With its sandy soil, moderate climate, and abundant summer sunshine, Delmarva is a natural location for vineyards. For many years, with the exception of California and a few labels from the New York Finger Lakes, ‘local’ wines were mediocre at best. Drinking them was a display of provincial loyalty.
No more. Experience, education, and the general upgrading of Americans’ appreciation of wine created a new generation of winemaker. Gone are the bottles of overly-sweet or forgettably-bland fermented grape juice. Regional wines are now as sophisticated as their cousins in traditional winemaking locales.
Beginning with Nassau Valley Vineyards near Lewes, Delaware, in 1993, central and southern Delmarva’s seen a steady increase in the number of acres planted with vines. It’s taken off big-time in the last decade, with 11 wineries producing saleable products and another two vineyards beginning cultivation. As impressive as the expansion is, so is the reception of their wines. They almost routinely win awards at regional, national, and international competitions.
Now, in addition to enjoying some of the best food on the planet, you can enjoy a great Delmarva wine to go with it.
Here’s the background on Delmarva’s wineries. For lots more detail, visit their websites.
Bordeleau Vineyards & Winery
Tom Shelton loves the big wines of Bordeaux, so it was natural for him to design his vineyard to cultivate the same grapes and his winery to produce the same style of wine. He began planting his vines in 1999 on a particularly scenic spot along the Wicomico River in the wonderfully named village of Eden, just south of Salisbury. Today, he grows about 12 acres of both familiar – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Gris, Malbec – and less-common – Chambourcin, Vidal – grapes. He bottles 12 different wines, both varietal and blends. If the tally of medals awarded at state and regional competitions is anything to go by, he does so equally well. His reds are generally medium-bodied and designed to be drunk when purchased. Some of the Chardonnays are fermented in stainless steel, a treat for non-oak lovers. The winery is open Sun, Wed-Fri 12-6, Sat 10-6. 410-677-3334. www.bordeleauwine.com
Cassinelli Winery & Vineyards
The latest entry in the Maryland wine scene is Cassinelli Winery. It produced its first vintage in 2007 of Merlot, Riesling, and Rosé. They grow Chardonnay, Merlot, and Viognier grapes on 14 acres. The vineyard is just part of the 110 acres of rolling farmland near Centreville. They’ve also planted apple, peach, pear, and plum trees which will become a commercial orchard. Cattle and buffalo also graze on other parts of the property. The winery is open for tastings from 12-5 on Saturdays and Sundays. The $4 fee includes tastings of all three wines as well as a souvenir glass etches with the Cassinelli logo. But the real treat is the second tasting of their Merlot paired with a homemade chocolate crab from Chesapeake Chocolates. 800-571-8490. www.cassinelliwinery.com
Little Ashby Vineyards
The first licensed winery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Little Ashby Vineyards planted its first grapes in 1994 and began bottling wines six years later. Located on the banks of the Miles River in Talbot County, the vineyard takes advantage of the unique Chesapeake micro-climate. Even the warmest summer night is moderated by the Bay breezes. They grow Merlot, Pino Noir, and Chardonnay. With grapes from two other Miles River vineyards, the produce varietals and a light red, blended ‘spring wine.’ Visitors are welcome by appointment only. They can arrive by boat as well as by vehicle of bicycle. Well-mannered dogs on leashes will be greeted by the vineyards residents Labs and Labradoodle. 410-819-8850. www.littleashbyvineyards.com
St. Michaels Winery
