I’m probably the last person you expected to talk about Virginia wines, given that First Vine imports mostly French wines. But in a marvelous coincidence (especially when you have to come up with new topics to write about each week), this is Regional Wine Week, and Cy and I visited two Virginia wineries a couple of weeks ago.
Dave McIntyre kicked off the local wine writing with his column in last week’s Washington Post. He has been trying Virginia wines for 20+ years and is enthusiastic about the increase in quality he’s seen over that time. There’s certainly a lot more of it available, too. But anecdotal evidence suggests to me that, at least around here, consumption of local wine hasn’t kept pace with the increase in consumption of other local food products.
Part of the reason is cost. I wrote about why French wines can be so inexpensive despite transport across the ocean in a previous post – and most of those reasons don’t yet apply to new wineries in Virginia. Consequently, I have seen very few Virginia wines for less than $20 per bottle. Twenty dollars isn’t an everyday wine purchase these days. And even though you might be willing to pay $3.99/pound for those heirloom tomatoes at the farmers’ markets, you won’t necessarily want to pay $5 to $20 more for a bottle of Virginia wine than for wine from France, Spain, or Italy to go with them.
Availability is another issue. If DC allowed wine tastings and sales at farmers’ markets, we might get some of the smaller Virginia wineries setting up booths and selling their wines. As it is now, you can only get these small-batch wines at the wineries themselves, or perhaps in restaurants. The larger Virginia wineries do sell at DC retail outlets, but they’re not always easy to find.
Not being able to buy most Virginia wines at your corner wine store also means that the environmental benefit of buying local is severely reduced. Don’t get me wrong, buying nearly any Virginia wine will have less of a carbon footprint than buying a European wine if you live in DC, and a lot less than a wine from California. But driving your car to a Virginia winery and buying a case of wine is an extremely energy-inefficient means of getting that wine, even if you have a gas-sipper of a car. I learned my lesson boring you with calculations of greenhouse gas emissions before, so I’ll just say here that until Virginia wines come into DC the same way other wines do – in bulk in large trucks and vans – we won’t realize the full environmental benefit of buying local wines.
Still, if you’ve visited Virginia wineries, you know that (as the airlines used to say) getting there is half the fun. Virginia wine country is gorgeous, and many of the wineries are on property with buildings that date to colonial times. And the wineries make fun destinations for tasting because you’re usually served by the owners themselves, people who are enthusiastic about their wines.
So off we went! The occasion was a birthday celebration for our friends Darrene and Chris, who had graciously allowed us to drag them through southern France visiting vineyards. They rented a limo to take 11 of us to two wineries near Leesburg and then to the town itself for a late lunch. I am too old for the take-a-limo-to-the-prom craze, so it was a new experience for me. But it’s a great idea not to drive if you don’t have to, it gives you a chance to relax and, of course, drink more wine.
Dave McIntyre makes the point that Virginia wines are more European-style than they are like California wines, so you’re less likely to get the very ripe fruit/high alcohol combination that makes the wine more difficult to pair with food. A point in their favor, in my view. So I approached the visits as someone who prefers the light- to medium-bodied European style with a good bit of earthiness.
First stop: Casanel Vineyards in Leesburg. Casanel is a new family-owned winery and is making its first self-grown vintage this year. Since it takes three to five years for new vines to produce top-quality wine grapes, the family has made its wine from grapes purchased from other local vineyards. The lines of wines have Portugese names, courtesy of patriarch Nelson DeSouza, who comes from Brazil (while the name Casanel is a combination of Casey — Nelson’s wife and winery co-founder — and Nelson). We tried the five wines they had available for tasting: Chardonnay, Viognier, Norton, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
None was over-oaked, which is a plus in my book. The standouts were the Viognier and the Norton – much Viognier I’ve had from Virginia has been a little too sweet for my taste, and this one wasn’t. It didn’t reach the floral heights of some Viogniers, but there was enough acidity for balance and it made for a lovely sipping wine. The Norton is billed as a “white” wine even though it’s a red grape. It’s made like a rosé – letting the juice sit on the skins for only a short time. The result is something that looks and tastes like a light-bodied, fruity red wine. The bigger reds were less successful to my taste. Although the Cab is perfectly acceptable there wasn’t enough Cab flavor in it. And the Merlot started off well but had a sort of vegetable taste at the end which would make it difficult to pair with food.
Back into the limo and on to Corcoran Vineyards, about 20 minutes away in Waterford. Corcoran has been around for longer than Casanel, so they make most of their wines from their own grapes. We tasted their Riesling (which they thought they were sold out of, but found some bottles around that morning), Chambourcin, two different Cabernet Francs (one blended with Tannat), Malbec, and a “Meritage” blend of Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.
