A Summer Afternoon Exploring the Loudon County Wine Trail

All my previous blogs on wineries have focused on mostly Maryland wineries. (I’ve visited some 17 of them over the past 2 years, some multiple times — check out this list of places the Blog has visited.) I’ve also visited a few wineries on the Brandywine Valley Wine Trail in Pennsylvania. All along, I’ve been hearing how good the wineries in Virginia are, so I decided it was high time to go visit.

I asked for recommendations on the Blog’s facebook page and received a lot of recommendations. Some folks private messaged me with suggestions, and between those suggestions and proximity (I was pretty much limited to visiting wineries in Northern Virginia) I decided we’d visit Cardamon Family Vineyards, Hillsborough Vineyard, North Gate Vineyards and finally, Bluemont Vineyard. Each was recommended for different reasons; they’re all within about 10 miles of each other.

Loudon County is known as horse country. What I didn’t know was that Loudon County is wine country: there are more than 40 wineries and vineyards in the county, making it an ideal destination for a pleasant afternoon. You can go to one winery and hang out — many offer live music and pleasant shaded patios — or you can visit several, as we did, in one afternoon.

Loudon County has done a good job of grouping the wineries into clusters: Loudon Heights (which includes Cardamon Family Vineyards and Hillsborough Vineyards); Waterford, Potomac, Mosby, Harmony, and Snickers Gap (which includes Bluemont Vineyard and North Gate Vineyard).

Cardamon Family Vineyards was notable for us because of the owner and winemaker, Chuck Cardamon, who is a former Navy seal, a trained chef, a winemaker, and at heart, an entertainer. We were the first to arrive that morning, but he made us welcome and introduced us to the winery’s two labs: Lucy and Guinevere.

Cardamon’s focus is on helping his guests understand how wine goes with food. He helps demonstrate how food and wine compliment each other AND how one can effect the taste of the other by offering four samples of his homemade salsa (he also sells a recipe book with 86 of his salsa recipes, but more on that later).

Cardamon got started in winemaking in the sixth grade, in what he describes as an “unauthorized Boy Scout project.” He took Welsches Grape Juice, yeast, and sugar and bottled it with a balloon so he could determine when it was fermented. (It produced a wine, of sorts, he said.) Two years later he was at it again, although this time, with fresh grapes but not as successfully (it exploded in his closet).

After a career as a Navy seal, he went to culinary school in California and worked with a local winery there, and that’s where he first hit on the idea of pairing salsas with wine. He tried to start a winery in California, then in Colorado, but fate soon brought him to Northern Virginia.

We tasted seven wines, starting with the Vino de Miele, which, as its name suggests, is an apple wine. Unlike most apple wines, this one is a dry wine — sort of,

as the wine list notes suggest, hard cider onu steroids. It is paired with Cardamon’s salsa recipe called “Ana’s Apple Salsa,” a spicy concoction of chopped apples, cucumbers, onions, and chili, key lime juice and honey (among other ingredients). We took a sip, ate some salsa, and I sipped more wine, and ate more salsa — it was really good!! I bought a bottle (of the wine).

Many of Cardamon’s wines are named after family members, and as he pours, he shares stories about them. Three other wines were paired up with salsas — all very good. I left with the salsa recipe book too! In addition to the apple wine, standouts (for me) of the winery’s offerings include a brash vidal blanc with strong citrus tones, named G3, and Peter Pie, a flavorful blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Of the wineries we visited that day, this one was the homiest and most intimate. Chuck is an enthusiastic fan of Northern Virginia wineries and the wines. If you have to choose from several wineries, make sure this one is on your list: Chuck has plans for future catering onsite, enlarging upon the emerging theme of Mexican food and his wines, and dinner wine tastings. In addition to his salsa recipe book (which I’ve enjoyed browsing through and look forward to

Our next stop, not too far away (none of the wineries are very far away from each other), was Hillsborough Vineyard. The tasting room is housed in a renovated 1840s stone barn, a cool respite during the dog days of summer and cozy by the fireplace in winter. From the terrace outside, visitors experience Hillsborough’s luxuriant gardens and trickling fountains, framing the view of the Loudoun Valleys below and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. This winery is much larger than Cardamon, and the parking lot was packed, with multiple limousines, which struck us as an excellent idea: have a driver so you can enjoy the tastings without worrying about getting a little tipsy.

