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Virginia Wineries: South of 64

With fuel prices as high as they've ever been, a messed-up environment as evinced by bizarre winter weather, and the decreased competitiveness of our currency, the onus is on us more than ever to think globally and drink locally. We residents of the DC metropolitan area are in a unique position vis a vis this proposition — few regions outside of Napa Valley offer a better wineries-per-square-mile ratio than Virginia wine country. Over 100 wineries strong and growing every year, Virginia winemaking is a boom industry amidst a landscape stricken by stagnation.

Though its reputation is improving, I'm sorry to say that the suggestion of VA wine still leads to many an upturned nose. Now I'll grant you, quality is not superb across the board, but what wine region can honestly make such a claim? If you are one of the deriders, good on you for being skeptical, but propriety demands that I ask you not to knock it till you've tried it — and the best place to try it is at the source! If your travels take you anywhere south or west of the beltway, options abound for the adventurous drinker looking for an excuse for a quick glass, some beautiful scenery, and in several cases, some really good food.

On a recent trip to the south Eliza and I hit the back roads and visited a few of the wineries south of Route 64 between Stauton and Charlottesville. In what I hope is the first in a series, here are my experiences at a few of those places.

Afton Mountain Vineyards

Following convenient signs on the highway, about 6 miles of driving up narrow, hilly country roadsAftonsign brought us to the unvarnished wooden home of Afton Mountain Vineyards. At 960 feet above sea level, Afton produces some of the highest elevation fruit in the state of Virginia; elevation is actually an important facet in grape growing, as higher vineyards keep grapes away from low-lying pollution, allow for sunnier days and cooler nights, and give the eonologist a more difficult but rewarding soil to cultivate. Afton is one of the few wineries of its output (about 5,000 gallons annually) to utilize a gravity flow vinification process, which keeps stress on the grapes to a minimum and yields higher quality juice.

Afton's tasting bar is a quaint affair, tile floored but comfortable, where tasting room staffer Brian (a friendly and knowledgeable guy) offers a selection of about 10 wines to taste. The offerings are eclectic for Aftontastingroom the state, including such oddballs as Gewurztraminer and Sangiovese, along with the ubiquitous Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc. All the wines were good, if a bit expensive — the Cabernet Sauvignon in particular struck me, being more pleasantly tannic than one usually gets in the area. What surprised me most was that Afton offers a Pinot Noir made from 100% estate-grown grapes, an animal almost unheard of in the Virginia wine menagerie. This wine was not up for sampling, as production is limited to a few dozen cases, but curiosity got the better of me and I bought a bottle, reasoning that I'd blown $20 on much stupider things. I opened the bottle a few days later, prepared for the worst; Virginia's generally moist climate is not conducive to growing the popular grape and few vintners have even tried. Only a few sips in I was rather impressed — a pretty burnt-leaves and raspberry nose, medium body, and good acidity give way to a very interesting woodsy, black-cherry finish. Having none of the green notes or low acidity for which Virginia wine has been condemned, I have to say that this wine was as well made as any Pinot I've had from the US for less than $25.

Afton Mountain Vineyards
234 Vineyard Lane
Afton, VA 22920
Food: Cheese, crackers and baguettes available for purchase. Scenic picnic area.
Wine Availability: Tasting room, website and wine club; otherwise, limited.

Veritas Vineyard and Winery

Though only a 10 minute drive from Afton Mountain Vineyards, Veritas could not present itself moreVeritasdeck differently. In the stead of the small brown building offered by its neighbor, Veritas presents a grand estate. With a full wall of dramatic windows, cathedral ceilings and a sweeping green lawn, Veritas' tasting room and environs evoke all the charm of an old style Virginia plantation, without all the reprehensible oppression and such. Inside it's all old wood, rustic furniture and chandeliers, with a huge stone fireplace to boot — small wonder that in such a romantic setting, a couple of our fellow visitors quite suddenly got engaged!

