A Taste of DuCard Vineyards
On Saturday, a friend and I took a day trip to the Shenandoah Mountains for a visit to DuCard Vineyards, 40 Gibson Hallow Lane, Etlan in Madison County, Va., to check out its food and wine pairing program.
Held in DuCard’s barrel room where the aging process takes place, the program is offered at 1 and 3 p.m. most Saturdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays from May through early September. The program pairs four of DuCard’s latest releases with a series of small bites prepared by an in-house chef. The tastings features ingredients grown in the chef’s garden or from local gourmet shops.
We started our trek at 11:30 a.m. and arrived about 2:45 p.m. The vineyard is about a half hour east of Luray Caverns, an hour south of Centerville and near the hiking trails of Old Rag Mountain. We wanted to give ourselves time in case traffic was bad and to enjoy the scenic drive. We also stopped at Carousel Frozen Treats in Warrenton for lunch and ice cream on the way.
We arrived and were treated to a glass of white wine that hasn’t been released yet while we waited for the tasting to begin. After sitting on the patio enjoying the views of the grape arbors and mountains, we were escorted to the production facility by Chef Kris where we began with caprese sticks made with fresh basil grown in the chef’s garden and DuCard’s Rose wine. The chef talked about the winery and the wine-making process, pointing out the grape destemmer and crusher.
We were then led into the barrel room, which had a farm table in the center set with mixed nuts, crackers, bread and olive oil surrounded by the wooden barrels and metal barrels holding the next batch of wines. There was even a blanket on the back of each chair in case we got cold since the room is kept about 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Each place had three small plates filled with different bites to pair with the three different wines we were sampling. We started with DuCard’s signature Viognier white wine paired with a slice of pineapple, raspberry, shrimp, chicken with mango chutney and Lusk gouda-style cheese from nearby Mountain View Farm. The Viognier we sampled was bottled in June 2014 with 100 percent Viognier grapes with 30 percent aged in oak barrels then mixed with unaged in steel vats to finish aging.
Next up was the Popham Run Red paired with bruschetta, pork with spicy plum chutney and roast lamb with Greek sauce. The wine is a Bordeaux-style blend made with four different varieties of grapes and aged 10 months in oak barrels.
Then it was time for dessert with C’est Trop, a port-style wine made with Norton grapes – a hearty grape native to Virginia that stays on the vine the longest of DuCard’s grapes — infused with brandy and aged two years in Maker’s Mark oak bourbon barrels. It was paired with a strawberry, cheesecake and dark chocolate from Charlottesville Candy Co. The C’est Trop was definitely my favorite.
We also got to sample a not-yet-released vintage straight from the barrel. The difference was striking with the young wine much less complex and the tannins not yet as strong.
DuCard’s wine and food pairing program is limited to 10 people per seating and costs $39 per person. Reservations can be made online.
Afterward, I sat down with owner Scott Elliff, who called the vineyard a “hobby gone wild.” He bought an old apple orchard near his summer home, but soil tests revealed the land wasn’t good for growing much except grapes. He planted his first grapes 17 years ago with vines from California, Arkansas and Mississippi.
“We don’t irrigate or fertilize. We want a hot, dry condition and seek to stress the vines into putting their limited energy into ripening the fruit,” he said. “We take off extra leaves and drop about a third of the crop to the ground in late summer—something people visiting for the first time just shake their heads about, sure we don’t know what we’re doing. But in fact, we must do that in order to get high quality on the fruit that remains on the vine.”
The tasting room was added five years ago. The boutique winery currently has about 15 acres planted with seven different varieties of grapes including Cab Franc, Norton, Merlot and Chardonnay. Everything is still done by hand including planting, pruning, harvesting and pressing.
“We originally sold to other wineries, but they were winning awards with our grapes,” Elliff said. So they began bottling their own wine for friends and family. It continued to grow and today produces 30 tons of grapes and 1,500-2,000 cases a year.
The tasting room with cathedral ceiling, fireplace and shaded patio is open from 11-6 p.m. Friday through Sunday and holiday Mondays year round and seven days a week in September, October and November. The bar and wood floors are made from reclaimed lumber from trees and barns originally on the property and is powered by solar panels on the roof. Meats, cheeses, crackers, chocolates and water are for sale along with cigars that you can enjoy on the patio. Guests are also welcome to bring their own picnics and their dogs.
Fall is the perfect time to plan a weekend trip to the Shenandoah Mountains to view the colorful foliage. The Inn at Little Washington is just up the road, so you can enjoy a weekend of hiking, wine tasting and good food. Or plan a wine country tour visiting the three other wineries in Madison County or the 71 other wineries along the Central Virginia Wine Trail.
Editor-in-Chief Mark Heckathorn is a journalist, movie buff and foodie. He oversees DC on Heels editorial operations as well as strategic planning and staff development. Reach him with story ideas or suggestions at dcoheditor (at) gmail (dot) com.