From the viticultural missteps of the Jamestown colonists in 1607 to Thomas Jefferson’s abortive vineyard attempt in 1807 to the static phase of the post-Prohibition years, Virginia’s wine industry has experienced its fair share of turbulence.
True, the state’s grasp on grape growing and wine production was slippery from the start, but much has been learned. Superior rootstocks and clones are being selected for compatibility with the state’s challenging soils and climate, and vineyards are being planted on sites most conducive to wine-grape cultivation.
“Virginia has historically done winegrowing where someone either had a farm or they wanted to enjoy the grapevine lifestyle…most people have chosen pieces of land that were easy for agriculture, not for grapes,” says Joshua Grainer, technical director at RdV Vineyards in northern Virginia. “This state has Virginia clay. It’s fantastic for corn. It’s horrible for grapevines.”
While 2,227 acres of vines are scattered across the state, the heart of production is found in the Piedmont. It’s an area that Jim Law, winemaker and owner of Linden Vineyards, defines as “east of the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from the Potomac River in Maryland [down] to the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia.”
According to the Virginia Wine Board’s 2011 Commercial Grape Report, roughly 75% of the state’s vineyards fall within those boundaries, including two of the Commonwealth’s seven American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), Monticello AVA and Middleburg AVA.
“Climatically, we are in a sweet spot, being able to ripen many of the noble grape varieties,” says the soft-spoken Law, whose estate sits 65 miles west of Washington, D.C. “Our slopes and soils are diverse, giving us a patchwork of exciting possibilities to explore.”
Monticello AVA and Central Virginia
The sprawling Monticello AVA takes its name from Thomas Jefferson’s estate, where he attempted to cultivate European vines in the 19th century. California’s Russian River Valley AVA, which some consider too expansive, covers a little more than 150 square miles; in comparison, the Monticello AVA comes in at approximately 1,250 square miles.
Monticello, the state’s first AVA, is skirted on the east by the Southwestern Mountains and on the west by the Blue Ridge Mountains, geographical features that influence the area’s already difficult grape-growing conditions.
“Because we’re right up against this Blue Ridge, we get a weather system that we call ‘pop-up’ weather,” says Emily Hodson Pelton, winemaker at Veritas Vineyard & Winery. “Basically, we never know what’s coming because it’s so random right here.”
Spring frosts; hot, humid summers with hailstorms; and autumn hurricanes are some of the climatic tribulations winemakers face.
“It is probably the most challenging area in which to grow grapes,” adds Stephen Barnard, winemaker and vineyard manager of Keswick Vineyards in Charlottesville. “You can’t apply what you did one year to the next. The only consistency is that the next year is different.”
Compared to northern Virginia, the central region tends to be warmer, with a harvest that often occurs two weeks earlier. The soils vary within Monticello’s vast stretch, but in general, fertile red clay rules.
Bordeaux grapes are choice, with Merlot and Cabernet Franc preferred by many of the winemakers, as opposed to Cabernet Sauvignon, a vigorous vine that favors well-drained, gravelly soils.
“Everyone wants to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, but not everyone can,” says Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards. “We’ve been growing Cabernet Franc since 1976, and I know that in a more challenging vintage I can still make a good Cabernet Franc. I cannot make a good Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot has the same resiliency.”
While many grapes in Virginia struggle with acid retention due to the state’s small diurnal temperature swings, the naturally structured Petit Verdot is another darling of vintners.
“[Petit Verdot’s] natural high acid level makes it too sharp and too green in the Bordeaux region, [but it] works very well here with our warmer southern climate,” says King Family Vineyards’s winemaker, Matthieu Finot, who hails from France. “It works great as a single varietal to produce bigger, bolder and tannic wines with very good aging potential.”
Other main choices include Norton, a native Virginia hybrid that’s been dubbed “bulletproof” due to its hardiness, and Virginia’s official state grape, Viognier.
“The public loves [Viognier] because it’s fruity,” says Finot. “I like it because you can make it work in plenty of different ways. You can make it on the dry, crisp side. You can make it with a little residual sugar. You can make it big and oaky. But in the end, it will still taste like Viognier.”
