Sometimes people say funny things about wine. There are lots of euphemisms. Things like: "those wines are really unique" or "they have a style all their own" or "they're really different" always seem to translate the same way: the wines taste horrible or are completely unimpressive but are from an area with small producers who no one wants to diss.
I gotta be honest: I'd heard these words used to describe Virginia wines so I was skeptical going in.
For non-US readers, Virginia is a state located in the Central East Coast of the US. The climate is very different from the winegrowing regions of the West Coast (California, Oregon, Washington State). There's a ton of humidity and really challenging, unpredictable weather...kind of like parts of Europe. Virginia is one of the areas where Europeans first settled, and people have been trying for over two centuries to grow European wine grapes (for you dorks, the species vitis vinifera) and make good wine. For most of this time they failed miserably.
Probably the most famous dude who made a go at it was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the US. He was a HUGE wine lover and tried for decades to cultivate vineyards in Central Virginia near his beautiful home in Charlottesville, named Monticello. After failing at this pursuit, he instead became a huge importer of French wines.
Attempts were made up and down the East Coast but with the exception of wine made from native American grapes or French-American hybrids, for most of history the East Coast was out of the winemaking game. That is, until about 30 years ago when people in Virginia, New York State, and Long Island (lower New York) started making wines which eventually had to be taken seriously.
On two recent visits to the Monticello American Viticultural Area (pale green, in the center of the map, left) and to Loudoun County (orange on the map), just an hour outside of Washington, DC, I was surprised and delighted to put definition around the euphemisms: this place DOES make wine in a style all its own but it's nothing weird or bad, quite the opposite in most cases.
Below are my impressions of the two areas that I visited. There is more than just these two regions, but these are the largest in Virginia and the most heavily visited. I'm reviewing the specific wineries in separate posts, and I'll be posting those soon.
Central Virginia/Charlottesville/Monticello Area
I didn't know what to think upon arrival in this area, which is two and a half hours southwest of Washington, DC. My sister attended the University of Virginia for law school so I'd been there to visit but I had very little sense for what I'd find wine-wise.
The first, and most important thing to know is that the grapes aren't anything weird or unknown. As opposed to the past, where French-American hybrid grapes were grown (things like Seyval Blanc, Norton, Chambourcin), these days it's all the stuff we know and love and feel comfortable with. The biggest success stories seem to be Viognier for white, and Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Bordeaux-style blends for reds (a combo of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, mainly).
What's interesting: The temperature is a little too cool to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, which needs lots of heat, but too warm to do a great job with Merlot, which likes it a tad cooler. Except in rare years, these grapes are only appropriate as blenders. Cab Franc seems to be the Goldilocks solution, which is why it's commonly made as a standalone wine. The wineries also make a whole lot of Petit Verdot as a standalone wine. I don't really get it, since I think Petit Verdot tastes like a leaf off a tree and is has too much tannin and acid to be anything but a supporting player to tastier stuff like the three grapes mentioned above, but that's just me (and people from Bordeaux, I guess, since they never make purely Petit Verdot wine for the same reasons!).
A few things to give you a point of reference about Monticello:
- The style IS vastly different from what you'll find on the West Coast of the US. The wines generally have lower alcohol (most were around 13%, similar to European wines), have an earth quality and fruit flavor, but in moderation. They have great acidity and moderate mouth-drying tannins. These wines are flavorful, but also mild and elegant. They're not as earthy as European wines, nor as bold as those from California or Australia.
- The industry is small in Central Virginia and there is a divide between great and not so great wineries.
- An Italian wine family (Zonin) invested here 30 years ago and has led the charge in producing quality wines -- like a lot of things on the East Coast, you can feel the connection to Europe in these wines and see the influence.
It was clear that the wines were great, but what was less clear: how are the producers able to get this moderate, mild profile from their wines when they're in an area where overnight temperatures can stay in the 80s(F) during the summer? Normally you need cool nights for the grapes to rest, shut down, and build up acid.
