Like a growing number of 21st-century travelers, I base vacations around eating and drinking an area’s finest foodstuffs as opposed to getting distracted by predictable tourist traps. So on a recent trip to Virginia, I focused on two of the state’s culinary treasures: oysters and wine. I had no prior knowledge about how diverse the landscape was in each respective industry, and I learned that it would be quite a mission to experience everything the state has to offer in a single visit. And that’s a great thing, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have tons of free time and a strong inclination to sip, slurp, and savor. Let’s get to the specs:
With so many renowned wine regions in the world, it’s tough for relative newcomers like Virginia to get attention. But Virginia winemakers sure are trying. The state boasts more than 230 wineries and nine winemaking regions, from the Heart of Appalachia to Hampton Roads and up to the Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia. To bolster its credibility, the Commonwealth currently contains seven American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), each known for possessing a terroir that contributes to high-quality grapes and wines.
Within each region are winemakers who are pushing the boundaries of creativity with their varietals. Vintners like Kevin Jones and Andrea Kephart of New Kent Winery (about 20 miles east of Richmond) concoct a light chardonnay that goes great with oysters, but also put out unsung styles like white merlot, vidal blanc, and white norton. Drive 10 miles further east and you’ll hit Saudé Creek Vineyards, known for blends like the award-winning Pamunkey Fall (chardonnay plus chardonel) and offbeat single-varietals like chambourcin. In the center of the state near Charlottesville, you’ll discover pinot noir, gewürztraminer and super-Tuscans at Afton Mountain Vineyards and sparkling whites and viognier from Veritas; above the Rappahannock River near the Chesapeake Bay, you’ll find sangiovese, petit manseng and albariño from Ingleside, located on a 50-acre stretch in the Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace AVA that used to be a plantation.
And that’s just the skin of the grape. There are more than 25 wine trails for adventurous oenophiles to hike (tipsy or otherwise) that provide sprawling scenic views of mountains, hills, and lush greenery. Visit in October and early November for the most picturesque foliage, as well as an abundance of events (October is wine month in Virginia and there are oyster festivals aplenty in November). Which brings us to:
Variety was the theme with vino, and it carries over to this category, as well. Virginia has seven oyster regions, each imbuing a different flavor profile into the bivalves growing within them. Some sections produce sweeter shellfish; others yield oysters with a creamier taste. The Seaside and Tidewater regions turn out the strongest in terms of salinity, with the five inner areas of the Chesapeake Bay imparting a moderate level of salt into their oysters.
My first stop in Virginia was to the Rappahannock Oyster Co. farm, located in Topping (about 50 miles east of Richmond and north of Virginia Beach) on the Rappahannock River. Co-owners (and cousins) Travis and Ryan Croxton are pioneers in bringing the Chesapeake back to its former glory as an oyster-producing powerhouse, taking over the family business their great-grandfather J.A. Croxton started in the late 1800s. Going against the advice of their grandfather and fathers, who had witnessed the deterioration of the Bay’s oyster populations and, as a result, its water quality, they decided to team up and makeover the company for a new generation, with the goal of making their Virginia oysters available on a consistent basis.