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Virginia Vaults to New Heights
By Linda Murphy
Oct 7, 2014
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If sales figures means anything, Virginia wines are on top of the world.  Sales of Virginia wines in fiscal year 2014 reached a record level, increasing by almost 2% from fiscal year 2013, at 521,000 cases.  Since 2010, Virginia wine sales have grown 26 percent.

And there’s a lot more fuss over the Commonwealth’s wine growth than just sales numbers.  Ten years ago, there were some outstanding wines from Virginia, an equal number of adequate wines, as well as many flawed wines.  Today, the overall quality of the wines has soared and there are many more members in the “excellent” club.  The best are sold in the UK and China, in addition to throughout the Eastern Seaboard, and have caught the approving eye of internationally known critics Jancis Robinson MW and Oz Clarke.  Competitions in California, with overwhelmingly California judges, have awarded high medals to many Virginia wines. 

Yet there are challenges in Virginia.  There aren’t enough grapes to meet demand, although new vineyards are in the pipeline.  Early frosts have greatly reduced yields in certain years (and some vintners have responded by using out-of-state grapes in their wines, though the practice is largely frowned upon).  Wet, humid conditions during the growing season invite unwelcome fungal diseases, and phylloxera remains a concern.

But Virginia growers and winemakers have responded with vigilance in their vineyards and cellars.  They are far more focused on grape quality over quantity these days.  They’re planting the right varieties in the right places.  They’ve learned how to deal with fungal diseases, and many have embraced vineyard consultant Lucie Morton’s advocacy of vigorous vine canopy management and high-density vine planting, so that grapes ripen with mature sugars, even in cool, short seasons.

Virginia ranks fifth in the number of wineries in the nation at 250-plus.  It’s also the country’s No. 5 wine grape grower.  And as it expands, it brings not only commerce and renown, but also scrutiny. 

For example, Fauquier County's Board of Supervisors recently passed an ordinance that requires that wineries within the county close at 6 p.m. and forbids them to sell food nor hold special events unless they take out special permits.  It’s a move designed to protect winery neighbors from traffic and noise.  Fauquier is an hour drive from Washington, D.C., and visitors from the D.C. area are increasing in number.  The handcuffing of wineries on what they provide guests is a sign of success, sadly.  It means a wine region has arrived, and must negotiate its success with residents and local government.

The seminal leaders of Virginia’s wine industry include Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards, Jim Law of Linden Vineyards, Italian transplant Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards, and Jenni McCloud of Chrysalis Vineyards.  Horton made Viognier a household name in Virginia.  Law’s flawless, terroir-reflective Chardonnays are among America’s best.  Paschina does an amazing job with most varieties, particularly Italian grapes such as Vermentino and Nebbiolo.  By sheer will and passion, McCloud has given the native variety Norton newfound respect.

Michael Shaps is another top dog.  His custom-crush facility, Virginia Wineworks, is where he makes his own Michael Shaps wines (a recently tasted 2013 Petit Manseng was delicious) and offers others a place to make their wines.  Shaps also consults for several Virginia wineries.

Relatively new superstars include Rutger deVink’s RDV Vineyards, whose Bordeaux-style blends are Virginia’s most expensive at $75-$85, yet are on a quality and interest par with similar blends from California.  Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay echoes Champagne character, its partners Claude Thibaut and Manuel Janisson hailing from that French region. 

Ankida Ridge Vineyards is a relatively new producer of knockout, polished Chardonnays.  Owned by Christine and Dennis Vrooman (their son, Nathan, is the winemaker), Ankida is a tiny producer brave enough to take on the challenges of Pinot Noir in Virginia’s infamously warm, humid conditions.  The early results are promising.

Across the state, Viognier and Cabernet Franc continue to excel.  Albariño could be a player, and several producers are enthusiastic about Petit Verdot, though I find it a rather simple, monochromatic varietal thus far.

In 2013, the most planted wine grapes in Virginia were Chardonnay (434 acres), Cabernet Franc (344), Merlot (309), Cabernet Sauvignon (263), Viognier (224), Vidal Blanc (176), Petit Verdot (168) and Chambourcin (135), accounting for approximately 70 percent of the total plantings.  To Virginians’ credit, they are experimenting with other varieties in an attempt to find what works best in the state’s climates and soils. 

In addition to the varieties already mentioned, Virginians have planted Barbera, Carmenere, Chenin Blanc, Dornfelder, Grenache, Grüner Veltliner, Lemberger, Malbec, Malvasia, Marsanne, Mourvedre, Rkatsiteli, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tannat, Tempranillo and Verdejo, among others.  These varieties’ future is uncertain in Virginia, yet the state’s quest for great grapes is gratifying, symbolic of a collective effort to make the best and most interesting wines possible.

Here are others to seek out:

Breaux Vineyards: Excellent Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Nebbiolo.

Chatham Vineyards at Church Creek: The 2012 Lot 12 Cabernet Franc has a tangy herbal edge to its plump plum and red-berry fruit.  It’s pretty rather than powerful. 

King Family Vineyards: The 2011 Meritage, with Merlot and Petit Verdot dominating the blend, has inky flavors and firm structure.

Sunset Hills Vineyard: Its 2010 Mosaic Bordeaux-style red blend has great energy and focus, a cross between French structure and juicy New World fruit.
Veritas Vineyards & Winery: The 2013 Viognier has a midpalate richness framed by crisp lime and unripe pear flavors and racy acidity,

So how good are Virginia wines, really?  Good enough to make this writer wish that more of them were available on the West Coast, so that others could experience them.

The vast majority of Virginia bottles sold to western consumers are ordered online or direct from the producers; they’re not on store shelves or restaurant wine lists.  Yet as the Commonwealth continues its upward spiral in winemaking, it will be difficult to keep its bottles away from western America.

For now, East Coasters should feel fortunate.