A few weeks ago my daughter, a friend and I spent a lovely few hours touring Chatham Vineyards located in Machipongo, VA on the Eastern Shore, learning about the art of growing grapes and sampling some of Chatham’s delicious wines. Owner Jon Wehner started our afternoon off with a leisurely stroll through the vineyard itself, explaining the vineyard’s seasonal activities, which was quite engaging. I have been fortunate to have done the “Tour & Taste” at a number of wonderful wineries but this was my first extensive tour through a vineyard and I think everyone in attendence found it quite interesting. Definitely the perfect time of year for it, the colors were beautiful. In sharp contrast to the deep green of the leaves, row after row of compact bunches of black and purple grapes glistened in the sun, plump, juicy, nearly ready for harvest to begin, no doubt a vintner’s favorite time of year, the sweet culmination of a great deal of work.
The first thing one notices is that wine grapes are quite small, much smaller than their kissing cousins, the “eating grapes” like Thompson seedless that one buys in a grocery store. Chatham is currently growing about 20 acres of grapes, primarily Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay varieties grown on French rootstock as well as a small section of Petit Verdot produced to provide extra color and complexity in blendings. ( Especially in their Cabernet Franc which contains 3 % Petit Verdot.) As we walked through the vineyard, Jon invited everybody to taste the various grape varieties, including different plantings of the same variety, all planted in rows which are oriented north- to- south for a more even ripening of the fruit. Although I much perfer a Cabernet wine to a Merlot, surprisingly, I that found that I preferred the flavor of the Merlot grape to that of the Cabernet grape. We learned about the “chewiness” of the grape skins, how to evaluate the ripeness of the grape seeds and how the immature tannins found in unripe seeds can adversely effect the wine. We admired the huge wind machine, very tall with long, tilted blades which can rotate 360 degrees, a newish invention which helps vineyards get through an early frost which could kill the new fruit buds by pushing the higher, warmer air down towards the cold air found near the ground, circulating it so that the coldest air doesn’t settle on the vines. Jon says it works very well and has added a second wind machine to his official “Wish List”.
Part of a historic waterfront estate and started in 1999, Chatham uses a high density European trellis growing method and is now harvesting about 80 tons of grapes and producing about 3000-5000 bottles of wine each year. The moderate maritime climate here on Virginia’s Eastern Shore is similar to the climate found in Bordeaux, one of France’s most famous vineyard regions. Our excellent climate, combined with the well drained loamy soils here in Northampton County, creates a good environment for producing top quality grapes needed for fine wines. Chatham Vineyard has received a number of awards for various vintages and its wines are found in some of the finest Virginia restaurants and yes, I do know from personal experience that its wines make a very nice gift.
After the stroll we all went back to the winery building to look at some of the equipment used there to de-stem the grapes, crush them for the juice, etc., etc. But the highlights of the day no doubt were the barrel tastings and the hors d’oeurves (catered by the North Street Gourmet Market in Onancock) which included aged Gouda cheeses, a delicious spinach dip and a pungent salami rolled with cream cheese and chives, accompanied by several varieties of olives and a number of other items. But my favorite hors d’oeurve was a very ripe brie served with quince paste. I had never before had quince paste– it looks a little odd, a very dark brown and is shaped into a small, dense block which is a bit difficult to slice. But trust me, on a multi-grain cracker, balanced atop the brie, served with the Cabernet Franc, that hard dark quice paste tastes like ambrosia ! The afternoon concluded on a very high note with a tasting of Chatham’s late harvest red desert wine served with some luscious chocolate truffles, an elegant pairing, truly a treat to remember. ( P.S. Try a Chatham wine for yourself, shop on-line at their website, www.chathamvineyards.net ) (Posted by Marlene Cree, licensed Virginia agent with Blue Heron Realty Co., 7134 Wilsonia Neck Dr., Machipongo, VA)