Sometimes I forget how big Virginia is. Having lived outside D.C. for over a decade, I’m long accustomed to having a few dozen excellent wineries within an hour’s distance. An hour further, Charlottesville or the Shenandoah Valley beckons. But given my quest to visit every single winery in Virginia, sometimes you gotta hit the road for days at a time. This is one such trip.
The Southern Virginia AVA has about a dozen wineries, many placed on old tobacco farms. On the face of it, that sounds pretty good. That is…until you realize these locations are usually an hour’s drive away from each other. This lack of wine clusters makes it challenging for all but
the truly insane Virginia wine purists to make a dedicated wine-focused trip to this area.
That said, there’s a lot of good wine to be had down here, with everything from sweet Muscadine to hybrids to traditional Bordeaux-style blends, served in tasting rooms that range from someone’s home to outright mansions. Yes – go ahead and scoff at sweet wine or native American vines (I admit – I do). But as the old adage goes, the customer is never wrong – and they definitely have customers.
I asked around why this AVA seems to have such a focus on sweet wines and found it has more to do with good business sense than with issues with the terroir. See, a disproportionate number of these “southern” wineries are tiny, mom-and-pop farms who decided to put their land to more productive use and realized (shocker!) that alcohol is a big seller. Lacking the money or experience to grow European Vitus vinifera, they turned to varietals or styles that are easy to produce – namely hybrids, vines native to North America (aka Vitis labrusca), or fruit wines.
The area’s demographics also favor of this approach. Southern Virginia is both thinly populated and lacks many well-known tourist attractions. As locals are often the main audience, these wineries must cater to local tastes – which translates to sweet and/or fruity. Not surprisingly, a few also had breweries on site.
But vinifera lovers – don’t despair! Despite the area’s rep for sweet wines, I found several excellent wineries that catered to my own palate. As with everywhere else, vinifera can thrive when care is put into good site selection and maintenance, and having a growing season that’s 2-3 weeks earlier than the rest of the state brings its own advantages. I dare you to drink anything from Rosemont and other vinifera-focused vineyards and walk away thinking this area can’t produce world-class wine.
One thing you won’t find are many fancy tasting buildings. Everywhere has a small town vibe to it, with most places opting for more modest setups in transplanted or refurbished barns, side-buildings adjacent to their homes, or (for Tomahawk Mill) a flour mill. Maybe these aren’t the places you’d have a big event, but the scenery is just as pretty as you’ll find elsewhere in the state. As an added bonus, in nearly every case the wine maker (usually also the owner) was pouring my wine at the tasting bar, which is become rarer and raer everywhere else.
Despite the miles on my car, I’m very happy I made this trip. I got to see a side of Virginia that few transplanted yankees get to see, and walked away with a fresh realization that you don’t need a fancy tasting room to have a good time.
While wine was the focus of this trip, I admit I had some side-excursions – including a visit to the American Armed Forces Tank Museum at Danville. Who would have thought tanks and wine paired so well together? Special thanks also to The Chandler House Home Bed and Breakfast.
Where I visited:
2 Witches Winery & Brewery: 4 acres of mostly hybrids, also some Cabernet Sauvignon.
Altillo Vineyards: 5 acres of vinifera.
American Way Country Wines: 15 acres of fruit and vegetables.
Bright Meadows: 10 acres of hybrid & American grapes, plus blueberries & blackberries.
Hunting Creek Vineyard: 5 acres of mostly vinifera with some hybrids.
Rosemont Vineyard: 27 acres of mostly vinifera with some hybrids.
Sans Soucy (not on map but close to Bright Meadows): 7 acres of vinifera & some hybrids, plus fruit wines and beer.
The Homeplace Winery: 9.5 acres of hybrids and some vinifera, also some fruit wine.
Tomahawk Mill: 4 acres of mostly vinifera.
Three Sisters at Shiney Rock: 2 acres of American vines, plus fruit wines.
Virginia Tasting Cellar: Tasting room right outside this AVA but primarily selling southern VA wine.
Not visited on this trip: Hamlet and Preston Ridge.