Virginia is for Wine Lovers

By Carrie Dykes

Although some would say the wine industry in Virginia is in its infancy, there is a remarkable history that goes back the 1800’s, involving one of our Founding Fathers! Now it is now the 5th largest producing state in the country with over 260 wineries. Each corner of Old Dominion is rife with natural beauty, history and all-star restaurants. From the mountains to the beach, city to the country-side, one thing is certain—Virginia is for Wine Lovers.

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson planted 24 varieties on his property in Monticello. A connoisseur himself, he aspired to grow vinifera but also played around with New World alternatives—Vitis labrusca and Vitis rotundifolia. Unfortunately his efforts never produced a single bottle.

The discovery in the late 1800s that native and European vines could be grafted brought a new hope to Virginia’s developing wine industry. While they were making progress with European varietals because of this discovery, it was a U.S. wine grape that really shook things up!, Norton, a grape cultivated in Richmond by Doctor Daniel Norton, made wines that were named “best red wine of all nations” at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873; plus a gold medal for Norton at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 when the Eiffel tower was constructed. Unfortunately, just as things started looking up for Virginia oenophiles, along came Prohibition…

Sweet Concord grapes were planted and wine grapes were pulled up. Grapes used for making wine served no purpose in an alcohol-free United States.

Twenty years later, when Prohibition was repealed, Virginia had to start from scratch and began experimenting with vinifera plantings. A few notable successes over the years include Italian pioneer vintner Gianni Zonin hiring Gabriele Rausse to grow and harvest vinifera grapes near Charlottesville. He established Barboursville Vineyards and then helped other vineyards do the same. By 1995, Virginia had 46 wineries. By 2005, there were 107. Now there are 260 and counting! “The vision of one of Virginia’s most renowned native sons, Thomas Jefferson, is now coming true.” [1]

Plan a Trip to Virginia Wine Country - Wineries, Activities, History, Terroir, Grape Variety Information | Winetraveler.com
Barboursville Vineyards. Image credit: Darron Franta Photography.

Virginia Wine Country Terroir & Climate

Generally speaking, Virginia’s weather is considered a humid, subtropical region due to winter frost. During the summer, it can get a bit “sticky” due to the abundant water along the East Coast with the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean as well as the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James rivers and their tributaries. The air is, on average, 10 degrees cooler with less humidity in the mountains and Pinot Noir and Chardonnays have started to pop up from these areas.

There are seven AVAs, twelve different wine growing areas and five distinct climate regions: the Tidewater, Piedmont, Northern Virginia, Western Mountain and Southwestern Mountain.

They vary in climate, but there are common threads throughout the state.

Virginia Wine Country Regions/AVAs

Within the twelve wine growing areas are seven AVAs : George Washington Birthplace, Middleburg, The Monticello, The North Fork of Roanoke, The Rocky Knob, The Shenandoah Valley and Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Wine Grape Varieties Grown in Virginia

Virginia is coming into their own and now have a keen sense of what grows well in each area.  Chardonnay is the largest planted grape, followed by Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and then Petit Verdot in that order. The sixth largest planted grape is Viognier. The next tier of grapes includes Sauvignon Blanc, Pinto Grigio, Petit Manseng, Tannat, Chambourcin, Norton, Vidal Blanc and Traminette. There are currently 23 grape varieties that are followed in the industry survey that measures grape production in VA.

Some have come to know Viognier as “the official grape of Virginia”, but Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Petit Verdot are encroaching on that status.

Wine Grape Varieties in Virginia Wine Country | Winetraveler.com
Carter Mountain Vineyards. Image credit: Farron Franta Photography.

A Few Key Grapes

Viognier

Best known as the aromatic white grape of the Condrieu appellation in the northern Rhône, Viognier is a floral and perfumed white with a luscious body and low acidity. Wineries in Virginia are experimenting with blends, dessert-styles and even orange wines made with the grape.

Cabernet Franc

Another grape best known for its role in France, Cabernet Franc is a major player in Bordeaux red blends adding finesse, and stands alone in the Loire Valley.  Less tannic than its offspring Cabernet Sauvignon, it has an intense green character in aromas and flavor. Planted widely, it seems to have found a home in Virginia as a leading red variety.

