Covering a total of 469 miles, the Blue Ridge Parkway is often called “America’s Favorite Drive.” It is certainly one of my favorites. It runs between Rock Fish Gap, Virginia, and Cherokee, North Carolina, and boasts 15 wineries along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. One of those wineries, Chateau Morrisette, sits on 38 acres located in Floyd County, between mileposts 171 and 172, a mere 300 yards off the Parkway.
Chateau Morrisette Winery
Chateau Morrisette is the oldest, and now the largest, winery in Virginia. The winery produces more than 20 wines, providing something for everyone. William and Nancy Morrisette dreamed of owning a cabin in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains to provide an escape from their work-world. Alas, they just weren’t cut out for the leisurely mountain life. In short, they were bored! The discovery of Fox Grapes on the property prompted them to try their hand at winemaking. Their success spurred them to plant their first grapevines in 1978. They planted 13 acres with Niagara, Concord, and Muscadine grapes.
In a 1988 article for the local newspaper, Nancy Morrisette quipped, “the winery began as a hobby that soon got out of hand.” The first vintage produced 2,000 gallons under the Woolwine Winery label, about 840 cases. Last year, under the Chateau Morrisette label, they bottled over 70,000 cases.
Son David was hooked! Winemaking caught his interest, and he completed his enology and viticulture degree at Mississippi State University. He became the winemaker for Woolwine Winery, the company’s original name. Woolwine is the name of a small town further down the mountain from today’s Chateau, where the operations were moved in 1981.
A Family Business
Today, more than forty years since the planting of those first vines, Chateau Morrisette is still family-owned. David Morrisette now serves as the President and CEO. He turned out to be a better businessman than a winemaker, and it was easier to hire a winemaker than a business manager. His children work in various capacities at the winery, making Chateau Morrisette a third-generation Virginia winery.
David Morrisette, son of the imaginative couple who planted those first grapes, says, “We are very pleased with how Chateau Morrisette winery continues to be recognized by experts and wine lovers alike for the exceptional wine we produce.”
The Dog Behind Chateau Morrisette
Hans, a black Lab, saw David Morrisette through college and his early years of winemaking. Hans loved people, and people loved Hans; he was the winery’s original greeter! Hans also eagerly lapped up any spills. David often says that this is the winery a dog built. An artist’s rendering of Hans graces the Chateau’s bottles. There was a brief time when the individual artistic labels were changed to reflect an identical image of the lab, which was probably a smart marketing strategy, allowing for massive shelf space. But, I’m sure glad to see the return to the original artistic, individualized labels.
The Chateau Morrisette crest was inspired by Hans too. The crest shows two large black dogs on their hind legs, with a shield between them. On the shield is an “M” entwined with grapevines.
One of my favorite wines is The Black Dog, a smooth off-dry blend of Chambourcin, Cabernet, and Merlot. This wine was developed in 1991 and named in honor of Hans. With its subtle spiciness and berries, it pairs with hors d’oeuvres, meat, and cheeses.
The Winery Dogs Built
When you stop by, the day’s tasting menu features a dog available for adoption from the Floyd Humane Society. The memory of Hans “pays it forward.”
Nouveau Chien is French for New Dog. Over the years, there was a Frosty Dog, a sweet ice wine, and Star Dog, a bubbly addition to the family. As the winery grew, some wines were discontinued.
Blue Ridge Mountains – Rocky Knob AVA
The land along the Parkway’s Rocky Knob American Viticultural Area has an elevation of 3,300 feet. This mountainous growing area has loamy soil mixed with gravel. The soil composition provides good drainage for the vines, which receive an average annual rainfall of over 43 inches. The strong winds across the mountain tops help prevent mildew and fungus growth.
Two grape varieties ideal for cultivation at the Parkway’s high elevation are the Niagara and Seyval Blanc. The Niagara buds late in the season making it nearly frost resistant. The Seyval Blanc French hybrid ripens quickly in the area’s cool climate. It adds a citrus element to white wines.
Steve VanSutphin is a 31-year veteran vineyard manager with Chateau Morrisette. He says that at the vineyard’s 3,300-foot elevation, there are a limited number of American varieties that will grow well. The winery’s 16 acres are planted primarily with Niagara and Concord vines. The winery sources the rest of the grapes from five Virginia growers. His advice for burgeoning winemakers? “To make money in the wine business, grow the grapes, don’t make the wine!”
The Woolwine area’s vineyards are at 1,600 feet, allowing the vineyards to grow a wider variety of grapes, including more traditional French types. Chardonnay and Petit Manseng grapes bud early and do well at the lower elevation. However, the vineyards are remote, requiring hand harvesting and hauling out by horse and wagon. Although the grapes produced, there are excellent; they require too much effort. Therefore it is easier to buy source grapes from other farmers.
