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Italian American Wine Roots at Virginia's Barboursville Vineyards
By Panos Kakaviatos
Aug 3, 2022
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Viticulturist Fernando Franco cares for vines like his children.  Driving through the 170-acre vineyard at the expansive – and historical – Barboursville Vineyards estate outside Charlottesville, Virginia, he enthusiastically pointed to vine plots: “There’s the Pinot Gris I recently planted; here’s some Petit Syrah.”  His all-terrain Dodge Ram—appropriately cluttered—drove by a small lake last month into which workers jump from a platform “because it can get really hot” in the growing season, he said.  

We later stopped to examine part of a 3.5-acre vineyard I especially liked – Goodlow Mountain – from which since 2017 Barboursville makes single vineyard Cabernet Franc that costs $85 a bottle.  Pricey, but after trying nearly 20 wines in a gorgeous tasting room dubbed Library 1821, it was my overall favorite.  Yes, and that includes several vintages of the famous “Meritage” blend called Octagon, which was served at former President Barack Obama’s inauguration gala in 2009.  The Goodlow Mountain Cabernet Franc 2019 vintage is aged without new oak and delivers pristine fruit purity, although the Octagon 2020 vintage – tasted from a steel vat (after barrel aging, but not yet bottled) – is a close contender.  

The Italian Link to Old Virginia

Franco, a native El Salvadoran, has worked with many top wine consultants in California and Europe and brings valuable experience to his 20 years at Barboursville.  He also exudes charm and warmth in welcoming guests, including my sister who crafts garden-made balms at Kipos Botanicals, and my nephew and his wife, who are busy building a farm just outside Charlottesville.  

We tasted in the elegant “Library 1821,” which links the wine to another American President: Thomas Jefferson.  Not far from Jefferson’s Monticello, construction of the original mansion here – designed by Jefferson – began in 1814, as James Barbour, a friend of the former president, held office as Virginia’s Governor.  

The estate also has a more recent Italian link: The original mansion (long since lost to fire) was completed in 1821, just as Casa Vinicola Zonin was being founded in the Veneto province.  In 1976, descendent Gianni Zonin – heir to the family wine enterprise established in 1821 – acquired the estate, which explains why many Italian grapes are grown at Barboursville.  

Indeed, among the (many) reds we tried, a favorite for both price and quality is the Nebbiolo Reserve.  For $35, you get an elegant and floral wine, smooth and refined.  Franco says that he loves visiting Italy on a regular basis to research methodologies there for Italian varieties.  I preferred their Nebbiolo to the Barboursville Cabernet Franc, which is more rustic.  The Nebbiolo has that lovely earthy-yet-zesty aspect from the Italian grape, after having been aged 12 months in French oak barriques (including well integrated tannins from 30% new oak).  The natural high acidity is balanced by the 13.5% alcohol.  

In 2006, Zonin celebrated the winery’s 30th anniversary at Barboursville as “setting the standard” for a state now populated by over 300 wineries, with Gianni and Silvana Zonin having opened a barrel aging room for their famous Octagon blend.  

When they set out in the 1970s, only five other pioneering wineries existed in Virginia.  Franco guided us to visit the room, where recent estate history is laid out with photos and illustrations.  In a tour of the cellars, he showed the different stages of the estate’s development from the mid-1970s to today.

Fine Whites, Too  

In addition to fine reds, the tasting began with a thoroughly enjoyable sparkler, the Barboursville Sparkling Brut, based almost entirely on estate-grown Pinot Noir, with minor percentages of estate-grown Chardonnay.  At about $20, a good deal and thoroughly enjoyable with a variety of excellent local cheeses and charcuterie that staff served for the tasting.  

Among the dry whites, the Sauvignon Blanc 2019, crafted from grapes on vines that had been planted in 2010, delivered varietal gooseberry notes, recalling decent New Zealand wine.  The estate also features Vermentino, made from grapes on vines that had been planted in 2011: Barboursville was the first Virginia estate to plant Vermentino.  The 2021 vintage has a slightly yellow gold, evolved color, with the wine evoking both creaminess and acidity.  Indeed, the overall impression was of a very pleasant $27 wine.  Low temperature fermentation in stainless steel keeps it lively.  

The third white is the estate’s higher end blend of 76% Viognier, 18% Vermentino and 6% Falanghina dubbed Nascent.  The 2018 (inaugural) vintage was aged in large new oak casks and was bottled in 2019 with the final blend agreed by head winemaker Luca Paschina, associate winemaker Daniele Tessaro, and Franco.  It gave off a slightly sweet nougat aspect, with a certain thickness from the dominant Viognier, while the Vermentino lends elegance.  Sealed with wax, this premium white costs $50.  

Franco swears by mechanical harvesting, saying that machines as old as the one he uses – 17th harvest – can work just as well as hand harvesting.  I admit that in tasting the wines, I would not have detected hand or machine harvest had he not said anything about that.  He then showed a video of the machine carefully shaking the vine, taken from an underneath camera angle, showing how the grapes dropped gently from the vines.  

I recommend visiting and tasting at this gorgeous Virginia estate.  While other vineyards are fun to visit, with a more casual feel, Barboursville has a more opulent ambiance, including not only one of Virginia’s best restaurants, the Palladio, but also historic houses forming a classic Georgian villa, where you can stay overnight: the 1804 Inn, which predates the construction of Governor Barbour’s original mansion.