Petit Verdot

This grape is another example of a Bordeaux red grape that is thriving in Virginia, in blends and single varietals. Alive with tannic expression, full body and good acidity; this is a grape that grown and vinified well, has excellent ageability. Library wines are an important part of the growth of a wine region.

Petit Manseng

Another French grape flourishing in Virginia— mostly grown in Southwest France, it has rich aromas of spice and honey. It can be made as a dessert wine or a dry-style, and adds beautiful complexity to blends.

The Best Things To Do in Virginia Wine Country

  • Check out a polo match while sipping on small-batch, award-winning wines from King Family Vineyards in Monticello.
  • See where Jefferson tried his hand at winemaking and take a short hike to see the ruins of his residency that he designed at Barboursville Vineyards in Monticello.
  • Pretend you are at Mardi-Gras at Breaux Vineyards, a Cajun owned and operated winery, boasting a New Orleans themed tasting room in Loudoun County.
  • Take in incredible views of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Chateau Morrisette.
  • Make a weekend out of it! Stay, play, wine and dine at The Williamsburg Winery.

[1] Old Town Crier Virginia is for Wine Lovers


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Carrie Dykes
Virginia Wine Reviewer & International Wine Judge at IWSC & Wine Enthusiast Magazine
Carrie Dykes is wine writer and reviewer living in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Her by-line can be also be found in Hudson Valley Wine Magazine, InCider Japan, The Cork Report and Wine Enthusiast Magazine. She is an international wine judge for the IWSC, where she uses the skills she has learned in her WSET Diploma training. Follow her travel and wine adventures in Instagram @lilmarzipan.
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Comments ( 18 )

  1. We have made 2 trips to Virginia to explore the wines and the Cab Franc they are producing there is fantastic. I visited the beautiful King Family Vineyards, but missed a polo match! We also enjoyed Veritas, Stone tower and Blenheim. We even tasted a bit of Norton at Chrysalis. There is so much to explore in this region and the wines, I expect, will continue to get better!

  2. This is one region we’re extremely curious about. We’re hearing more and more about wines from Virginia and we can’t wait to get there in person soon–thanks for the inspiration!

  3. This is a great post that tells me why things happen, like prohibition and climate, instead of simply that something exists. It’s these details that really draw me in and make me know an area. I was driving through rural Virginia, near Monticello, and noticed all of the wineries. I have now found my context for those sightings. Thank you.

  4. I would never think of Virginia for a wine country trip! I didn’t even realize they were making wine. It sounds like I’d enjoy Virgina wine, too. I love when we have really hot and dry years here in Bordeaux, because then you’ll find a small percentage of Petit Verdot in the blends. It adds this pepperyness to the wines that I really enjoy.

  5. Love learning about Virginia wines as I have spent so little time there. Interesting about the historical context and the varietals. Prohibition was such a waste! I’d love to arrange a wine tour next time I get there.

  6. How funny! I’m actually staying at an inn at a winery right now. Each room has a name. Most are names I recognize. But the room next door is called Norton, and I had no idea the significance of that name. Until I read your post!

  7. I didn’t know much about the Virginia Wine Country, now I’m curious to try some wines from the region. Checking out a polo match while sipping on small-batch wines does sound lovely.

  8. I can’t believe I didn’t know about the vineyards in Monticello when I was there! Never thought I would have a reason to go back to Virginia, but I think I have to go to some of these vineyards. Thanks for the recommendations!

  9. The article mentions four of the largest operations in the state – all good. But there’s lots of fun, adventure, scenery and great wines to be had T the ‘other’ 256 VA wineries. Like us at DuCard Vineyards just as an example. Back roads exploration can lead to memorable finds !

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie Dykes is wine writer and reviewer living in the Hudson Valley region of New York. Her by-line can be also be found in Hudson Valley Wine Magazine, InCider Japan, The Cork Report and Wine Enthusiast Magazine. She is an international wine judge for the IWSC, where she uses the skills she has learned in her WSET Diploma training. Follow her travel and wine adventures in Instagram @lilmarzipan.

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