At Horton Vineyards, you’ll find some of the most important vines in Virginia. On my first visit to see them —back in January 2015—a wind ripped through the dormant vines and stung my cheeks. I wrapped my scarf tighter and scribbled notes with numb fingers, trying not to miss a single detail. I was on a pilgrimage to visit the oldest viognier vineyard in Virginia.
Horton winemaker Michael Heny led me on a tour through several of the vineyard blocks. Had you been there, you might have wondered about my growing glee as we approached the viognier vines, because it wasn’t much to see this time of year. There was no sprawling vista, no awe-inspiring sunset and no lush vineyard bursting with green tendrils. Like a leafless forest in winter, dormant vines look like dead brown twigs. But special twigs, they were. As I glimpsed the wooden sign labeled “viognier,” my heart beat faster and I may have even jumped in the air. Then, like a true wine nerd, I asked Heny to take my picture with the viognier vines.
To me, they were more than dormant twigs. If you survey the Virginia wine world as a whole, you’ll find a powerful viognier momentum and a multitude of viognier bottlings that have come to define a large portion of the local white wine scene. It all started somewhere, and now I stood at the epicenter.
But how did it all begin?
After experimenting with some home vineyards in the 1980s, Dennis Horton prepared to launch Horton Vineyards. “It was always his dream to have grapes,” says Sharon Horton, Dennis’ wife and Horton Vineyards’ vineyard manager.
He visited France’s Rhône Valley and the viognier grape variety piqued his interest. He read up on Jancis Robinson’s wine books, then took the plunge. In 1990, he planted vidal, cabernet franc and own-rooted norton—21 acres in total. “The viognier went in in ’91,” Dennis says. Soon after, a great vintage garnered global attention. “Nineteen ninety-three was one of the great years. The ’93 Viognier put Horton and Virginia wine on the map. People still talk about it.” After 1993, viognier became more popular throughout the state and took on a life of its own. Dennis chuckles as he remembers winery visitors commenting on his genesis viognier bottling, “‘Oh, you’ve got viognier here, too,’ they’d say.”
When Dennis established Horton Vineyards, he was in the company of a little more than 40 active wineries in Virginia (today there are more than 250). His goal was to plant many grape varieties, and through trial and error find which varieties were best suited to the local soil and climate. Over the years, there have been hits and misses—a necessary process in any emerging wine region. Those first gambles on norton, vidal, cabernet franc and viognier were certainly hits, “and they work,” Dennis says.
The norton vines at Horton are also in the realm of heritage vines. The norton grape, one of the few grapes native to Virginia, was popular in Virginia before Prohibition, but disappeared as quickly as the wineries after the Volstead Act. Some pockets of norton growing in Missouri—Dennis’ home state—caught his interest, and he thought, “It should be brought back here.”
Not all of the unique grape varieties have caught on in the state, though some have become iconic specialties at Horton Vineyards. Take, for instance, rkatsiteli, a white grape with flavorful skin tannins from the country of Georgia. After extreme cold temperatures killed off some of Horton’s vines in 1996, Dennis reached out to Dr. Konstantin Frank Wine Cellars, a cool-climate New York Finger Lakes winery, and sourced some cold-hearty rkatsiteli vines that would be unlikely to give up the ghost in a freezing winter.
Today, Heny operates the winery production, and he and Sharon point to norton, pinotage, petit manseng, viognier and touriga nacional as some of their favorite grapes to grow. Heny has also grown particularly fond of tannat: “Year in, year out, tannat is our most consistent red,” he says, “and oftentimes our most exciting.”
I’m particularly fond of their work with petit manseng. Each year, they make a dry to slightly off-dry wine, depending on how the fruit comes in. Earlier this year, Heny opened up some library vintages of Horton Petit Manseng and poured them side-by-side in a special tasting for many local winemakers. Their ageability and beauty will certainly turn some palates to a deeper appreciation of petit manseng, just as Horton’s work with viognier and norton have influenced the Virginia wine landscape.
The experimental spirit at Horton Vineyards, and a willingness to confront the unknown, have brought a wealth of unique grape varieties to our tables. The vineyard has had an incredible influence behind the scenes, shaping and guiding the current inventory of grape varieties that define today’s Virginia wine. Horton continues to make a plethora of wines: now-popular wines like viognier, and lesser-known wines such as rkatsiteli. As we spoke about the broad focus on many grape varieties, and the many different wines in production at Horton, a passing thought from Sharon rang true: “Everyone has to have different tastes, or it would be a dull world, wouldn’t it?”
Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com