By Lisa Airey
A large group of wine professionals had convened mid-September to judge the Virginia Governor's Cup and a few of us were staying an extra day to tour.
We drove among verdant pastureland, old farm houses, red barns and quaint areas filled with antique stores.
With the formalities of the all-day wine analysis behind us, we were out to kick some dirt and breathe some cool cellar air.
Our first stop was Swedenburg Estate Vineyard, whose owner, Juanita Swedenburg, initiated the national legal battle to allow for interstate wine shipping.
Swedenburge, representing one of Loudoun County's smallest wineries, took her case all the way to the Supreme Court and won, with the assistance of loyal customer and Institute for Justice lawyer Clint Bolick.
She and her husband, Wayne, both had careers in the Foreign Service and had toyed with retiring to a coffee plantation in Kenya or a cattle ranch in Costa Rica before deciding on Virginia.
Their grape operation is now managed by their son, Marc, who we met at the tasting bar.
He was warm and welcoming and set the stage for the whole day. His mother was in her seventies when she decided to address the inconsistencies and injustice within the constitution regarding wine shipments.
Among other offerings, they make a nice chardonnay that finishes with a lovely touch of nutmeg spice ($15 at the cellar door).
Stop No. 2 was Three Fox Vineyards, a fanciful estate that is storybook perfect with a charming tasting room and cottage amid the vines. Visitors can enjoy hammocks, picnic tables and a good game of horseshoes before, during or after tasting the wine lineup.
The grounds were full of kids, dogs and laughter.
Fox specializes in Italian grape varieties and warm hospitality. Again, the owners were behind the tasting bar. We enjoyed Il Signor Sangiovese Reserve with lunch on a hilltop overlooking the valley.
Some say that there are certain places on this planet where the earth breathes. If so, this is definitely one of them. The owners named the vineyard after having seen three foxes on the day they toured the county looking for land to buy. They were looking for and listening to their destiny. Luckily for everyone, they paid attention.
Our next winery was Chateau O'Brien, where owner Howard O'Brien worked the tasting bar. He was an outrageous 30-something in painter paints and T-shirt who managed to give us a 30-minute taste tour of his offerings with New York-paced nonstop commentary while multi-tasking. I swear he never took a breath the entire time and he never skipped a beat.
The huge deck was very hip. The whole feel was lodge-like. Wood, wood and more wood. Thankfully, not too much of that in the wine.
The Northpoint White, made from chardonnay, was phenomenal, but Buddy's Bistro Red was an absolutely first-class cabernet franc, and a dollar from my purchase went to support the local animal shelter. Talk about a feel-good purchase.
The last winery on the tour was Marterella. Once again, the owner was behind the tasting bar. Kate Marterella told us how her neighbors tried to shut down her winery after she had built it, and about the nerve-wracking battle that ensued to open and begin operations after having invested so much time and effort in the building and the vineyard below. We stood on a patio as the "pizza girl" pulled a pie from the outdoor brick oven. This culinary talent was finishing for the day and turning in her wooden paddle for a guitar. She doubles as singer/guitar player come evening, on a barstool right in front of the dying embers.
The chardonnay was terrific at $24. The merlot was out of this world and clocked in at the same price. What made the red so intriguing was the inclusion of 20 percent petite verdot in the blend. Petite verdot delivers an incredibly rich and earthy spiciness to wine. The Bordelais incorporate it into their blends, but in much smaller percentages.
The French have a tough time ripening this grape. Obviously, Virginia does not.
In fact, overwhelmingly, the standout wines in the Governor's Cup judging and in our wine tour were the off-the-beaten-track grape varieties, grape varieties that do not stand alone as varietal wine in the Old World, but shine so brightly in the New.
Cabernet Franc does well in Virginia. So does Norton and Viognier and petite manseng.
In fact, the petite mansengs that were submitted to the Virginia wine competition were so compelling that I'm heading south again, in quest for this holy grail.
Know before you go:
There is a nominal tasting charge at each winery. Not all have food available for purchase, but many provide picnic tables for whatever you bring. The wineries encourage you to wine and dine, and stay a while. To get your copy of the Loudoun County Wine Trail, e-mail info@LoudounFrams.org or go to www.LoudonFarms.org.
The phone number is 703-777-0426.
Lisa Airey is a certified wine educator. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.