Tiptoeing into the Wines of Northern Virginia

When I visited Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this year, I was blown away by how good the wines were. Crisp yet fruity, elegant, and mostly delicious. So given the pleasant surprise there, I ventured out to Loudon County, about 45 minutes away from DC. I expected the styles to be similar, and I was optimistic to find more excellent wineries in Virginia.
 
We were limited in time, so we didn’t cover much ground while there — just a few wineries — but they were all highly recommended by Facebook and Twitter friends, so I figured my list of three would be representative.
 
Before I give the rundown and ruffle a few feathers, I’m going to say very plainly that my business school training tells me that a sample size of three is NOT enough to make a fair conclusion. I’ll admit now that you’ve got to take my experience for what it is. When I say it was just ok, I know I have more research to do.  

That said, in a purely unscientific way,  I will say that as opposed to Charlottesville where a sample of three would have yielded at least one good result, the wineries in Northern Virginia were more hit or miss, or at least less unified in style. 

 
The best way for me to explain is to break down the three and tell you what I found.
 
This place is interesting. It’s a little far from the bulk of the wineries in Loudon County. It has a giant yard and it’s more like a farm with a huge picnic area than a winery. Lovely, but not very wine-y. 

What else wasn’t very wine-y? The small indoor tasting room was flooded with the overwhelming smell of lilies. Although pretty, flowers that fragrant should NEVER be in a tasting room — it messes up your sense of smell. You can’t tell if it’s good or bad with all that getting up your snout. I was put off, but then a little relieved to hear that the very structured tasting was outside. If it was inside, I definitely would have had to bail without a sip.

On the positive side, the people were very nice and instructed us on their tour/group tastings. At least when I was there, the wines were presented every 15 minutes in a group format under tents. They told us a bit about history of the vineyard — how Jennifer McCloud founded the place in 1997 and a year later bought the 209 acre estate on which it is located. She planted Spanish and obscure French grapes and decided to complete the set by adding Norton, the red American grape, native to Virginia.*


Today Chrysalis is the largest grower of Norton in the world. Although a different species from the grapes we know and love — Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling — Norton doesn’t have the musky, bubblegum taste of most native American grapes, so it can theoretically make good dry wines. I’d heard a lot about it and was looking forward to trying something new.
 
 
The Wines:
There were about 10 -15 in the tasting, so I didn’t try everything. I asked the staff  to pick their top 5 for me. 
 
After tasting a heavily oaked Albariño (that was an outrageous $24 — the original is only about $13), a grape that is hardly ever put into a barrel in its native home in Northern Spain, since that destroys the delicate flavors of the grape, and a very sweet Viognier that tasted more like a sugar cookie with a vodka chaser (it was sweet, the alcohol was high and it was $29, also outlandish for what it was), I got to the three Norton wines.
 
First up was 2009 Sarah’s Patio Red, a sweet blush wine.  It smelled like grape jam and tasted like an Italian ice with a hit of acid. I think the wine was made well, but I wasn’t lovin’ Norton from this sip and was reluctant to try anything else.
 
But lo and behold, the best wine for me was Chrysalis’s 2009 Estate Norton. It smelled like gardenias, raspberries, and vanilla and tasted like blackberries and some sort of exotic Indian food spice. It had a good amount of acid and tannin and was very well balanced. At $17 it was priced well and showed the promise of the grape.
 
The 2009 Norton Reserve Locksley was similar to the Estate wine but it tasted imbalanced. The acid was too high, the tannin too bitter, and the wine was just rustic and harsh with no fruit or spice to balance it. Maybe it needed decanting or more aging, but I’m not a Norton convert after this puppy.
 
Chrysalis is interesting in that it’s cultivating Norton, but it’s no barn burner. Unless you live in the DC area or have a lot of time, I don’t know I’d make the trip.
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This is the “sceny-ist” winery I’ve ever visited. The tasting room was like a moose lodge, complete with videos of animals in the wild — a disconnect from wine, but fun to look at. 
 
The real action on the sunny day we went was the frat party on the lawn. There were groups picnicking and drinking copious amounts of wine. These were hip, cool people clearly from DC. Lots of fancy cars, designer jeans, and sunglasses.
 
As far as experience goes, it wasn’t the most welcoming place. To enter the tasting room, you have to form a line at a register right at the entrance and pay up. It’s almost like an amusement park. We were there on the weekend and it was a total mob scene. Space at the bar was at a premium. The people working there were so very nice but knew little about the wines. That said, it didn’t seem to matter that much to most of the visitors. They were there to get as much wine into them as they possibly could. 
 
There was a plethora of wine available for tasting and as I got into the car I felt a little stressed out that people leaving that place were not in good shape to drive. Take caution if you go here.
 
The Wines:
I liked the wines here but they weren’t outstanding. Solid, but mostly forgettable, with the exception of one. Would I sink any of them? Maybe the Rosé, which was cloying and not so refreshing, but everything else was fine to good. 
 
The 2011 Chardonnay was acidic, light, and unoaked. A nice porch sipper. 

The 2011 Sunset White was made of 100% Vidal Blanc, a French-American hybrid grape normally used for Ice Wine production. It had good acid and peachy flavor and I could see how it would make a very delicious dessert wine. I didn’t crave a glass of the wine, but I was happy to have to have gotten a look at how Vidal Blanc tasted before it became Ice wine. It was a good moment for wine dorkery. 

The 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon smelled very oaky and had some nice earthiness to it. It was a good light Cabernet Sauvignon.

