Virginia Wine Country
When you think of the wine regions of the world worth visiting Virginia probably does not come to mind, but maybe it should. Wineries have been producing wine in Virginia for decades, but in the past five to ten years new wineries have been popping up, especially in Northern Virginia, just a short drive from Washington, D.C. Much to my surprise, some of them are producing some excellent wines. (For those into wine ratings I'll include my personal ratings one each of the various wine mentioned in this article.) This article is going to review three wineries in Northern Virginia and one wine from the Monticello region.
First Some Context
April is Virginia Vineyard Month, and the state's vineyards have really come together to start promoting wine in Virginia. You can find a fairly comprehensive list of wineries on Virginia's wine marketing website. In fact, according to the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, Virginia set a record for wine production in 2016 with over 6.6 million bottles sold. Virginia is now one of the top five viticulture states in the country. According to the National Association of American Wineries, Virginia comes in behind California, Oregon, Washington, and New York in terms of total wineries.
Stone Tower Winery
Stone Tower Winery is one of the newer wineries in Virginia, located on Hogback Mountain in Leesburg, VA. I've been to many wineries, including in California and others in Virginia, Stone Tower is simply massive in terms of the guest experience. This relative newcomer features three large buildings, including the Harvest Barn, which is family and pet friendly and the Tower View Room. You can pack a picnic, or purchase food at the wineries market or one of the food trucks parked out front. Guests are welcome to use a wide variety of tables, outdoor sofas, etc to enjoy the view, a bottle of wine and some food. I visited this past weekend on a nice spring day and the place was packed. If I had to estimate, I'd say over a thousand people packed. With that said, the winery has enough space that you have options as to where you want to sit and enjoy some wine. We found a comfortable spot in the Harvest Barn and the wine tasting bars were never too crowded.
The winery offers a variety of tours and you can make reservations online. You can also just show up and enjoy a tasting at one of the many tasting rooms on the property. Tastings are currently $15 per person.
What I liked
Stone Tower is a beautiful venue and the views are amazing. The property is also immaculate. (It's available for weddings and private events) Furniture inside the tasting rooms is upscale, but extremely comfortable. The Tower View Room features a fireplace and I can imagine would be a great spot to enjoy a glass of wine on a cool fall day.
You can bring your own food, you just can't bring outside alcoholic beverages. (This totally makes sense) Wine is available to purchase by the bottle or the glass.
What I Didn't Like
There's not much that I didn't like, however I found the crowds to be surprising on my first visit. Parking can be a challenge and you may have to park a long walk from the tasting rooms. Another note, and I'll cover this more below when I review their wines, Stone Tower makes very few estate grown wines and as far as I can tell they don't sell them anywhere outside of the winery. (I could be wrong, but I haven't seen them sold anywhere in the D.C. area)
I lean towards red wines and I'm a fan of bold reds, mainly from California and Washington State. While I've enjoyed many French Bordeaux varieties, I actually prefer new world Bordeaux-style wines. Maybe I just haven't had enough French Bordeaux's, who knows. I also like a solid Pinot Noir, Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon. This article is only going to review red wines, because that's what I drank at each of these wineries.
As I mentioned above Stone Tower makes very few estate wines, meaning wines they create with their own grapes. Most of what you'll find on their tasting menu is from the Wild Boar label. It's not that these are bad wine, I just won't comment on them since I only tried their two estate reds 2014 Hogback Mountain and 2014 Wind Swept Hill. (Stone Tower makes the Wild Boar wines with grapes purchased from other vineyards.)
Hogback Mountain is a left bank Bordeaux-style blend that is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon. I wish I could tell you the percentage and the rest of the blend, but they don't reveal this on the bottle or their website and I forgot to ask. This wine spent a year in new French oak and then another eight months in used oak. I was impressed with the complexity and smoothness of this wine. It's very pleasing on the nose. It's still young and I think it needs a few years in a cellar.
If you like bold reds, this is worth a try. At $69.00 per bottle, it's in the mid-range of the bottles I'll review in this article. My personal score for Hogback Mountain is 90pts. If you pick up a bottle, give it another two years sitting on its side. According to the label, there are just over 6,000 bottles of the 2014 vintage.
The 2014 Wind Swept Hill is 30% Merlot, equal parts Cab Franc and Cab Sav, and a touch of Petit Verdot. It was peppery and sweet with an aroma definitely distinctive of a Merlot. Like Hogback Mountain, this wine is produced in a fairly small quantity, with just over 8,000 bottles in the 2014 vintage. It sells for $65.00 per bottle. I'd rate Wind Swept Hill around 88-89pts. I would likely choose Hogback over this wine because the prices are so similar.
RdV, in Delaplane, VA, is the winery that got me to take a serious look at Virginia wines. I've lived in the state for the past fifteen years, and while I've been to several wineries, I never considered them to be excellent. RdV changed that opinion and has convinced me to look at more wineries in the state.
Unlike Stone Tower, you must have a reservation to visit RdV. They offer one tour, which is $50 per person, it includes a tasting of their wines and a Charcuterie at the end of the tour. The tour takes about an hour and includes a walk through the cave where the wines are aged, a visit to the mixing lab where the wines are blended and testing and a look at the bottling operation. If you want to learn about the wine making process from a friendly and knowledgeable staff that loves what they do, visit RdV.
