In celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, which is today, April 13, we asked Alicia Cypress, a fellow of the 2016 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and digital editor with NPR, to report on the state of the wine industry from Virginia. Cypress attended the Virginia Wine Summit last week and offers insights into wine styles, tourism and her recommendations on wines to seek out. And we want to remind you of our American Wine Studies certification program, which covers the history of winemaking in the U.S. and explores American Viticultural Areas from coast to coast, with a focus on New York State, Virginia, Texas, Oregon, Washington, California and other critical wine-producing states. Cheers! – Jonathan Cristaldi, Editor-in-Chief
by Alicia Cypress
It’s only fitting that the wine community takes notice of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday today. America’s founding father and third president of the United States is infamous for his love and collection of wine. So much so that he was intent on bottling wine from vineyards he planted in his own backyard.
His efforts failed. But for 30 years, Jefferson tried cultivating mostly European grape varieties on 25,000 square feet spread across two vineyards at his Monticello estate in Charlottesville, Va.
And while his passion and persistence to bottle a Virginia-made wine started centuries ago, it’s only in the past 40 years that Virginia wine has become an industry after the influential establishment of two wineries: Barboursville – with its own historic ties to Jefferson – and Linden Vineyards, first planted in 1985 by Jim Law, who after mentoring many of Virginia’s winemakers is seen as a founding father himself to the industry.
Today, Jefferson might be impressed to see his dreams came true: In less than 20 years, Virginia has grown from 50 to more than 250 wineries on 3,500 acres of land, according to the Virginia Wine Marketing Office. The commonwealth ranks fifth in the U.S. for both the number of wineries and as a wine-grape producer. In the fiscal year 2015, more than 524,000 cases of wine were sold (stats). And since 2010, sales of Virginia wine increased by 26 percent.
GRAPES OF VIRGINIA
The excitement bubbling around Virginia wine is what you would expect from any industry that’s growing and gaining more visibility and credibility in the national and international wine scene.
At the fourth annual Virginia Wine Summit, held earlier this month, adjectives like “emerging” and “burgeoning” were easily tossed around to describe the industry, while everyone from vintners to sommeliers to writers were eager to talk about the latest wine releases and how to bring more Virginia wine drinkers to the table.
But it’s clear that across its seven AVAs, Virginia is still finding its identity. The state has declared Viognier as its state grape, but it’s common to find Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Virginia vintners are also working with Italian varietals such as Nebbiolo and Vermentino. And while Virginia continues to find its place in the world wine market, there is building excitement over the use of Petit Verdot, Petit Menseng (both dry and sweet styles) and Tannat.
An Albariño from Ingleside Vineyards in Oak Grove, Va. – approximately 90 minutes from Washington, D.C., – showed exceptionally well at the recent summit during a panel focused on tasting uncommon grapes produced in the state.
Virginia is also home to the oldest North American indigenous grape variety: the Norton. It was first planted in Richmond, Va., and cultivated during the 1800s, but during prohibition the vines were replaced with Concord grapes to make jellies and jams. Today, several wineries are trying to revive the grape, including Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, Va. With 69 acres of Norton vines, the winery has the largest single planting in the U.S.
MORE THAN GRAPES, IT’S ABOUT TOURISM
Virginia’s wineries are located throughout most of the state and across the Virginia countryside. With rolling hills and meadows, which bump up against the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge mountain ranges, there are dozens of wine trails that wind through small towns, national parks and historic sites. These idyllic surroundings are prime bait for tourism. The wineries attracted more than 1.6 million visitors in 2014, according to the Virginia Tourism Corporation.
Southern hospitality also contributes to the success of Virginia’s wine culture. Many wineries encourage its visitors to spend the day enjoying a picnic on their grounds. They’ll host festivals, dinners and other public and private events. Some allow pets and even have play areas for children. Evenings and weekends – especially during the spring and summer – are filled with live music and concerts.
VIRGINIA WINE RECOMMENDATIONS BY ALICIA CYPRESS
To experience Virginia wine, here are a few wineries to pay attention to:
Barboursville not only has a strong historical legacy (it sits on a plantation once owned by Jefferson’s friend and former Virginia Governor James Barbour; Jefferson also designed Barbour’s mansion), but the winery is credited with giving birth to the modern-day wine region. They now produce more than 20 different wines – including sparkling and dessert wines. True to its Italian roots (Barboursville is owned by the Zonin family of Veneto, Italy, and much of its success is credited to its Italian winemaker Luca Paschina), the winery has success with Nebbiolo, Vermentino, Barbera and Sangiovese grapes. However, the winery is best lauded for its Octagon, a Bordeaux-style blend.
At Linden Vineyards, owner and winemaker Jim Law planted his vines in 1985 near Front Royal, Va., – a little more than an hour’s drive from Washington, D.C. Law is highly respected by the Virginia wine community for his many vineyard experiments in the pursuit of refining best practices in a relatively nascent wine region plagued with weather and disease challenges. He is also well respected for his mentorship of several other successful Virginia winemakers, including Jeff White of Glen Manor (also worth sampling) and Rutger de Vink at RdV Vineyards (discussed below). Law produces more than a dozen wines, but is known for the Chardonnay and Red Blend that come from his Hardscrabble vineyard, where many of his fine tuning takes place.
For sparkling wine, seek out Thibaut-Janisson, made via the méthode champenoise style. The sparklers, which have been served at the White House, take a heavy nod to France’s Champagne region. After all, its owner and winemaker Claude Thibaut came to Virginia from France’s Champagne region to consult at another winery before creating his own label by partnering with Manuel Janisson of Champagne Janisson & Fils.
RdV Vineyards is one of the newer darlings among Virginia wines. The winery founded by Rutger de Vink focuses on Bordeaux-style red blends and works with acclaimed Bordeaux wine consultant Eric Boissenot. The winery is the first in the state to produce a $100 bottle of wine, which often sells out. In 2011, Jancis Robinson visited Virginia and declared their wines “thrillingly good.”
If you’re visiting Virginia, stop by Early Mountain, in the central part of the state, just north of Charlottesville. The winery, now owned by AOL founder Steve Case and his wife, focuses the tasting room not just on its own wines, but by showcasing wines from around the state.
MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE AMERICAN WINE STUDIES CERTIFICATION:
**Full List of Grapes Currently Planted at Monticello:
- Muscat of Alexandria
- Muscat d’Hamburg
- Muscat Blanc
- Malvasia Bianca
- Pinot Meunier
- Olivette Blanche
- Mammolo Toscano
- Chasselas Doree
- Chasselas Rose
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Blanc
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Malaga Rosada