Great Grapes - Vineyards of the Northern Neck
by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi
|Watch this audio slideshow on the Northern Neck Wine Trail.|
Wine lovers have at least five good reasons to visit the Northern Neck.
Fields where corn and soybean once grew are now devoted to grape vines, and wineries are sprouting up all along the back roads. The Northern Neck Wine Trail boasts five wineries, three of which have opened within the last two years, and many more vineyards are being planted.
Vintners in the Northern Neck typically operate on a small scale, marketing their products locally, and doing all the grunt work of planting, weeding, harvesting and bottling by hand. Local wineries are mom-and-pop operations for the most part and a labor of love, according to most owners.
Virginia’s climate, especially on the spit of land between the Rappahannock River and Potomac, is ideal for growing grapes. They like it hot and dry and many thrive in the sandy soil.
There are currently 119 wineries in Virginia, making the Old Dominion the fifth largest wine-producing state in the nation. In 1979, Virginia had just six wineries but by 2001, the state’s wine industry had grown to 75.
The fruit of the vintners’ labors can be sipped in tasting rooms, from quaint and simple to dimly lit and elegant, all across the Northern Neck.
Many of the area’s wines can only be tasted at the winery or at festivals, so visit the local vineyards, have a glass of wine, enjoy a picnic lunch with a friend, and relax on a summer afternoon.
The granddaddy of Northern Neck vineyards, Ingleside Vineyards in Oak Grove is one of Virginia’s first, founded in 1980.
Owned by the Flemer family, the 60-plus-acre vineyard is part of a 3,000-acre estate that includes one of the largest horticultural nurseries on the east coast.
If arriving on the Captain Thomas, a cruise boat that departs daily from Tappahannock, visitors pass rolling fields of orchards and travel along a dirt road, getting a glimpse of the Flemers’ historic home.
After going through the iron gates, visitors are greeted by old dairy silos with climbing ivy and the scent of flowers, grapes and wine.
Visitors by boat may enjoy a buffet lunch. And guests, by land or water, may bring a picnic lunch and eat under the shade in the courtyard.
A brief tour of the winery is followed by a sampling of some of the vineyard’s 20 wines in an elegant tasting room.
A full tasting, which costs $10, includes 14 of the wines along with a keepsake wine glass. A basic tasting of about 10 wines is $3.
Bill Swain, Ingleside’s winemaker, was once head of production for Bodegas Pomar, one of the leading wineries in Venezuela. His assistant is his wife, Maria Swain.
Ingleside has over 40 varieties of grapes, but the Swains primarily use eight to ten varieties in their wines.
If visitors are so lucky to take a tour on bottling day, they can see Ingleside’s elaborate bottling process. The winery bottles 12,000 to 14,000 cases a year, making it the largest winery in the Northern Neck.
The wines, which can purchased in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Washington, D.C., are sold under two labels, either Ingleside Vineyards or Chesapeake Wine Company.
ONE TO TRY The winery’s Chesapeake Blue Crab Red is one of its most popular. A versatile red wine, it has a slightly sweet finish. Use with lighter dishes or before dinner with appetizers. Its grape varieties include chambourcin, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and petit verdot.
Belle Mount Vineyards
Ray and Catherine Petrie have over eight acres of grape vines planted on the rolling hills at Belle Mount Vineyards in Warsaw.
The couple, who moved to the Northern Neck from California, did not have a background in winemaking. In fact, Catherine said her background involved simply “opening a bottle and drinking it.”
But after purchasing the former Heritage Park Campground property 16 years ago, the two decided to dive into the very labor intensive task of winemaking.
Catherine says she and her husband spent about two years researching the trade before planting the first vine. They planted all 8.5 acres by hand, and they take care of the grounds and harvest the grapes themselves.
“It’s hard work,” she said, adding that “We bottle here one bottle at a time.”
Their efforts show.
The first stop for visitors is the tasting room, beneath a banquet hall with a view of the vineyards. Guests may taste seven wines at no charge. The Petries or a staff member will talk about food pairings and, if visitors desire, they may actually walk through the vineyards. Harvest time, usually late August through October, is of course the busiest time and visitors can see a lot of activity. With a dozen varieties of grapes, the Petries have the native American Norton grape along with many French-American hybrids.
“There’s a changing attitude about wine,” said Ray. “A couple of years ago the Gallup Poll found that wine was the beverage of choice for most Americans.”
Belle Mount’s wines may be purchased at the winery or at select festivals.
ONE TO TRY The beverage of choice from Belle Mount seems to be the Chesapeake Light, a slightly sweet German style wine that comes in a special lighthouse-shaped bottle. With apple, apricot, peach, pear and rose florals, it’s best paired with crab, turkey, ham, smoked salmon, almonds and milk chocolate.
Athena Vineyards & Winery
Overlooking the Great Wicomico River near Wicomico Church, Athena Vineyards & Winery opened in 2006 and since has received numerous national awards. Its winemaker, Jacques Recht, was bestowed the 2007 Award of Merit from the American Wine Society.
Recht helped to establish the Virginia wine industry, especially locally, serving as winemaster at Ingleside Vineyard for 15 years before becoming the winemaker at Athena.
Owners Ruth Harris, Ada Jacox and Carol Spengler all retired from the healthcare field and settled on a 50-acre tract of land in Northumberland County. Thirty-five acres are now being used as a vineyard.
“We thought what could we do [with the property] to give back to the community,” said Harris. “So we started with four acres and a shovel. We went to many, many conferences and did a lot of research and reading, and a lot of experimenting.”
From there a vineyard was born. They now have 12.5 acres of grapes and 20 varieties with most of the vines a mature seven years old.
The three started bottling three years ago and are now in their second year of selling.
A beautifully decorated tasting room is where visitors start their tour. Guests taste, at no charge, 12 wines.
If the weather is cooperating—not too hot, too cold or rainy—visitors may take a short hike up a hill to the winery, where a tour is given of the barrel room, tank room, large laboratory and equipment room.
“This is a very hands-on project,” said Harris, who explained that she and her co-owners weed, spray, water and harvest the vines by hand.
The tasting and gift shop offers many treasures including pre-made and special order gift baskets.
Occasionally, the winery offers live entertainment where guests are invited to sip a glass of wine and listen to the music. The next opportunity to enjoy that will be Labor Day weekend, according to Harris.
At Christmas time, the tasting room and gift shop will be a last stop on a home tour. Hot mulled wine will be available.
ONE TO TRY Athena’s White is one of the most popular wines. A crisp wine, designed to accompany typical Chesapeake Bay seafood dishes, it has a fruity aroma with a blend of Vidal Blanc and Seyval Blanc grapes.
Vault Field Vineyards
Keith Meenan bought his first grape vine from K-Mart, then found a winemaking kit on the internet for $40. The vine was on sale and Meenan simply thought he’d take up making wine as a hobby.
It was a pastime that’s grown into an industry for Meenan and his son, Dan, who together own and operate Vault Field Vineyards in Kinsale.
Located on a 100-acre farm, the vineyard and winery presented its first vintage wines of 2006 to the 2007 Virginia Governor’s Cup and received three medals.
The Meenans, who planted their crop in 2005, started producing off two-year-old vines.
An insurance man by trade, Keith and his son have become viticulturists.
After spending time at Penn State and Virginia Tech studying grape growing and looking for property for two years, the Meenans now have a thriving business.
With 8,000 vines on some 5.5 acres, Vault Fields produces about 1,400 cases of wine per year. Their goal is 2,000.
Meenan stresses to visitors who start their tour in the tasting room that “wines are made in the fields, not in here.”
For that reason, he and Dan spend considerable time tending their crop, keeping weeds and disease at bay.
A typical harvest day of 2.5 tons of grapes begins at 7 a.m. They hand pick until 2:30 p.m. and then process until the wee hours of the morning.
“It’s almost a 24-hour process,” Meenan says, while giving a tour of the barrel room and processing area.
He is his own winemaker, tasting and trying different varieties in an on-site lab.
Vault Fields wines are available at the winery and locally at Good Eats and the Mooring restaurants in Kinsale, Hope & Glory Inn in Irvington and the Northern Neck Gourmet in Warsaw.
A $3 tasting fee is waived with the purchase of four or more bottles.
ONE TO TRY Vault Fields best seller is its Chardonnay. A toasted oak with citrus aroma is followed by a nutty, buttery flavor. It was partially fermented in stainless steel tanks, then transferred to French oak barrels and aged for nine months.
A pair of large, black corkscrews that have become its trademark symbols welcome visitors to White Fences Vineyard in Irvington.
So named after the white fence that surrounds the grounds, White Fences has just six acres of vineyards and produces only a few, hand-crafted wines under the Meteor label.
Owned by Bill Westbrook, the vineyard produced its first vintage in 2005.
Planted in 2003, the vineyard is “still a baby,” according to Brittany Frey, who offers guests sips of White Fences’ six wines during a tasting.
Although capable of producing about 1,800 cases a year, the vineyard distributes only 1,400.
The actual wine-producing and bottling is done off-site in Prince Michel Vineyard & Winery, where the grapes are shipped in refrigerated trucks.
A small tasting room and gift shop is tucked away behind the vineyard. A self-guided tour of the vineyard should soon be available, said Frey.
Visitors, after a tasting, may linger with a glass of wine in the new wine lounge. Built this summer, the lounge will be used for Pairing Parties, the first of which was held on July 21. Featuring five of White Fences award-winning wines, the parties allow guests to pair the wines with specially-selected appetizers. The parties will be held on select Thursdays through late fall from 6 to 7:30 p.m. The cost is $25 per person.
Another favorite fall event at the vineyard is its family-oriented Irvington Stomp, to be held this year on Saturday, August 30. The stomp allows visitors to actually “have a Lucille Ball” type stomp, where folks climb into a barrel and mash grapes, according to Westbrook.
The event includes activities for all ages, including a maize maze and hayrides.
Meteor wine is available for purchase at the vineyard and can also be shipped through on-line purchase to 20 states. The wine is also available at select wine festivals.
ONE TO TRY Meteor Bright White is White Fences most popular wine. Semi-sweet, the wine is an aromatic vidal blanc with hints of jasmine and sweet apple. Honey and pear flavors add a touch of sweetness.