I was utterly captivated by Virginia, its scenery, history, people and wines. Up to now the natural travel destination for those interested in American wines has been California. However Virginia has the advantage – for Europeans and those living on America’s east coast - of being much closer and having wines that are restrained and elegant.
Virginia’s wine industry is very young, despite a history leading back to Thomas Jefferson’s doomed efforts. It was only just over thirty years ago that vitis vinifera grapes were commercially planted. Now Virginia has the feeling of a region on the cusp of a huge presence on the world stage. There are close to 200 wineries, albeit many only started in the past few years. There is considerable investment and in cellars you are likely to find winemakers who have moved from top names in California.
The brand new RdV Winery batters ones senses into submission with its deep underground curved tunnels waiting to be filled with barrels from future vintages and no expense has been spared in building its winery where bottled Fiji Water is on the tasting table to rinse glasses.
Nearby the historic Barboursville estate winery is owned by the influential Zonin wine family. They established this, their only property outside Italy, in 1976 and their Octagon Bordeaux blend is world class. But grand buildings are not necessary for good wine. There are simple wooden structures, like Linden Vineyards in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Jim Law has been honing his skills for thirty years to craft exceptionally classic wines.
Virginia, which has many micro-climates affected by mountains and an Atlantic seaboard, is still finding which grape varieties are ideally suited. But on current evidence Chardonnay, Viognier and Petit Manseng are the white stars, while Bordeaux varieties are making excellent blends and the two most successful – Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot – are shining as varietal wines. Honourable mention must be made to Virginia’s native grape, Norton. Chrysalis Vineyards has the world’s largest plantings of this intriguing variety and one highlight of my visit was tasting serious aged Nortons poured by Chrysalis owner Jenni McCloud.
The largest clusters of wineries are in northern Virginia, easily accessible from Washington DC, and around Charlottesville. My trip was based on a triangle of these two cities plus Williamsburg, thus I was also able to take in Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello near Charlottesville and the re-enactor packed historical reproduction town of Colonial Williamsburg.
Virginia is a truly a destination for all interests. If you have not yet tasted its wines then it is certain that you will as leading merchants become aware of them. And remember you first read it here.
Disclosure: The author toured Virginia as a guest of the Virginia Wine Board
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.