A surprising number of America’s founding fathers were wine lovers. George Washington, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson all worked hard to establish a thriving wine culture here, but because of the failure to control Black Rot and Pylloxera another couple of centuries would pass before vitis vinifera would be established in America. The first people to successfully grow Vinifera grapes were Gabriele Rause and his boss Gianni Zonin, a successful Italian winemaker who purchased a parcel of land in Virginia in 1976 on which to grow grapes. Unlike preceding generations Zonin and his vineyard manager Rause were extraordinarily successful, becoming the first people to successfully plant and raise vitis vinifera grapes. Their estate, Barboursville, remains a leader among Virginia’s wineries. Today, Virginia has some 300 wineries, many of which are producing some of the best wine in the nation.
At a recent dinner in New York City, I had the opportunity to speak to some of Virginia’s leading winemakers and to taste their wines. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the state’s best vintners, but I hope it inspires you to head to Virginia and taste for yourself.
A superb winery located at 650-1800 feet on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Ankida Ridge has received considerable praise for its exceptional Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Since its first vintage in 2010 the estate has practiced sustainable, environmentally sensitive viticulture on its low-vigor, granite soils. The 2019 Blanc de Blancs Sparkling 100% Chardonnay offers notes of apple and citrus with subtle additional flavor and texture from nine months of resting in neutral French oak followed by further aging in bottle for 18 months.
The estate occupies 900 acres between the rolling foothills of Virginia’s coastal plain and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Barboursville was the first winery to successfully plant vitis vinifera grapes in Virginia. Under the leadership of Barboursville's resident winemaker Luca Paschina, the estate turns out several outstanding wines including the stunning “Octagon” (a red blend led by Merlot and Cabernet Franc); “Nascent” (Viognier/Vermentino/Falanghina); a Sauvignon Blanc that wins awards year after year, and consistent gold-medaled recipients Nebbiolo and Cabernet Franc.
Winemaker and general manager Kristy Harmon oversees the production of Blenheim’s wines which include Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery, which was founded in 2000 and is now owned by Dave Matthews (of the Dave Matthews Band), sits on a historic Virginia site. The estate’s goal is to bottle wine from single vineyards to capture the particular characteristic and personality of each site. Unique whites include Albariño, Grüner Vetliner and Rkatsetelli.
Early Mountain Vineyards:
Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Early Mountain is a scenic property surrounded by rolling hills and pastoral farms that was founded in 2005 and purchased in 2010 by Jean Chase and her husband Steve Chase. The estate’s 55 acres of vines now include Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia Bianca, and Tannat. Among Early Mountain’s outstanding wines is the Pét Blanc Naturel, whose notable aromas are due to the co-fermentation of Malvasia Bianca and Petit Manseng. Densely textured and richly flavored Eluvium 2019 features Merlot from the estate’s Quaker Run Vineyard, which contributes density to the wine plus aromatic concentration and persistence, while the blend’s Petit Verdot adds structure, depth, and power. In case you work up an appetite tasting wines be sure to make a reservation at Early Mountain’s Virginia Table Experience to enjoy a charcuterie and cheese board, elegant salads and soup plus heartier fare such as a bison tenderloin, or roasted poussin and morel mushrooms.
King Family Vineyards:
At King Family Vineyards, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Crozet 15 minutes west of Charlottesville, winemaker Mattieu Finot produces a broad selection of wines ranging from a brut Chardonnay sparkler to Mountain Plains, a Cabernet Franc-Merlot-Petit Verdot blend. The name “Mountain Plains” refers to a 1772 deed drafted by Thomas Jefferson; Rosesland Farm, the home of King Family Vineyards, now sits on part of that original land grant (like many other Virginia wineries, King Family Vineyards strives to keep alive the memory of the state’s pioneering vintners). Look also for King Family Vineyards Small Batch Series, where each bottle is hand labeled and individually numbered. Small Batch wines include Rosé, Skin Contact Viognier, Petit Manseng, and Meritage. The goal of this series is to show the unique character of an individual vineyard and to demonstrate a variety of winemaking techniques.
This family-owned estate winery in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains specializes in small lot wines with a distinct French influence. The father/daughter team of Scott Stinson and Rachel Stinson Vrooman was joined by Rachel’s husband Nathan Vrooman in 2015. The team takes inspiration from France’s “garagiste” wineries in both their winemaking techniques and in the winery itself, which has been built into a classic three car garage. Stinson’s vintners, who are devotees of French wines (especially those from the Bordeaux and Loire Valley regions) employ traditional French winemaking methods such as whole berry fermentation for reds and sur-lie aging for whites. Their estate’s Small Batch wines are also worth checking out. Seven acres of vineyards are currently replanted with carefully selected clones of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Petit Manseng, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Tannat, while carefully sourced fruit from other Virginia growers adds the complexity of different terroirs and microclimates to the wines. The facility offers stunning 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains.