Alexandria, VA – October in wine country kickstarts celebrations of the harvest at vineyards across the state. It is, after all, Virginia Wine Month. But come November, vineyard owners, workers, and guests take the time to enjoy the fruits of fall labors, gratefully kicking back to enjoy the views and the wine. November is a time to share and to give thanks.
Z~Oenology ventured a little farther out beyond the Beltway and Tuskie’s Wine Trail down into Madison County, Virginia. Madison County is at the northern tip of the Monticello Wine Trail and within the designated Monticello AVA. AVA’s designate American Viticultural Areas. There are eight AVAs in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Monticello AVA is considered the birthplace of American wine. Thomas Jefferson first began cultivating vines and fruit trees for wine production centuries ago at his Monticello estate. The winemakers of this region today are inspired by traditions established by our third president over 250 years ago.
The Monticello AVA includes 35 wineries. The best-known in Madison County are Early Mountain Vineyards in the town of Madison and Prince Michel Vineyards and Winery in Leon. Early Mountain Vineyards, owned by AOL founder Steve Case and his wife Jean, with 300 acres is a formidable presence in the wineries of Madison County.
Prince Michel, founded in 1982 by Parisians Jean and Sylvain LeDucq, is among the oldest and largest vineyards in the Old Dominion and one of the premier wineries on the East Coast. Prince Michel announced last month the creation of VIP Winery Pods that secure social distancing. These inflated bubble igloos are available by reservation only, offering VIP pod table/couch service to guests.
Z~Oenology sought out smaller boutique winemaking destinations to explore one fine day while out and about the undulating foothills and lush green valleys of the Blue Ridge mountains. With autumnal color beginning to peek out in the vineyards and peak at the higher elevations, the journey seemed only marginally longer than a daycation to the Rappahannock County spirits trail.
First stop was Sharp Rock Vineyards and Cottages, which sits a stone’s throw from Old Rag Mountain along the scenic Hughes River. The rustic barn tasting room is captivating. Tastings and wines by the glass, or large plastic beverage cup, are offered as well as bottle sales to enjoy on the grounds or to go. And the winery will ship. There are so many different seating options that it felt a little like being Goldilocks. The choice was made by the adorable Bernese Mountain winery dog who invited us to join him in the Adirondack chairs.
In their review of Sharp Rock Vineyards, the New York Times wrote, “The beauty is that life at Sharp Rock is probably much the way it was 200 years ago.” The quiet would be almost deafening if it weren’t so invitingly serene, like being wrapped in a comforting throw while sitting by a fireside with friends. A visit here feels like a warm welcome home.
And the wine is prettay, prettay, prettay good! Many of their international award-winning wines are already out of stock. One of the most popular that is still available is the Chamois Rouge, a blend of five reds, that is fruit forward with a bit of spice. A perfect wine for an impromptu fall picnic or for an amuse bouche pairing to start a Thanksgiving repast. The Chamois Blanc is a fun blend of Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc, it’s sweetness tempered by floral notes and apple.
The acidity balances the sweetness of the Vidal, making it a perfect desert to pair with grandma’s apple pie.
Go bold if you dare this Thanksgiving and try a red with the turkey or tofurkey. Sausage stuffing especially invites you to try a rosé or even a Bordeaux-style wine. Sharp Rock offers Rosé Noir, an intriguing Cabernet rosé in which the grape skin is left on for three days producing a deeper, more complex rosé. Or try Old Rag Red, blending three Bordeaux-style varietals to achieve the classic oaked cherry bouquet that made French wine famous.
Winemaker Jimm East, who owns Sharp Rock with his wife Kathy, welcomes guests year round. The winery is open Friday through Sunday, on Monday holidays, and Monday through Thursday by appointment. Come earlier in the afternoon because once the mountaineers descend Old Rag traffic gets a little bit city.
Next stop was DuCard Vineyards. Nestled in a hidden valley well off the main drag, DuCard provides a country oasis even among the roads less travelled of Madison County. Horses and an expanse of vines welcome guests to the winery. A banner that sways in the breeze reads: “The Best Wines Are the Ones We Drink with Friends.”
Virginia wine agritourism was hit hard by COVID-19. Sharing wine and good times at vineyards with friends proved too daunting for months. Smaller wineries are adapting in unique ways. An island deck at DuCard straddles the stream bed with tables at socially distanced space. Adirondack chairs are scattered about, providing safe social bubbles for individuals, couples, or small groups.
DuCard is still not pouring wine by the glass. They resumed tastings on Sunday last month. Parking in the lot in front of the charming barn-red tasting room, guests encounter DuCard’s clever interpretation of the LOVE signage that appeared at Virginia wineries for the 400th anniversary of winemaking in America. Representing the Virginia Is For Wine Lovers slogan, vineyards across the state erected colorful LOVE tributes. DuCard created the word LOVE using blue wine bottles to shape each letter. When the light hits the glass just so, LOVE glows!
Of all the wineries of Madison County, the one that boasts the best view has to be Revalation Vineyards. Its unparalleled views indoors and out take your breath away. Owners Françoise, a Belgian academic mathematician, and Julian, an Irish endodontist, found their way to the Blue Ridge mountains to turn their passion for wine tasting into a dream realized, and a lot of labors of love.
Françoise and Julian give back to Madison County in numerous ways. Françoise teaches viticulture at Madison High School during the spring horticultural unit. She is creating a viticulture certificate curriculum for high school students throughout the state. They participate in a jobs program for high school students, placing them in vine cultivation work and tasting room support. The first Friday of every month, Françoise and Julian host a benefit for the Literacy Council of Madison County. They even have a Little Free Winery at the winery.
Revalation specializes in small batch wines highlighting the unique expression of the terroir of Central Virginia. While they are not certified organic, they do practice environmental progressive vine management, minimizing pesticide control. Reds are classic Old Dominion tried and true: Cabernet Franc, Tannat, and two fun blends, Ménage à Quatre, a blend of Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, Merlot, and a soupçon of Tannat (1 percent), and Merlotage, a blend of Merlot, Cab Franc, and Cab Sauv.
The whites are standard offerings; Petit Manseng, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc, with the notable absence of Chardonnay. There is Quatre Blanc, a blend of Petit Manseng, Pinot Gris, and Sauv Blanc, with a delightful splash of Viognier. Revalation even produces a non-alcoholic wine called Verjus, made by pressing special grapes (kept a closely-guarded secret from visiting Z~Oenologists).
The credo philosophy at Revalation Vineyards is “Let the vines sing! Be the wines local. Quality over quantity. Train the youngsters.” Words to live by in these uncertain times. Words to raise a glass to Françoise and Julian for counting their blessings and paying it forward. Brava and bravo! Revalation Vineyards is open November 1 through April 30, Saturday/Sunday 1:00 – 5:00 p.m.