Virginia is for lovers. Wine lovers.

Wine being poured at a winery in Virginia wine country

This past weekend, I got to explore an area most will never think of visiting when looking for wine country:  Virginia!  Virginia may be for lovers, but Virginia is DEFINITELY for wine lovers!

Wine being poured at a winery in Virginia wine country

I have been very lucky as a wine lover AND a traveler to have visited some primo wine country in my travel lifetime.  Bordeaux, Hunter Valley, Sonoma/Napa, Mendoza, Stellenbosch, Burgundy, Moldova, Mosel Valley, the Loire Valley, Tuscany, etc.  I have never thought the U.S. had any good wine regions besides California and Oregon.  And I don’t know but Virginia would have never been in my top guess list…  But some Virginia friends introduced me to Virginia wine with one named Octagon from Barboursville winery, north of Charlottesville, VA.  It was good!

Octagon from Barboursville Vineyards - a great Virginia wine

We had talked over the last couple of years of getting together and making a trip to Virginia wine country. FINALLY, we scheduled it for this past weekend.

My friends suggested we head to the wine region in the Piedmont area, on the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  One of their favorite wines, the Octagon referred to above, is from the area and they had not been to the winery so I, of course, happily went along with the suggestion!  Of course, going to see Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home on the countryside) and University of Virginia (founded by Thomas Jefferson) were of interest so it was a great destination choice.

The Vineyards and the Wine

Jefferson Vineyards

After visiting Monticello, we stopped at Jefferson Vineyards since it was very close to Monticello.  Of course, this likely means it is more touristy and the price tag for the wine tasting showed that (it was $10 whereas the rest of the wineries were $5; oh, and they do not take AMEX in this day and age…).  However, you can take your large Riedel wine glass after the tasting which makes it an OK price.

At Jefferson Vineyard in Virginia wine country

A wine wall:  wine bottles!

Some of the staff was very friendly but our server, though he shared information, just seemed to be going through the motions – he was not rude by any means, just uninspiring.  It was the only winery at which I did not buy a bottle (and I ended up buying no less than 3 at least per winery…).  .  Wineries, remember, your servers are the front line.  It applies to your business as to any other business!  But I did not buy wine because of him.  The primary reason was that it was just not for me.  Most of the wines seem too light for me.  That may be what others find enjoyable in a wine but the whites and reds were not robust enough for me.  Also, the wines, even the Riesling, were generally drier than my preference.  However, it surely is worth a stop – you may enjoy their lighter and drier wines and end up with one of the friendlier servers.

Barboursville Vineyards

Fortunately, the story gets better from here on!  We had planned our first day (of two) in the area with two anchors:  an early visit to Monticello (more about it in another post) and a late lunch at Barboursville Vineyard’s Palladio Restaurant which features northern Italian style cuisine.  The lunch can be done with wine pairings but  we were going to do tastings after lunch since we did not have enough time between the Monticello visit and the available slot for lunch.  Therefore, we opted to save a little money by not doing the pairings with the lunch and instead going for that delicious Octagon wine of theirs.  The wine tasting of 21 wines would come afterwards – but only after we walked the grounds to help push our digestion!

Vines and ground of Barboursville Vineyard in Virginia wine country

Beautiful grounds at Barbousville Vineyard in Virginia wine country

The good thing is that Barboursville offers more than food and wine.  It also gives you a helping of history.  See, Mr. Barbour was a governor of Virginia in the times around Jefferson.   Jefferson designed Barbour’s house which unfortunately burnt down one Christmas Day in 1884.  However, ruins remain of the skeleton of the house which allow you to see yet more columns and another octagon.  Yes, Thomas Jefferson was rather predictable.  (Unfortunately, Charlottesville and UVA keep thing more columns and octagons make tons of sense…)  Anyway, Barboursville offers this and plenty of space and grounds to grab a bottle of wine and hang out some more.

The Barbour mansion's ruins in Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia wine country

The ruins of the Barbour home

 

The grounds in Barboursville Vineyard in Virginia wine country great for picnics

Perfect spot for a wine picnic!