The best wine by far was the 2009 Cabernet Franc, which smelled like mocha, coffee, chocolate covered cherries and tasted like rose water and espresso with great acid and tannin and a delicious, chewy finish. This was a great wine and worth a stop in the winery just for this.





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Notaviva
The smallest and most down-home of the wineries we visited, we went here to visit a podcast listener and fan, Paula. 

This is a small operation. It was set up by a sound engineer and his new-media maven wife, Stephen and Shannon, who decided, with no experience, to buy a property in Northern Virginia and teach themselves how to make wine. 

Stephen was an in-demand sound guy, touring with major musicians around the world for his job, and he still dabbles when he’s not making wine and he and Shannon have a design and internet strategy business as well (gotta make a living somehow — wine isn’t the way to go!). As a nod to their other interests, all the wines are “paired” with music, each with a musical genre.

 
They’ve been at it for 4 years and I think, of all the wineries in NoVa we visited, this has the most promise. It’s a cute, very homey, welcoming place with knowledgeable staff and a real optimistic feel. It feels like there is some momentum at this place and it’s going in the right direction, although it has a little way to go. 
 
The Wines:
 
2010 “Vincerò” Viognier – $18: A pale straw color with honeysuckle, lemon cookie, and honey comb aromas and flavors. The wine had nice acid and was a little tannic from the 12% that was in an oak barrel.
 
2010 “Ottantotto” Viognier – $20: Aged 100% in French oak, this wine was a darker color and more like candied peaches and apricots than honey and lemon. The wine had a slight bitterness — like licking a peach put, but was a nice wine. 
 
2010 “Calor” Chardonnay – $22: Aged in French oak but with no malolactic fermentation to make the wine creamy, the wine was very tasty! It smelled like lemons and limes and a little like green apple and tasted like camomile tea, pears, and jasmine flowers. It had great acid and was very tasty.
 
2009 “Verano” Vidal Blanc – $20:  An American hybrid grape, this is often converted to a dessert wine, as noted above. This was similar to the Sunset Hills wine. It smelled like overripe apples and pears and tasted like biting into a sweet apple. It had rich, ripe flavor with a medium level of acid and a nice sweetness.

 

2010 “Celtico” Chambourcin – $17: Another American hybrid, this red wine was 90% Chambourcin, 4% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot.  The wine was very dark and smelled like roses, raspberries, and unripe cherries. It had nice acid but a very bitter bite and tasted musky and a little like bubblegum — a function of the grape, not of the winemaker (however it was their choice to use the grape so…chicken and egg). 

2010″Cantabile” Cabernet Franc – $24: A garnet color, the wine smelled and tasted like green pepper, fresh cherries, and spice. It had a nice, clean texture. Unfortunatley, when I had it at home it had a pronounced bitterness and none of the fresh character I’d loved while there. Not sure if it was a bad bottle or I’d misjudged the first time, but MC Ice and I couldn’t get through the bottle and it went down the sink.

2009 ‘Ludwig’ Meritage Blend: 40% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot, this is a real Bordeaux blend. A dark ruby, with smells of black pepper, green pepper, and black cherries with a little bit of violet scent. The wine tasted like it smelled and was very elegant. A great wine, my top pick for the reds.
I like Notaviva — the people are cool, they had great live music (and do regularly), and the wines are good. The whole naming and pairing each with music is a little too gimmicky for my taste. Also, the bottles for many of the reds are clear glass – a real mistake for red wine, which deteriorates quickly from light. For them to take it to the next level,  they should forget the American hybrid grapes and stick with the vitis vinifera, which they are doing well. This is one to watch!
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I’m sure this post will be the subject of some debate. I’d love your thoughts. I know I have more exploring to do, so suggestions are always welcome!

*The original post mistakenly said the Norton grape was indigenous to the Midwestern US. It is, in fact, indigenous to Virginia albeit widely cultivated in the Midwest, especially Missouri.

  • Thank you for your honesty of wine and winery impressions. After reading this one blog, I’m bookmarking this site for further readings. I’d really like to hear about the Virginia wineries you have visited and found interesting Viognier, Norton, Cab Franc and Chambourcin. Since my drive is six hours away, I just suspect you could highlight some real Virginia successes.

  • Hi!

    Thanks for writing.

    If you haven’t seen the other posts on Virginia (many more positive than this one!) please check out the Virginia category on the right side of the page — lots of good stuff there.

    Take care and thanks for writing,
    Elizabeth

  • Janet

    Elizabeth –
    I recently discovered your blog and podcasts and love them both. One correction regarding the Norton grape: It is native to Virginia (something that Virginia wine drinkers take some pride in).

  • We’ve (happily) also bumped into Norton (grapes & wine) in Texas, Missouri, southern Illinois, and, if I recall correctly, Utah — we spend much of the year driving around in a big motorhome and we brake for wineries!!! (And, per your right-on comments about lilies, the tasting room at Fess Parker was LOADED with scented candles — we left quickly and bought nothing, since we could NOT trust our obscured senses.)

    • TNWT

      If you are traveling around in a motor home and enjoy wineries, please look into Harvest Hosts (http://harvesthosts.com/). Get a list of wineries which let you park in their vineyards overnight. There are some courtesy rules which must be followed, but they are more than reasonably helpful. We have done such across the US as we chase the Norton grape (282 Norton wineries in 24 states). Yes, Texas’ Stone House Winery has a nice Claret (Norton). Enjoyed traveling in a small six vehicle caravan with Harvest Host also into Mexico’s Baja California visiting some surprising wineries.