I really enjoy stumbling across wines that are new to me from places and grape varieties that seem unlikely. So recently I was excited to try some intriguing wines from Virginia.
I know that every state of The United States, except Alaska, grows grapes and makes wines from them, but apart from a sea of branded California wines and the occasional offering from Oregon or Washington State I never actually see any for sale. Even in New York I was hard pressed to find New York State wines.
So, it should not seem surprising that Virginia, home of Washington and Jefferson, makes wines, but it does. Virginia was not the first state to grow grapes and make wine, that honour, strangely, falls to Florida (I have never been able to find a wine made from grapes from Florida, so if anyone wants to send me one to review – feel free). Records show that wines were made in Virginia, from wild grapes, as early as 1609. Indeed, part of the reason for the Virginia Company founding Jamestown was to create a thriving wine industry and to that end a law of 1619 required every householder to cultivate 10 vines and some French viticultural experts were brought over from Europe to help the process. However the hot and humid conditions together with pests and conditions not found in France defeated these attempts. Wine disappeared from Virginia until francophile wine lover Thomas Jefferson made several experiments to get vitis vinifera, the grapes used to make most wines, to thrive at his Monticello estate between 1774 and 1816. He failed because he wanted to use fine Fench varietals and not the more hardy and easier to grow native grapes, which formed the basis for a modestly successful nineteenth century wine industry.
The principal native grape used was Norton, discovered by Dr. Daniel Norton of Richmond, Virginia in the 1820s and it continues to be widely grown in the state as well as in Missouri and Texas. In fact although Zinfandel claims to be America’s ‘own grape’ Norton really has more right to that title as it does not seem to be grown anywhere else on earth. Although Norton is often claimed to be a wild native grape, there is some evidence that it is a hybrid with vitis vinifera in its parentage somewhere.
Virginia’s fledgling wine industry was not strong enough to survive Prohibition and so once more wine disappeared from the scene and only returned in the 1970’s when greater knowledge and understanding allowed for the successful cultivation of vitis vinifera for the first time, although hybrids, like Norton, still make up around 20% of planting. In just 30 years the industry has grown from 6 pioneer wineries to over 140 in 2009, meaning that of all the states, only California, New York, Washington and Oregon have more wineries than Virginia.
As you might imagine the state, or more properly Commonwealth, has a great variety of soils and exposures, all of which have an effect on the grapes. There are also climatic differences in the state, but the heat and the humidity of the growing season are pretty general. This can create difficulties when the sugars ripen very fast in the heat, rather than slowly and elegantly and causes acidity to drop and the tannins to be green and unripe. Humidity creates perfect conditions for diseases and rot. All this can be countered by modern training techniques and clever management of the vines’ leaf canopy.
On the showing of the wines that I tasted the Virginians are really mastering their climate, growing a wide and interesting range of grapes and making wines that deserve to be noticed. Their very informative generic website is worth a look too, especially if you are planning a trip to the area.
Corcoran Vineyards Viognier 2007
Loudon County, Virginia
Very attractive scent, quite subtle fragrance of ripe melon.
In the mouth it has some weight and succulence with good ripe peachy fruit and good balancing acidity to keep it fresh and lively. A very enjoyable and drinkable wine.
Viognier appears to be challenging Chardonnay to be the signature white grape of Virginia.
Keswick Vineyards Verdejo 2008
The first non-Spanish Verdejo I have ever tasted and it is very good – clean, fresh and well balanced with a citrus nose together with crisp apple and melon on the palate and a smooth creamy texture.
Corcoran Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2006
Loudon County, Virginia
An elegant, medium-bodied dry red that would partner food well. Slightly smoky on the nose with caramel and cooked strawberry notes. The palate is smooth, supple and fresh with earthy characters, spice and white pepper with those cooked strawberries again. Cabernet Franc is the signature black grape of the region.
Breaux Vineyards Nebbiolo 2002
Loudon County, Virginia
Typical tawny colour with fragrant aromas of leather, tea and spices. The palate has lovely sweet dried fruit characters balanced by dry leathery notes and delicate tannins on the lovely long finish. A very enjoyable wine indeed.
Anyone of these wines would have been a delight to find on a restaurant wine list in Virginia or Washington DC. I loved the fact that so many different grapes were being well handled to produce good wines and hope that more people think to try them. If everyone who visited the area drank local wine then the industry would thrive.