The wines were overall very good.  We also enjoyed having a lady named Jessica as one of our servers.  She was extremely knowledgeable and truly shared that knowledge with us.  We had a good time asking her questions people had just asked her and she obliged with a fun attitude right back – wineries, this is the kind of person you want facing your customers!

Surprisingly for me, I enjoyed Barboursville’s Chardonnay (aged in steel barrels) better than their Chardonnay Reserve (aged in oak barrels).  I especially like their Cabernet Franc Reserve (intense dark fruit flavors), Octagon (which I already knew and loved), and their Malvaxia Passito Reserve dessert wine (nice!!! sweet but overly so).  I departed with a good 6 bottles wishing I could take more (had to pace myself, still had 4 wineries to visit the next day!).  How do they manage to make so many good wines???

Cardinal Point, Veritas, and Pollak Vineyards

 

We hit these two wineries first on the next day.  At Cardinal Point, we enjoyed talking to the two ladies at the tasting room and found their wines nice.  I ended up with a box of 3 to take home.  At Veritas, we got to sit in a nice leather couch for our tasting and soak in the ambiance of the tasting room.

Nice leather couch in the tasting room at Veritas winery in Virginia wine country

Comfy seating to enjoy wines!

The winery has a large tasting room and it was built in the 2000s – the vines themselves were planted in 1999 (quite recently when you think of vineyards in Europe!!).  Their White Star blend of white grapes (Viognier, Traminette, Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc) was pleasantly surprised me – low on residual sugar I think it is a wine to be enjoyed on its own for sure.  Let me re-state that, it very pleasantly surprised me!

The grounds at Veritas Vineyard - great fall colors in Virginia wine country

Best time of the year to visit – just look at this!

We made our way to Pollak Vineyards, which has a spacious tasting room and outdoor terrace.  Its vines were planted in 2003.  Casey was our server.  We learned from her a good bit and enjoyed talking to her – great job!  I especially enjoyed the Petit Verdot and the Cabernet Franc (nice hints of chocolate and coffee) wines.

Pollak Vineyards' outdoor space in Virginia wine country

Pollak Vineyards’ outdoor space

King Family Vineyards

Our final stop in wine country before going to the airport was King Family.  We promised ourselves a short visit to ensure we were on time but we enjoyed our visit so much we stayed longer at the tasting room.  This vineyard has a great setting and outdoor open spaces that are great to hang out – we stayed indoors sampling and talking wine though for a good 45mins to an hour (who was keeping track of time?!) (I did make it to the airport with plenty of time, by the way!).  In the summertime polo matches are played Sundays on the grounds of the winery!

King Family Vineyard in Virginia Wine Country

The grounds of King Family Vineyards

At King Family we were treated to awesome wines.  I liked just about each of the wines I tasted!  The Viognier had nice mango/peach overtones.  The Chardonnay, though aged in oak, was very enjoyable for me (a rarity).  Their Cabernet Franc was lighter than I expected and, as I prefer fuller-bodied wines, was not one I would have bought definitely had good flavors so I would drink it.  The next 4 wines were all outstanding:  the Meritage (a Bordeaux-style existing mainly in the U.S., created to not infringe on the French region’s ownership of the destination of origin), the Seven (a red wine with hints of dark chocolate and vanilla), the Loreley (excellent level of sweetness:  some but not too much), and the Petit Verdot (incredible power!!).

King Family vineyards' Seven - a great wine from Virginia!

What Did I Think of Virginia Wine Country?

Well, as you may glean, I enjoyed it!  However, with a visit to 6 wineries I have barely scratched the surface of wine country in Virginia.  I love Virginia and its wines!

Have you visited wine country anywhere in the U.S. or abroad?  Which ones?  How did you find the experience, the wineries, and the wines??

Sampling Wines in Moldova – and a One-of-a-Kind Wine Cellar

In deciding to go to Moldova, the last thing that occurred to me was that I could go and do wine tastings of the local wines – because I had NO idea Moldova made any amount of wine!  A month before the idea was in my head, I would have laughed – blessed (or cursed) ignorance!  I was to re-learn the lesson to look for the un-expected such as olive oil ice cream or wine from Michigan.

