Virginia Wine 101

After reading my recent post summarizing the Wine Bloggers Conference, held in Charlottesville, Virginia, you might be a little curious about the wines made in the state that gave us those wine celebrities Thomas Jefferson and Dave Matthews.  Since October is also the start of Virginia Wine Month let’s start with some facts and figures the natives graciously provided me before I left for my trip.

Thomas Morgan who writes Drink What You Like, started me with some basics:

  • Virginia is the fifth largest wine producing state.
  • Virginia is home to over 180 wineries, and growing quickly.
  • Six American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).
  • Over 2,500 acres under vine.
  • Chardonnay is the most planted white varietal inVirginia; Cabernet Franc the most planted red.
  • Though the subject of much debate and opinion, the varietals that seem to thrive here inVirginia are Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Viognier, and Petit Manseng.

I sent emails with questions about Virginia wine to several local experts, and they all responded with very thoughtful, thorough responses:

VIRGINIA WINE HISTORY

“Virginians have made wine for more than four centuries. The Jamestown settlers had such hopes thatVirginia would become a major source of wine for the British Empire that in 1619 they signed into law a requirement for each male settler to plant and tend at least ten grape vines.  Little came of it.  Every effort to grow vinifera, or vines of European origin, met with failure from an unknown pest, Phylloxera, as well as diseases in a new environment.  The booming tobacco trade diluted British interest in the possibilities of American wine.  Americans themselves lost interest.  While fine wine could be had only from Europe, whiskey, beer and brandy were plentiful.”

“In hopes of one day realizing the promise of fineVirginia wines, Thomas Jefferson cultivated European grapes for more than 30 years.  His Monticello vineyards never produced a single bottle of wine from his years of vineyard trials. He wasn’t alone in trying.  After 11 years of efforts at Mount Vernon, George Washington too, had nothing to show for it.”

“In the 1820s, wines made from Native American grapes met with great success.  Then a Virginia Norton wine was named “best red wine of all nations” at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873.  Plus a gold medal for Norton at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 when the Eiffel tower was constructed.  The discovery in the late 1800s that native and European vines could be grafted gave Virginia’s nascent wine industry a lift – but in the early 20th century, Prohibition promptly brought it to a standstill.  The industry was slow to bounce back. Some 17 years after Prohibition’s repeal,Virginia had all of 15 acres of commercial wine grapes.”

“In the late-1950s, experimental plantings of vinifera showed promise.  With the establishment of six new wineries in the 1970s, the recovery was officially underway.  A renewed effort to grow a European Chardonnay succeeded at the Waverly Estate in Middleburg in 1973.  Then in 1976, Italian pioneer vintner Gianni Zonin hired Gabriele Rausse to grow and harvest vinifera grapes near Charlottesville.  He established Barboursville Vineyards and then helped other vineyards do the same.  By 1995,Virginia had 46 wineries.  By 2005, 107.  At 192 wineries and counting today, onlyCalifornia, New York, Oregon and Washington have more wineries thanVirginia.  The persistence of generations of winemakers is paying off.  And the vision of one ofVirginia’s most renowned native sons, Thomas Jefferson, is now coming true.”

Matthew Finot of King Family Vineyards

CLIMATE PATTERNS IN VIRGINIA

“Climate is a major issue in Virginiaand makes growing grapes very challenging.  And yes, these conditions vary across the state. Grapes are grown in all regions of the state, and there is one tasting room (Holly Grove) that has ocean views.  On the left side, grapes are grown in the Shenandoah Mountains where temperatures have dropped to allow one winery to produce a true ice wine.  These two areas benefit from large Diurnal temperature fluctuations – the cool sea air and wind cools the costal grapes whereas the Mountains produce the same affect for western growers.”

“However the majority of wineries and vineyards are located in the central part of the state surrounding Charlottesville and in LoudounCountyand the Route 66 corridor west ofWashingtonD.C.  These areas experience a much smaller Diurnal temperature fluctuation yet produce the most celebratedVirginia wines.”

“Yet all regions experience temperamental weather.  In the spring, a late frost after initial bud break is a possibility.  Two of our favorite wineries, Corcorcan Vineyards and Fabbioli Cellars, lost virtually their entire crop from a late spring frost.  Then, summer commences with hot and humid conditions.  The grapes must be pruned in order to allow for air flow between clusters to avoid moisture from turning into mold or rot.  One reason Cabernet Franc is so prevalent is that it has loose clusters and thick skins – alleviating some of the problems caused by humidity.  And finally, late summer and fall can also be associated with heavy rain and perhaps a hurricane.  If the grape ripens late, the increased rain may increase juice levels and dilute the overall concentration.”

Todd Godbout of Virginia Wine TV.Com

HIGHLIGHTS OF VIRGINIA WINERIES

“I believe that the largest producers in Virginia are Williamsburg Winery (about 65K cases) and Prince Michel Vineyard & Winery (about 40K cases).  The winery of the most renown – and one of the originals, now several decades old – is Barboursville Vineyards, while Linden Vineyards earns tremendous respect and acclaim because of the winemaking practices of owner/winemaker Jim Law.  Horton Vineyards is known as a maverick for growing new varietals; they were among the first doing Viognier and Cabernet Franc, and of course those are now some of Virginia’s strongest growers.  Chrysalis Vineyards has the world’s largest Norton vineyard.  Boxwood Winery is gaining a following for its Bordeaux-style bottlings and its modern, chrome-and-glass (appointment only) winery and tasting room.”

Nancy Bauer of Virginia Wine in My Pocket

WHAT GRAPES GROW BEST?

“Virginia has six AVAs and many microclimates, and different grapes do well in different vineyards, of course.  Even after decades of growing, winemakers are still expanding their knowledge in this area.  Cabernet Franc has been a star inVirginia for a long time, and Viognier has just been named the signature varietal for the state, so you’ll see even more of that being produced.  Petit Verdot is an up and comer that does well in many areas and winemakers are doing great things with it.  Lots of vineyards struggle with Cabernet Sauvignon here, though Chardonnay grows well.”

Nancy Bauer

GAINING ATTENTION

 “Washington, DC restaurants are slowly becoming aware of Virginia wines, as are restaurants throughout our state.  Lately the First Lady, Maureen McDonnell, has conducted marketing tours to restaurants and retailers to showcase Virginia wines.  She has had some success, but with slow progress.  Some DC restaurants carrying our wines include OYA, SAX, Smith Commons and Cajun Experience.”

Todd Godbout

Thanks to all who participated in my interviews.  If you have tasted a Virginia wine recently (particularly if you were able to find one here in Illinois!), please email me your tasting notes, or comment in the space below.  And check out this gallery that Mr. Godbout kindly forwarded:

Wine Compass gallery

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