Thomas Jefferson was a serious wine lover, a taste he acquired due to a U. S. diplomatic appointment to Paris in 1784. He tried unsuccessfully to grow grapes at his Monticello estate and he dreamed of producing wine in Virginia. He gave land to Filippo Mazzei, an Italian viticulturist recommended to him by Benjamin Franklin, to plant a vineyard. However, the tumultuous founding of the American republic—and--Jefferson’s many different involvements in it--proved a distraction and the vineyard never came to successful fruition. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s dreams of successful viticulture in his beloved Virginia are finally being actualized in impressive ways.
In May 2014, Wines & Vines, a trade publication, reported the percentage that different states contribute to the 350 million-plus cases of American wine released annually. Virginia’s wine production is lumped in with the two percent produced by states other than California (89 percent), Washington (four percent), New York (three percent), Oregon and Texas (one percent each). According Governor Terry McAuliffe, Virginia wine production was 521,000 cases of wine in fiscal year 2014. So, maybe the numbers don’t quite look massive on a national scale, but based on my recent visit to Virginia wine country with the Circle of Wine Writers, the wine business that Thomas Jefferson tried to establish is definitely a serious reality.
Depending upon whose numbers you believe, Virginia has 223 to 248 wineries. We visited a total of 16 wineries, two cideries and two breweries. That’s a pretty good first look, but based on sample size, I grant that it doesn’t add up to a comprehensive view of the Virginia wine scene. Nevertheless, I can declare confidently that Virginia wine country is home to beautiful landscapes, interesting people, and some very good wines.
I was particularly looking forward to visiting Barboursville Winery and meeting winemaker Luca Paschina. When I attended a Nebbiolo conference in 2006 in the Piedmont region of Italy, just about the only Nebbiolo wine from outside Italy that was getting any buzz was from Barboursville. Maybe it was because Paschina is originally from the Piedmont region, but whatever the reason, he’s somehow managed to bring some of Piedmont’s magic with Nebbiolo (which definitely does not travel well) along to Virginia with him.
Barboursville Winery (est. 1976; 38,000 cases produced annually) is in the middle of a large plantation with a history that goes back to Jefferson’s era. Today, it is owned by Zonin family, owners of nine estates in Italy. Back in the 1970s, they were looking to establish an estate in the U.S., so--reasonably enough--they looked at California, Oregon, Washington and upstate New York. Then they heard about Virginia, where a member of the family was attending a school of Agriculture. They chose Virginia because it presented a lot of opportunities. According to Paschina “Forty-five percent of the estate is wooded. It was a farm with a road, water and electricity and a role in Virginia history. All of the ingredients fell together. They preferred to be first in Virginia rather than last in California.”
“It was difficult at the beginning. The available plant material was not very good. We wanted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir,” said Paschina. At the time, however, there was little vinifera growing in Virginia. It didn’t take Barboursville long to address that problem. Two years into planting, they started their own nursery with plants from California, quickly becoming an important nursery for Virginia. Naturally, sticking better plants into the ground doesn’t immediately translate into flawless finished wines. Indeed, “It took 20 years to produce wines comparable to other established wine regions,” said Paschina. “We still have challenges, but we have gained knowledge of how to handle the challenges posed by conditions in Virginia.”
At Barboursville they produce a full line of sparkling, white, rose, reds and dessert wines. “Octagon” is their top wine, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot produced only in the best vintages. The current vintage is 2010 ($55), and it is a young but elegant wine. The blackberry and black cherry fruit with herbal, leafy notes is ripe but not jammy, and is balanced with zesty acidity. It’s tightly structured and built to last with ripe, but chewy tannins. We also tasted the 2006 Octagon, which was drinking well with elegant, linear structure surrounding leafy, black fruit that was layered with accents of tobacco and cocoa. The tannins were integrated and the finish lingered very nicely.
Following are more especially noteworthy wineries and wines:
Kluge Winery (est. 1990 by Patricia Kluge) became Trump Winery (2011; 30-35,000 cases produced) when Donald Trump purchased the vineyards and winery, which has always been known above all for fine sparkling wines. I was aware of them in the 1990s, and was sorry to learn that Ms. Kluge was having financial difficulties and lost the property to foreclosure in 2010. The winery and vineyards are now run by Eric Trump as president, along with winemaker Jonathan Wheeler, who has been with the estate since 2006. Those bubblies are still very good. I particularly liked the Trump, Monticello, Rosê 2009 ($28) made from estate fruit and comprised of 92 percent Chardonnay and eight percent Pinot Noir. Its beautiful pale salmon color introduces delicate strawberry, raspberry, citrus fruit that is at once creamy and crisp in the mouth.
Tarara Winery (est. 1989, 10,000 cases) was established by Whitie and Margaret Hubert near Leesburg as a retirement project. Winemaker and general manager Jordan Harris came to Tarara from Canada. He is dynamic and uncompromising in his efforts to make the best wines possible from their vineyards. Nevaeh White 2012 ($35) is a blend of 62 percent Chardonnay and 38 percent Viognier from the Nevaeh estate vineyard. It is barrel fermented and aged for ten months in variously aged oak from the Jupilles forest in the Loire Valley. Harris likes this wood for his whites due to its tight grain. The wine has charming apple and pear fruit with vanilla highlights. It is round and intense in the mouth, with vivid acidity and a long finish.
Boxwood Estate (first vineyards 2004; max 5000 cases), in Middleburg, is run by Rachel Martin, daughter of founder John Kent Cooke. Her viticultural consultant is Lucie Morton, and her winemaking advisor is the renouned Stéphane Derenoncourt. Boxwood specializes in red wines based on Bordeaux varieties. The Boxwood Estate, Virginia, “Topiary” 2009 ($18) has aromas of dried herbs and red cherry fruit , along with a bit of tobacco balanced with crisp acidity. Its structure was elegant and linear, medium-bodied, and marked by integrated tannins and a long finish.
North Gate Vineyards (first vineyards in 2002, first wines 2007; 1500 cases) in Purcellville is owned and operated by Mark and Vicki Fedor. They make a range of whites and reds. Of particular interest is a 2012 Petite Verdot ($28), a grape that several vintners think is going to be a signature grape for the state. It is an impressive wine with dense, concentrated, black berry and plum fruit showing floral notes in the aromas. It is full bodied with chewy tannins.
Fabbioli Cellars (first vineyards in 2001; 5000 cases) was founded by Doug Fabbioli, who has a colorful, enthusiastic and energetic presence--he’s a guy to have lots of fun with. His tasting room is full of guests, each with a plate of thoughtfully prepared small bites of food to sample along with seven wines. The tasting conducted by a staff member is $15 per person for parties less than eight; $20 for eight or more. Tre Sorelle 2012 ($30) is a blend of 65% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot and 5% Cabernet Franc. The name, which translates as “three sisters” doesn’t quite translate with the addition of Cab Franc to the blend for the first time with the 2012 vintage, but you get the idea even with a fourth sister now in the mix. The wine has spicy, red cherry fruit with bright acidity, light body, and sturdy tannins.
King Family Vineyard (2000 first vintage; 10, 000 cases) began when David and Ellen King moved from Houston, Texas to Crozet, Virginia. Their winemaker is French-born Mattieu Fainot. The Monticello, Meritage 2012 ($31) is made from estate-grown Merlot (42 percent), Cabernet Franc (27 percent), Petit Verdot (25 percent) and locally sourced Malbec (six percent). It is a complex wine, with dark ruby color and fruit recalling raspberry jam that is layered with notes of smoky bacon, dried herbs and a touch of sandalwood. The rich fruit is balanced by crisp acidity and lightly chewy tannins.
Lovingston Winery (2005, approximately 1500-2000 cases) was founded by Ed and Janet Puckett. It’s a tiny, efficient, gravity-flow winery. Winemaker Riann Rossouw hails from South Africa, so perhaps it’s not a surprise to find that Lovingston makes Gilbert’s Vineyard, Pinotage 2011 ($27). It is a smooth-as-silk wine with juicy black fruit layered with tobacco and dusty mineral notes.
Breaux Vineyards (1997; 12,000 cases) was established by E. Paul Breaux, Jr. and is operated his son-in-law Christopher M. Blosser and daughter Jennifer Breaux Blosser. Their Soleil, Late Harvest Vidal Blanc 55%-Muscat Blanc 45% 2006 ($45 for half-bottle) is a terrific dessert wine with complex flavors of honey, apple preserves, lemon curd. It is unctuous and tangy on the palate, with a long, savory finish. The Vidal grapes are harvested in very ripe condition at the end of the growing season, and the grapes are frozen to concentrate the sugars and flavors. During our visit, it was noted that the 2014 grapes for the second vintage of this wine were undergoing their cryoextraction in a trailer on the property.
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As you can see, many of the wineries in Virginia are fairly new, quite small, and prices are on the high side, which is not unusual for relatively small producers trying to establish themselves in a relatively new wine region. Most wineries sell all of the bottles they can make directly from the winery to visitors and possibly a wine club. The elements are in place for Virginia wines to get even better. I think Thomas Jefferson would be happy to see his dream being realized.