Despite the state’s testing climate, even Pinot Noir, a notoriously temperamental varietal, has its place. Trump Winery in Charlottesville successfully grows it on high-elevation, north-facing slopes for its blanc de noir and rosé méthode Champenoise sparklers.
Notable producers: Barboursville Vineyards, Keswick Vineyards, King Family, Lovingston, Trump, Veritas
90 Barboursville Vineyards 2009 Octagon (Virginia). Tight-knit yet finessed on the palate, this Bordeaux-style blend offers notes of blackberry, graphite and coffee grounds.
abv: 13.5% Price: $50
89 King Family 2010 Petit Verdot (Monticello). A bold, beefy wine with strong tannins that bolster the flavors of tar pit, grilled meat and dark fruit.
abv: 14.4% Price: $35
88 Lovingston 2010 Josie’s Knoll Merlot (Monticello). Lush and forward, this is packed with flavors of pastry crust, boysenberry and blackberry jam.
abv: 14% Price: $20
Middleburg AVA and Northern Virginia
Roughly 100 miles north of Charlottesville, the Middleburg AVA and surrounding northern Virginia region are wine country for Washington’s urbanites, where well-heeled professionals take weekend jaunts to escape the city’s hustle.
Established in October 2012, the Middleburg AVA is about 200 square miles, bordered by the Potomac River to the north and the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west, with soils comprised of fractured granite and gneiss.
According to Rachel Martin of Boxwood Estate Winery, who spearheaded the AVA application process, Middleburg is cooler than other areas in the state. Soft winds that blow from the Ashby Gap in the Blue Ridge help to mitigate threats from frost and mildew.
White standards like Chardonnay and Viognier have a place, but certain winemakers, like Tarara Winery’s Jordan Harris, are pushing the creative envelope, using a patchwork of grapes to fashion eccentric bottlings.
Tarara’s 2010 Honah Lee White is a case in point. It’s a robust witches’ brew of Petit Manseng, Roussanne and Viognier, which tastes of golden stone fruits, orange Creamsicles and caramelized nuts.
Bordeaux red varieties are also grown in the northern region. Vintners like Law find that Cabernet Sauvignon grows better here than it does in central Virginia.
“Cabernet Sauvignon fails to deliver the goods in heavier soils,” he says. “In fact, the wines can be downright nasty. Cabernet Sauvignon on shallow, well-drained slopes can make wines to rival the Médoc.”
Arguably, the most consistent wines here are the red blends, often fashioned with a high dose of Cabernet Sauvignon, plus Merlot and other Bordeaux grapes, sometimes even with alternative rarities like Tannat.
“You have so much versatility when you start playing with those blends because of how diverse our soils are and because of how complex our weather patterns are,” says Grainer. “The idea being if one [variety] gets hit by a storm, you’ve still got the other.”
As many of the state’s vintners have compared Virginia’s climate to a “more intense Bordeaux,” perhaps, like the famed French region, the Commonwealth’s future success lies in the mastery of the blend.
“If we can free ourselves of the straight jacket of varietal bottling, skilled blending gives us the most harmonious and complex wines,” says Law. “One plus one equals three. The concept is simple, but the practice requires a mind shift by both winemakers and marketers.”
Notable producers: Boxwood, Breaux, Linden, RdV Vineyards, Tarara
90 Linden 2008 Hardscrabble (Virginia). Medium to full bodied, this is a poised, savory Bordeaux-style blend that emits Old World charm.
abv: 14.5% Price: $39
90 Tarara 2010 Tranquility Red Wine (Virginia). A hefty blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat, this has chewy tannins and bright acids, with flavors of caramel, dark cherry and potpourri.
abv: 15% Price: $40
88 Breaux 2007 Reserve Cabernet Franc (Virginia). A rich wine that boasts burly tannins and plenty of flesh, with chocolaty and toasty notes.
abv: 16.4% Price: $32