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A Taste for Virginia

As night fell on Mount Vernon Sunday, hundreds of people sat on the grass, looking over the Potomac, drinking in the serenity of it all along with several glasses of wine.

It was the final night of the first fall Wine Festival, an encore to the estate’s May event. There were 16 Virginia vineyards with wines, along with music and food from Red, Hot & Blue and the Firehook Bakery, all gathered under a tent on the lawn of George Washington’s mansion.

For Nick and Lara Berner, residents of Old Town, this weekend was their first wine festival at Mount Vernon. They had sampled the vintages of 10 wineries, and were starting to pick favorites.

“We’re from California, so we’ve done the whole Napa Valley thing,” Lara Berner said. “This is nice, in identifying what’s worth pursuing.”

Mt. Vernon tends to attract people like the Berners, with more educated palates, said Patrick Deaner.

DEANER, FROM BREAUX Vineyards in Purcellville, brought seven wines to this weekend’s festival, mostly whites. “We do pretty well when we go out there,” he said. “We have some nice wines, and people out there are sophisticated enough to appreciate that.”

Only seven of the wineries were from Northern Virginia, and of those, only four within an hour’s drive of D.C. They see familiar faces at events like this, Deaner said. “We’re very close to the Northern Virginia area, so it’s good to see a lot of people who know us.”

But it’s not just old home week. “We try to see old friends, and make new ones,” he said.

Breaux brought seven wines to the festival, but very few sweet wines. “For a larger audience, we bring more sweet wines,” Deaner said, but this weekend only saw the 2000 Vidal Blanc.

The 2000 Chardonnay ($20 a bottle) was well received, he said, as was the 2000 Viognier ($22), a white wine with a floral tones from a grape well suited to the Virginia climate. Tasters were also receptive to the only reds that Breaux currently bottles, a 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon ($24) and the 2000 Lafayette($18), a muddy blend of Cabernet Franc.

REDS WERE a specialty for Swedenburg Estate Vineyard, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon ($15).

“We usually save our Cabernet Sauvignon to begin now,” said Juanita Swedenburg. “We never have enough to last the whole year, so we usually wait to make sure we have it until October and the holidays.”

The Cabernet rubbed shoulders with a late season Riesling ($10), a rarity in autumn. “We don’t generally have that at this time of year,” said Swedenburg. “We’re closing it out for the winter, because it’s really more of a summertime thing.”

They take their Chardonnay ($12) and Chantilly ($8) to events year-round, though, she said. “We have the Chardonnay year round,” Swedenburg said.

The Chantilly, a sweeter white, serves as kind of a gateway wine. “It’s a light fruity wine that appeals to less experienced wine drinkers,” she said. “It’s priced to suit young pocketbooks, and we do that on purpose. If they need to be introduced to wines, and they can’t afford a $50 bottle, they can afford the Chantilly.”

ATTENDEES ALSO CROWDED around the Tarara Winery table, waiting for a taste of what manager John Bellncula calls “our flagship wines.”

There was an emphasis on Tarara’s reserve wines, a 2001 Chamborcin ($24.99) and a 2001 Chardonnay ($24.99), “our finer crafted wines,” Bellncula said. “Because this was such an upscale event, so renowned in Washington and Alexandria, people want quality. So we try to give the best we could.”

The Chamborcin, and some of the other reds that Tarara brought, were heavier hitters, he said, heavy reds that lend themselves to cold weather and rich winter meals.

But there were also summer holdovers, a light white pinot gris ($16.99) or the Cameo, a blush ($11.99). “We like to call that our hot tub or swimming pool wine,” said Bellncula.

BREAUX’S WHITES EARNED high marks from festival attendees like the Berners, and their friend Tamer Moumen, from Centreville.

“So far, the Prince Michelet is the best,” he said. “And the Breaux. Their Chardonnay was good.”

Sitting on the porch of the mansion, Damien Hall agreed. “I really like the Breaux Seyval Blanc,” he said, holding up a newly purchased bottle.

Hall, an Australian by birth, lives in Bethesda and works at the National Institute of Health. Kenji Sasahara, an NIH colleague also from Bethesda. They were joined Sunday night by Madhavi Vuthoori, a former co-worker visiting from California.

They were taking the professional approach to the evening. “We tried maybe 60 percent of the white wines,” Hall said.

They were planning on taking another swing through the tent, Vuthoori explained as Sasahara munched on a sandwich from Red, Hot & Blue. “The red wines are best to leave until ‘til later in the evening, after dinner,” she said. “We’re going to continue with the reds. We’re very professional about it.”

AS MUCH AS they poured wines, the Bellncula, Deaner and others also offered possible food pairings, wines that would complement coming fall meals.

“Part of our presentation is, we present each wine with some sort of food suggestions,” said Bellncula. “How the Pinot Gris would go better with a shellfish than red meat. Our Cabernet Sauvignon we compare, and hope to match, to a filet mignon. That’s what it’s for.”

In essence, he said, wine is not just a complement to, but an equal element of a meal, and Tarara’s labels offer possible pairings that live up to that

Breaux does the same with descriptions of their wines, and the wines they had would cover meals for a month of Sundays, Deaner said.

“The Viognet is great by itself or with seafood,” he said. “The Chardonnay is for heavier foods, rich chicken dishes with cream. The Vidal Blanch is great with spicy Asian food – it balances with the heat of spicy foods like Thai. The Lafayette is 80 percent Cabernet Franc and 15 percent Sauvignon Blanc, so it goes well with Cajun food, and as a red with Gumbo.”

However, the rule of thumb still stands, Swedenburg said: Red wines with red meat, white wines with white meats, and don’t drown subtle wines with heavy spices.

“It’s not a rule, it’s what works,” she said. “If you have a leg of lamb with rosemary, you don’t want to drink a Riesling. You might as well drink water. If you’re going to have a more full-bodied wine, have a more full-bodied food.”