Tucked into The Old Mill Complex, a historic set of old warehouses and workshops on the edge of St. Michaels, this is the only winery not actually located at the vineyard. The nearly 27-acre vineyard, augmented by grapes from sources from selected, specific growers, provides the harvest used to produce their 18 different wines. The quality is maintained by being .a true ‘boutique’ winery. Most St. Michaels Winery wines are produced in very small batches, with runs of 250 cases or less. The Maryland Cabernet Sauvignon and “Martha” Chambourcin Reserves are available only at the winery. The rest of the wines can be found at selected retail outlets. Browse through the descriptions on their website, which offers food pairings as well as the tasting notes for each wine. The Chardonnay is un-oaked. Long Splice, their original wine, is a Seyval/Chardonnay blend from estate grapes. In addition to the ‘serious’ wines, there’s also Gollywobbler Red and Gollywobbler White, perfect for picnics or spritzers. And Chocolate Zinfandel. Need I say more? The winery itself is in The Old Mill complex, which is open daily, year-round. Tastings are conducted adjacent to the wine-making equipment so you can watch and sip. Mon-Fri 12-6, Sat 12-7, Sun 12-4. 410-745-0808. www.st-michaels-winery.com
Tilmon’s Island Winery
Queen Anne’s County’s first winery qualifies as a ‘boutique’ winery, has produced very limited runs of 11 varietals and blends since 2004. Unlike the other wineries, Tilmon’s Island purchases all of its grapes from vineyards in Queen Anne’s, Talbot, and Caroline Counties. The Cabernet is suitable for aging. Sudler’s Reliance is a very limited blush with almost tropical flavors. They also produce three dessert wines, a Blueberry Chardonnay, a Blackberry Merlot, and the only port produced in Maryland, the Queenstown Port. The winery welcomes visitors on Saturdays from April through December for 12-5. 443-280-5021. www.tilmonswine.com
Coming Soon Vineyards
The success of the existing wineries and the enthusiasm of new vintners mean more vines are being planted and fermentation tanks are being delivered in Maryland. Here’s a list of new wineries that are opening soon on Delmarva. You can be sure they’ll soon be joined by even more wineries creating even more great tastes for the Shore.
This unique winery is on the waterfront in Stevensville on Kent Island. There are 12 acres of vinifera and native varietals grown at its own vineyards. Plans are for a range of red, white, and dessert wines in small runs. Tours of the existing facilities are by appointment only. 410-604-2127. They’re too new to have a website yet.
This winery near the ocean resorts has a true resort attitude. Their website is a blog written by one of the winemakers. Their mission statement reads: Costa Ventosa's mission is to have fun, share our love of making wine (nature) and drinking wine, and...hopefully...
make a little bit of money to have more fun, make and drink more wine and make more money...
With an attitude like that, how can they lose? You can follow their illustrated blog at www.costaventosa.com, 410-352-9867.
Layton’s Chance Winery
Located near Vienna, they plan on opening the winery in May 2010. The vineyard is the latest development on the 1300 acre grain farm that’s been owned by the Laytons for four generations. Plans are to expand the farm’s range to include eco-tourism activities, like nature walks and tours of the grain operation. Their first wine went into the tanks on September 25, 2009. 410-228-2464. www.laytonschance.com
The Eastern Shore of Virginia boasts three acclaimed vineyards and wineries. Their popularity is well-deserved, for they produce excellent wines. All of them are active with events, tours, and tastings. It’s entirely possible to visit all three in one day. On the one hand, that’s a great way to understand how much a slight change in soil and growing conditions can affect the same variety of grape. On the other hand, you won’t be able to savor the wines if you are on a schedule. On the third hand, there’s the matter of drinking and driving. Better to spread out your visits leisurely, the way wine is meant to be enjoyed. But do enjoy!