As I e-mailed with the guide I had found on what could be an itinerary for a 2-3 day visit, he mentioned visiting wineries.  As I talked about the possibility of this trip, a fellow travel blogger mentioned that her husband had been to Moldova and had enjoyed the wineries he visited.  Huh.  Well, maybe I should check them out…  In doing some research, Moldova ranked 22nd in the list of wine producing countries but its production is mainly for export since the Middle Ages!!  Moldova was the largest wine producing region in the Russian empire.  I guess as the Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, Moldova was the wine barrel of Russia!  (Who knew, right??)  Sadly, the two World Wars, among all the destruction, destroyed the wine industry which only got re-started during the 1950s.

Moldova grows grape varietals that are local or from the region as well as varietals introduced from France around the 19th century (Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc.).

Chateau Vartely – Excellent Setting, Great Food and Good Wine

Chateau Vartely was on my first day’s schedule.  It was going to also be where we would have lunch.  Besides the building with the restaurant & rooms for events, and besides the winemaking & storage buildings, Chateau Vartely also has accommodations on offer, both rooms and VIP apartments with all the amenities of a hotel/resort – probably a great idea if one is planning to sample lots of wines!  Vartely is located on a hillside which offers a great view of the land around.  It was a real treat to take in the views!

Chateau Vartely, a winery in Moldova

We were rather hungry so we proceeded first to eat.  We chose to sit outside on a large balcony that overlooked some of the property.  A very pleasant place to sit down for a leisurely lunch.

Chateau Vartely winery - balcony area

This meal was my first in Moldova but it would not differ much from my meal the night before in Iasi, Romania.  That makes sense as both countries are very similar in culture and history.  My meal started with a delicious broth – just right to open up the appetite!

Then, for my main course, I took the advice of Dumitru, my guide (and a super guy!), and went with the mamaliga along with pork (nothing better for a Cuban!).  Mamaliga is polenta and, as you can see in the picture below, it is accompanied by sour cream and sheep cheese (a bit salty).  Here it was also accompanied by a small serving of eggs. The whole thing was simply delicious!

Mamaliga (polenta) and pork - typical food dish from Moldova

After the lunch, we toured the winemaking facility.  Nothing new to me  in the tour itself.  We moved to the wine tasting rooms.  They had one with bottles of wines from all over the world for those interested in comparing the Chateau’s wines with comparables from other parts of the world (the World Collection Room).  I was not there to do that as I wanted to maximize tasting Moldovan wines so we moved to the other room.

Chateau Vartely wine tasting room

In this tasting, I was introduced to the Feteasca Alba grape that yields a nice dry white wine that is quite fruity and fresh – a white wine I can drink!  The Feteasca Regala and the Merlot also merit a mention as I enjoyed them too – especially because I took the leftover from the tasting with me <grin>…

Chateau Vartely was a very pleasant experience from the food to the wine, though I have to say that the food was simply superb.  It is a newer winery that combines the wine experiencing with tourism but done well and in a beautiful setting.

Milestii Mici – Great Wine and an Amazing Wine Cellar

Milestii Mici is in a category of its own when it comes to wineries – anywhere that I’ve been (Stellenbosch, Bordeaux, Hunter Valley, Sonoma, Tuscany, Mendoza, …).  I do not know where to being but let me begin with what I saw first:  I saw entrances at the bottom of the hill to my right that looked like small tunnels…  More on that as this writeup progresses…

Tunnels in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

The Garden and Fountains

My first stop out of the car was the amazing little garden area near the store and offices.  Besides the pretty flower and all that stuff relevant to a well-designed garden, what caught my eye were the two fountains in the midst of the flowers… One for red and one for white…

Fountains in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Milestii Mici winery garden in Moldova - large wine glasses

Is anyone else having heart palpitations looking at this ungodly scene???

Fountain in the gardens of Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

There ARE more sober pictures of me from this trip.  Somewhere.  OK, let me get past the garden, I have quenched my thirst…

On to the store, which is built into a tunnel itself.  It not only sells the wine, but also shows a few of the tools used in older times to make the wine.

