Wine route to Virginia

  • Monday 1 July 2002

Once known worldwide for its wines, Virginia lost most of its grapes during Prohibition, but quality wines are returning. HUBRECHT DUIJKER visits wine estates in this eastern US state.

Nowhere on the US east coast can so many good wines be found as in Virginia. This lush green state, famous for its horse farms, is home to a wide variety of grapes, including classic French and German varieties, plus Viognier, Tannat, Tempranillo and Norton. This American black grape was created in around 1820 by Dr Daniel Norton in Virginia. Norton wines were famous 100 years ago, and at the 1873 World Fair in Vienna a Norton was chosen as 'the best red wine of all nations'. Prohibition, which hit Virginia 12 years before California, led the grape to disappear from Virginia.

BULLET PROOF

Two fast-running border collies accompany the four-wheeler that Jennifer McCloud briskly drives to her Norton vineyards. After Prohibition, the vine only continued to grow in Missouri, and this is where McCloud found the plants for her Chrysalis Estate, deep in Virginia's horse country. She now has 5.7ha (hectares), more than anyone else in the eastern United States – and she intends to keep on planting. McCloud explains her enthusiasm for the thick-skinned Norton grape: 'It's the most disease-resistant variety in the world – it's bullet proof.' In Virginia, which borders Washington DC and the ocean, moisture and heat levels are high, and rain can fall at the wrong times, resulting in mildew and other fungus problems. Norton's natural qualities are therefore very welcome indeed.

All bottled Norton at Chrysalis, the Virginia winery closest to the American capital, is sold out. As with most of the state's 65 producers Chrysalis sells the largest part of its crop at its own premises; Virginia's wineries collectively attract more than half a million visitors annually. Jennifer McCloud's barrel sample of the Norton 2000 has a massive colour, a slightly smoky aroma with elements of berries and tutti-frutti, and firm acidity. In due time some Petit Verdot will be added, to give the wine a bit more length. 'Norton,' says Jennifer, 'could be the saviour of Virginia agriculture. Its grapes form a high-value crop, can be treated organically – and are of course native.'

Another pioneer, of Norton and other varieties, is Dennis Horton, at his winery near the more southern town of Charlottesville. Proof of Norton's ability to age, a 1994 was still very vital, its tart-cherry and berry fruit complemented by some toast and a certain earthy leatheriness that Horton describes as 'barnyardy'. Wine-wise Virginia offers quite a few other surprises. One is Viognier, which thrives here. Producers like Barboursville, Breaux, Chrysalis, Horton, Ingleside Plantation and Rappahannock make it into an attractive, full, apricotty wine.

In this historically rich state, with many reminders of British colonists, and the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Horton makes the world's only sparkling Viognier. It is a seductive wine, full of fruit. Horton Cellars additionally carries a Viognier Late Harvest, made from grapes picked on 15 November 1999. Its rich taste is dominated by sweet apricot. Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence and became America's third president, would have drunk it with pleasure. After his term as president, the Virginia-born politician lived in the impressive Monticello estate, near Charlottesville. A lover of sweet wines, Jefferson imported Château d'Yquem and, as his last cellar book shows, also enjoyed Madeira and Muscat de Rivesaltes. 'Wine separates the people of the world, wine unites them,' is one of his quotes.

In Shenandoah Valley, which lies between two low mountain ranges, the climate is somewhat cooler than in the more easterly part of the state. This makes it possible to cultivate Pinot Noir, as at Rockbridge Vineyard, a small winery halfway between Staunton and Lexington. Its Pinot Noir De Ciel 1999 combines ripe red fruit with toast and caramel, giving it a rather Burgundian personality. Other specialities of Rockbridge – which produces no less than 17 different wines – are the Traminette, which smells like roses and resembles a fresh, light Gewürztraminer, and the crisp, spicy, herbaceous Vignols. Both come from rare hybrids. A more conventional hybrid, Vidal Blanc, was barrel fermented for the St Mary's Blanc 1999, which has vague similarities to a good dry Graves.

