Road trip worthy: Chatham Vineyards and sleepy Cape Charles
My gypsy soul that's trapped in a once-in-a-while road tripper body took to the road earlier this month to wander to Cape Charles, Virginia. Nestled in between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay right above the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, this time of year it's a sleepy waterfront community. I suspect it's not crazy crowded during the busy season, either.
The mission for the weekend was to drink good wine (and some Zima for nostalgia's sake - do not judge me), play Cards Against Humanity and What the Meme?, laugh my ass off, eat good seafood, and get outside with good friends. (Mission accomplished, by the way.)
Before I met up with my friends, I made a stop - as any good road tripping wine-lover would - at Chatham Vineyards in Machipango, about 20 miles north of Cape Charles situated in Virginia's Eastern Seaboard AVA. The winery is nestled between the Atlantic and the Chesapeake and located right on the shores of Church Creek, creating a beautiful maritime terroir with sandy loam soils rich in minerality from the sea - particularly the millions upon millions of oyster shells now in the soil.
When I opened the door to the small winery (its threshold is about 5,000 cases a year), I was greeted by the pungent smell of fermentation, the requisite fruit flies that accompany the fermentation, and Janice, a long-time tasting room employee who gave me a quick run down of the history of Chatham before we began to taste.
Chatham's owner and winemaker Jon Wehner (pictured above) soon joined us. He first planted vines in 1999 on the property where the historic 1818 Chatham House resides. There's 300 acres in total at Chatham. Twenty of the are planted with vines, all Bordeaux varieties - Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Wehner bottled his first wine in 2002 - a Merlot - which he says is still going strong.
Chatham is the only winery around, which is astounding because based on what Chatham is producing, it's in a region with great wine making potential. Wehner thinks the region is "one of the last great undiscovered places on the East Coast."
We went through a tasting of the winery's currently released vintages. Chatham produces two chardonnays - one oaked and one steel fermented - a rosé, a merlot, a cabernet franc and a Vintner's Blend of their four red varieties. The majority of the grapes used are estate grapes, and any others come from a grower nearby.
To my surprise, my favorite was the 2017 Steel Chardonnay. (Chard is rarely my favorite anywhere I go). The wine is made from French clone vines that are almost 20 years old. In the soil along the Eastern Seaboard, the grapes from these vines create a wine that's expressive of its place with a salinity that is perfect to pair with the oysters and other seafood of the region. I bought two bottles of the Chardonnay. One we drank that night paired with a low country boil (crab legs, shrimp, mussels, potatoes and sausage). The wine and food just sang together. The other is in my cellar.
Also in my cellar is a bottle of the 2017 Cabernet Franc (a blend of 91% cab franc and 9% petit verdot). It's all ripe raspberry and cherry with subtle, chewy tannins. This bottle needs to age a few more years, and it's keeping my bottles of New Jersey and PA cabernet francs from recent vintages company in the cellar. I'm picturing a huge East Coast cab franc party at my house in five years or so.
Back to Chatham's wines. The 2017 Church Creek Rosé is light in color but full of flavor and fresh acidity. The 2016 oaked Chardonnay was integrated, smooth and creamy with a long finish. The 2016 Merlot (5% petit verdot) smelled lovely with smoke, then fruit, then cigar and was all sorts of jammy. And, the 2017 Vintner's Blend (45% cab franc, 40% petit verdot, 10% merlot, 5% cab sauv) had bright fruits and while it's drinkable now, I'd want to put it away for a few years. Honestly, there wasn't a wine I didn't like in the bunch - it's rare to say that about any winery.
Chatham does a few big concerts during the warmer weather, about one a month. I'm already thinking about how to convince my friends to head there next year in August for Dead on the Vine, a day of Grateful Dead music, dancing, and wine (be still my gypsy soul). In the fall, there are several wine & oyster events.
Southeast Expeditions: Guided kayaking tours, including one where you paddle right up to the shores of Chatham Vineyards. My friends and I took the tour the day after I visited the winery. Our tour guide Dave was excellent and very patient with my desire to take it a little slower and see the beauty all around when others just wanted to paddle as quickly as they could to get to the winery. At the winery, you get a full tasting and one bottle of wine per tour people included in the price of the tour. Southeast has two other kayak tours: one to the Eastern Shore Wildlife Refuge and one that leads you to where you can hop out of your kayak and do some clamming.
Brown Dog Ice Cream, Cape Charles: Really good handcrafted ice cream with locally sourced ingredients.
Voiajer, Cape Charles: I'm bummed I didn't get back to this store that sells fair trade goods in the heart of the Cape Charles shopping district. I popped in quickly and thought I'd get back to purchase some macramé plant holders and maybe get some early holiday gift shopping done.
The Shanty, Cape Charles: Serves seafood, of course. Delicious crab cake sandwich.
Cape Charles Distillery: Small batch bourbon, whiskey and vodka and a cocktail bar with handcrafted cocktails made from their spirits.