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A Beginner's Guide to Virginia Wine

A Beginner's Guide to Virginia Wine
© iStock
Rebecca Gibb reports on a fast-emerging wine region.

Long-time home to KP Nuts, Virginia is now grabbing the headlines for its grapes as well as its snack foods. The state’s secretary of agriculture and forestry, Todd Haymore, describes the wine sector as “small but thriving,” and has made promoting the wine industry one of his “top priorities.”

Yet, when Virginia Wine made a recent trip to the U.K., it emerged that some of Britain’s leading wine experts couldn't even work out the location of The Old Dominion.

So, armed with a map and a glass, we've prepared a primer on Virginian wine.

The varieties:

In terms of plantings, chardonnay, merlot and cabernet franc are the three most popular varieties. But when it comes to prestige, it’s viognier not chardonnay that is receiving the greatest attention.

“Viognier has been adopted as the white grape of Virginia,” says Barboursville Vineyard’s Lorenzo Zonin. Its small, thick-skinned berries are ideal for enduring Virginia’s humid climate.

On the red front, there’s a whiff of St-Émilion in the air, with merlot and cabernet franc showing great promise. Many producers are successfully making varietal cabernet francs – wines in which the grape's signature violet perfume is combined with fine acidity and firm tannin. Boxwood Estate’s consultant winemaker Stéphane Derenoncourt believes that this variety is best-suited to the climate, describing the soils of Virginia as “definitely cabernet franc.”

The climate:

Virginia is not what you’d call a grape-grower’s paradise. “The viticulture is very difficult because of the weather – so wet,” reports Derenoncourt. 

The average annual rainfall in Virginia is 42 inches – higher than Bordeaux's 34 inches and Napa's 35.

Elliot Watkins, the English-born winemaker at Veritas, even admits he was surprised by the weather, despite his British roots: “In 2009, it didn’t stop raining,” he laments.

Fall and winter at Veritas
© Veritas Vineyard and Winery | Fall and winter at Veritas

But it's the high summer humidity that keeps growers on their toes, necessitating frequent spraying to prevent fungal disease and open canopies.

In the past, hybrids have been the grapes of choice due to their ability to withstand the elements better than vitis vinifera, but with improved viticultural know-how hybrids are falling out of favor.

As winter arrives, so does the snow. Watkins drives half an hour from the Veritas winery to the nearest ski resort. While that’s great news for those who enjoy winter sports, it’s not ideal for the vineyards. The cold winters here can injure the vines, and frosts can be a hazard in both the spring and autumn. In an attempt to reduce the risk of frost, many producers in the state’s oldest AVA, Monticello, have planted their vines at altitudes of 800 feet (245 meters) and above.

The land:

It’s difficult to make generalizations about Virginia’s topography: the state is 300 miles from east to west and altitudes range from sea level at Chesapeake Bay to Mount Rodgers at 5,730 feet (1,750m).

The soil types are equally diverse, ranging from sandy loamy soils on the western shores of Chesapeake Bay to the Shenandoah river’s limestone-influenced soils. In the west of the state, granite soils prevail.

There are seven official sub-regions with the Shenandoah Valley (the largest AVA in Virginia), covering a whopping 2.4 million acres (971,250 hectares).

The figures

  • 1.18 million gallons of wine produced annually
  • The third American president, Thomas Jefferson, attempted to grow vines in Virginia.
  • It's the sixth-largest wine-producing state in America.
  • 3,000 acres of vines
  • 42 inches of rain per year
  • 230 wineries
  • When the English settled in Virginia in 1607, a ruling declared that all colonists must plant vines.

Wine-Searcher picks two wines to try
© Wine-Searcher | Wine-Searcher picks two wines to try

A red and a white to try:

2010 Barboursville Viognier Reserve

A dry, full-bodied viognier that successfully avoids any potential fatness or oiliness. The fruit is classic pure peach, with extended lees aging providing textural interest. Round, soft, with the malolactic fermentation prevented – giving the wine greater freshness than expected. Varietally classic.

