Neither of us knew what was in our glass when we tasted them side by side.

The results:

Round 1: Wine #1 had a bit more fruit, while wine #2 was more concentrated – but otherwise they were evenly matched. But my palate chose wine #1, and the winner was Chateau O’Brien.

Round 2: I still couldn’t get away from the fruit notes that I loved the first time, although both had great complexity and lingering finishes. Ironically, the favorite that round was RdV.

Round 3: Last and final round. I allowed myself a healthy pour to finish off the bottle (and let’s face it; these were two awesome wines). The winner? Chateau O’Brien.

My companion was an even bigger fan of the Northpoint than I was; she picked the Northpoint three out of four times (although I disqualified the first time, since fresh from the wine fridge the temperature of the RdV glass was cooler thus identifiable so it wasn’t a 100% ‘blind’ tasting that round).

So there you have it – the 2014 Northpoint Red is the best wine I’ve had all year.

The 2014 Northpoint Red

Bleu Frog Vineyards

For years I’ve passed what is now Bleu Frog vineyards while on my way to Fabbioli and other local wineries. From the road you can see it’s a pretty location, and once vines appeared on the hills I assumed a winery would be in their future. So when I got word this place was officially open, needless to say I was stoked.

Owners Jan and Joe Kernan bought the property in 2016, not long after Joe retired after a 30 year career in the US Navy. In fact, the name “Bleu Frog” is a nod to his former career as a Navy SEAL. On most days you’ll also find their daughter Shannon running operations at their tasting area.

It always puzzles me when people seek to buy a farm as part of their ‘retirement’. Farming is a tough business and viticulture especially so. But I suppose when you’re already accustomed to the military life, ‘taking it easy’ is tough to do. Plus, the Kernans knew this property was special and wanted to find a way to share it. Before long, they planted vines and had their first crop in 2019.

Right now Bleu Frog is primarily setup for an outdoors-only experience – although there are plans to build a barn in 2021. Fortunately winter firepits are coming, so being outdoors (hopefully) won’t be a big deal.

One thing that I felt really sets them apart from other local wineries is you get a feeling you’re ‘in the vineyard’. Their tables and buildings are literally on the edge of the vines – 9 acres in all, including Vidal, Chambourcin, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. This is a sharp contrast to some of the other vineyards I visit, which have a plethora of signs prohibiting people from wandering amongst the vines.

Speaking of wine – I was thrilled when Shannon told me that Doug Fabbioli was their winemaker. But we shouldn’t give all the credit to Doug; Jan is a chef, so the wines are more of a collaboration with Doug.

Right now they only have four wines. I really liked the Vidal, which reminded me of a nice Sauvignon Blanc. But my Rosè loving girlfriend told me their Rosè is the best anywhere in Virginia. Given how much Rosè she’s bought, that should tell you something.

Zoll Vineyards

Zoll brings a lot to the table, both proverbially and literally. Since I was spending the weekend in the area I had to opportunity to swing by and visit for the first time.

Owner Frank Zoll moved from Boston to Virginia in 2017 and opened his winery not long afterward. But Frank was a chef before he was a winemaker, and opened this winery to utilize both talents.

While not part of the Northern Neck / George Washington Birthplace AVA (which is just north of here) Zoll vineyards shares many of the same conditions, including a large number of frost-free days and sandy soils. Vinifera can grow here, although you have to be smart about what you plant. Right now they have 16 acres of vines in total including Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cab Franc, Pinot Grigio, Sauv Blanc, Albariño, and Traminette. They also grow their own fruit for their mead.

The tasting room is an old school building (they plan on holding events as well). I admit – drinking in a cafeteria that serves wine, cider and mead gave me giggles. I suppose if you ever wanted to tell people you had wine at school – this is your chance.

By far, the hardest part of my visit was…deciding what to eat! Savory and sweet options were available, as well as farm-to-table food and wine pairing options. I tried several dishes, but my favorites were the smoked salmon cream cheese pinwheel paired with rose, and the s’mores for desert. Heck, I’m pretty sure I could eat the s’mores by itself.

I ended up trying a good number of their wines, but only have notes for these:

Little Tart Fresh Apple Cider: The tartness lives up to its name

Hibiscus Sangria:  Made with Chardonnay and hibiscus flowers (Frank called it a girly drink)

Cranberry Cider: Made with heirloom apples

Mariners Blend: “Tastes like Pecan Pie” is a great descriptor.

Cab Franc Reserve: Fruit and oak notes