Virginia: America's Old World

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  • Friday 26 July 2013

It doesn't get the media coverage that California does, but Virginia is tipped to be the next big thing in American wine. Jason Tesauro picks out the varieties and producers that are bringing the area to wider attention, at home and abroad.

Virginia,

A dashing Dutch man emerges from his slick travel trailer to pour three wines, including his own. The 2008 Château Léoville-Barton (£65) will mellow, but in its adolescence, the second growth is standoffish. Flanking it, a voluptuous 2008 Colgin IX Estate Napa Valley Red Wine (£330). Standing between these classic examples of Bordeaux austerity and California opulence, an elegant yet juicy wine from a rising star and rocky hilltop one hour west of Washington, DC. Rutger de Vink’s RdV Vineyards Lost Mountain 2009 (£50) wins the day. Not surprisingly – I later learn – Jancis Robinson scored it 18/20.

Virginia wines are coming of age at the moment when American palates are doing the same. Despite California’s global rise in the 1970s, the US of yore still treated wine as a cocktail and fast food as a treat. Enter the era of slow-food consciousness and go-local fetishism. After years of high-octane wines – and one heck of a hangover – open-minded drinkers who have tired of the density, oak and alcohol often found on the west coast are now showing interest in Virginia’s delicacy, stainless steel and food-friendliness.

Ironically, since New World obsession never caught on in England, UK critics touted Virginia even before America’s own mainstream wine press. Michael Broadbent, for instance, reported on his first ‘seriously good wine’ from Virginia (the 1998 Barboursville Vineyards Octagon 3rd Edition) in 2001. Thus, 400 years after the Jamestown Experiment, the Brits have a new Virginia outpost. ‘The English want to like American wine, and Virginia consistently delivers finesse and elegance,’ says Broadbent’s son, US-based wine importer Bartholomew Broadbent.

‘They are a perfect bridge between the west coast and Europe,’ says Jennifer Knowles, sommelier at the famed The Inn At Little Washington. It is fate: the heart of Virginia wine country lies practically at the midpoint between Bordeaux and Napa Valley. ‘Very simply,’ said Steven Spurrier during a 2012 visit, ‘Virginia makes the kinds of wines I like to drink.'

Then…

Virginia’s wine timeline begins in 1774, when Italian viticulturist Filippo Mazzei planted clippings from France, Italy and Spain at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The 19th-century phylloxera blight and Prohibition (1919) wiped out the wine culture until Italy’s Zonin family founded Barboursville (1976) and ushered in the modern renaissance. In the 1980s, plantings shifted from French hybrids to vinifera, and the 1990s saw Riesling and Pinot Noir bulldozed in favour of Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Bordeaux varieties. Winegrowers fine-tuned their terroir thanks to a strong oenological and viticultural research programme at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, plus support from the tourism industry, Department of Agriculture and, most importantly, a kind of open-door collaboration unheard of in Europe. ‘We try to work collectively, not protect trade secrets,’ says Matthieu Finot (below), winemaker at King Family. By the late 2000s, Virginia had emerged as the fifth-largest wine-producing state in the US, thriving outside of California’s shadow alongside Washington, New York and Oregon.

…and now

As a predominately warm region, Virginia’s long growing season combines with varied exposure, altitudes and soil types to ripen most varieties. It’s far from love at first sight, however. Striking out on his own after an apprenticeship under famed Virginia winegrower Jim Law, Rutger de Vink devoted three years and 100 test holes to identifying RdV’s stone-ridden sweet spot of poor soils where highvigour vines perform best. A soil scientist first identified it as ‘nothing but a pile of rocks’. Only three harvests later, RdV is regularly named among the state’s best producers.

‘Soil is first and climate comes second,’ says Luca Paschina, winemaker and general manager at Barboursville, Virginia’s benchmark winery. ‘My number-one advice for each grower is to gain a better understanding of their soil. Some are still planting what grows in the market, instead of what grows well on their site.’ De Vink says: ‘We set out to continue what Luca had done, what Jim had done at Linden Vineyards, the pioneers of Virginia.’

Michael Shaps, winemaking consultant for more than 30 Virginia wineries, tells clients: ‘I can’t just wave the magic wand. Put your money into vineyards, not me.’ Old World regions cannot expand, but the New World can, if only as fast as its vines. Gesturing to a denuded hilltop where he has cleared 16 hectares, George Hodson, general manager at the family-run Veritas Vineyard & Winery, says: ‘Until we get significant investment in vineyards, we’ll be a novelty.’


(George, Patricia and Andrew Hodson, and Emily Pelton, at family-run Veritas Vineyard and Winery)

Virginia’s tasting rooms are filled with accents, and not just from international visitors. Nearly 40% of the state’s winemakers are French, Italian, South African or Spanish expats, imported for their passion, patience and minimalist approach. Matthieu Finot, winemaker at King Family since 2007, studied in Côte de Nuits, Bandol, Jura and elsewhere. He says: ‘We’re used to bad weather and can adapt to what’s happening. A California winemaker will not know so well how to handle rain and vintage variability.’

Hodson’s sister, Emily Pelton agrees. As winemaker at Veritas, her skills weren’t forged at UC Davis like many American oenologists, but via a Masters degree in infectious diseases – and the frosts, droughts and rains that came with the job entrusted to her by her British parents.

Veramar Vineyard winemaker Justin Bogaty says: ‘We become better from challenging years.’ Veramar’s 2011 Cabernet Franc (12.7% alcohol) shows classic varietal tartness and smokiness, though it’s a tad thinner than in drier years. ‘Not bad for 36 days of sunshine,’ Bogaty quips. He’s a UC Davis graduate making everyday wines – with whole-cluster fermentation and gentle tannins – in part because there’s no empty space in his cellar for ageing: ‘I haven’t got a corner to tuck it into.

