After a history of setbacks, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia is now on the cusp of a viticultural renaissance. Visit now before the masses catch on, says Katie Kelly Bell, in her Virginia travel guide.
Virginia fact file:
Total planted area: 1,214ha
Number of wineries: 220 AVAs Eastern Shore, Monticello, Northern Neck, North Fork of Roanoke, Rocky Knob, Shenandoah Valley (Rappahannock is not yet an AVA) Grapes (in Monticello and Rappahannock) Viognier, Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Norton, Petit Verdot
Standing on the sweeping expanse that is the front lawn of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, one can appreciate his desire to bring viticulture to Virginia. With her gentle slopes and long growing season, this southern state seems ideally suited for winemaking. Yet despite 30 years of effort, America’s third president never bottled a single vintage.
Virginian winemaking continued to suffer setbacks long after Jefferson’s death, with the onset of the Civil War and, later, Prohibition. But today’sVirginian winemakers have proven that Jefferson’svision was spot on. The Monticello AVA nowcomprises a third of Virginia’s 1,214 vineyard hectares. Of the 220 wineries, more than 20 have garnered some form of national and international acclaim for their wines. Prince William and Kate Middleton even served Barboursville’s Bordeaux blend, Octagon, at their wedding last year.
Winding down the hillside from Jefferson’s estate into the dewy lush glades below, it becomes clear why the fantastic wine touring in Virginia is awell-kept secret among the locals. Curvaceous hillsides trimmed by white fences, dotted with horses, wildflowers and pine unfold in a carpet just beneath the Blue Ridge mountain chain. Softened by time, the forested mountains anchor this pastoral landscape where llamas stand guard overflocks of sheep, and apple orchards and vineyardsline the hillsides. Tucked in along the way areantique shops, roadside farm stands, farm-to-table restaurants, and even a few brewers and distillers crafting whiskey and speciality beers. This is indeed a land of artisans; whether they’re chefs, dairy farmers or winemakers, painstaking devotion to craft is the religion here.
At the centre of the Monticello AVA is the collegetown of Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, which Jefferson also designed. From here, four main wine trails radiate out, making it an ideal base from which to explore. Almost every winery has a tasting room that’s open daily, no appointment necessary. Because most wineries are small and produce very limited quantities, it’s also likely that you’ll meet the winemaker in the tastingroom – pouring the wines, meeting guests and answering questions.
The main varieties here include Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon,Chardonnay and Viognier. Luca Paschina, a native Italian and winemaker for the highly acclaimed Barboursville Vineyards, wears his passion for Virginia on his sleeve. ‘We have a lot to offer here – history, landscape, minimal traffic, fine cuisine, and of course good wine. In less than 25 minutes you can be at Monticello or Montpelier (President James Madison’s ancestral home), in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on a Civil War battlefield or, of course, in a winery.’
To enjoy a deeper, more rural slice of theVirginian countryside, make the short one-hourdrive north into Rappahannock County. Nestled in palpable calm, you’ll find several intimate and charming B&Bs. At the Inn at Mount Vernon Farm, beautifully appointed rooms in the family manorhouse (dating back to the 1820s) overlook the sustainable, all organic family farm. This rural outpost is also home to the region’s Forbes 5-star Inn at Little Washington, where you should allow time to enjoy what should be an unforgettable meal. Rappahannock wineries are scattered about, roughly 10 to 15 minutes apart, so it’s best to havean itinerary before you leave. Wineries here play abit more loosely with grape varieties, so expect to try everything from a late-harvest Vidal Blanc, a Port-styled Norton or a Gewurztraminer.
Given the fertile offerings around Monticello and Rappahannock, each day of your visit could easily contain several winery visits along with a historical detour punctuated by a fabulous meal. Try to visitin October: the foliage will be in full autumnal splendour, harvest will be winding down, and temperatures will still be mild. Visiting during the week is best, thereby avoiding the throngs that crowd the tasting rooms on the weekends. Accommodation ranges from private rental homes and basic hotels to more luxurious choices such as The Clifton Inn and Keswick Hall.
Despite her charm, the Virginian terroir is a demanding mistress. John Delmare of Rappahannock Cellars notes: ‘We learn fast whatworks and what doesn’t, and we’re still learning.The fruit is very different in Virginia and as a result the wines are more delicate than those from theWest Coast; ours are definitely more European instyle.’ And, he adds, ‘We spend far more time in the vineyard coping with rain and humidity than any West Coast grower.’
As for wine, most winemakers agree that Viognier, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Merlot are Virginia’s strongest varieties. That could easily change; the region is a mere 30 years young. Indeed, experimentation is part of the evolution in Virginian wine… and the main reason why a trip here promises to be a tasty adventure.
How to get there:
By plane to Washington DC
From Dulles International, the drive to Charlottesville is two hours, or flights to Charlottesville are 20 minutes. Otherwise, connect to Richmond, Virginia, which is an hour’s drive from Charlottesville.
Written by Katie Kelly Bell