I’m shocked at people who are shocked to learn that states beyond California, Washington and New York produce excellent wines, and I am shocked at myself for not knowing that Virginia was one of them.
Because, in the aggregate, wouldn’t you simply assume that a drink-sodden Virginia tinkerer like Thomas Jefferson planted wine grapes? And indeed, he did—two vineyards, in fact, which still line his garden wall at Monticello. But by all accounts, they flopped, likely to due to Jefferson’s impatience and OCD—invaluable traits, perhaps, for establishing a nation, but less so for establishing a vineyard. He was not pleased with the results of his vitis labrusca plantings—native American grapes—but even less so with his European vinifera experiments. In all, he planted 25,000 square feet of vines; 24 European varietals which in Virginia’s steamy climate, pre-pesticides, couldn’t stand up to black rot and root louse. Jefferson vacillated between non-native and native experiments for twenty years and died in 1826 without having made up his mind.
By all accounts, the ‘Sage of Monticello’ never bottled a single Monticello wine.
But modernity saves the day: Jefferson’s vineyards have been replanted with European grape types that he documented in his notes, but these have been grafted on to heartier American root stock. Gabriele Rausse, one of the founders of the modern Virginia grape industry, oversees vineyard care and wine production—several hundred cases a year.
The Virginia Monologues
As a viticultural state, Virginia ranks eighth in vine acreage and grape production, much of it centered in Albemarle County (home to a lopsided list of luminaries like Sissy Spacek, Howie Long, Dave Matthews and John Grisham).
The state is divided into nine wine regions, from west to east:
Heart of Appalachia: Mountainous, temperate and rural, this remote corner of Virginia supports far more varietals than it does wineries. Ideal for rich reds—cabernet franc does particularly well here, as does the hybrid grape chambourcin and, oddly, the low-yield tinta cão, which is nearly extinct in Portugal. Only two wineries show up in a search, MountainRose and Vincent’s Vineyard.
Blue Ridge: Plenty of wineries here, thanks to deep loamy soil and gravel at ideal elevations. Most are tiny, like the ten acres of vineyards at Abingdon, Attimo and Stanburn; many have non-grape specialties, like Blacksnake Meadery and Foggy Ridge Cider. Classic French cultivars do well, but one interesting winery is Villa Appalaccia, which grows only Italian varietals like sangiovese, malvasia, aglianico, corvina and montepulciano.
The Southern Virginia region runs along the North Carolina border, where the landscape turns from mountainous to rolling hill country. Not all of it is suited for viticulture, but those areas that are produce cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, syrah—with some vidal blanc tossed in for good measure, and, in the case of Three Sisters Of Shiney Rock, muscadine and scuppernong, those quintessential southern grapes than are neither labrusca nor vinifera, but rather, a new beast: Vitis rotundifolia. Other vineyards of note are Hunting Creek, Molliver, Bright Meadows and Annefield.
Hampton Roads is as steeped in American history as any wine region in the country. Historic Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, and the first battle between two ironclads, the Monitor and CSS Virginia are all part of the heritage that serves as a backdrop to the wine country. Among the wineries, New Kent produces an interesting rosé from the native norton grape, and Pungo Ridge specializes in fruit wines made from local berries. Williamsburg is the largest winery in Virginia, producing over 50,000 cases annually.
It’s no wonder that Thomas Jefferson figured he could grow grapes in the massive Central region; the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge mountains offer ideal topography, granitic soil and a two-hundred day growing season. Jefferson was, alas, a few scientific innovations away from overcoming Virginia’s humidity, but these days, there are over seventy vineyards clustered around Charlottesville in the Monticello AVA. Among the best are King Family Vineyards, Keswick and Barboursville.
And far be it from me to leave out a winery called Well Hung Vineyards.
Arguably the prettiest wineland around, Shenandoah Valley snakes from Roanoke to Winchester and is dotted with wineries at numerous points between. One of the few wine regions outside California that has a handle on zinfandel, area winemakers also grow the unusual red lemberger and many rely on touriga—a staple in Portugal. A handful of top wineries include Ox-Eye, Shenandoah Vineyards, Wisteria Farm and Valerie Hill.