CHARDONNAY

During the past two decades Virginia's wine industry has grown steadily. In 1979 the state had 116ha under vine, against almost 890ha now, and many producers are planning to further increase their production. Chrysalis, for example, made 2,000 cases in 2000, more than 5,000 in 2001, expects to reach 15,000 soon afterwards and hopes to realise an ambitious vineyard and cellar project that will bring the total to 90,000 cases within the next five years.

Currently Virginia's most important variety in volume terms is Chardonnay – this represents almost a third of total plantings. Williamsburg Winery, which controls close to a fourth of Virginia's production, has as its flagship wine the Chardonnay Act 12 of 1619 (named after an act demanding that every landowner 'plante and maintaine 10 vines'). This barrel-fermented, charming wine displays citrus fruit, good acidity and a nice touch of toast, and would be delicious with the region's fresh fish and crab cakes. 'I don't like over-abundant flavours, but prefer wines with a good acid structure – and I believe in uniqueness,' says the winery's founder, Patrick Duffeler.

The Chardonnays of Piedmont Vineyards, a hilly estate near Middleburg, where Jacqueline Onassis used to ride, have earned international accolade. The Special Reserve 1998 was aged for 14 months in barrel, and its lively palate offers both tropical fruit and a fair dose of wood. The Hunt Country 1999 is softer and creamier. Of the four Chardonnays that are poured in the chalet-like tasting room of northern Linden Vineyards, the most impressive is called Avenius. It comes from a rocky vineyard, and its freshness, spiciness, citrus fruit, slight oakiness and mineral character bring it close to a premier cru or even grand cru from Chablis.

At the Oasis winery in Hume, near Marriott Ranch Bed & Breakfast, Chardonnay is being used to make an excellent sparkling wine. This Oasis Brut is released after five years' ageing and distinguishes itself with miniscule bubbles, a soft acidity and subtle nuances of apple, pear, citrus fruit and vanilla. The wine, which also contains 40% Pinot Noir, was chosen by US magazine Wine Enthusiast as one of the world's top sparklers, alongside well-known Champagnes. Tareq Salahi, Oasis director and co-proprietor, uses his modern-looking winery for wine-related events too, like food and wine pairings. He also founded the polo club in Warrenton, where most spectators bring well-filled hampers and a large array of Virginia wines. As Marriott's marketing director Dan Neja smilingly explains: 'People live here for wine and horses.'

THE TWO CABERNETS

The number one black grape in Virginia is Cabernet Sauvignon, with its close relative, Cabernet Franc, in second place. Both are used in blends and for single-varietal wines. A number of wine growers consider single Cabernet Franc as the better wine – and as one of Virginia's foremost specialities. Its grapes ripen more quickly than Cabernet Sauvignon, which Dennis Horton has not even planted. 'When it rains, the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes soak up too much water,' he explains. Nevertheless, several Virginia producers, like Valhalla, manage to make noteworthy Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet Franc of quality can be found at Rappahannock Cellars, which officially opened its tasting room last summer. The 2000 is loaded with black and red fruit. Barboursville, Breaux and Linden also present successful versions of this wine.

Blends with one or both Cabernets, and with or without Merlot, are quite European in style. In fact, they frequently resemble a Bordeaux. A fine example is the Merlot-Cabernet Reserve 1999 of Prince Michel de Virginia, a French-owned winery with, on its grounds, a good restaurant and luxurious suites. The wine offers soft, spicy wood, toast and black fruit, and moderate tannins. Lindens Reserve 1997, a blend of four Bordeaux varieties, shows complexity and elegance.

SOMETHING DIFFERENT

Apart from several Merlots, like that of the Williamsburg Winery with its black fruit, oak, bay leaf and cinnamon, many wines made from less common grapes can be tasted throughout Virginia. Barboursville's truly superior Pinot Grigio 2000 and Piedmont's remarkable Sémillon 1999 are good examples, or the mainly Tempranillo and Graciano Rubiano 1999 from Chrysalis, the late-harvest Nebbiolo from Horton and the same winery's superior Madiran lookalike, Spotswood Trail Tannat. 'Our wines,' remarks Jennifer McCloud, 'do not outclass those of California and are not as big, but they have an identity of their own – and go better with food.'

Hubrecht Duijker is a wine writer and author.

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