Today, we’re seeing a wine renaissance in the Shenandoah Valley. But the history of wine growing in this region goes deeper than you might suspect.
As early as the late 1700s and early 1800s, Samuel Kercheval described how privacy-seeking neighbors obstructed horse paths by tying grape vines across them. These were likely wild grape vines growing up trees.
Kercheval also described wedding traditions in early 1800s Rockingham County, which included luxuries like fatted calves, lambs, and “wine, if it could be had.” A common wedding tradition involved stealing the bride’s shoe. And if a guest managed to get the shoe, he’d be paid a “bounty of a bottle of wine.”
Some 19th-century records in Harrisonburg, circa 1826, note that women washed their clothing in a popular spring, and hung it to dry on grape vines that had been trained as clotheslines. Distraught neighbors passed a law making this illegal.
When Abraham Scherdlin emigrated from France to Rockingham County sometime around 1813, could he have known that the vines he planted on a hillside east of Harrisonburg would kick off a pre-Prohibition zeal for Virginia winemaking in the Shenandoah Valley?
By 1866, Hockman and Forrer planted six acres (5,000 vines) on or near the Scherdlin site. In 1867, two companies planned large vineyards at or near Mount Clinton, and by 1868 Rockingham County grew several native and hybrid grape varieties including Norton, Iona, and Concord.
Within a few years, a Shenandoah Valley wine boom was well underway. Vineyards popped up in New Market, Hopkins’ Mill, Timberville, Linville Creek, and Bridgewater, and most farms in the area also had vines on the property.
Then prohibition all but wiped out interest in grapes in the Shenandoah Valley—and it’s taken almost a century to recapture the grape-growing excitement. But why is the valley so compelling to today’s winemakers?
The Shenandoah Valley AVA is great for grape growing because of its microclimates, which appeal to winegrowers for temperature and precipitation reasons. On average, sites on the slopes are 10 degrees cooler than sites on the valley floor—this allows grapes to attain higher acidity, which is generally good for winemaking. Enologist Joy Ting explains that the cool nights, in particular, make the difference. “Grapes will metabolize malic acid at night, and do so faster when it is warm, and slower when it is cold. The Shenandoah Valley enjoys cool nights, even after hot days, thus better acid,” says Ting.
Winemakers like John and Susan Kiers at Ox-Eye helped lead the way when they planted their first vineyards in 1999. The Kiers planted on limestone, a soil historically great for pinot noir. They also work with riesling and lemberger, and make stunning versions of both.
Bluestone Vineyard takes its name from a type of Shenandoah limestone, which defines their terroir. Winemaker Lee Hartman, a powerful voice for Shenandoah Valley winegrowing, encourages locavores to see wine as a local food. “The Shenandoah Valley is a fairly undiscovered wine growing region, even by the people who live here,” says Hartman. “In many regards it’s one of the best places to grow grapes with higher elevation, less rain, cooler temperatures, and an already existing farming culture. Neighboring wineries are farther apart than in Loudoun and Albemarle.” Hartman laments that in the market, even in places with a strong wine presence, wines from the Shenandoah Valley are often seen as “too remote to be seen on their shelves and tasting lists, regardless of a lower sticker price.” But we should see a shift in this trend as consumer regard increases for these unique and high-quality wines.
The Shenandoah Valley micro- climate is hospitable to cabernet sauvignon, lemberger, petit manseng, petit verdot, pinot noir, and riesling, among many other varietals.
As winemakers in the region take advantage of ideal vineyard locations, many are turning the fruits of their labor into gold. In 2018, CrossKeys Vineyards’ 2015 Ali d’Oro was one of 12 wines that outscored more than 440 entrants to make the Virginia Wineries Association 2018 Governor’s Cup Case, in addition to winning a Gold Governor’s Cup award, along with Muse Vineyards’ 2016 Thalia and Bluestone Vineyard’s 2016 Petit Manseng and 2014 Cadenza.
Erin Scala owns In Vino Veritas Fine Wines, and is the sommelier at Common House. She holds the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits, is studying for the Master of Wine, and is a Certified Sake Specialist. Scala writes about beverages on her blog, thinking-drinking.com.