Virginia Wines in the French Tradition
Producing wines commercially for nearly 40 years, since 1982, their wines have received numerous awards, including three prestigious awards. At the 2015 San Diego International Wine Competition, Our Dog Blue 2012, a semi-sweet hybrid and vinifera blend of Riesling, Traminette, and Vidal Blanc, one of my favorites, received a platinum award. If all judges in a competition unanimously awarded a wine the gold medal, the wine also gets a platinum award.
Another dry white is Petit Manseng. This medium wine exhibits a sweet finish and perfectly complements fruit, spicy dishes, or strong cheeses like gorgonzola. Vineyard manager VanSutphin says he likes to pair it with lemon cookies or key lime pie. Sounds good to me!
Blue Ridge Mountains Sweet Southern Wine
Morrisette is also known for its sweet wines. One of my favorites, the Red Mountain Laurel with a piece of chocolate, is yummy. Try pouring this sweet wine over a slice of pound cake and step your dessert up a notch. The wine got its name from the Mountain Laurel that grows in the area. Too sweet by many standards, I still love it on a hot day. Try it with vanilla ice cream and fruit, or even frozen and blended as a slushie.
This wine has won more than ten awards in the last five years. No wonder it is one of Chateau Morrisette’s signature wines. So, I am not alone, in my opinion—and I *smile* as I pour another glass.
The Blackberry Wine is perfection any way you pour it. It is an apple-based wine that is delicious alone or served with barbeque or ribs and frequently sold out. Use this wine to replace the water in brownie mix ingredients, and everyone will want your recipe!
Wines in National Competitions
Chateau Morrisette’s 5 Red Grapes 2012 won best of class and platinum in the hybrid red category. Their Nouveau Chien 2013, a blend of Petit Manseng, Traminette, Chardonel, Chardonnay, and Viognier, won a silver award at the San Diego International Wine Competition. I enjoy both of these wines, but the Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Chambourcin is exceptional and worthy of its merits.
In the 2015 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, three of Chateau Morrisette’s wines received silver awards: the 2012 Chambourcin, the 2013 Nouveau Chien, and Our Dog Blue. Another favorite of mine, the 2012 Archival I, received a bronze award. Archival I is a luscious blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.
Provencal Influenced Restaurant
Morrisette also operates an award-winning farm-to-table restaurant, offering local and organic items before it was “in fashion.” Menu items reflect a Provencal influence and range from a Warm Olive appetizer to Rabbit and Dumplings, made with Parisian Gnocchi. There is an eclectic variety of dishes depending on whether it’s lunch, dinner, dessert, or Sunday brunch. Leave room for dessert—you’ll be glad you did! Enjoy fireside dining in winter months or eat on the patio in warmer months, enjoying a view of Buffalo Mountain, Floyd County’s highest peak. There is a lighter fare menu at the outside Wine Courtyard, too, when the winery hosts music events.
Winery Introduces Ciders
In recent years, Morrisette has added a couple of delicious ciders to their lineup. The Barrel-Aged Cider and the Cherry Ginger Cider come from Nelson County, Virginia, cider apples. The apple cider ferments in stainless steel tanks then blended with the winery’s cherry wine. Finally, ginger juice is added, providing ginger flavor without the heat of fresh ginger.
Music on the Grounds
For years, the natural amphitheater has been filled with music and festival-goers throughout the summer. The winery hosts events like The Black Dog Festival series, featuring various music genres, like jazz, beach, and country music. Now, the festivals are held on property just down the road. Designated drivers may purchase a discounted ticket since ticketholders receive a glass to use for free tastings throughout the day.
On Sundays from June through October, the courtyard comes alive as artists perform. The first Sunday of each month features Jazz. Seats fill up fast, so bring your chairs and plan to spend the afternoon enjoying jazz, bluegrass, folk, blues, or country music.
Spread Some Cheer In The Blue Ridge Mountains
Christmas is a time for cheer at the winery. Even the barrel room is festively decked out. The season also means new winter-themed labels for the Black Dog and Our Dog Blue bottles.
Blue Ridge Mountains
A bonus at Chateau Morrisette is the view. You can see Buffalo Mountain from the back deck of the restaurant. The area is stunning year-round, but spring is my favorite. The dogwoods and redbuds are in bloom, as are the rhododendron, wild flame azaleas, and mountain laurel. Chateau Morrisette is open all year long. Make sure to check the weather conditions in the winter because the Parkway is closed during bad weather.
About Guest Blogger Jo Clark
Jo Clark is a happily retired teacher. She is a travel writer, photographer, food, and wine lover from South Carolina’s Grand Strand. She focuses on learning about local flavors and adding to her list of places off-the-beaten-path. Jo is a member of ITWPA, TravMedia, ITWA, Travel Massive, and PWA. See Jo’s work at her website, Have Glass Will Travel.
Photo Credits go to Jo Clark.