The Virginians

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.

The beautiful Keswick Vineyards in Monticello

The beautiful Keswick Vineyards in Monticello

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.

Corcoran Vineyards

Corcoran Vineyards

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.


Map of Northern virginia showing how close to DC the vineyards are


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.

2008 Verdejo

Keswick Vineyards Verdejo 2008

Monticello, Virginia

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.

8 thoughts on “The Virginians

  1. I have to say that I think I am very lucky to be living smack dab in the middle of Central Virginia. I even have Greyhaven Winery right up the road from me and quite a few other great wineries around also. I am just learning to appreciate wines and I am glad to see that you mentioned Viognier in the ones you tried. It is one I’ve found that I do like. I have also realized that I do not like Chardonnays that have been in the barrels (I don’t like the smoke – but then again, it’s something I don’t like in whiskey either). I hope that you will continue to try and enjoy more of our wines.

  2. While the wines of Northern Virginia are quite good, as I can attest to having grown ip in that region, there are a number of lovely Vineyards in the Valley are along I81. There are also a few in the Richmond area. One in particular comes to mind in Goochland though the name excapes me, it is owned by the Pebble family. I hope you take some time to further explore our Commonwealth. We welcome you with open arms! After all “Virginia is for wine lovers”!

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  4. Hate to correct you, Quentin, the first grape growing and winemaking in what is now USA was by native Americans in a variety of places in Eastern USA – albeit with native American grapes.

    However, the earliest records identify wine made from the native American Scuppernong grapes by French Huguenot settlers at a settlement near Jacksonville, Florida between 1562 – 1564.

    The earliest reports of winemaking using vinis vitifera was New Mexico in the 1580s. Catholic missionaries needed a supply of communion wine, and it’s believed that they introduced the “Mission” varietal (now identified by DNA as obscure Spanish varietal Listan Prieto).

    • Thanks for that – everything I have read states that wine was first made, in what is now the US, in Florida, which is what I wrote in my piece. I am quite prepared to accept that native Americans did as well, but have never heard that before, so thanks for the info.
      Mission of course is the same as Pais and is the Palamino Negro, now only grown on the Canary Islands.

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