Exploring Northern Neck Wine
By Matthew Fitzsimmons
When people think of the Northern Neck, seafood, history, and weekend getaways usually come to mind. Few people realize it’s also one of the birthplaces of American wine, as well as one of the few American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Virginia.
The Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace AVA (or Northern Neck for short) is one of 267 locations the federal government recognizes as uniquely suitable for winemaking. Created in 1987, this tongue-twister of a name captures the AVA’s two essential features; the oceanic influence which defines its terroir, and the area’s colonial history.
Flanked by the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, the Northern Neck peninsula (“Neck” in local parlance) juts into the Chesapeake Bay roughly halfway between Norfolk and D.C. According to Ingleside Vineyards owner Doug Flemer, life in the Neck is slow and local wineries tend to be smaller than their counterparts elsewhere in the state.
Doug’s family founded Ingleside in 1980, making it the 4th oldest winery in the state. As the area’s longest-serving vintner, Doug explained his take on growing wine in the Northern Neck.
“The region is challenging. We’ve made some great wine over the years, although we don’t get a lot of credit like some of the larger wineries in Virginia. But we’ve been growing grapes since the 1970s and with that experience we know how to tweak things to get the most out of our area.
Ingleside is only at 180 feet elevation, which is actually the highest point on the peninsula. It takes time to heat the waters around us so our springs are slow but steady and the heat stays longer into the fall. That provides a longer growing season than elsewhere in the state, and we almost never get frost.
Unfortunately the Northern Neck also tends to have high nighttime temperatures, which causes the acidity in our grapes to drop. That’s why we like higher acid grapes, since losing some acid doesn’t bother them.
We are one of the first wineries to do much with Albariño; it really does well in our hot, humid climate. We also grow Cabernet Sauvignon and get it to maturity, although the one we really like is Petit Verdot, and I think it’s one of the best reds we can grow.”
Blending History and Wine
The Northern Neck is also rich in history. Three of the first five presidents, namely George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe, were born here.
A number of original colonial buildings still stand. Washington’s birthplace, Popes Creek Plantation, is a national monument. The Lee family, whose progeny includes two signers of the Declaration of Independence and General E. Lee of the Confederacy, called nearby Stratford Hall home. Historic Christ Church remains one of the best-preserved colonial parish churches in the United States.
This area also played an early role in the American wine industry thanks to the Carters of Virginia, one of the most prominent families in the colony. The Carter family succeeded where Thomas Jefferson failed; making the first wine in British North America.
In 1759 – almost two decades before Jefferson planted vines at Monticello – Charles Carter already had a vineyard at his plantation at Cleve. A major political figure and entrepreneur, Charles began a correspondence with the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture, and Commerce in London, suggesting winemaking as a method of economic diversification.
In 1762, Charles sent a dozen bottles to the Society, likely made from a combination of native and European grapes. They were so pleased with the results they awarded Charles a gold medal as the first person to make a “spirited attempt towards the accomplishment of their views, respecting wine in America.”
If the name “Carter” is familiar to Virginia wine lovers, it’s because owner Philip Carter Strother of Philip Carter Winery is a descendant of the Carter family, and names his flagship red blend after Charles’ estate.
Touring the Northern Neck
Today, the Northern Neck is home to ten wineries and a cidery, most of which are part of the Chesapeake Bay Wine Trail. Befitting its location as a vacation area, many wineries have on-site lodging.
Seafood is so important to the local economy this area is part of the Virginia Oyster Trail. The peninsula hosts oyster crawls in the spring and fall, and nearby Urbanna hosts an annual oyster festival every November. This makes the Northern Neck an excellent place to explore the concept of ‘merroir’; that an oyster’s flavor is impacted by the environment where it’s grown.
Dudley Patteson, proprietor of both Hope and Glory Inn and Dog and Oyster Vineyard, explained the influence merroir has on Northern Neck wine. “Our area can boast the perfect pairing; wine made from grapes grown on land next to water where oysters grow. Each reflect where they are grown, a sense of place.”
Day 1: Colonial Beach
- Sip: At The Estate at White Hall Vineyard, Ingleside Vineyards, Backporch Vineyard, or Monroe Bay Winery
- Dine: At Wilkerson’s Seafood; but look for the Denson’s food truck
- Tour: For history, visit the George Washington Birthplace National Monument or Stratford Hall. For nature, watch bald eagles at Caledon State Park.
- Stay: At the Ingleside Airbnb
Day 2: Hague
- Sip: At General’s Ridge Vineyard, Rivah Vineyards at The Grove, or The Hague Winery
- Dine: At The Backdraft
- Tour: Westmoreland State Park for camping and shark tooth hunting, or kayaking from the Slips of Kinsale marina
- Stay: At a guest houses at General’s Ridge or The Hague Winery
Day 3: Irvington
- Sip: At Ditchley Cider Works, Good Luck Cellars, Jacey Vineyards, or Triple V Farms
- Dine: Try the prix fixe at Hope and Glory Inn
- Tour: For history, visit historic Christ Church. For outdoor adventures,try Belle Isle State Park or Sail & Surf Adventures
- Stay: At the Hope and Glory Inn or an Airbnb from Harmonized Getaways
Also visit their Chesapeake Bay neighbors; Caret Cellars, Wind Vineyards, and Zoll Vineyards on the Middle Peninsula, or Port of Leonardtown Winery in southern Maryland.
Author: Matthew Fitzsimmons is a blogger who has visited nearly every winery in Virginia – most of them twice. Track his progress at https://winetrailsandwanderlust.com/.
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