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FOOD AND DRINK

4 MIN

Could the Next Big Wine Region Be on the Outskirts of Washington DC?

Northern Virginia's wine country aspires to be the Napa Valley of the East Coast

Your first taste of capital-area wine might be a glass of Chrysalis Schitz & Giggels, a playful expression of the local Norton grape from one of the area’s premier producers.

The name may be a joke, but the wine is not.

A sprawling landscape of vineyards and large, modern wineries probably doesn’t spring to mind when you think of Washington. Yet just an hour outside the city you’ll find Loudoun County, Virginia, which aspires to become the Napa Valley of the U.S. East Coast.

Loudoun County is dominated by agriculture, with generations of farmers who are proud of their heritage and intimate relationships with their land.

The patriotic roots of the area run deep, and most producers have embraced the local grape varieties Chambourcin, a French-American hybrid, and Norton, a grape variety thought to be indigenous to North America. Norton produces robust red wines bursting with red and black fruit flavours and is often made in an off-dry style, though dry versions are also common.

The origin of the Norton varietal remains mysterious, but we do know that the varietal thrives across the the mid-Atlantic and Midwest regions of the United States. A little over a century ago, wines made from Norton were highly acclaimed at an international wine fair in Vienna, where it was deemed “the best red wine of all nations.”

'We have calls from all around the country' 

Practically unknown to the rest of the wine world, producers are putting Norton and other obscure Virginia specialties front and centre in their offerings, trying to restore their once widespread reputation as wines of genuine quality.

In addition to the local grapes, traditional French varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for red, and Viognier and Chardonnay for whites have been incorporated across the board. But But it’s the only-in-Virginia wines, which are so scarce in the rest of the world, that add a certain charm to a wine tour here.

While there are plenty of whites, rosés, sparkling and dessert wines here, the rich reds are the trophy wines, offering robust and bold flavours that capture the essence of vineyard plots that sprawl across gently rolling, sun-bathed hills. As viticulture takes over more of the land, farmers have learned which grapes can handle the cold winters and hot summers. The large open spaces allow for aeration, coupled with soils that promote good drainage, the grapes are naturally protected against mould and mildew.

Cool Story, Breaux

Breaux Vineyards is one of the most established wineries in the region (most people outside of Loudoun County have probably never heard of it). Like most wineries, it sells nearly all of its stock locally, and to wine club members. Part of this is because alcohol distribution laws vary state by state, making it difficult to break into other markets, to say nothing of the complications that ensue from exporting.

“We have calls from consumers and restaurants all around the country inquiring how to get our wines,” says Chris Blosser, vice president at Breaux Vineyards.

Courtesy Breaux Vineyards

The stunning estate at Breaux Vineyards is a popular DC area wedding spot.

Breaux’s main building and winery is a custom built mansion tucked away in rolling vineyards, with ample al fresco guest areas. It would be easy to forget that Washington is just an hour away during a day of tasting here.

Despite the lush surroundings, Blosser says the grapes are the focus of the operation. “When Breaux first got started back in the late ’90s, the vast majority of the investment was put into [planting] the vineyards. … Of course, the investment in equipment and talent are important, but without grapes a smaller winery is stuck without product to sell.”

Courtesy Breaux Vineyards

The tasting room at Breaux.

‘An all-inclusive foodie paradise’

A short ride away is another expanding operation, Chrysalis Winery and Agricultural District, where award-winning wines are just part of the equation. “We are a 412-acre [167-hectare] farm, the largest farm winery in Loudoun County, and one of, if not the largest, in the commonwealth,” says Jenni McCloud, owner and director of the large operation (like many locals, she styles Virginia as a “commonwealth” as opposed to a “state”).  

Grapes may be the main crop on the Chrysalis Agricultural District, but the recently planted acres of heirloom vegetables and wheat, along with the new sustainable dairy farm are coming together to form an all-inclusive foodie paradise. “We’re getting people into the frame of mind that we’re not just a winery – though we don’t cut corners of [the wines]”.

At a store located in the main building, visitors have access to everything from jelly made from those famous Norton grapes to farm-raised cuts of heirloom beef that come directly from the property. On the third floor, Chrysalis’s new tasting room is of the most technologically advanced in the country. It features tasting islands that are activated by swiping a card that keeps track of which wines the visitors have tried. Tasters can also watch informational videos on iPads while they sip wine routed through pipes directly from the basement cellar at the perfect temperature, all surrounded by 360-degree views of the rolling vineyards.

'We’re getting people into the frame of mind that we’re not just a winery'

When you finish, you can fill up your virtual shopping cart and have the wines waiting for you downstairs.  

Intent on using the varieties that make the most sense for the soil and climate, McCloud embraces grape varieties that thrive best in the moderate and continental climate of Virginia – which has been compared to Bordeaux – and believes in proliferating them. Take Petit Manseng, for example, a little known grape variety native to Southwest France that grows particularly well throughout the United States. “All of the Petit Manseng grown throughout the United States comes from this farm.”

But above all, McCloud a booster of the indigenous Norton grape. She has trademarked the phrase, “Norton, The Real American Grape!” to highlight its legacy.

“I always get in trouble for saying it, but I’d rather make the world’s best Norton than the world’s 400th best Merlot.”

Three more wineries to visit

Published Friday, September 1st 2017

Header image credit: Courtesy Visit Loudoun

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