Hillsborough, like most of the wineries, offers food that you can purchase onsite (from a caterer), the winery also allowed you to enjoy your own picnic in some of its outer picnic areas and on the lawn itself — both lovely spaces where you can sit and enjoy the view. If  you want to bring a picnic (which I recommend so you can spend your $$ on the wine itself), bring a blanket in case you can’t snag a picnic table.

Loudon County bills itself as “DC’s Wine Country,” and indeed, there were a lot of folks from DC and communities closer in to DC, including Alexandria, Potomac, and McLean, at Hillsborough (and the other wineries) enjoying the countryside.

Our next stop was North Gate Vineyards, a “green” vineyard — and I don’t mean just the leaves on the vines. Solar panels on the roof of the wine tasting room provides 100% of the winery’s electric needs. I give this two thumbs up — my husband and I are about to have solar panels installed, and like all newly converted, we’re now solar zealots!

Like Cardamon, North Gate Vineyards offers a food pairing. For an additional $5, you can choose a chocolate pairing with locally made truffles from The Perfect Truffle, in Frederick, MD. Available for tasting were the winery’s Rkatsitell, noted as one of the oldest vinters grape known. We also tried a 2014 Viognier, a 2013 Merlot, a 2013 Chamboourcin, as well as a 2013 Apple, which wasn’t quite like biting into a fresh juicy sweet apple (as the wine notes suggested) but still a refreshing fruit wine.

Bluemont Vineyard sits high on the side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, almost a thousand feet above sea level. The winery takes full advantage of the views, with two seating areas that invite visitors to linger to sip wine and enjoy the view. The afternoon we visited there was live music playing on the lower deck, and guests filled both decks, enjoying both the wine and food purchased at the winery.

Bluemont offers a varied line-up of wines for tastings that includes its slightly sweet Vidal Blanc, named “The Cow”; a Farm Table Red that’s predominently a Bordeaux blend with a “touch of” Chambourcin (I thought the Chambourcin was strong in it); a Merlot, “The Ram”; and “The Pig,” made from Norton grapes, which are native to North America.

I’m not going to say the wines weren’t enjoyable — I purchased a bottle of the Farm Table White, a dry crisp blend of Vidal Blanc, Petite Manseng, Chardonnay, and Viognier grapes, and a close runner up was the Farm Table Red  — but our server wasn’t very knowledgeable about Bluemont’s wines, nor did he have the time to really discuss the wines with us because of the crowded tasting area. Unfortunately for me, chatting with servers about the wines is one of the highlights (for me) of visiting wineries (vice going to the more crowded and frantic wine festivals). So from that perspective, Bluemont was a disappointment. It’s a very popular place, though, and the views are well worth a visit!

Know before you go: If you avoid purchasing wine and pack your own picnic, this is a budget-friendly day trip!

Getting there: Cardamon Family Vineyards, 12226 Harpers Ferry Rd, Purcellville, VA 20132; Hillsborough Vineyards, 36716 Charles Town Pike, Purcellville, VA 20132; North Gate Vineyard, 16031 Hillsboro Road, Purcellville, VA 20132; 

Hours: Cardamon Family Vineyards is open weekends but check the website or call to ensure they’re open; Hillsborough Vineyards is open daily 11 am to 5 pm ; North Gate Vineyard is open Thursday through Monday, 11am to 6 pm; and Bluemont is open Wednesday through Monday, 11 am to 6 pm.

Websites: http://www.virginiawine.org/; http://www.visitloudoun.org/; www.cardamonfamilyvineyards.com; www.hillsboroughwine.com;
www.northgatevineyards.com; www.bluemontvineyard.com

Check out the blog’s FB page for updates on places we’ve visited and blogged about:  facebook.com/midatlanticdaytrips!

Have you daytripped somewhere interesting? I’d love to hear what you’re doing! Email [email protected] if you’re interested in being a guest-blogger!