Let’s face it, when it comes to wine, Californians are chauvinists. Oh, we’ll grant that they make some pretty good wine in Oregon — if you like Pinot Noir. And we hear that producers in Washington state make a few Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah bottlings that deign to compete with our own; maybe, just maybe, we’ll try one of them one day. When we learn, however, that the rest of the country — every state, including Alaska — produces wine, and that some of it is actually very good, eyes tend to roll, and a film of condescension veils whatever faint praise we can muster.
So to grant that Virginia wineries not only can stand on their own but aspire to stand alongside Bordeaux and the Napa Valley; to acknowledge that no region outside of France is more dedicated to the Viognier variety, to concede that with wines from the Finger Lakes these are perhaps the most competent wines on the Eastern seaboard — well, it’s enough to make a California chauvinist scoff — and reach thirstily for a glass.
Recent explosive growth
In just five years, the wine industry in the Commonwealth has doubled, to nearly 200 wineries, from Leesburg to Danville. A great many of these lie in what is known as the Piedmont, the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, situated in and around Charlottesville and bearing the historically significant appellation name of Monticello. It’s an area that would be worthy of touring even if there weren’t a drop of wine to be found — there are gorgeous farms, country roads, thickly forested hills and valleys and scores of historically significant places to stumble upon.
Partly for this reason Virginia wine country, what I’ve seen of it, is wonderfully hard to pin down. It is wine country, for sure, but it’s wine country filtered through farm country and horse country and hunt club country and Civil War country and, most important, Jefferson country — Jefferson, America’s first wine geek — about whom we’ll come back to in a moment.
A place for all types
The diversity of land use here perhaps accounts for the diversity of wine lovers, too. I’ve never seen anything quite like the demographic of a Virginia tasting room, where outdoorsmen in camo gear commingle with former debutantes and polo enthusiasts, duck and deer hunters elbow to elbow with Beltway weekenders and ladies who lunch. If Ralph Lauren wanted to start a winery, he’d be wise to come to Virginia.
He hasn’t, but singer Dave Matthews has, a winery called Blenheim, with an estimable reputation. And Donald Trump recently swooped in to buy the troubled Kluge Winery, now re-gilded with the Trump moniker. Steve and Jean Case, of the AOL Cases, performed a similar rescue on Sweely Winery in nearby Madison. But perhaps the biggest recent splash has come from newcomer Rutger de Vink, who established RdV in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2005. His inaugural 2008 Bordeaux-style blend, from vines only in their third leaf, sells for $88 and has been touted by Jancis Robinson as the wine that will “raise the bar for other vignerons in the native state of America’s most famously wine loving president.” You can debate the tariff all you want, but it almost doesn’t matter: Nothing says you’ve arrived like a Napa Valley price tag.
A climate that straddles California and France
Virginia’s climate isn’t terribly different from parts of France, and many of the producers there put forth that their wines, the reds in particular, fall in just between the lush richness of California wines and the relative austerity of French versions. In recent tastings, two red varieties showed the consistency and promise to assert themselves: Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
It’ll take just a whiff of a Virginia Franc to prove you’re not in California — the wines’ savory scents and grainy tannins suggest the Loire in their lighter iterations, the Right Bank in warm vintages. Either style is supported by plenty of red fruit, good lift and energy, with tannic precision. Add Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to the blend and you have an even more convincing Bordeaux surrogate, like Octagon, the classic Monticello red from Barboursville Winery (named for a Jefferson-designed estate — now in ruins — preserved on the property). Like Bordeaux these aren’t wines made for youthful exploitation; in older vintages, what with cedar and sage accents adorning fruity cores of plum and cassis, they will reward the patient collector.
The surprise red is Petit Verdot, a grape normally used in blending whose function is largely structural — sturdy, broad and tannic, yielding a fairly monolithic wine of almost impossible inkiness — California versions are the vinous equivalent of staring down a deep well. Iterations in Virginia are enlivened by brisk acidity and a lighter body, while still managing to be the weightiest red the region has to offer — and a boon to wine tourism as a result.
The state’s most visible category however remains Viognier, a white Rhône variety established here by Dennis Horton in the early ’90s. In a culture somewhat constricted by gentility and politesse, Horton is a welcome respite, a profane, iconoclastic vigneron who earns his keep as a defense contractor and who goes his own way, not caring one way or another if anyone follows. On a recent morning visit — a Swisher Sweet lit at his lips, the first of the day still smoldering in the ashtray — Horton described hitting upon Viognier as an ideal grape for Virginia in naught but the most pragmatic terms — no romance, no epiphany story — no, he selected Viognier because of its thick skin and loose clusters, a grape whose the morphological wherewithal would allow it to endure the region’s short, humid summers without succumbing to bunch rot.
And it makes a wine, not surprisingly, nothing like a California Viognier. These are considerably leaner, with lighter body and lower alcohols, with brisk acidity and a wiry texture maintained by a regional preference, by and large, for restricting malolactic fermentation. They remain focused in their flavors as well, rarely crossing into stone fruits, though coming achingly close. The best of the Viogniers I tasted — a splendid 2010 from Andrew Hodgson’s Veritas, made by his daughter Emily — seemed to hint at peach flavors without altogether arriving, falling back to flavors of mango and pear, tantalizing and graceful.
There is no record of Thomas Jefferson planting viognier in his vineyard at Monticello, though there is little doubt he was familiar with the variety from Condrieu and at Chateau Grillet. After many years of trying, of describing to friends “the great desideratum of making at home a good wine,” Jefferson’s efforts at viticulture went largely unrewarded, done in by phylloxera, mildew, pests and his own inexperience. “Though an old man,” he conceded, “I am but a young gardener.” But he kept at it until his death, a man ahead of his time, bestowing a mantle of expectation that is, at long last, bearing fruit two centuries later.
Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.
Photo: RdV Winery, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Credit: Steven Morris