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Charlottesville & Central Virginia: A wine lover’s guide

With viticultural regions on America’s East Coast on the rise, Virgina is poised as one of the top growing areas. The state’s 10 wine-producing regions are easily accessible by plane, train or car from most major East Coast cities – and a wine-focused visit to Central Virginia promises an unforgettable time. 

Central Virginia boasts America’s original winemaking history. Thomas Jefferson famously acquired vineyards and attempted at-home winemaking at Monticello during the late 18th century. The region is ripe with vineyards often right next to former battlefields and other places of significance to American history.

Beyond its rich history, Central Virginia offers an ideal wine getaway for nearly any traveller. For urban dwellers looking for a bit of action, the ‘Downtown Mall’ of Charlottesville offers a plethora of great places to eat and drink. Travellers looking to experience the outdoors will enjoy the area’s surrounding mountain landscapes – perfect for hiking, skiing or cycling.

History buffs will take delight in the nearby Civil and Revolutionary War sites, period-inspired festivals, and more.

From a viticultural perspective, it’s no surprise why grape growing has taken off in Virginia, particularly within Central Virginia. The eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains create ample hills and valleys dominated by granite-based clay soils – perfect for cultivating a slew of both vinifera and hybrid varieties.

A long, 200-day growing season allows the fruit to reach peak phenolic maturity, while large diurnal temperature swings keep acidity in the berries fresh and abundant.

For those looking to enjoy the best that Central Virginia’s winemaking scene has to offer, we recommend posting up in downtown Charlottesville as a home base. You can use the city’s central location as a jumping off point. Renting a car will offer the most affordable and accessible means of transportation, though hiring a driver for the day (we recommend Albemarle Limousine Service) offers a hassle-free and safe way to enjoy wine tastings.

Best of all, Central Virginia’s moderate daytime temperatures make visiting anytime of year pleasant, though we find the most exciting times to be around bud-break (spring) and harvest (late September through October).

A tasting tour

Aerial view of Early Mountain Vineyards. Credit: Early Mountain Vineyards

With over 300 wineries across the state, there’s certainly no shortage of places to go when planning a wine-focused trip to Virginia. As with any region, we recommend going in with a loose plan and a few must-hit places – leaving some flexibility for spontaneity. However, no trip to Virginia wine country is complete without a visit to Early Mountain Vineyards.

Although relatively young, this iconic Madison-based winery has been making waves across both viticulture and vinification realms since its early days in 2005. Now spearheaded by forward-thinking winemaker Maya Hood White, this unmissable estate is putting out some of Virginia’s most exciting and thoughtfully-crafted wines.

Pours range from experimental pét-nats to Bordeaux-inspired blends and beyond. Stay for lunch, grab a seat on the expansive outdoor patio, or simply post up at the tasting room counter and get lost in conversation with the winery’s knowledgeable team.

After a morning spent at Early Mountain Vineyards, hitting Hark Vineyards (approx. 25-min drive) is an excellent way to spend some time before returning to downtown Charlottesville. Founded by Aaron and Candice Hark just a few years back, this new-to-the-scene winery specialises in affordable, easy-drinking wines that are perfect for popping on the large outdoor space and enjoying with a view. Be sure to sample a few of winemaker Jake Busching’s private label wines while on site. 

Located closer to Charlottesville is Stinson Vineyards, an equally unmissable stop for wine lovers of all palate preferences and knowledge levels. Tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains, this family-owned estate is spearheaded by husband-and-wife team Rachel and Nathan.

Longtime lovers of French wines – and inspired by the great ‘garagiste’ wines of France – the couple focuses on Bordeaux and Loire Valley grape varieties. Stinson  implements generous whole cluster use and sur-lie ageing in the cellar, often experimenting with skin-contact vinification and a variety of ageing vessels (concrete, amphora, etc.).

It’s impossible to talk about Virginia’s winemaking scene without mentioning Michael Shapsthe unofficial godfather of modern day vinification across the state. After enrolling in oenology school in Beaune in 1990, Shaps worked harvests in Puligny-Montrachet before moving to Virginia to take a role at Jefferson Vineyards in 1995. He went on to launch a number of Virginia-based brands (including King Family Vineyards) and officially opened his own winemaking operation in the heart of Meursault in 2004.

Three years later, in 2007, Shaps founded Virginia’s Michael Shaps Wineworks. In addition to crafting his own thoughtfully-made wines (including his noteworthy varietal Viognier and Petit Manseng), Shaps now services numerous clients at his custom crush facility.

Situated just 15 minutes from downtown Charlottesville is King Family Vineyards.  A family-owned and operated winery located in the heart of the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After producing just 480 cases during its inaugural 2000 vintage, today, King Family Vineyards crafts over 10,000 cases of wine annually.

Overseen by Rhône-born winemaker Matthieu Finot, King specialises in high-quality wines which highlight the unique growing sites and micro-terroirs of Virginia’s Monticello AVA. (Note: Finot recently began his own eponymous side project, Domaine Finot, which is an absolute must-try when in town.) 