Store at Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

The Tunnels and Cellars

So on we go and we get back in the car to begin our tour.   Yes, back in the car so we can enter the tunnels of this incredible winery.  You see, this winery is using the tunnels dug up when limestone was being mined here to build all those “lovely” Sovietish buildings and other structures with better looks and uses.

To be more precise, this winery has 160 miles (250 km) worth of tunnels out of which 75 miles (120 km) are currently being used to store over 2 million bottles of wine, making Milestii Mici the world’s biggest wine cellar.  (My basement cellar pales a little.)  These limestone tunnels keep a constant humidity and temperature throughout the year.  Bottles are cellared here for DECADES before they are sold.  And many an important collector actually pay to store their wines here (not just their Milestii Mici wines).

Dusty wine botles in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Dust on bottles CANNOT be faked!

Wine cellar wall in the tunnels of Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

“99 bottles of wine in the wall, 99 bottles of wine.  Take one down, and pass it around…  98 bottles of wine in the wall…”” (never mind, I WON’T pass it around – it’s mine to keep!)

Wine cellar in Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Private wine collection stored in Milestii Mici's tunnels in Moldova

Private wine stored in the wine cellars

We drove along the road (another tunnel) and got off at different points to see the different areas of the wine cellars.  One of these had a false wall that looks like the ones above built in the 1980s.  See, Gorbachev decided then that alcohol was a problem in the good ole Soviet Union and banned alcohol <the reader gasps>.  The folks in this winery held a treasure trove of good wine so they built this fake wall so they could hide all these bottles which otherwise would have been destroyed.

Finally, the great moment:  the wine tasting!!  I could have done a lunch paired with the different wines but, alas, my time was short that afternoon as I had a plane to catch to return to Bucharest.

Entrance to wine tasting area at Milestii Mici winery in Moldova

Entrance to wine tasting area

So, a simple wine tasting was it for me.  My favorite:  the dessert wineMargaritar.

Milestii Mici's dessert wine (Moldova)

Nectar of the gods. Or this god, at least.

I love dessert wines and this one delivered!  I waited until I was in duty free at the airport to buy some as I was not clear  on security requirements/constraints at the airport so I did not feel like risking buy a bottle to lose it at the airport…

———————————————————————————————————————————————-

When I decide to open that dessert wine from Milestii Mici, I will remember that amazing winery with one of the most unique wine cellars I have ever seen!  If you make it to Moldova, do NOT miss Milestii Mici and make sure you also check out Chateau Vartely and other wineries in Moldova!

 

 

 

Mendoza Wine Tour

Aroma Room at Belasco de Baquedano winery in Mendoza, Argentina

As I said in my previous entry about Mendoza, wines are the other good reason to go to Mendoza – the capital of wine in Argentina.

Wine tasting in Mendoza

I had Saturday to play around so I opted for a tour of several wineries as I didn’t feel like renting a car and driving around solo in unfamiliar territory.  It was a great choice.  The wine tour I chose was offered with Trout and Wine.  The tour cost about $135 lasted from 9AM until 5PM and covered 4 different wineries.  At one of the wineries we were to have a 5 course lunch paired with different wines.  The tour was a great idea as the wineries were guaranteed to be open and ready to receive you (though I sensed that would not have been a problem in this season).

Land around a winery in Mendoza, Argentina

At one of the wineries

All the wineries offered us a tour of the facilities as well as a tasting either by sitting down at a pre-set table or by standing around a bar or table (except for the lunch one where we sampled wines paired with the various lunch courses).

Wine barrels in Mendoza wineries in Argentina

Heaven

Wine tanks in Mendoza wineries in Argentina

Heaven, part dos!

We visited Terrazas which sat us down at a table and where we felt we were just having a chat with a knowledgeable friend about wines.

At Belasco de Baquedano, we were treated to the aroma room where you can walk around and try smelling different scents to train your nose.  I actually tried to do the smelling blind to see if I could detect the aromas.  I didn’t do too well, I must admit…  But the concept was phenomenal.

Aroma Room at Belasco de Baquedano winery in Mendoza, Argentina

Aroma Room at Belasco de Baquedano

Our tour guide, Cecilia, had worked at one of the wineries in the past and knew a lot about wine.  That, combined with the on-purpose small size of the tour group, made for a great day.  Along with me were a Danish father and son, and a California couple.  We enjoyed talking throughout the day and exchanging travel stories.