The answer seems to lie in a few things.
Charlottesville and the surrounding areas are located in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The elevation makes the area cool enough for grape growing but the sunny (HOT) days of summer allow the grapes to ripen. The pockets of different climates or microclimates in the area mean there are tons of places that viticulturists (grape farmers) can grow grapes that have a balance of sun and coolness. The variety of soils, good drainage (hugely important in getting great tasting grapes for wine!), and improved farming allow the people here to make the most of the land.
With some help from Virginia Tech, an excellent state university that has a viticulture program, farmers have been able to figure out the best sites and the best grapes to grow for this area.
Besides the fact that the setting is beautiful, another thing I love about this area is that these wineries are forging their own way, not trying to compete with West Coast wineries. They are growing the right grapes for their area and making great wines as a result. The buzz from the tasting room staff was that this wasn't always the case. In the past some of the wineries tried to make wines in the bolder, fruitier California style and as a result produced pale, nasty versions of things that the left coast could do far better at a lower price.
The Zonin family who own Barboursville, as well as a few others, made big changes in the late 1990s and now the wines from most places have a delicate balance and elegant taste that is truly unique.
My take: for the most part the wines kicked ass. Although small now, if it continues on this upward trajectory, Monticello will be a premiere area for fine wine in the US, just like old Thomas Jefferson had hoped! They made a believer out of me.
The wineries I visited were: Barboursville (owned by the Zonin family of Italy), Jefferson, Keswick, King Family Vineyards, Veritas, and Pollack. All were at least good, some were outstanding. I'll follow this post up with a review of the wineries...so look out for that.
Loudoun County/"DC's Wine Country"
About 30 miles outside of DC is Loudoun County, an area that has as many wineries as Monticello (around 30). We only stayed for a day versus two in Monticello, but the vibe here couldn't be more dissimilar. Whereas Monticello is very rural, quiet, and understated, the wineries of Loudoun County were much more touristy.
People were clearly there to enjoy a day on the picnic grounds, boozing and having lunch outside. The larger places were almost more like farms that happened to serve wine as opposed to tasting rooms and wineries focused on the wine itself. There was a "factory" feel to these larger places that didn't work for me.
If you look on the county's website and drive around the area, you'll see there is a heavy emphasis on the tourist aspect -- special events, weddings, corporate functions, and family reunions are all heavily marketed by larger wineries. The revenue stream seems to be diversified, to say the least -- i.e., there's less focus on the wine and more on garnering visits from DC.
From our limited time there, the group of us -- MC Ice, my dad, and stepmother -- who had also been to Charlottesville together, agreed that, with one exception, the wines of Loudoun County didn't hold a candle to quality that we had further south.
I'm not sure why. This area has been making wine for 25 years and they've got good soils, microclimates, and, very importantly, access to talent from consultants and industry folks who can fly easily in and out of DC. The grapes here are similar to those of Monticello -- Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Merlot ,and red blends are pretty popular but they've also made a go of working with French-American hybrids, Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin, and the native Norton grape.
Despite similarities, I'll be blunt in saying that the flavors weren't as good and the wines seemed less polished and elegant than those of Monticello. I didn't have an undrinkable wine when I was in Monticello, but I can't say the same about Loudoun County. I know I didn't take an exhaustive look at the area, so I'll have to go back and try again, but I've got to say that if you're looking for the best Virginia has to offer, right now my advice would be to drive the 2.5 hours from DC and head to Monticello.
I'll review the three wineries we visited in a separate post. They were: Chrysalis, Sunset Hills, and Notaviva (the standout of the bunch).
By no means is this a comprehensive look of all Virginia has to offer, but it's a basic starter if you're interested in exploring the area...which I'd encourage you to do. I guarantee that you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
Being an East Coaster myself, I'm so proud that we're churning out great wine up and down the seaboard!
Have you had VA wines? What did you think? Drop a comment below!
Source of pictures 1 & 7 (and a handy resource for planning your visit): http://www.monticellowinetrail.com/