Finish off the journey with a 15 minute drive west to Veritas. Enjoy a bottle of wine in the stunning, fireplace-equipped tasting room. The winery’s vintage, traditional-method sparkling may just be the best bottle of bubbles coming out of Virginia today.

Stinson Vineyards. Credit: www.visitcharlottesville.org


My perfect day in Charlottesville

Morning

Start the day with a simple-yet-filling breakfast sandwich at Blue Moon Diner, one of the city’s most beloved establishments. Enjoy an egg and cheese on a biscuit in a classic American diner. The setting has serious retro vibes, with unlimited coffee refills to boot. Head across the street to Quirk for an early check in (if possible). Peruse the on-site art gallery and gift shop laden with locally-produced goods, then head next door to Quirk Café for a large coffee to go.

Grab your rental car or meet your driver and trek up to Early Mountain Vineyards. Grab a curated flight of Early Mountain wines or spring for a regional Virginia-focused tasting. These feature wines from both Early Mountain and nearby estates. Enjoy a seasonal lunch of small plates and mains at the tasting room dining room, or dine al fresco.

Afternoon

On the way back from Early Mountain, hit another vineyard or take some time to enjoy Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. Grab a cocktail at The Whiskey Jar or get your caffeine fix at Mudhouse Coffee Roasters. Snag some locally-crafted souvenirs at Rock Paper Scissors or peruse the shelves at New Dominion Bookshopthe oldest independent bookseller in the state of Virginia. For those looking for a palate cleanser, head to Champion Brewing Company or South Street Brewery for some refreshing, locally-produced pints.

Evening

For a late-afternoon dose of wine tasting, head to Michael Shaps Wineworks Extended, accessible from downtown Charlottesville in 5 minutes by car. Taste through Shaps’ delicious line-up of Virginia-based wines, and for curious French wine fans, be sure to peruse his line-up of French imports.

Post-tasting, head back to Quirk, drop off any acquired bottles, then head a few doors down to Public Fish & Oyster for one of the best daily happy hours (4-6pm) in town. For pre-dinner craft cocktails in a true speakeasy, it’s The Alley Light, located on one of the side streets of the Downtown Mall.

After a long day of tasting and drinking, head to Belmont-based Tavola – arguably the best restaurant in town. Delicious homemade pasta and authentic Italian fare (don’t skip the eggplant parmigiana). Post dinner, grab a late night bottle at Crush Pad, Charlottesville’s best wine bar/shop, located on the Downtown Mall. For a last late-night cocktail before bed, take in the views at the rooftop bar at Quirk Rooftop Bar.


Your Charlottesville address book: Where to eat, drink and visit

Charlottesville‘s Downtown Mall. Credit: www.visitcharlottesville.org

Eat

Tavern & Grocery  The building was home to the first African American-owned business in Charlottesville and is now a cosy, rustic venue known for contemporary American cuisine.

Café Frank Classic French restaurant and apéritif joint in downtown Charlottesville serving up homemade cuisine and tasty drinks.

The Nook Long-standing diner establishment with Charlottesville roots dating back to the 1950s, known for traditional breakfast favourites, cosy indoor booths and ample sidewalk seating.

Mockingbird Newly reopened restaurant in the Belmont neighbourhood beloved for hearty, belly-filling southern fare.

The Southern Crescent Belmont-based, family-owned restaurant meshing traditional fare from Louisiana, the Caribbean and other parts of the American south. Excellent bar programme (known for its tropical tiki cocktails) and tons of outdoor seating. 

Oakheart Social Located just outside of the Downtown Mall, this bustling, modern eatery is known for its New American-inspired fare, craft cocktails and spacious outdoor terrace. Reservations recommended.

Little Star Modern American meets Mexican meets Spanish in the best possible way at this world-class eatery; bar space is small yet fierce, reservations recommended.

Drink

Mudhouse Coffee Roasters Award-winning coffee shop beloved by locals known for responsibly-sourced beans and a variety of caffeinated beverages.

Lightwell Survey Co-founded by Ben Jordan (formerly of Early Mountain Vineyards), this self-proclaimed ‘unique, new era’ winery is crafting thoughtful, experimental wines from a handful of off-the-beaten path varieties.

Lost Saint Charming speakeasy bar located in the basement of Tavern & Grocery – open Thursday to Sunday. 

Visit

Ix Art Park Non-profit art organisation with regular immersive exhibitions – a place meant to inspire and support art education for all. Don’t miss the outdoor farmers’ market on Saturdays. 

Carter Mountain Orchard  Local mountainside orchard just outside of downtown Charlottesville known for fruit picking, a country store and a variety of local produce and baked goods (as well as breathtaking views).


How to get there

Main airport: Charlottesville Albemarle Airport (CHO)

Additional Airports: Richmond International Airport (125km), Washington Dulles International Airport (168km)

Train: Charlottesville Amtrak Station

Driving Distance: Richmond to Charlottesville – approx. one hour (105km), Washington DC to Charlottesville – approx. 2 hours 45 minutes (185km)


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