Yes, Virginia, there is a Commonwealth cabernet sauvignon to be proud of. It is made a bottle's throw from George Washington's birthplace, in the spacious and splendidly rural Northern Neck region, a peninsula that lies between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers an hour and a half south of the Capitol. The wine is produced by Ingleside Plantation, and it proves that good cabernet can be made in a state once considered woefully unsuited to that grape variety.
How this Virginia cabernet came to be is an intriguing example of international cooperation between an enterprising Virginia nurseryman and an adventurous Belgian enologist. What brought them together, other than an interest in wine- making, was a Polynesian-style twin-hulled sailboat that found itself up a creek . . . But I'm getting ahead of the story.
First, a word about Ingleside cabernets. In the best years they have good structure and complexity, with appealing fruit and soft tannins. They are capable of aging but are also approachable while young. Their alcohol content is 12 percent -- a couple of points below that of most California cabernets. They cost about $14 a bottle, although their price is headed upward.
Ingleside's cabernet is reminiscent of a wine from the Me'doc, and why not? The only thing separating the Northern Neck and Bordeaux is the Atlantic Ocean -- a moderating force on the climate in both areas and thus one of the prime factors in growing the more famous cabernets.
Ingleside, outside the town of Oak Grove, belongs to Carl Flemer. Originally part of a plantation, the house was used as a Civil War command post and is now a national historic place. Flemer's great-great-uncle served as the consul general in Bordeaux, and Flemer had been interested in wine long before he took the bold step of making it commercially.
It was 1976 when Flemer decided to plant a vineyard, although that is not exactly how Flemer describes the experience: "I lost my mind," he says. The start-up costs were phenomenal. Then, when the grapes began to mature, he sent his son to France to learn wine-making and find a winemaker.
Meanwhile, Jacques Recht, a retired enology professor and formerly a winery consultant in Bordeaux and elsewhere, was sailing in the Atlantic with his wife, Liliane. They were bound for Tahiti, but hurricane season -- and James Michener's book Chesapeake -- led them into the bay and up the Potomac River to the town of Kinsale, in Westmoreland County.
The Rechts anchored in the neighborhood and were invited to a party by hospitable Northern Neckers. There they met Flemer and began, naturally, to discuss wine. Ingleside's first big harvest was at hand, and Flemer's son had not yet found a winemaker. Recht tasted Flemer's homemade seyval blanc, a wine from a so-called French hybrid grape. Recht, impressed, found it similar to a muscadet. When Flemer asked him to stay for three weeks and help Ingleside through its first crush, Recht agreed.
That was eight years ago. Today Ingleside has 63 acres under vines, an annual production of 18,000 cases, a winery full of stainless steel and French and American oak barrels, and half a dozen different wines on sale in a tasting room. The room is full of medals won by Ingleside wine -- including an International Wine and Spirits bronze awarded to the Ingleside chardonnay in 1984 in London -- and local artifacts that include early Virginia claret bottles.
Recht has since become a consultant to other Virginia wineries and has encouraged others to grow cabernet in the Northern Neck area and along the James River and the southern Eastern Shore. "They're all protected by the bay, so there's little winterkill," he says. "The soil is sandy loam, just like in the Me'doc. We can make austere, leaner wines than the Californians."
Recht and his wife have five acres in cabernet and chardonnay grapes, which they sell to Ingleside, as do a dozen other growers in the area. Recht, as Ingleside's winemaker, uses French oak for aging the cabernet and leaves the wine for about 12 months in new barrels, which cost about $400 apiece. He usually blends in about 10 percent merlot and another 5 percent of cabernet franc. The wine has steadily improved.
The Ingleside chardonnays spend about eight weeks in new oak. They are what Recht calls "Frenchman's wine," meaning they have good balance and body and a lean, "flinty" finish sometimes associated with chablis. The '86 special reserve chardonnay is a bargain at $12.
"There is a real future for high-quality wines in Virginia," Recht says. "But it takes hard work. We have to fight humidity and fungus, and improve the wine-making. We need to try different pruning methods and learn which grapes are suited to which terrain. I'm hoping others will experiment, as we have."
"Jacques saved us," says Flemer of that first harvest at Ingleside and all the developments that have followed. Flemer continues to expand the facility and is currently moving into sparkling wine.
The Rechts go back to Europe once a year and always take along some Ingleside cabernet to show friends and former colleagues in Bordeaux what is happening just across the Atlantic. "First they were amazed," Jacques Recht says. "Now they're worried."
The Rechts have yet to get to Tahiti; their sailboat gets little use nowadays. The couple plan to stay on the Northern Neck, and to expand their vineyard; they both became naturalized citizens last summer.
"I love America," says Recht. "The problem is, I'm not retired anymore." ::