RdV is also a small winery. They produce approximately 2200 cases of wine per year in two Bordeaux styles. Lost Mountain is their left bank, Cabernet Sauvignon leading wine. The first vintage was 2008, and as of this article their current vintage is 2013. They will release their 2014 in fall 2017. Rendezvous is their right bank, Merlot leading red. Both wines are excellent, but when you complete your tour you will have the opportunity to taste both of them side by side. Lost Mountain, of course the more expensive wine, is definitely my favorite.
Lost Mountain is incredibly balanced and complex with dark, almost black, fruit. Rutger de Vink (aka RdV) is the man behind the winery and his aim is to create world-class wines. I think he has achieved this and I think you'd be surprised these wines did not come from California or Bordeaux. There is definitely an earthiness that I find unique to their wine.
RdV grows 100% of their grapes in sixteen acres of vines on their 100 acre property. They essentially control everything from start to finish. Great wines do come at a cost, Rendezvous is $75.00 per bottle and Lost Mountain is $125.00. As far as I know this is the only current-vintage Virginia wine over $100. I've had the 2013 and 2010 Lost Mountain. I give the 2013 a score rage of 92-94pts. I think the 2010 is in the 90-92pt range (Wine Enthusiast 91pts). I've tasted the 2013 Rendezvous, and while I'm not a huge fan of Merlot, I think this is amazingly balanced and I'd score in in the 90-91pt range.
When you visit RdV there's a certain exclusivity. The tours are relatively small groups. The tastings are done in an intimate setting where you are seated with wine and food. You won't experience the walk-up tasting bar at RdV. They provide you with info cards on the wines so you can learn about them as you sip.
RdV has one of the simplest wine clubs I've ever seen. Once a year you buy a half-case and you're an "ambassador" member. The current price is $550.00 and it included (2) bottles of Lost Mountain and (4) bottles of Rendezvous. Ambassador members can also make reservations to bring guests to the winery and buy wine by the bottle to enjoy. They also have a menu of reasonably priced Charcuterie. This is an excellent experience and they reserve a section of the winery for ambassador members to visit. Ambassadors are also able to buy additional bottles from RdV's library.
RdV wines are available at a few select restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area and some retail shops will carry Rendezvous. Lost Mountain must be purchased at the winery. These are definitely boutique wines, produced in limited quantities. Even if you aren't looking to join the wine club, I highly recommend the tour and tasting. (Small disclosure, I am an ambassador member, but I joined last fall after enjoying the tour and tasting.)
Linden is a short drive from RdV and has long been considered one of Virginia's premiere wineries. They've been around for decades. The vineyard and tasting room sit atop a hill overlooking the vines and rolling hills just east of Shenandoah National Park. Use your GPS to guide you to their vineyard because they don't advertise on the roadside winery signs. You'll need to know where you're going. Jim Law is the man behind Linden, and in fact, Rutger de Vink apprenticed for Jim before starting RdV.
The basic wine tasting at Linden is reasonable $8 per person. Wines are also available by the glass or bottle and there is plenty of seating to enjoy some wine, some food (which they serve) and the view. Linden also offers a more in-depth tasting and tour for $25 per person.
Tip: Call ahead. Linden's hours and public availability can vary by season. They may also limit public entry to wine club members only on busy weekends.
Unlike Stone Tower you cannot bring your own food to Linden, but they do have a reasonably priced menu with snacks to enjoy with their wines. Linden also likes to protect the atmosphere of the winery and doesn't allow large groups, wine tour buses, etc.
I did the standard tasting. The winery has a heavy emphasis on white wines, but they do make a few reds. Their 2013 Hardscrapple Red was the wine I had heard good things about, and wanted to try. Unfortunately it's not offered on the $8 tasting. It is available by the glass or bottle. There were four of us, so we decided to buy a bottle and enjoy it with a Charcuterie. We had just come from RdV so it was interesting to compare Linden's signature Hardscrapple with the Lost Mountain we had a couple of hours earlier.
After letting the wine get some air for about 10-15 minutes it began to open up a bit. It was good, and at $50 a bottle less than half the cost of Lost Mountain, but comparing them isn't fair. The Hardscrapple is a good Cabernet Sauvignon leading red blend, but nowhere near as smooth, bold of complex as RdV's Lost Mountain. For the price, it's a good red wine. I'd give the 2013 Hardscrapple 88pts.
Linden is a gorgeous setting in the hills of Northern Virginia and will give you the feel of a less crowded winery. Their staff is knowledgeable and you can easily find a glass or bottle to enjoy.
One More Wine
While I have not visited their winery, I want to throw out a mention for Barboursville Vineyards which is located near Monticello. If you enjoy Bordeaux-style red blends check out Barboursville's Octagon. This is a Merlot leading (right bank) blend from a winery with a history of creating excellent wines. You can buy this wine from their website or from retail stores in Virginia. (I found it at Total Wine) It sells for around $55 a bottle. I'd give the 2013 vintage a rating in the range of 89-91pts. This wine would be great after a few years in your cellar. Barboursville has a reputation of making some excellent wines.
If you're looking for an alternative to Napa or Sonoma in California look at Northern Virginia. All of the vineyards mentioned above, with the exception of Barboursville, are about an hour drive from downtown Washington, D.C. If you want to stay in Northern Virginia wine country look at:
- Inn at Little Washington in Washington, VA
- Salamander Resort in Middleburg, VA
- Lansdowne Resort and Spa in Leesburg, VA
The closest commercial airport is Dulles International Airport, which is about twenty minutes from Leesburg and thirty minutes from Front Royal, VA.