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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
- 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.
A red and a white to try:
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.
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.