Last week, I ventured to the great state of Virginia to celebrate its 30th harvest as part of Virginia Wine Month. I started my adventure with great food and wine in Norfolk’s NEON District and enjoyed a magical harvest dinner in Cape Charles. On my last day, I was in a treat for sightseeing and a stop at Chatham Vineyards.
We started the day at the Barrier Islands Center, a museum dedicated to preserving and perpetuating the unique culture and history of Virginia’s Barrier Islands. The islands were once home to vibrant fishing and farming communities, with rich wildlife that attracted people from up and down the East Coast to elegant hotels and exclusive gentlemen’s hunt clubs. A series of major hurricanes in the 1930s forced those people to relocate to the mainland, but many of the old stories and traditions still echo in life on the Eastern Shore today.
After looking through the different exhibits and artifacts, we headed out around the corner for a trip to Chatham Vineyards. Owned and operated by the Wehner Family, the vineyard is part of a working farm that has been in operation for four centuries.
Jon Wehner is a second-generation winegrower on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. He learned about grape growing from his parents who operated Great Falls Vineyard in Great Falls, Virginia for over thirty years. He and his wife Mills (the sweetest couple ever), and their three children own and operate the vineyard and winery.
Since 1999, more than twenty acres of high-density (1,740 vines per acre) French vinifera varietals have been planted. They are Merlot (clone 181 and 3 on rootstock 101-14 and 3309), Chardonnay (French Dijon clones 95/96 and 76, and California Clones 4 and 5 on 3309 rootstock), Cabernet Franc (clone 214 on 101-14 rootstock), Cabernet Sauvignon (clone 337 on 101-14 rootstock), and Petit Verdot (clone 400 on 101-14 rootstock). The vineyards are cane pruned during the winter months to balance the vines and limit yields to less than four tons per acre thereby concentrating wine flavors. The grapes are hand-picked and sorted before pressing to ensure the highest quality of the juice. Grapes not vinified at the winery are sold to other wineries in Virginia.
The winery was constructed in 2005 and currently has a production capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 cases annually. Winemaking equipment includes a computerized Europress 2200 litre, a Zickler-Rauch destemmer/crusher A-12, French and Virginia oak cooperage, and stainless-steel fermenters with dimpled glycol cooling jackets custom-made in Italy. Temperature in the winery is maintained at 50 degrees year-round. A retail tasting room is also in the winery.
We started with a walk through the winery, inspecting all of the barrels full of juice from this season’s harvest. Just outside of the winery, overlooking Church Creek, stands a Federal-period brick house, Chatham, that was built in 1818 by Major Scarborough Pitts and named for William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham and friend of the American Revolution. The historic outbuildings, barns, and two early 1900s homes on the property have been renovated in recent years. It was amazing to see something that old still standing (in Miami, we tear everything down :/)
Just outside of the house stood the vines, in long rows, bare from the recent harvest but still beautiful. I just had to pause and take it all in – the sunshine, the crisp breeze coming off the nearby creek, and the sounds of the vineyard dogs barking in the background. It was such a magical moment.
We walked back to the winery and sat for lunch and a tasting. From sips of Chardonnay to Vinter’s Blend, it was the perfect ending to a wine-derful afternoon.
If you’re ever on the Eastern Shore, you must check out Chatham Vineyards. If you can go during one of their many oyster events, even better (And I’ll be super jealous because I still can’t get the delicious taste of Virginia oysters out of my mouth).
I look forward to planning another trip to Virginia and checking out the rest of the wine regions there are to offer. It’s truly a unique and special place.