I had asked Cecilia about a good parrillada place for dinner (meaning, a good local place) and she recommended Estancia La Florencia on Ave. Sarmiento which was really a building away from my hotel.  The California couple and I decided to go together for dinner and we had a fabulous dinner in a mostly-locals only restaurant with great atmosphere.  It was the perfect place for a piece of Argentine steak!

Wine tour ends – Cross back the Andes!

As I flew back Sunday, I got to see Mt. Aconcagua (tallest mountain in the Americas, north of 22,000 feet).  Unfortunately, it was on the opposite side of the plane so I could not get a good picture of it but I did manage to get a few good pictures from my side of the plane.  Enjoy!

Crossing the Andes by plane - view of the mountains!

The awesome Andes

 

 

Crossing the Andes by plane - view of the mountains!

 

 

Of Mountains, Caves, and Wine – Leaving Sydney Is Hard to Do

So today I leave Sydney.  I have greatly enjoyed seeing friends and getting to know this awesome city.  I am actually sad at leaving it and wish I can come back some day soon.  But I am off to see other friends in Melbourne and that is helping me depart.  I have packed all the stuff I brought plus all that I acquired here (souvenirs).  It all fit so now let’s see how I do taking the bus and then the train to the airport.  It will save me like $50 so I am willing to do a little work.  Fortunately, the bus stop is very close to my friends’ apartment.

Of course Sydney has a Chinatown

One of the final explorations of the city itself started with a trip to Chinatown where, after enjoying a stop at a Chinese bakery :), we went shopping for souvenirs.  Paddy Market (not to be confused with Paddington) has an incredible amount and variety of stuff for sale, including souvenirs, the same you find around town but much much cheaper (thanks Kelly for the tip!).

I got to do some good shopping which, of course, wore me out (I really do not enjoy going shopping) so we went to the Lowenbrau restaurant at The Rocks to recover by sampling their pork knuckle and enjoying some beers.  It was a great place to sit outside on a beautiful afternoon, relax, and soak life in.

—————————————————————————————————————————————-

Awesome a city and a setting as Sydney is and has, beyond the city proper are some really neat things to see.  I explored those before wrapping up visiting this corner of Australia

A quick getaway to wine country!

How could I let Sydney end without seeing wine country??   Sunday we went to the nearby wine country:  Hunter Valley.  We visited 4 wineries and enjoyed sampling wine (oe swallowed; well, except the driver – thanks Dave for taking one for the team!).  It wasn’t  a bad drive heading over though we did face some roadwork traffic delays.  Folks at the wineries were very pleasant and eager to talk about the wine – and pour for free. The most common wine as Semillon, which is fairly unfamiliar to me.  It seemed a good summer wine or good for fishy fish (salmon comes to mind).  We did also sample Pinot Noirs, Cab Merlots, Cab Sauvignon and Moscato.  The latter was my favorite!

Tyrrell’s Wines in Hunter Valley

I felt like a tree hugger… This is a fat tree!

And leaving Sydney to see mountains and caves

Tuesday I visited the Blue Mountains and the Jenolan Caves.  I went on a tour since the places would be about 3 hrs away.  Unfortunately, though, we did not get to spend enough time doing the hikes around the Three Sisters area which I would have loved – I only got to spend like 45 minutes walking around the tropical forest near the old mines. Having now explored it, if I get to return to Sydney, I will plan to spend way more time in the Three Sisters area!

Driving on the Blue Mountains gave me a good view of the local mountain towns and I also wish I had gotten to spend time in these small towns.  They look like a delightful place to live.  The Jenolan Caves were pretty spectacular (we visited the Lucas cave; I liked the “slide” cave).

