Exploring Shenandoah Valley Wine
Exploring Shenandoah Valley Wine
Shenandoah Valley wineries are one of Virginia’s best-kept secrets, which is surprising given the valley is famous for so many other activities. You’ve probably heard about the hiking, river tubing, and cave exploring. But most people don’t realize this is also prime real-estate for making wine.
The Shenandoah is one of only eight American Viticultural Area (AVA) located in Virginia; the others are located in Charlottesville, Middleburg, both sides of the Chesapeake Bay, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. AVAs receive their designation based on having specific features that allow them to create wine that have, in the words of Glen Manor Vineyards, “A sense of place.”
I didn’t realize the Shenandoah’s importance until Jay Youmans – organizer of the Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition – identified this AVA as being the place to watch. When those ‘in the know’ about Virginia wine make such statements, it’s smart to pay attention.
Best Terroir In Virginia?
“Terroir” describes the complete natural environment from which wines are produced – and the Shenandoah Valley’s terroir is outstanding. While the valley has historically been strongly associated with agriculture, wine growing didn’t take off here until 1976 when Jim and Emma Randel founded Shenandoah Vineyards, becoming one of the first wineries in Virginia post-Prohibition.
The Randels likely realized a crucial fact; the Shenandoah is the driest area in Virginia. The valley is protected by the Blue Ridge on one side and the Alleghenies on the other, creating a rain shadow from both directions. This is particularly important in late summer when vineyards pray for warm, dry weather to facilitate ripening. The difference is noticeable; whereas the Shenandoah receives an average of 38 inches of rain per year, Leesburg, Richmond and Charlottesville receive anywhere from 42-45 inches.
The valley also enjoys a higher elevation than most other wine-growing regions in Virginia. Vineyards planted at higher elevation are cooler, have more exposure to sunlight, and undergo greater temperature swings. These factors allow their grapes to ripen while retaining acidity, making wines that are food friendly and able to age well.
Shenandoah wineries also benefit from cheaper land and easily-accessible farm labor, so they are able to produce dry wines that are a great value-for-your-money. As enjoyable as wineries in Loudoun and Fauquier counties are, most of their white wines are priced $25 and above and reds are often in the low-to-mid $30 range. But in many Shenandoah wineries such as Bluestone or Ox-Eye Vineyards, whites are around $20 and reds usually top off at $25.
For the best value, try Shenandoah wines you can’t easily find elsewhere in Virginia. Possibly the best deal in the state is Muse Vineyard’s light, fruit-forward $16 Gamay. Jump Mountain’s $19 Grüner Veltliner, North Mountain’s $19 Riesling, and Ox-Eye Vineyard’s $24 Pinot Noir are also steals.
North Mountain Vineyard
Recommended Shenandoah Itineraries
Given that there are over 25 wineries, cideries and meaderies in the Shenandoah Valley, you can do a day trip every other weekend all year before you visit them all. But if you were to narrow it down to a few days, here are some ideas:
Day 1: Northern Shenandoah
1. Start at Star in the Valley Estate Winery, the valley’s newest winery. This is one of the highest-elevation vineyards in the area, so make sure you enjoy the view while sipping on their Cabernet Franc.
2. Turn south and head to North Mountain Vineyard, which puts a special focus on German and Austrian varietals. You’ll enjoy the alpine-lodge vibe, and make sure to come back for their Octoberfest events.
3. Cruise down a country road to Shenandoah Vineyards, which has some of the oldest vines in the state. Shenandoah is now owned by Michael Shaps, who recognized the great potential of valley grapes and is making fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon.
4. If you need a break from wine, visit Shenandoah Caverns or the Civil War battlefield at Fischer’s Hill, both right off I-81.
5. Stay overnight at the Farmhouse at Muse Vineyards. They are open late on Fridays and Saturdays, so you’ll have a chance to sample their ‘Clio’ Bordeaux-style red blend. Make time for a hike through their 34-acre vineyard.
Feel free to swap any of these out with visits to Cave Ridge, Kindred Pointe, or Wolf Gap Vineyard.
Like many wineries, CrossKeys is offering self-guided tastings as part of their social distancing measures
Day 2: Southern Shenandoah
1. Kick things off at Barren Ridge Vineyards. If you’re lucky, co-owner Shelby Higgs may regale you with stories of how she and her husband founded the winery. Try their 2015 Meritage or the smoky 2017 Touriga Nacional.
2. Next up is CrossKeys Vineyards, which not only is stunning has a great bistro to go with their wine. Try pairing the Brie Fondue with their Chardonnay, or Caesar salad with the Pinot Noir.
3. Move on to Bluestone Vineyard. Winemaker Lee Hartman is particularly proud of his 2018 Chardonnay and Petit Manseng. Get a bottle while enjoying the view from the tasting room at the top of the hill.
4. If you want some exercise, do a morning hike at Big Schloss Mountain for one of the most panoramic views in Virginia, or tubing on the South Fork of the Shenandoah. For something more laid back, pick lavender at White Oak Lavender Farm which – conveniently enough – also sells lavender-infused wine.
5. Stay at an Airbnb hosted by either the DeMello Vineyards or Marcelline Vineyards.
Day 3: Page Valley / Luray
1. Return home via Luray, with a stop at Brix and Columns Vineyard. Wonder dog Wyatt will likely greet you as you walk in (don’t let his size scare you; he’s a total pushover). Try their estate-grown Cabernet Franc made by winemaker Michael Shaps.
2. A half hour up the road is Wisteria Farm & Vineyard. Winemaker Moussa Ishak’s birthplace is the inspiration behind his wines. I love the mural of his home town in Lebanon behind the tasting bar, as well as the Asharoot white blend.
3. Visit a park! Either turn east on Route 211 to the Thornton Gap entrance of Shenandoah National Park and take in the sights along Skyline Drive, or enjoy shoreline picnicking at Shenandoah River State Park.
4. End the day at Glen Manor Vineyards. While I love the view from their tasting room, try viewing it from Shenandoah National Park. Ask for their Sauvignon Blanc or Cabernet-heavy Hodder Hill Bordeaux-blend (and try not to eat all of Kelly’s homemade focaccia bread).
Glen Manor Vineyards, as seen from Snead Farm Trail
When you’re done, plan your next trip! There are even more Shenandoah wineries to visit in the northern and southern ends of the valley.