Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Raising a Glass to Virginia

Hey, it’s been a while… After a two-year hiatus, during which much has transpired, The Vermont Epicure has been reborn under a new name: The Virginia Epicure. I too have a new name, actually my old name which I’m now using again—Sheila McGrory. And a new home—Alexandria, Virginia, five miles south of DC. I lived in Virginia for a few years before moving North for a job in Boston, never guessing I would end up living in Vermont for more than twenty-five years. Cheers to life’s twists and turns.

To make a long story short, I recently moved back to the region where I was born and raised (one state over in Maryland), and am ready to explore the area's many gastronomic delights. A lot has changed since I lived here. Restaurants are more adventurous, farmers markets and CSAs are plentiful, coffee shops abound, and the winemaking industry has exploded, to name but a few. Virginia wineries now number around 300, and many of them can be found less than an hour west of DC in the rolling hills of the "wine country." To me, this is also one of the more beautiful parts of the state. It resembles Vermont—which will always be a special place for me—except the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance are not quite as high as the Green Mountains. And the climate is of course much more temperate.

Exploring the wine country makes for an ideal day trip from the city, especially when combined with a morning hike in Shenandoah National Park. I’ve enjoyed this combination a few times in recent months, visiting a sampling of vineyards, some of which are producing topnotch wines. A standout so far is Delaplane Cellars.

Not only are Delaplane’s wines excellent, possessing the complexity and finesse of French wines, but the location is also spectacular. This past weekend, the winery’s lush green vines unfurled against a Blue Ridge backdrop under a clear blue sky. The humidity was unseasonably low so the doors to the tasting room’s deck could be flung wide open. Add live music to this scene and it had the makings of a perfect summer afternoon.

Red and white wines are equally good at Delaplane Cellars, an accomplishment that other Virginia winemakers I’ve tried have not yet achieved. Delaplane’s reds are smooth and elegant, while the whites are crisp, luscious, and varied. Only Virginia grapes are used in making these wines, unlike some other vineyards where grapes are trucked in from other parts of the country. On this particular day, my companion and I had reserved two spots at a “horizontal tasting” of three 2016 Sauvignon Blancs. The event took place around a farmhouse dining table set for eight in an intimate space next to the tasting room.

Delaplane Cellars is one of just a few Virginia wineries producing Sauvignon Blanc, a grape I gravitate toward in the summer for its bright citrus flavors. To some palates, this French grape can at times carry a hint of cat pee, which Delaplane’s Tasting Room Manager Bridgette said is politely described as notes of boxwood or gooseberry. This off flavor, caused by the compound pyrazine, can occur when grapes are picked too early; it’s more common in inexpensive wines where speed and volume are primary. I think I’ve had a few of those over the years, but there was nothing of the sort at this tasting.

The three Sauvignon Blancs Bridgette poured differed in style and terroir, with the grapes in each coming from different parts of the vineyard. The differences in elevation, sun exposure, and soil particularities all result in subtle variations in the wines’ aroma and flavor. Matching these variations, three hors d’oeuvres, ranging from mild to bold, were paired with each wine. These tasty bites were as pretty as they were delicious.

The first wine, called Springlot Vineyard, was paired with fresh peas, mint, and Parmesan in a pastry cup. The delicate flavors in this hors d'oeuvre reflected this French style wine, reminiscent of a Sancerre. It had a pleasant minerality and light citrus aroma, and was like a leisurely float in an inner tube down the Loire.  

Moving up a notch in boldness, we next tasted a wine called Delaplane Vineyard. Possessing a distinct lemon tartness, this wine went well with the asparagus, Boursin, and lemon zest hors d’oeuvre it was paired with. Bridgette explained that the increased sun exposure on these grapes caused them to ripen more, bumping up their flavor. Refreshing and balanced, this wine resembled a light New Zealand SB—or a brisk sail on the Chesapeake Bay.

The third wine, called Notaviva Vineyard, was the boldest of all, with a grapefruit pucker and a grassy finish. It was akin to the more robust New Zealand SBs out there, and could stand up to the crostini topped with balsamic marinated red peppers, basil, capers, and goat cheese. 

Bridgette explained that the grapes in this wine had all been de-stemmed before pressing, unlike the other wines (Springlot grapes were not de-stemmed at all, and Delaplane Vineyard’s were half de-stemmed, half not.) De-stemming the grapes allows for a harder press since whole grape clusters, sometimes with leaves still attached, insulate the grapes. The harder press leads to a more audacious wine—like bungee jumping off the Kawarau Bridge. Ok, not quite.

It was difficult for me to select one wine to bring home. Depending on my mood, I would be happy with any of them. Plus they all were the same price, $28.00 per bottle or 20% less if you’re a member of their Wine Club, as I am. In the end, I chose the sailboat. Here’s to sailing, and to this beautiful day in my beautiful new home state. Cheers to that!