The tour we took was 1.5 hrs which was about the right amount of time to spend in caves.  The temperature inside, as in any cave, was in the 60s which was extremely nice given it was much colder outside where I wore a cap and gloves!  The Jenolan Caves also deserve more time so one can explore other caves (though I am told usually in this time of year there is only one cave open per day).  Some other day…

————————————————————————————————————————————

My final night in Sydney

My visit in Sydney ended with a dinner at the Belgian Beer Cafe in Harrington St. in The Rocks.  A former school dining hall, it has a lot of charm and you can see the ruins under the building which probably date to close to the founding of Sydney by the British.  There we enjoyed good Belgian beer as well as kangaroo loin, and mussels in white wine and cream sauce.  The kangaroo meat was quite tender (cooked medium rare) and the sauce was delicious.  I highly recommend it!

Now, I will wrap up my writing and posting of pix so I can head to the airport to my next stop in this great trip:  Melbourne.  I close this post with one of my favorite pictures of Sydney…

View towards Harbor Bridge and the Opera House

Thanks to my Sydney friends for a truly memorable time and for the hospitality.  Til next time!

Sampling South African Wine in Stellenbosch

Vine against a perfect blue sky in Stellenbosch, South Africa

Ready to hit a new wine region? How about Stellenbosch in South Africa, a short drive east of Cape Town?

The Wineries

So, we finally hit the road east from our hotel to get to Stellenbosch.  We made a few stops in the wine region hitting some wineries pretty much randomly.

Vine against a perfect blue sky in Stellenbosch, South Africa

The vine of happiness!

We did apply enough intelligence to the itinerary to make sure the first one we hit was one that had a place to eat since we were getting there around lunch time.  The winery we chose (Vergelegen) had very large fields and gardens and a café where you could eat lunch in the shade of trees overlooking a rose garden.  We then proceeded to the wine tasting area where for a fee (on top of the R10 we paid to enter the property…), we could sample 6 wines.  Not getting into details, the wines generally were refreshing and quite drinkable.  It was a blue-sky day and we faced a mountain range so the setting was perfect to sit back and enjoy life.

View of the gardens and backdrop of the Vergelegen winery in Stellenbosch, South Africa near Cape Town

View from the Vergelegen winery garden

After the initial winery, since wineries began closing after 4 PM, we chose a road where there were a few wineries back to back to minimize driving time (did I say we both studied engineering??).  The first winery was in an old building and the wine was quite nice.  In this winery, the person who served us stood there by us and happily answered our questions but the conversation was nothing special.  In a later winery (Peter Falke, not to be confused with the actor; the owner, if I remember correctly, was a German who owned a socks company in Germany) that seemed a little bigger (but not as big as the first one we went to), the only employee in that afternoon was the winemaker himself who was quite willing to sit outside with us and sample the wine on the backyard as we overlooked the fields and the nearby mountains.  You can tell this winery is new but the setting is perfect to be rented out for events as it has the right lay out in the patio, has great outdoor furniture, etc.  He was quite willing to discuss winemaking and generally answer our questions so I think this winery was my favorite .  The wine was also quite nice.

In Stellenbosch Town

As the wineries closed, we headed into town to check in and have dinner.  Our hotel was a local small hotel (the Eendracht) right in town.  The architecture of the town as in much of the Cape region, is Cape Dutch.  I, not being a student of architecture, have to admit I was clueless about it.  I really found it quite charming.  I will make a note to someday google it and learn something about it…

Typical construction in Cape Dutch architecture style in the Stellenbosch wine region of South Africa

Example of the Cape Dutch architecture

The town was very nice and we quickly ran into the shops and restaurant area of the town.  We also hit a wine store where we were given samples of wine without any pressure to buy.  The store had a long wooden table that indicated frequent wine tastings took place.  If I lived there, I would likely frequent it :).  That night we decided we were done with seafood so we smelled our way around the various restaurants until we found one that seemed right for a good meal.  I don’t have the name handy but I think we did well.  The place was full of locals and the meal was great.  I ate springbok (a type of deer) in a brown sauce – it was delicious!So with that ended my weekend escape to the Cape region and I proceeded to the less magnificent Johannesburg area (but with interesting history) (read about it here).  I also learned quickly in my trip to South Africa how cheap things are given the exchange rate!

Big thumbs up for the Cape region and here is to hoping to go back!

Does anyone have any recommendations for other wineries in Stellenbosch?

(Photos taken with Canon EOS Rebel)

%d bloggers like this: