Nestled among farms and cattle ranches are the dozen or so wineries comprising the Shenandoah Valley Wine Growers Association.The oldest of these, which makes it the third oldest in the state, is Shenandoah Vineyards, located just off Interstate 81 in Edinburg Virginia. Known as the "breadbasket of the confederacy", the valley's fertile soil is home to thousands of small farms. One of these started in 1976, when Jim and Emma Randel planted 5000 vines of several French Hybrid varieties that they believed were well suited for the valley. In particular they were the first to champion Chambourcin as a suitable alternative to vinifera reds, at a time when the technological knowledge on how to successful grow vinifera grapes was lacking. These original vines are still producing fruit right behind the winery. In total, Shenandoah Vineyards now has 26 acres of vines planted of eleven varieties of grapes.
The first surprise we noticed when viewing the tasting sheet was the number of dry wines in the portfolio. Many wineries in similar locations must produce primarily sweet wines in order to fill the needs of the local market, but Shenandoah Vineyards had a nice 50/50 split. For instance they produce two versions of dry Chardonnay; the Founder's Reserve, a dry and buttery wine a result of aging two years in French Oak and a stainless steel fermented vintage Chardonnay. Of the two, we preferred the later, mostly because that's the style we like - let the flavor of the grape speak for itself. The also produce a dry Sauvignon Blanc that is fermented and aged in American oak - it was nice - but we still preferred the vintage Chardonnay. Getting sweeter they offer a semi-dry Johannisberg Riesling and their proprietary Shenandoah Blanc - the winery's best seller. In fact, we added to this trend, thinking this wine would be adopted by the National Guard members we were visiting that night. Its a nice everyday wine - fruity but not overly sweet. Plus, priced under $11 - why not.
Turning to reds, we started with the Founder's Reserve Pinot Noir, which is a light dry wine - but with a nice flavor. We decided that we would be different in chill this wine and serve as an alternative to a dry rose. Up next was the Founder's Reserve Chambourcin, the grape the couple first championed, and they have produced an impressive red wine. It is full bodied - but smooth; a very nice wine. We liked this more than their vintage Cabernet Sauvignon which just didn't have the same full bodied fruit flavor as the Chambourcin. The winery also produces a couple off dry to semi dry red wines, the Shenandoah Ruby and Rebel Red. The later is actually served chilled - although don't confuse this with a rose style wine. Both of these wines are designed for people who are a little skittish about drinking red wine. Shenandoah Vineyards does offer a few sweet wines such as the Sweet Serenade, Fiesta, and Raspberry Serenade. Because of time limitations we didn't sample these wines, but were told they were quite popular.
Now in her 80's, Emma Randel still operates the winery. She is a valuable source of knowledge for the Virginia wine industry since most wineries lack historical knowledge of how grapes react over time. She has witnessed cyclical variations in weather; pests; disease; and many other issues that most infant wineries in the state have not experienced. She is a valuable source that the industry needs. To see for yourself - take a break from driving and pull off Interstate 81 - and enjoy nice wines with clear views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.