Virginia Wine: Finding Its Own Identity

pouring red wine glass pouring red wine glass

By Ken Wilson – 

It’s no novelty anymore, no curiosity, no fledgling with promise. Virginia wine—more than 6.6 million bottles in 2016—has found its identity and found its fans. It may have taken a few decades—or a couple of centuries counting Jefferson’s aborted attempts—but the local vino is making us proud, and making the state a destination spot for wine lovers eager for new vistas and new tastes. California wannabes? Swirl and sniff and guess again. “Virginia wines have their own merit,” says Matthew Brown of Wine Warehouse in Charlottesville. No longer striving to mimic what’s been perfected elsewhere, area wineries “are planting varietals that will do well in their area, not necessarily what will be the most popular.”

“Planting the right grape variety for the climate is part of it,” says Richard Leahy, author of Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, a complete history of Virginia wine focusing especially on the most recent decade, during which Jefferson’s dream of making world-class wine has come true. “Cabernet sauvignon doesn’t like clay soils for example.” Even more importantly, in his view, viticulturists now “understand the science of viticulture attuned to our growing conditions, especially planting on a well-drained site and spraying fungicides to protect the plants. Also, Virginia winemakers have learned how to make wine in a style that best suits the fruit we grow.”

Some of what we grow best and most distinctively here are Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Viognier, along with Merlot, a well known grape widely planted in Bordeaux. Viognier, a white grape, has what Leahy describes as “distinctive floral/honeysuckle aromas and tropical fruit flavors; it’s dry but gentle on the palate.” Cabernet Franc, considered Virginia’s best red wine grape along with Merlot, “makes a smooth wine with cherry flavors and aromas. Petit Verdot is more of a newcomer, and is very dark, with floral and garden herb aromas, very smooth with black fruit and spice notes. The top Virginia reds today are actually blends of the red Bordeaux varieties like Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, and have a more Bordeaux-like finesse and balance than what we see from the West Coast.

“Virginia has a ‘Goldilocks’ climate for these grapes,” Leahy says: “warm enough to ripen them, but not so hot that it burns away the delicate fruit flavors which happens in warmer climates. Renowned British wine writer and taster Steven Spurrier even calls Virginia his favorite North American wine region, for its elegant, balanced—with moderate alcohol—wines, with food-friendly acidity.

The result of all this newly achieved excellence? Rapidly expanding markets, as exciting new wines made from hitherto underused grapes garner critical acclaim and word of mouth interest and admiration. “Virginia’s burgeoning wine industry contributes more than $1.37 billion annually to Virginia’s economy, an increase of 82 percent from the last economic impact study conducted in 2010,” according to a study commissioned by the Virginia Wine Board and released this January. Between 2010 and 2017 the number of state wineries increased from 193 to 280, while the number of acres planted in grapes increased by 22 percent. Three thousand acres are planted today. Virginia now ranks in 5th place in the U.S. by volume of wine grapes grown, produces over a half million cases of wine, and contributes roughly $750 million a year to the state economy.

Tourism has grown dramatically as well. The number of people visiting wineries rose by 39 percent in just five years, from 1.6 million visitors in 2010 to 2.25 million visitors in 2015. Those wine tourists spent $131 million, an increase of 43 percent over the five year period.

“This growth is being driven by small wineries,” said Governor Terry McAuliffe, in a statement announcing these impressive economic figures. “I commend our Virginia wineries and grape growers for their hard work in making world-class wines that are driving this success and building the new Virginia economy.”

Right here in the Monticello American Viticultural Area, Leahy says, “we have many of the best wineries in the state, from Barboursville (large and well-established) to King Family and Michael Shaps. One of the newest and smallest is Loving Cup, Virginia’s only organic winery.” Warm weather heralds an abundance of activity at Virginia wineries: festivals, fundraisers, open houses . . . even polo matches. Here is a look just at some of what’s coming up.

Horton Family Vineyards
Soon after Dennis Horton planted his first vineyard in Madison in 1983, he began searching for grape varieties best suited to Virginia’s warm and humid summers. In the Rhone Valley in southern France Horton discovered the Viognier, whose thick skin and loose clusters made it perfect for the Virginia climate. Leahy credits Horton with “single-handedly” bringing Virginia Viognier to national attention in the early 1990s. Today, he says, “we still have the reputation of being the most consistent Viognier producer in the U.S.” Horton currently  bottles two varieties of Viognier, along with a full array of red, white, fruit (pear, peach, etc.) and dessert wines.

Thursday, May 4 is “May The Fourth Be With You Day” at Horton, with free tastings for anyone wearing Star Wars memorabilia. Nurses get their own free tastings on Saturday, May 6, National Nurses Day. Two Brother’s Food Truck will be on hand from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with nachos, tacos and more. Saturday, May 13 is Mother’s Day Tea, with savory and sweet delights accompanied by Horton wine and individual pots of tea at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $35 for adults and $25 for guests under 21.

Friday, May 19 from 5:30 to 8:00 p.m. is Wine and Paint Night. Tickets are $45 a person and include painting supplies and a glass of wine. Veterans and their spouses enjoy free wine tastings and 10 percent discounts on artisan melts from Gourmeltz, a veteran owned food truck, on Memorial Day weekend, May 27-29.

Horton holds its first ever Food Truck Battle  with as many as ten food trucks offering $3 sampler plates, Saturday, June 3 from 12 noon to 4:00 p.m. Guests, staff, and a local food critic will vote for their favorite dishes. Admission is free.

SOBO (South of the Border) Food Truck comes to Horton on Saturday, June 10 for a fundraiser for Rikki’s Refuge Animal Sanctuary in Orange County. Wine tastings are free with donations of money or paper towels, bleach, laundry detergent, cat food, dog food, and canned tuna. Mouth Wide Open Food Truck will be at Horton on Saturday, June 17 for a MASH-themed Father’s Day Party.

Horton’s Summer Celebration on Saturday, June 24 will feature lawn games for kids and adults.

Gourmeltz and Smiley’s Ice Cream food trucks will be on hand, and totes with picnic blankets, wine glasses, rubber corks, corkscrews, and outdoor toys and games will be on sale. Pop-up tents and furry friends are welcome.

Jefferson Vineyards
Praised by Wine Spectator magazine for having “one of the region’s most consistent track records,” Jefferson Vineyards was established in the 1970s by Shirley and Stanley Woodward Sr. with the help of Gabriele Rausse, sometimes called “the father of Virginia wine.” After building a winery building in Italian Palladian style, similar to architecture at Monticello and the University Of Virginia, they began selling wine in 1986. 

Jefferson’s Sunsets Become Eclectic Concert series kicks off on Saturday, May 13 from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Admission is free and parking is $5. The series continues on June 10, July 22, August 12, September 9, and October 21. Bands will be announced.

King Family Vineyards
When David and Ellen King moved to Virginia from Houston, Texas in 1995, they weren’t even thinking of opening a winery. David had been playing polo since 1980, and the family wanted a farm with twelve acres of relatively flat land for a polo field. Today their property in Crozet holds both Roseland Polo field and King Family Vineyards, widely recognized as one of the state’s top wineries.

On Sundays from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October, weather and field conditions permitting, the King family invites Tasting Room guests to join them field side to watch polo. Matches are free and begin at 1:00 p.m. Visit their website or Facebook Page on Sunday mornings after 9:00 a.m., or call 434-823-7800, for confirmation.

Loving Cup Vineyard and Winery
Loving Cup Vineyard and Winery in the Blue Ridge foothills in Albemarle County is one of only a handful of certified-organic winemaking farms on the East Coast. Loving Cup’s two varieties of white wine and two of red are made from hybrid grapes first planted in 2008, in which the pollen of one variety is crossed with the flower of another to produce an entirely different third.

Loving Cup donates part of the proceeds of its Dudley Nose Rosé to the Almost Home Pet Adoption Center, a no-kill shelter in Nelson County that rescues and finds homes for nearly a thousand cats and dogs each year. Rescue dog Roly-Poly, the “label dog” for the 2016 Dudley Nose Rosé, will appear at the winery from noon to 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 13. The Nelson SPCA will bring dogs and cats available for adoption.

Loving Cup will hold its Fourth Annual Open House from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 10. Activities will include a hay wagon tour of the vineyard and a cellar tour with the winemaker, sangria and live music on the verandah, pizza by Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie, and the expected appearance of “an 8-year old Thomas Jefferson.” 

Veritas Vineyard and Winery
Roman historian Pliny the Elder famously observed that “In Vino Veritas” – “In Wine There Is Truth.” Andrew and Patricia Hodson established Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Afton in 1999, and run it as a family affair with the help of their children. Veritas will serve a Mother’s Day Winemaker’s Brunch, Sunday, May 14 at 12:30 p.m. Tickets are $75; a vegetarian menu will be offered. The public is invited to bring a picnic or sample the Veritas buffet, and enjoy concerts on the lawn during the 2017 Starry Nights season: Saturdays June 17, July 8, August 12, and September 9. Tickets are $15.

Shenandoah Wine & Jazz Festival
The ninth annual Shenandoah Wine & Jazz Festival, featuring wines from the Shenandoah Valley, takes place on June 24 from 1:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton. Participating vineyards include Barren Ridge, Blue Ridge, Bluestone, Cave Ridge, CrossKeys, Hunt’s, North Mountain, Rockbridge, and Wolf Gap. Festival goers will hear swing music by Acme Swing Mfg. Co., blues by Stone Rollin’, and traditional and Latin jazz by Mark Whetzel and his group.

Tasting tickets for the Shenandoah Wine & Jazz Festival are $16.00 in advance for adults with valid IDs, and $20.00 at the door. Non-Tasting tickets are $10.00 for adults, $9.00 for students ages 13 to 17, and $6.00 for children 6 to 12. Children 5 and under get in free. Food Vendors will be on hand as well. Admission price includes admission to the Museum plus a souvenir wine glass.

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