Swirling and sipping along the Blue Ridge

Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style
Photos by Mary Ann DeSantis

When you meander along the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, you expect to see spectacular views of majestic mountains and picturesque valleys. Seeing acres of rolling vineyards, however, may come as a surprise to those who haven’t heard that Virginia ranks among the nation’s leading wine-producing states.

And if you are thinking the mountains produce only sweet wines or apple ciders, you are mistaken. Virginia’s Cabernet Francs and Cabernet Sauvignons are giving more well-known wine regions a run for their money. The crisp mountain air and fertile valleys provide ideal conditions for growing grapes, and many of the local wineries use old-world winemaking techniques to produce wines that are earthy, bold and rich with tannins.

Swirling and Sipping along the Blue RidgeWith 172 wineries, 18 designated wine trails, and 6 American Viticultural Areas (AVA), Virginia has a wine for every taste. Travel and Leisure magazine [July 2008] even put Virginia on its must-visit list for adventurous wine travelers. The wineries along the Blue Ridge Parkway offer not only affordable wines, but also scenery that is priceless.

“This area is special because of the views and the award-winning wines,” said Kevin Costello, Botetourt County’s tourism director. “The wines are great, but the experience is even better.”

My favorites are dry reds, and I found several memorable ones on the Wine Trail of Botetourt County, a 45-mile loop that runs through one of Virginia’s oldest counties, and along the Blue Ridge Wine Trail, south of Roanoke.

Forensic scientist David Gibbs and his wife, Marie, run Virginia Mountain Vineyards on the Botetourt Trail near Fincastle, VA. Their small tasting room sits on Zion Mountain, one of the trail’s highest peaks. The higher elevation, said David, makes it an ideal location for grape growing.

“The reds do very well in this climate,” he explained as he offered chocolate to pair with his popular merlot.

The Gibbs make 12 different wines, including Chardonnays, a spice wine and a delicious Cabernet Franc. My favorite, though, was their Petite Verdot, an intense single varietal that was once used as a blending wine. A hint of blackberries on the nose was followed by a spicy finish.

Continuing on the Botetourt Trail, I found the Fincastle Vineyard & Winery owned by David and Georgia Sawyer and their winemaker son, Richard. The Sawyers use traditional Bordeaux small-scale techniques to make Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and a very popular Rosé.

While David manages the tasting room, Georgia is the perfect hostess who shows guests around the quaint farmhouse that also serves as a small bed and breakfast. The large front porch overlooking perfectly sculptured vineyards is the ideal place to enjoy a Fincastle Cabernet and a Blue Ridge sunset.

When I arrived at Blue Ridge Vineyard near Eagle Rock, I had a hard time deciding what I liked best: the crisp table wines, the magnificent scenery, or the friendly winery dogs. Blue Ridge Vineyard lives up to its name with a gorgeous view in every direction. The rustic tasting room is a well-decorated barn that beckons wine tasters to sit a spell and try the winery’s five whites and four reds. Winemaker Ryan Hasty, a young man with a chemistry degree, said the Big Bear Red is the best seller. I was surprised to find Blue Ridge Vineyard also offered a light, yet respectable Pinot Noir.

After visiting Botetourt’s small family wineries, it was time to experience one of Virginia’s largest wine producers, Chateau Morrisette on the Blue Ridge Wine Trail. Located near the Parkway’s Milepost 171, the French-style chateau is a wine-lover’s delight. An exquisite restaurant showcases the wines with regional food pairings, and a 32,000-square-foot building houses a state-of-the-art production facility where tours are scheduled daily.

Chateau Morrisette began in 1978 when William, Nancy, and David Morrisette planted the first vines. David, who is now president, graduated from Mississippi State University’s first class in enology and viticulture. He describes his winemaking as “a hobby that got out of hand.” Today, Chateau Morrisette produces 50,000 gallons of wine a year and is considered Virginia’s premier winery.

Two of Chateau Morrisette’s reds stood out for me, so much so that I had two bottles shipped home. The first was the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, a great year for Virginia fruit. The deeply hued wine had plum and cherry flavors with a little spice. I shared this bottle with some California friends, who thought it stood up to their state’s Cabs.

I also discovered the 2008 Chambourcin, an exceptionally smooth and food-friendly wine. It’s a touch sweeter than I normally prefer, but the jam flavors paired well with grilled meats, mushrooms, and best of all—chocolate.

Whether you like sweet or dry, red or white, Blue Ridge wines are definitely worth a taste. You will understand why the state’s unofficial slogan has become, “Virginia is for wine lovers.”


virginiawine.org; botetourtwinetrail.com; blueridgevineyard.com; thedogs.com; fincastlewine.com or vmvines.com

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