Here my favorites were the Cabernet Franc blended with a small amount of Tannat grape and the Meritage. They were the fullest-bodied of the wines we tried, both well-balanced and with good but not overwhelming fruit flavor. The Chambourcin (a U.S.-French hybrid grape), the 100% Cab Franc, and the Malbec were less well-balanced and less distinctive too. The Malbec was a little disappointing – after a visit to Buenos Aires and also tasting some French Malbecs, I was looking forward to trying it, but it wasn’t memorable.
From Corcoran it was off to downtown Leesburg proper to eat at The Wine Kitchen, a restaurant with good food and a good wine list that’s not too expensive. We ate a nice meal, toasted our very kind hosts, and got a little toasted ourselves in the process. Back into the limo, and back to DC ending our eight-hour tour.
It was a great day in the company of friends. Would we go back on our own? Not right away, certainly. Still, the family atmosphere at Casanel was fun, and as a wine geek I’d be curious to see how their 2010 vintages made from their own grapes compare to their efforts with others’ grapes. And we didn’t get to try Corcoran’s Viognier, which is rumored to be very good, so maybe we’ll make our way there again. There are a whole lot of wineries to try, so I’m sure we’ll get back to Virginia – though probably without the limo!
Since First Vine doesn’t sell Virginia wines, I’m going to recommend two of our wines that make a good comparison to the wines we tried there: Domaine Fond Croze Merlot ($9) and Domaine de Mairan Cabernet Sauvignon ($14). Both are single-varietal wines, lightly aged in oak, light- to medium-bodied, and are very good representatives of their grapes. And although the wines aren’t local, you can definitely get local meat and produce for this week’s recipe. Now that at least one of our local farmers’ markets is open year-round, meat is one of the few things we can get there through the winter. The recipe, Chicken with Rice and Italian Sausage, is from one of the first cookbooks I remember my mother having around when I was a kid – The Classic French Cuisine, by Joseph Donon. Donon was a World War I veteran and a famous chef in the 1950s (the book’s date is 1959). He was one of the people who brought authentic French cooking to the US in the days before Julia Child. He retired in the early 1960s and died in 1982. The book’s recipes are still interesting today; partly because they’re good, and partly as a relic of a time when it was more difficult to get good quality ingredients here in the U.S.
Donon’s original recipe for Poulet Jambalaya called for chicken, salt pork, ham, butter, and breakfast sausage links. My mom never used the salt pork and rarely added ham, but tried substituting Italian sausage for breakfast links one time and never looked back. I’ve made a few more modifications in ingredients and cooking method. I use a little olive oil to start everything browning and skip the butter, I’ll add ham if I have it but usually don’t. Three keys to making this recipe successfully: First, the vegetables (and the ham if you’re using it) have to be diced in very small pieces, the object is to make them look like jewels in the rice. The second is to make sure that you start cooking the chicken stock and tomatoes together when you begin browning the meat – the flavor becomes much richer. Finally, use bone-in chicken pieces with the skin on, and as Anne Burrell says on the Food Network, make sure you brown the crap out of the meat. It makes a huge difference in flavor.
Using local – and presumably, organic and free range – meat poses some cooking challenges you might not encounter with supermarket meat. The chickens, in particular. Free-range dark meat takes a lot longer to cook than white meat, longer than you’d expect. And your local sausage might be a lot less fatty than the supermarket brands, so if it looks really lean, brown the chicken first and then brown the sausage, rather than the other way round. The chicken skin will render some fat to cook the sausage.
What a long post! Is it my imagination, or am I rambling again? Don’t answer that… Enjoy our beautiful early-fall weather and eat and drink well!
1 3.5-4.5-pound chicken, cut into quarters, or four chicken breasts, with both bones and skin
1 to 1-1/4 pounds sweet Italian sausage (preferably with fennel seed), in large links (usually about six of them)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups chicken broth (homemade, or use a 14.5-ounce can and add enough water to make 2 cups)
1 14 to 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
¾ teaspoon dried thyme, or 1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
1 bay leaf
1 red bell pepper, cut into very small dice
1 large onion, cut into very small dice
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
½ cup finely-diced ham (I have used deli ham for this and it works) – optional
1 cup long-grain rice
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Combine the broth and tomatoes in a small saucepan, bring it to a boil, then turn the heat to very low, cover the pot, and let it simmer gently while you brown the meat and sauté the vegetables.
Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven. When hot, add the sausage links and brown them well. Remove the sausage, season the chicken with salt and pepper, then brown the chicken, starting skin-side down. It will take at least five minutes per side to really brown the chicken. Remove the chicken from the pot and let it sit on a place with the sausage. Pour off all but about two tablespoons of fat and add the red pepper, onion, thyme, bay leaf, and ham if you’re using it. Add about a teaspoon of salt and some pepper. Saute for about 6 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not brown. Add the simmering tomato/broth mixture, the sausage, and the dark meat from the chicken (if you’re using it – otherwise, skip to the next paragraph). Simmer, covered, for 10 minutes.
Then add the rice and the chicken breasts, stir everything well, cover, and put the Dutch oven into the oven and bake for a half hour. Taste for seasoning, and serve hot.