Chesapeake Bay is both verdant and coastal; here is where John Smith spent the winter of 1607, where he met Pocahontas. Washington was born here, as was Monroe and Madison as well as General Robert E. Lee. Look for wines reflecting a unique Tidewater personality—sprawling, three thousand acre Ingleside, for example, produces the shellfish-friendly Blue Crab White and The Hague also targets the local catch with citrus-driven chardonel. The Dog and Oyster Vineyard, though limited in scope, is attached to The Hope and Glory Inn—named among the top four country inns in America several years running.
Eastern Shore: A scenic peninsula about which Captain John Smith said, ‘… Heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.’ Beautiful it may be, but only three wineries call it home: Bloxom, Holly Grove and Chatham.
Northern Virginia is Civil War country, with Harper’s Ferry, Manassas and the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park all within a short skip from the eighty wineries that find the decayed sandstone and granite soils along with the general elevation ideal for grape growing. Fox Meadow took a prestigious Governor’s Cup in 2011 for their ’08 Le Renard Rouge; Rappahannock Cellars did the same thing in 2006 for their ’05 Viognier—another interesting Rhône varietal that does particularly well in Virginia.
Barrel Oak Winery: Heart and Harvests
Nicknamed ‘BOW’—both because of the winery’s initials and as a a nod to the 70-acre, dog-friendly estate, where four canine co-stars compliment a nestle in the bucolic heart of Piedmont Hunt Country—Northern Virginia’s Barrel Oak is one of the emerging supernovas of Northern Virginia. Even before they designed it, owners Brian and Sharon Roeder knew that they did not want to simply sell wine, but ‘to create a place of community.’
As indeed, they have: Barrel Oak is known throughout Virginia as kid-friendly and pet-friendly destination, and a good deal of its charm is that the Roeders have worked as hard to make the winery a family harbor—a happy place.
And a charitable one, too. The Roeders are proud and pleased to donate a dime from every bottle sold to one of the numerous organizations they support, including Fisher House, which offers rooms to families with injured soldiers at nearby Walter Reed Medical Center.
Meanwhile, winemakers Sharon Roeder and Rick Tagg have an amazing variety of cultivars to work with: Vinifera and American and French hybrids are all represented and pressed into 24,000 gallons of wine annually.
Barrel Oak was my first opportunity to try to wrap my head around what they are doing down there in Old Dominion, a state which, like Michigan—despite having a long tradition of winemaking—is still finding a brightly lit path to illuminate the competitive, ever-changing and often fickle world of consumer tastes.
Did I throw a dart and hit a bull’s eye, or is everybody in Virginia kicking some serious posterior with these grapes? It’s too early to judge, but for now, at least, I can say BOW, wow!
Barrel Oak, Petit Manseng, Virginia, 2011, around $28: A grape generally associated with dessert wines of the Jurançon in the foothills of the French Pyrénées, where it is so prized that it was used to baptize Henry IV. Though vinified dry, BOW’s manseng maintains most of the nuances of the sweeter version, especially the perfumed tropical notes of pineapple and mango behind honeyed butterscotch and apple peel. A beautifully balanced wine from beginning to end, it is among the nicest incarnations of this varietal I have found outside of France.
Barrel Oak Reserve Chardonnay, Virginia, 2010, around $38: Simultaneously crisp and creamy, the site likens this stainless-fermented chardonnay to a Pouilly-Fuissé, but I find a cleaner, sharper nose in the Chablis style—agreeably fresh, with white flowers and lemon. It’s a palate-coater, with a soft malolactic wash of butterfat just underneath peach and pear leading to a quick, clean, if slightly abrupt finish.
Barrel Oak, Norton, Virginia, 2011 around $30: Not only a true American wine, but a true Virginia wine: Norton was first cultivated in Richmond. One of the few native grapes to vinify without ‘foxiness’, it can be as dark and brooding as a Cahors malbec. It also contains about twice the resveratrol as cabernet sauvignon if you care about that sort of thing. BOW’s norton shows inky purple with blue reflexes; the nose is cocoa, chalk and vanilla with plenty of earthy concentration on the palate. A mineral-driven wine, there is silken smoke, roasted coffee beans and dried plum and current running throughout.