With wineries now in every state, it may seem like the U.S. is one big grape-growing wine trail. You could spend a lifetime bouncing from the Blue Mountains of the Pacific Northwest and Walla Walla’s renowned syrah to the wild sweetness of muscadine grown in Florida’s hot summer sun. Maybe you’re tempted to drive north for a glass of tart, rustic Marquette in New England, or down south toward Texas Hill Country for a luscious viognier?
Or, you could just head to Virginia.
Even beyond our Thomas Jefferson-as-original-oenophile claim to fame (despite his grand vineyard plans never quite taking root), Virginia wine country is actually, verifiably unique. Partly due to our diversity – in terroir, grapes, and people – and partly due to our revolutionary roots, Virginia is a wine country unlike any other.
Battles were fought here. The country was formed. And reformed. Virginians are reminded of that – by roadside markers, street names, and painstakingly restored buildings – every time they take to the road or pass through a small town.
Grapes were planted. Ripped out and replanted. Then planted again.
The good, characterful wine being made now did not come easy. Lessons from Europe and California were learned, and then discarded, by Virginia’s growers and winemakers, who had to learn for themselves.
Intrigued? Great. So, this fall, just enter “winery” on your GPS and see where that takes you. And take a few snacks; you’ll be busy for a while.
Virginia’s wine grapes: the essence of diversity.
Across Virginia’s 3,000 acres of grapevines you’ll find more than 70 varieties of grapes. Napa Valley, by comparison, produces about half that variety on 15 times the number of acres.
Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards, who passed away this year, is single-handedly responsible for much of that variety; his belief that cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay might not be the best grapes for Virginia led him to introduce viognier, syrah, touriga, marsanne, roussanne, nebbiolo, tannat, pinotage, and rkatsiteli, along with norton, a native Virginia grape which he reintroduced, following its demise during Prohibition.
Viognier, by the way (for those who follow these things), is no longer the official state grape – through no fault of its own. Its temporary crown was a successful marketing concept that served its purpose as a hook for travel writers and wine writers, and now it’s returned to its roots as one among many. Today, we celebrate grape diversity.
Virginia’s wine growers: grit and evolution.
Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of reds, was tried everywhere; you may recall the tear-stained faces of vignerons, pulling out their beloved but bedraggled cab vines in the 70’s and 80’s. Terroir forces a reckoning; think for yourself, try again, keep at it – the perfect tattoo for Jim Law of Linden Vineyards, should he ever decide to get some ink.
And evolution: As reported acreage of Cab Sauv declined over the last decade in Virginia, plantings of the much-lesser-known Petit Verdot – historically relegated to adding backbone to red blends – more than doubled. Virginia winemakers think big, choosing to free it from its box as a blending grape and focus on fermentation and aging experiments that bring out a uniquely regional style: a big, intense red full of spice and smoke with robust tannins that make beautiful music with a seared rib-eye.
Voila, a Virginia original. One of many.
Virginia’s wine people: the cultural backbone.
Many of the state’s wineries are farmed by families that go back generations, often giving new life to worn out tobacco fields, local heroes of agriculture. And yet, the acknowledged “godfather” of Virginia wine, Gabriele Rausse of Charlottesville, is from Italy. As is winemaker Luca Paschina, who over the past four decades has grown Barboursville Vineyards into an internationally acclaimed producer. And heading up Barboursville’s demanding vineyard operation? A Salvadoran, Fernando Franco.
Virginia’s winery owners, winemakers and vineyard bosses come from more than 15 countries, ranging from France to Brazil to Iran to Lebanon. Many bring some of the secrets of their homeland: Vitor Guimarais, the Portuguese winemaker at Morais Vineyards in Bealeton, still makes four of his wines without machinery of any kind, including crushing grapes by foot; the Papadopoulos family crafts Kokineli, a traditional Greek rosé table wine with a flavor reminiscent of Retsina, at their two Warrenton wineries, Molon Lave Vineyards and Mediterranean Cellars; and at Lovingston Vineyards in central Virginia, South African winemaker Riaan Rossouw crafts vintage Pinotage from his homeland’s signature grape.
Often overlooked but indispensable are our neighbors from the south. As I recently reached out to wineries to gather background information for the second edition of my book, Virginia Wine Country Travel Journal, Doug Fabbioli of Fabbioli Cellars in Loudoun County reminded me, “It is our fine Latinos that truly power our farms and production facilities. We have grown from a few crews of migrants borrowed from the apple orchards to numerous skilled labor teams, cellar masters, vineyard managers and other leadership positions.”
Virginia’s weather: cursedly diverse.
Sopping, dripping, unforgiving 2018 will be remembered in Virginia as a “Winemaker’s vintage”. These are the years that test the skills of even the best, as many puzzle out a plan for over-saturated and underripe grapes, pulled early ahead of the plodding rainmaker, Hurricane Florence.
Virginia isn’t an easy place to grow grapes, ever. Humidity leads to disease and rot, late frosts kill new buds and sometimes entire mature vines. Small wineries – nearly all wineries in Virginia – struggle to find the manpower and fund the equipment needed to keep all the grape bogeymen at bay.
And still, every year, more wineries open than close. How can that be, when owners know they’re almost bound to lose money, for several years at least? And that once they’ve climbed painfully into the black, a year like 2018 comes along?
Wine folk are a unique breed. But Virginia’s wine folk may be a breed unto themselves.
This October we raise our glasses to Virginia Wine Month, and to all the visionary risk-takers who grow it, pick it, blend it and bottle it.
Virginia wine is born of revolution. Revolution has no recipe.