Calling cards

‘Virginia is innovative enough to grow Petit Manseng, but traditional enough not to reinvent the wheel,’ explains Pelton. Paschina adds: ‘We have to make wines that are excellent, not just very good. That means we should know our varietal limits.’

Investment in lesser-known varieties and Bordeaux blends is paying off with world-class recognition. Virginia’s white calling card is Viognier, which can show tremendous structure and depth here. ‘We’re trying not to get it too ripe,’ explains Finot. His 2011 is generously aromatic, handled in 70% stainless steel with the remainder in neutral oak, French acacia barrels and concrete eggs. Around the state, vinification varies, but top examples undergo sur lie ageing in steel or neutral wood to preserve the nose, freshness and minerality. Those with ample acidity even hold up to cellaring. Barboursville’s rare eight and ten-yearold Viogniers show honeyed hues, silky textures and plenty of life.

There’s nearly twice as much Chardonnay planted, though it shares Viognier’s leaner tendencies, with most wines either eschewing wood or evincing Burgundian restraint. Elsewhere, Thibaut-Janisson Winery introduced major méthode Champenoise fizz to VA, while Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino and sophisticated stickies made from Petit Manseng and Moscato demonstrate aptitude and even mastery, but the number of plots is still tiny. Foggy Ridge Cider is also moving the needle with outstanding estate ciders from resurrected heirloom varieties that would please VA forefathers and the mother country alike.

The defining red grape of Virginia is Cabernet Franc. Francs here are medium-bodied and earthy with black fruits and high acidity. Andrew Hodson, Veritas’ patriarch, highlights delicate tannins reminiscent of Chinon and Burgundy: ‘It should almost be called Pinot Franc instead of Cabernet Franc.’ Bartholomew Broadbent declares that ‘Virginia makes the best Cabernet Franc in the world’. It has become the litmus test for site selection and winemaking talent: if someone’s Franc is plonk, don’t blame Virginia.

Around the world, Petit Verdot is consigned to a minor role in blends to boost acidity, tannin and colour. ‘It eats oak alive,’ says Pelton, and its backbone and inky hues enliven VA clarets, but its dill, violet and raspberry are producing complex monovarietal wines too. Spurrier is wowed: ‘I’m surprised Virginia can create that elegance in such a short time with Petit Verdot.’

Best of both worlds

To be taken seriously, the real meter sticks for Virginia are its Bordeaux blends. Whether to express terroir or compensate for variation, ‘blends are a huge tool for us,’ says Finot, and the driver is Merlot: elegant, St-Émilion-like and more consistent than Cabernet Sauvignon.

While Boxwood is decidedly hands-on, famous Johnny-come-latelies like Donald Trump and Steve Case (of AOL Time Warner) are planting their flags and their wallets, delivering not sweat equity but capital investment and industry buzz. Trump Winery’s SP Brut Rosé is already garnering more ink than the boss’s pink ties.

Virginia’s emergence is promising for Old World-leaning oenophiles sometimes caught between waiting for classified crus to mature and the vain act of pairing young fruit bombs with a meal. In that context, Virginia’s quality-to-value proposition is more in line with Old World wines. ‘There’s pushback,’ says de Vink of his £50 wine, yet every RdV sells faster than you can say ‘first of original 13 colonies’, so some might even argue for raising the price.

Then again, didn’t a quibble over the price of tea once land us in hot water? At least we’ve finally returned… with wine.

Virginia at a glance

The state has 230 wineries across nine regions and seven American Viticultural Areas (AVAs – see below). Central and northern regions represent nearly 80% of production. Piedmont is characterised by well-draining red clay; the north features low-vigour silt loam over crumbling granite; Shenandoah Valley is known for its limestone skeins; in the east and along the coast, sandy loam is common.

According to the Virginia Wine Board, Chardonnay is the most popular variety, followed by Cabernet Franc.

Central Virginia Region

  • Monticello AVA (38 wineries): The ‘classico’ of Virginia. Foothills along eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Northern Virginia Region
  • Middleburg Virginia AVA (24 wineries): 50 miles west of Washington, DC, with Potomac River to the north and mountains on the other three sides.

Shenandoah Valley Region

  • Shenandoah Valley AVA (22 wineries): the state’s largest AVA. Bounded by Blue Ridge to the east and Appalachian mountains to the west.

Chesapeake Bay Region

  • Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace AVA (11 wineries): Peninsula between Potomac and Rappahannock rivers on the Chesapeake Bay.

Eastern Virginia Region

  • Virginia’s Eastern Shore AVA (three wineries): Atlantic to the east, Chesapeake Bay to the west. Sea breezes and sandy soil.

Blue Ridge Highlands Region

  • North Fork of Roanoke AVA (two wineries): Summer heat tempered by cool, foggy mornings
  • Rocky Knob AVA (two wineries): Well-drained loam and gravel. Southern Virginia, Hampton Roads, Heart of Appalachia Three regions dotted with a dozen wineries; no AVAs.

Recent vintages

2012 Very good. Record early bud break led to early ripening. Producers who pruned performed very well.

2011 Uneven. Whites fared well, reds from northern regions ripened better than central producers who endured much September rain.

2010 Excellent. One of the driest vintages. Warmer-than-average summer led to early harvest. Balance/finesse for those who didn’t pick late.

2009 Outstanding. Wet spring, followed by a dry summer and beautiful September; hurricanes dodged in October. An even and ideal season destined to become a classic.

2008 Very good. Long growing season. Diligent canopy management and late harvest led to elegant, ageable wines.

See Decanter's top Virginia wines available in the UK here

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