Jon Wehner comes to his vocation as a winegrower honestly. His parents ran Great Falls Vineyard near DC for over 30 years. Chatham Farm in Machipongo has been under cultivation of some sort for four centuries, although as far as anyone knows, vineyards are something new. Since 1999, they’ve planted more than 20 acres of high-density varietals. All of the familiar varieties that love the Eastern Shore are here: Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. They’ve also planted Petit Verdot. A strict pruning process during the winter means very high yields and concentrated wine flavors. This is one of the larger regional wineries, producing between 3,000 and 5,000 cases annually. But the winery is still small enough that each vintage has its distinct personality, and not blended into a homogenized, tastes-the-same-every-year wine. Highlights from their cellars: oaked and un-oaked Chardonnays, Merlot barrel aged for 20 months, Vintner’s Blend – a classic Bordeaux-style from Merlot, Cab Franc and Cab Sauvignon grapes blended from individually selected barrels. There’s an off-dry rosé, and a 2007 Late Harvest dessert wine. That’s special, because the conditions to produce a late harvest are rare. The winery is open Thurs-Mon 10-5, Sun 12-5. 757-678-5588. Ask about the kayak wine tour available from March through December. www.chathamvineyards.com
Holly Grove Vineyards
Nestled on Holly Grove Cove on the Bayside of the Eastern Shore in Franktown, this vineyard produces only handcrafted wines in very limited quantities. The original wines were a barrel fermented, Burgundian-style Chardonnay, a Merlot that’s aged 14 months in Hungarian and French oak, a light rosé, and a complex Traminette. In 2009, they added a red blend called “Genesis,” and a white blend of Chardonnay, Viognier, and Petit Mansang called “Coastal Trio.” When they say limited quantity, they mean it. There are only 45 cases of the Coast Trio available as of November 2009. The winery is one of the most state-of-the-art, eco-responsible operations in Virginia, yet the techniques are traditional, with the intent of producing classic-style wine. Call for tour and tasting availability. 757-442-2844. www.hollygrovevineyards.com
This winery, which opened its doors in 2004, reflects the Mediterranean influence and traditions of owners Robert and Francesca Giardina. They produce only about 900 cases of wine each year: Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, “Red Kiss,” and “Some Like it Blush.” The Chardonnay and Cab Franc are sold out until June 2010. They describe their wines as ranging from classic dry Bordeaux style to semi-dry and slightly sweet. These are meant to be drunk and shared with friends. The tasting room is open on Fridays and Saturdays 12-5 from Memorial Day through the end of the year. On Saturdays from 1-7 pm, Francesca serves up hearth baked Sicilian pizza for a very classy, very fun wine and pizza party. The annual Bloxomfest, held the third weekend in August, is a fixture on the Eastern Shore of Virginia’s event calendar. Don’t miss the grape stomp! 757-665-5760. www.bloxomwinery.com
Leave it to the First State to have the First Winery on Delmarva. Bob Raley planted his vineyard in 1987, when Delaware still clung to Prohibition laws outlawing farm wineries. It took a concerted lobbying effort by his daughter Peg to convince the Delaware General Assembly to pass Farm Winery legislation. The law passed in 1991, and Nassau Valley Vineyards opened in 1993.
Located just off Rt. 9 outside Lewes, it’s an unlikely place to expect to find a vineyard. Coastal Highway/Rt. 1 is almost within earshot, and most cars passing the entrance are visiting the resorts or outlet malls. There’s even a small business center on the lane to the winery.
But as you drive down the unpaved road, you’re transported away from all the hustle. The vines enjoy soaking up the rays just as much as the tourists on the nearby beaches. The Raleys grow Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot on the property, and purchase grapes and other fruit from growers in the region to augment their harvest.
They produce 14 wines from an award-winning estate bottled Cabernet Sauvignon, “Laurie’s Red,” a 100% Chambourcin that’s described as their ‘user friendly’ everyday red that goes well with pasta, pizza, and burgers. Not your average ‘average’ wine, it’s won 6 gold and silver medals at 6 international competitions.
Unlike most wineries, Nassau Valley also produces fruit wines. Their Peach Ambrosia and True Blue Blueberry are popular dessert wines. (Try them drizzled over ice cream.) And firm in their conviction that wine should be fun, they also produce “Redneck Rouge.” A tribute to the Boone’s Farm crowd, it promises to pair well with possum, muskrat, squirrel, and road kill.
Nassau Valley Vineyard is open Tue-Sat 11-5 and Sun 12-5. During the summer, it’s also open on Mon 11-5. There’s a great, unusual self-guided tour that’s much more about the history, traditions, legends, and lore of wine and winemaking than the mechanics of fermentation and bottling. Tastings are free and children are welcome on the tour, but can’t sip even the fruit wines. Leashed dogs are also welcome. There’s a fountain for splashing in with the Raley’s lab, Cholly. 302-645-9463. www.nassauvalley.com