Savvy Easterners know this: You don’t have to hop a jet to San Francisco or Mendoza to explore wine country. Such was the lesson for me. Just a few months before, I had spent a week in Northern California, tasting my way through Napa and Sonoma. But then I got the email from a friend who is a dedicated wine aficionado and former vineyard employee: It contained a simple list of wine recommendations in Virginia as well as insider travel tips like enjoying a chocolate-and-wine pairing at Fabbioli Cellars with MC2 Confections.
The lesson was that there is a gorgeous wine country only an hour from Washington, D.C. Just 70 miles from the heart of the city (and miles away from the bumper-to-bumper traffic of I-95 and I-495), this was America’s first heartland. These are the fields and ridges that exhausted soldiers tromped across during the Civil War. This is the farmland where the tobacco industry once propelled the state’s economy. Come in early autumn, and you can find Granny Smith and McIntosh apples ripening in orchards. And if you’re on the right country road, like the Charles Towne Pike, you’ll find another kind of fruit—grapes—and you’ll find signs beckoning you into vineyards and wineries.
Before you go, pack a sweater (even the summer nights can cool down in these ridges beside the Appalachian mountain range), but don’t pack preconceptions about Southeastern wines being sugary muscadine bottles that devolve into vinegar next year. The wines here have begun to earn the praises of enologists like noted wine critic Jancis Robinson and British wine writer Steven Spurrier.
Starting in the 1980s, Virginia Tech’s horticulture department started traveling around the state researching which grape varieties were suited to the Shenandoah and other key growing areas of the state. Virginia’s climate and unpredictable rains can be difficult on grapes, for which vintners seek just the perfect amount of moisture and sun. It’s good to have science on your side.
That’s how it worked at Hillsborough Vineyards, a winery near Purcellville, Va., in Loudoun County, and located on the aforementioned Charles Towne Pike. When Hillsborough opened 10 years ago, the Virginia Tech horticulture department was able to suggest grapes for the winery. It’s what has allowed Hillsborough to create wines like its 2007 Ruby, a blend of Tannat, Fer Servadou and Petit Verdot grapes. Today it produces roughly 2,500 cases per year, and 2012 was reported to be a big, quality harvest. The estate is beautiful, perched on a hill with a southern-facing view of an undeveloped ridge. An outdoor patio begs for sharing a bottle among friends.
Practically around the corner is the 404-acre Breaux Vineyards, where a crawfish appears on the bottle’s label indicating the Louisiana roots of the owner, Paul Breaux. My tasting guide is Sam Cochran, a local author and occasional home vintner. He takes me through the story on Breaux while pouring the tasting. Breaux, one of Virginia’s largest vineyards and the largest in Loudoun County, produces 10,000 case per year and 540 tons of grapes. They bottle on the stunning property, where an event center and a pub are under construction beside the winery and tasting room. As he tells me the story, I scribble notes on a tasting sheet: The 2006 Nebbiolo is a must-taste wine that seems almost uniquely Virginian. I put a thumbs-up mark beside the Cabernet Franc, a varietal that is proving to be a favorite Virginia wine.
Wine mingles well with history, and from the Loudoun County wineries, it’s worth aiming your car north across the state line into West Virginia, where you will come upon Harpers Ferry. Planted on the hillside banks beside the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers (a three-states corner where Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia meet), the town’s history is tied to the Civil War, made famous by abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the armory here in 1859 when Harpers Ferry was a Virginia town producing federal munitions. The town itself is now mostly a park, perfect for a roaming stroll, with great views of the mountains, just the kind of place to enjoy a lazy visit before or after a winery tour.
The next afternoon, I’m back on the hunt for Virginia’s wine, and the newest dot on the wine map is in a Virginia county not previously known for wine. Opened in 2012 outside the community of Stephens City in Fredrick County, Valerie Hill Vineyard and Winery is in an 1807 manor house built by a Revolutionary War captain. Drive down a path lined with overhanging evergreens, and you find the restored manor home. The property has come full-circle in a way. More than 200 years ago, before the manor house was built, this plot of land was a local tavern. Although tiny compared to Breaux Vineyards, this 18-acre winery recently planted its vines in a field beside an old stone chimney.
When I arrive at Valerie Hill, the first winery in Fredrick County, a pair of classical musicians are playing chamber music beside a fireplace, and groups of couples are enjoying tastings in the corridors. The guests finishing their glasses generally have local ties, and the customers slipping in are here for last-minute bottle purchases to carry to holiday parties and family dinners. If there’s anything that defines Virginia’s wine country today, it’s that scene. These vineyards and wineries are still mostly the locals’ secret, but they’re growing and improving by the day, and in the process they’re being discovered by the world.
The Virginia Winery Guide—published annually, this map-based guide will help you explore the state’s roughly 200 wineries and vineyards. As a bonus, you’ll even find listings for brewers of mead and apple ciders (the ones with a kick).
36888 Breaux Vineyards Lane, Purcellville, Va. (540) 668-6299
15669 Limestone School Road, Leesburg, Va. (703) 771-1197
36716 Charles Town Pike, Purcellville, Va., (540) 668-6216
Valerie Hill Vineyard & Winery
1687 Marlboro Road, Stephens City, Va., (540) 869-9567
Harpers Ferry National Park
Located in the heart of Harpers Ferry, W. Va.
Family Drive-In Theater
Open in the warmer months, this drive-in movie theater always offers a double feature, and it’s a flashback worth experiencing. Hot rods park next to Subarus, and everyone is here to see the silver-screen hits just like they did years ago.
5890 Valley Pike (Route 11), Stephens City, Va. (540) 665-6982.
Magnolias at the Mill (American standards & grill classics)
198 North 21st Street, Purcellville, Va., (540) 338-9800
The Irish Isle (Irish standards)
7843 Main Street, Middletown, Va., (540) 868-9877