2010 Boxwood Estate Topiary

This blend is 61 percent cabernet franc, with merlot making up the remainder. Restraint and savory tannins that are more commonly seen on the other side of the Atlantic. A fragrant nose showing violets, florals, black fruit and a herbal note – typical for cab franc. Medium-bodied with merlot rounding out the mid-palate. The franc provides a fine line of acidity and there’s firm chewy tannin to boot. Good value at $25.

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  • Comments

    To Funny wrote:
    30-Aug-2013 at 01:54:00 (GMT)

    One, what seems to be, 'objective' comment on sunday.. then days later, a sudden a barrage of boxwood lovers come flooding in this afternoon! Small Town.. lol.. objectivity...lost!

  • Kurt wrote:
    29-Aug-2013 at 00:54:15 (GMT)

    I Have tasted many Virginia "Meritage" blends, including blind. I thought the 2007 Boxwood Topiary to be one of finest I have ever tasted. This "right-bank" style blend was delicious. The 2010 is also very well crafted and is a great value as far as Virginia wines of that quality go. The Boxwood Rose is consistently one of the best year after year.

  • andy wrote:
    28-Aug-2013 at 23:56:51 (GMT)

    Put em in a brown bag ....taste blind and then you can state your opinion...until then your comments and opinions are meaningless.

  • judith s. wrote:
    28-Aug-2013 at 23:17:53 (GMT)

    During my years working as a wine professional in France I have never come across as new world wine which blew me away the way Boxwood did. In fact, when I first tasted their wines I was so impressed I had to meet the team behind those juices. Ever since that time (2008) I have followed Boxwood closely and have never been disappointed by their production. They have the terroir, the technique, the passion and the will to make strong and beautifully complex wines, year after year.

  • Brandon S wrote:
    28-Aug-2013 at 21:01:27 (GMT)

    While I agree that Rdv is making some high quality wines - I have a hard time reconciling their price point when there are other excellent options from the region. First among my regional favorites are always Boxwood and Delaplane Cellars. Regardless of personal preferences - Virginia is producing some excellent and very consistent wines! Come check us out!

  • allan wrote:
    28-Aug-2013 at 20:30:56 (GMT)

    RdV is the epitome of overrated. Whereas Boxwood has produced consistently strong wines through good vintages and bad, RdV managed to produce a good wine in an exceptional year, not really an impressive task. The quality and control that Boxwood maintains over every aspect of production is something most interviews can't do, and it shows in their brilliant wines.

  • Winecompass wrote:
    28-Aug-2013 at 19:52:48 (GMT)

    I agree with Mark regarding the Hodder Hill (plus the Glen Manor SB), but disagree regarding Boxwood. They deliver tremendous value (a dry Rose at $15) and I just opened the Topiary mentioned above. Priced at least $50 less than the RdV, this is a wine I can afford.

  • Ben H wrote:
    28-Aug-2013 at 19:50:24 (GMT)

    Hands down the best Rose I've ever had. Their reds are equally impressive, with complexities and subtleties far beyond most wines in VA and beyond. I'll never NOT be a fan of Boxwood!

  • Meg C wrote:
    28-Aug-2013 at 19:30:42 (GMT)

    Love Boxwood! I wait for their rosé release every year. It is such a beautiful spot to taste some incredibly high-quality French-style wines.

  • REversole wrote:
    28-Aug-2013 at 19:29:12 (GMT)

    There are several good wine from VA but I find that most don't have the quality equivalent of their price point (due the crazy cost of land and labor around here). I often choose to appreciate what I like and leave the rest out of the conversation rather than discolor the work of artisanal farmers and wine-makers. Having said that, the phrase I would use to describe Boxwood wines is certainly not "over-rated." To produce several consistent Burgundian-style reds and the region's best Roses–especially with the conditions NoVA gives–is beyond extraordinary. Add that the price of Boxwood wines is nearly a third the price of another vintner lauded by M.E.R., the descriptor over-rated seems to be donned as more subjectively personal than objectively valuable.

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