If asked about American wine today, Virginia would not be the first, second or even third place that most of us think of.
But the roots of America’s wine industry are in Virginia — and today, roughly 410 years after the first settlers arrived in Jamestown, the state has a thriving commercial wine industry. The fact is, only four states are home to more wineries than Virginia: California, Washington, Oregon and New York. So maybe Virginia should be the fifth place we think of when we think about American wine. Five out of 50. Not bad.
A dozen years after Jamestown was founded, Britain made grape-growing mandatory — by law — for every male settler, and the quest to develop an eventual American wine industry was underway. Wine lover George Washington and America’s wine-nerdiest president of all, Thomas Jefferson, tried their hands at grape growing in Virginia (allegedly with little success, despite several years of effort from each of them). Jefferson, you may recall, was the American ambassador to France before he was president, and it was during his time in Paris that he was bitten by the wine bug. Two of our first three presidents had Virginia wine ties, and so will our 45th. Yes, the president-elect owns a winery in Virginia. It bears his surname, naturally, and is run by one of his sons.
Although Virginia’s grape-growing interest dates to 1607 (at least Jamestown’s interest dates that far back), the state’s wine industry did not begin to show signs of what it would become until relatively recently. In the early 1980s, Virginia was home to a half-dozen wineries. Fifteen years later, there were close to 50, and in 2005, there were more than 100. Today, the number of wineries in Virginia tops 250.
The state is home to seven official wine regions (Middleburg, Monticello, North Fork of Roanoke, Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace, Rocky Knob, Shenandoah Valley and Virginia’s Eastern Shore) that produce a handful of good-quality grapes. Red Bordeaux varieties — particularly cabernet franc and petit verdot, but also cabernet sauvignon and merlot — are popular and successful in Virginia, as are chardonnay, viognier and another French white variety called petit manseng. The grapes often endure tough weather conditions, including excessive heat, humidity and rain at various points during the growing season. But the commitment to winemaking in Virginia has deepened steadily in recent decades, and talented new professionals from the United States and Europe have consistently joined the community.
The wines of Virginia are not especially cheap and not as widely available as wines from some other states. But there are good wines being produced in Virginia, and if you’re looking to mix up the variety of bottles in your stash, this is a good place for that.
Below is a selection of Virginia wines from a recent tasting. They are listed by color (white first, followed by red) and in ascending order, according to price.
2014 Barboursville Vineyards Vermentino Reserve With notes of citrus, pear and minerality, this wine, fermented and aged in stainless steel, has a soft, medium-body mouthfeel followed by zingy acidity on the finish. $22
2014 Bluestone Vineyard Estate Grown Chardonnay This is a rich and buttery New World chardonnay with a whiff of smoke, and classic vanilla notes that are not cloying or over-the-top. $23.50
2014 Horton Vineyards Petit Manseng Made completely from the French grape variety petit manseng, this wine is viscous with notes of honey, but also bright and full of tropical fruits and citrus. $25
2014 Michael Shaps Honah Lee Vineyard Petit Manseng Butterscotch, orange peel, tropical fruit and spice emerge from this full-bodied white, composed mostly of petit manseng, blended with 5 percent roussanne. $30
2013 North Gate Vineyard Meritage This Bordeaux blend offers blackberry and other ripe dark fruits, along with many layers featuring fig, coffee, leather and cedar, all pointing to a long finish. $26
2014 Cardinal Point Vineyard Clay Hill Cabernet Franc With cranberry, eucalyptus, leather, spice and smoke, this wine was aged for more than a year in French and American oak barrels. $30
2012 Fabbioli Cellars Reserve Cabernet Franc Blackberry, plum and spice sum up this wine, which has a lusciously soft mouthfeel, and clocks in at a reasonable 12.5 percent alcohol. $35
2012 Naked Mountain Winery & Vineyards Petit Verdot From the Blue Ridge Mountains, this wine offers jammy dark fruits with a touch of vanilla, a balancing savory quality and a silky texture. $36
2010 Granite Heights Evening Serenade Plum, pomegranate, vanilla, spice and stinging acidity lead to a clear and convincing cherry finish in this blend of 80 percent merlot and 20 percent cabernet franc. $41
2013 Glen Manor Vineyards Hodder Hill Dark fruits and leather characterize this age-able powerhouse blend of 67 percent cabernet sauvignon, 28 percent merlot and 5 percent petit verdot. $50
2014 Keswick Vineyards Cabernet Franc Estate Reserve Full of cranberry, herbs, coffee, cocoa and spice, this 100 percent cabernet franc, aged 10 months in oak barrels, is full-bodied, deeply layered and complex. $50
2013 Stone Tower Winery Hogback Mountain This blend of 69 percent cabernet sauvignon and 31 percent merlot has notes of plum, dark fruit, wet earth, tobacco and cedar. $69
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