Virginia is home to many international transplants—residents, tourists, students, laborers, and…vitis vinifera grapes. Every person and every grape planted here has been rooted elsewhere, and many have found a home amongst our mountains, valleys, and ever-changing climate.
Thomas Jefferson planted upwards of 30 European grape varieties at Monticello in the 1770s, which did not yield successful results. Gabriele Rausse tried again in the mid-1970s at what is now Barboursville Vineyards with better results. Now, with hundreds of wineries around the state, it is becoming more apparent which European varietals are better suited for our climate and our tastes than others.
Linden Vineyards was started by Jim Law in the 1980s, and he remains at the industry’s forefront. He makes a red blend called Claret, a compilation of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet Franc, merlot, carmenere, and petit verdot, which, with the exception of carmenere, are all grapes hailing from the Bordeaux region of France. The name Claret derives from the French word clairet, meaning light red wine, a nickname given to the reds of Bordeaux dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries, when the wines were as pale and light as rosé. Linden’s Claret is rich with herbal notes, black currant, blueberries, and a refreshingly crisp acidity (available at Tastings for $24.95).
Another famous French grape grown in our area is viognier. This fine, yet rare grape originated in the Northern Rhône area of France, known for its prestigious whites such as Condrieu, Chateau Grillet, and Côte Rôtie. The viognier grape exploded in popularity in the U.S. in the ’90s, and is widely planted from California to Virginia, with great success. The wines are aromatic and full-bodied, with notes of apricot, tropical fruit, and a lanolin texture. Grace Estates makes a fine example that’s estate-grown and only available in its tasting room for $22.95.
Chardonnay is grown everywhere, and is a malleable grape suited to many growing conditions and winemaking practices. It too thrives in our unpredictable climate, with origins in Burgundy, France, where it is a neutral, lean, crisp, and mineral-driven wine. Our warm climate makes for a fuller bodied style, with hints of apple, stone fruits, and often caramel or vanilla (depending on the use of oak barrels). Ankida Ridge Vineyards makes a stellar Burgundy-esque Chardonnay, with notes of Granny Smith apple, and a chalky minerality, which is available at Market Street Wineshops.
Both Syrah and Grenache hail from the Rhône Valley in France, where syrah rules the north in Côte Rôtie and Hermitage, and grenache reigns in the South. In Spain, this wine is called garnacha, and makes up 50 percent of the country’s total wine production. Syrah is lean and rustic, with undertones of smoked meat, damp earth, and cracked black pepper. Grenache is softer and rounder, with characteristics of ripe blueberries, black cherry, and leather. Syrah cuttings were brought to South Africa (where it was renamed Shiraz, as in Australia) in the 17th century by French Huguenots. Blenheim Vineyards makes an outstanding Syrah from grapes grown in the Shenandoah Valley. It has the classic characteristics of its French counterparts, and does not last long on shelves or in tasting rooms.
Blenheim’s winemaker, Kirsty Harmon, also released a single varietal grenache, which is lighter than traditional Rhône versions, and is lean, versatile, and impressive.
Italian varietals like barbera and nebbiolo are also popping up in vineyards around the state, with Barboursville making a delightful version of the former. It is bright and crisp with a lighter palate than other red wines, making it a diverse culinary partner brimming with acidity and black fruits. It is the most widely planted grape in Piedmont, Italy, and is slowly catching on here.
While nebbiolo is head honcho in its hometown (also Piedmont), where it is responsible for making some of the world’s finest Barolo and Barbaresco, it is still small potatoes in Virginia. However, Italian native Rausse has succeeded in making a fine reproduction. It is reticent of violets and tar, with massive tannins and ageability. The name of the grape is derived from nebbia, the thick fog that envelopes the hills of Piedmont in the fall when grapes are being picked, not unlike the fog over the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Slightly off the beaten path is Lemberger, or as it is known in Austria (by its German name), Blaufrankish. Hungarian growers brought it to the U.S. in the early 20th century, first planting it in British Columbia and then in Washington State in the 1940s. By the mid-1960s, it was considered to be the third best-suited grape for this climate. Ox Eye Vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley produces an excellent bottling (found at Feast! for $19.95), with notes of pepper, cranberry, and spice. It is the perfect pairing wine, while also being tame enough to drink on its own. Go out on a Lemberger and try it for yourself.
Tracey Love is the event coordinator at Blenheim Vineyards, the sales and marketing associate for the Best of What’s Around farm, and proprietress of Hill & Holler.