Virginia has the distinction of being both one of America’s oldest wine regions and an emerging one. The first wines produced in the Thirteen Colonies were grown in the late 1750s at plantations near the Chesapeake Bay. Decades later, Thomas Jefferson established himself as America’s foremost oenophile due to his love of French wine and doomed attempts to grow vines at his estate in Monticello.
Today, Virginia has over 300 wine brands and almost 4,400 acres of vines. While 82% of these vines are vinifera (mostly Bordeaux red grapes and Chardonnay), Virginia wine is increasingly looking outside Bordeaux varieties to guide the state’s future.
Virginia is also punching above its weight in terms of quality. In 2022 Wine Enthusiast announced it was dropping emerging areas around the country. Virginia made the cut (along with California, Washington, Oregon and New York) despite making less than 0.3% of the nation’s wine production.
Yet relatively few people have heard of Virginia wine, despite these laurels. That’s because of a combination of two intertwined factors; price and production.
Most Virginia wineries make under 3,500 cases/year; only a handful produce more than 40,000 cases/year. The boutique nature of the business means wineries seldom achieve the economy of scale necessary to compete in the $25 and under market. Even if they wanted to distribute, limited production means there’s little to spare.
Fortunately, the industry’s proximity to some of the nation’s wealthiest counties makes agro-tourism a strong driver for growth, which is why most Virginia wine is sold in the tasting room. Over 100 wineries are just over an hour’s drive from D.C. or Northern Virginia. More are located in the scenic Shenandoah Valley, historic Charlottesville, and beyond.
Virginia is geographically and arguably stylistically a middle-ground between California and France, but local winemakers are quick to point out the state’s unique growing conditions makes copying either of these areas nearly impossible.
Probably the most daunting challenge is the state’s hot, humid weather, abetted by copious amounts of rain. The best-performing varieties have qualities which mitigate the resulting rot and disease pressure, so grapes with thick skin and loose clusters are favored. Likewise, vineyards with excellent drainage are a must.
This has resulted in the widespread adoption of hardy grapes, with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot the most planted reds. Ironically, Virginia’s two most popular red varieties are ones Bordeaux considers minor blending grapes.
Other popular grapes tend to be site-specific. Cabernet Sauvignon typically only achieves ripeness when planted on rocky soil, while fragile Pinot Noir is only found in a handful of ‘goldilocks’ vineyards that possess just the right conditions. Fortunately, Merlot does well in Virginia’s clay-based soil, and Chardonnay is a reliable workhorse (as long as there’s no late spring frost).
Meanwhile, many obscure warm-weather varieties are gaining prominence. Two decades ago Virginia helped lead a worldwide renaissance in Viognier, a Rhône grape once threatened with extinction. More recently it became the world’s second-largest home of Petit Manseng, a high acid grape found in southern France. Tannat is gaining recognition in national wine competitions, and sometimes added to give blends color and tannin. Even Albariño is finding a home.
Virginia isn’t tied to any particular style. If it grows well here, someone is likely making a wine out of it.
So – if you’re looking to try a Virginia wine, what should you get?
Old World style expressions of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, or Bordeaux blends can be found at Virginia’s better-known producers, such as Barbourville Vineyards, Linden Vineyards, and Michael Shaps. But people looking for something uniquely reflective of Virginia should try its single-varietal Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Petit Manseng, or Viognier, found all over the state.
That said, it’s unfair to pigeonhole Virginia into just a few categories. In the past year alone Barboursville’s Fiano won best Italian White at the 2022 San Francisco International. Muse Vineyard’s Roussanne was Best White in Show at the 2023 San Diego Wine and Spirits competition. Three of the past four years Trump Winery’s sparklings earned Best in Class wins at the San Francisco Chronical wine competition. The list goes on.
If there’s one take away for Virginia wine, it’s this is an industry that knows how to innovate. One local winery remarked how Virginia attracts ‘real’ winemakers, as they’ve learned to adapt to massive weather swings not just year-to-year but even within the same season. Virginia still considers itself a young wine region, but its producing results.
Reblogged this on The Rambling Vine and commented:
OK, citizens… put your hand over your heart, and raise your wineglass with the other… it’s National Wine Day (cue America the Beautiful)! Time to pay tribute to our nation’s favorite grape juice (nope, sorry Welch’s) and celebrate one of our national treasures!
I love how vast and diverse the USA is, and how wine is being produced in so many more places than I realize. Wine culture is flourishing beyond the beloved West Coast.
For National Wine Day, I thought I would reach out to a fellow American wine blogger to learn about a foreign-to-me wine region: Virginia, which I know next to nothing about, except that I tried a Cabernet Franc from there once. Washington is amazing, but I spill the beans (or juice?) on WA wine a lot – it’s familiar territory.
So guess what I’m doing today? In true contemporary American fashion, I am outsourcing and bringing on a guest writer today for the first time ever to The Rambling Vine! 🙂
Allow me to introduce Matt Fitzsimmons, who blogs about his favorite grape juice at winetrailsandwanderlust.com. Matt, thanks for indulging me and for being so knowledgeable about Virginia wine. I learned a lot and am confident anyone who reads this post will, too.
Here’s a little bit about Matt and what got him into wine:
“As for myself, I’m a wine enthusiast who got into wine writing because I like talking about wine as much as I like drinking it. I got into Virginia wine because the industry lends itself to long-drives in the countryside, which is a pastime of mine. I’m doubly blessed since I’m a history buff and wine country is home to many Civil War battlefields, so I can indulge in both hobbies in the same day.”
I asked Matt if he could have any one bottle of wine in his cellar, what would it be, and he responded “… an RdV 2012 Lost Mountain, if only so I can compare it to older Bordeaux blends.”
It’s kind of funny how Virginia is being hailed as the new frontier of American wine, yet Virginia is one of the oldest places in America to have cultivated wine. It’s a vinous renaissance of sorts happening on the Eastern Seaboard.
I hope you enjoy reading and learning about this fascinating wine region! I know it has definitely inspired some travel hopes for me. Thanks again, Matt!