The basic tasting at Veritas is free, with an additional $4 charge for the high end and dessert wines — having heard good things, we decided to try the lot. Veritas' wines across the board may be called uniformly clean, with the new winery's thoroughly modern approach evident in each. The whites were round and full, most having seen a bit more oak than I would have hoped; the Viognier in this was most dissapointing, being a wine I usually characterize as fresh and fruity. The reds were similarly full and oaky, with the exception of the 2006 Claret, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot that was spicy, bright and racy. By far the most impressive of the group was the 2005 Mousseux, a pink sparkler created with the aid of esteemed Champenoise winemaker Claude Thibault. Produced using the labor intensive Method Traditionelle (where the bubble producing second fermentation occurs in the bottle), this 50% Chard, 50% Cab Franc is elegant and trim, featuring fresh strawberry on the nose and a very bright and slightly sweet finish.  While not as toasty as the French stuff, the Mousseux is one of the better Virginian sparklers I've had, and I hope it marks the beginning of great things for this young winery.

Veritas Vineyard and Winery
145 Saddleback Farm
Afton, VA 22920
Food: Cheese and crackers at the bar. Full menu by resident chef available for special events. Beautiful picnic space abounds.
Wine Availability: Widely distributed throughout Virginia.

Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard

Klugetastingroom A few more miles east on Route 6 and north on Route 20, we were on our way back to the highway with just enough time for a stop off at Kluge, Albemarle county's premier winemaking estate. This gargantuan 2,000 acre facility was founded in 1999 by Patricia Kluge, a woman who has led an... interesting life (I won't get into it here, but read this article and you'll see what I mean). With ten-fold the capital of even her extremely affluent neighbors, Patricia's start in the wine biz was far from typical of the east coast vintner — having brought on the best growers and winemakers money can buy, including the services of superstar consultant Michel Rolland, Kluge's wines quickly gained national renown.

I started out a bit wary of this estate at the get go, and only grew more skeptical as we drove up the wooded hill to the impeccably neat and tidy tasting room. The whole affair seemed out of place for the Virginia winery scene: figuratively in the amount of money that Kluge had been thrown down in this developing wine region, and literally in the form of this cutesy "farmhouse" before me. Though, it had been my morbid curiosity that had brought us out of our way to get there, so in we went.

In appearance the tasting room at Kluge is very reminiscent of those I'd visited in Napa Valley: classy and comfortable in a Disneyesque sort of way, with lots of stuff for sale. The main room is arranged around a display case featuring an array of foods both hot an cold available from the on premise kitchen. Where most tasting rooms feature a bar and a wine-by-wine orchestrated tasting, at Kluge patrons order their food and wine with a cashier and are led to a side room for table service. We ordered a cheese plate (about $8), a bowl of truffled olives (about $4), and two full tastings ($10 each), and were led to a small sunlit table. Our cheese and wine came out promptly, with six wines served in conical plastic cups supported by a large stand — as had been promised, the servings were ample, totaling about two full glasses each. The server took a moment to explain each of the six wines before us, and suggested which might go best with each of our several cheeses. After that, we were left to our own devices.

The wines and cheeses were all good, even great in some cases; of particular note were the olives, which were tasty and made a great palate cleanser with a bit of sparkling wine. The most unusual wine in the mix was the Cru, a fortified Chardonnay aged in Jack Daniels barrels for six months prior to bottling — the spicy/sweet nose and syrupy body did indeed make this a good pair with our blue cheese, though I would have liked a bit more acidity. The Albemarle Simply Red 2004 and Albemarle Rose 2006 were tops with me — both Bordeaux blends showed the French winemaker's soft touch with wood and extraction, leaving the wines elegant and balanced where they could easily have been mawkish and awkward. The estate's flagship New World Red 2004 was also quite impressive, but in need of a few years aging before it really begins to show. We left with full stomachs, a slight buzz, a couple bottles of the Rose, and the knowledge that throwing a lot of money into a project can in fact yield some great things.

Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard
100 Grand Cru Drive
Charlottesville, VA 22902
Food: Full menu of light to heavy fare, available until about 3:30 for purchase.
Wine Availability: Widely distributed throughout Virginia, DC and beyond.

Pictures courtesy of the respective vineyards' websites.



I have enjoyed Virginia wines for years. You were about a half hour away from one of my favorites, Stone Mountain Vineyards. It is THE highest elevation winery in the state, and produces wonderful wine.

Rob Rutledge

I know the wines, Chris- I remember quite liking the Merlot. I haven't made it out to that area yet, but hope to some time this year. Incidentally, Stone Mountain actually has distribution in Washington DC (or at least, it did about 8 months ago), so if anyone has any interest, you should be able to get the wine pretty easily without driving all the way out to Dyke.


Unfortunately my favorite, Virginia winery, Chateau Morrisette isn't anywhere near Washington, D.C.

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