Some 400 years after English settlers hoped to establish a flourishing wine industry at Jamestown, Virginia wines are making a name for themselves.
Leading English wine authorities have taken note. In a May, 2007 London wine tasting to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, 64 Virginia wines wowed wine critics and lovers alike.
Not long ago Travel and Leisure magazine’s Bruce Schoenfeld proclaimed Virginia one of five up-and-coming wine regions (along with areas of Chile, Italy, Spain and New Zealand) that “should be on the must-visit list of any adventurous wine traveler.” And in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, a reviewer wrote that “Virginia is making Cabernet Franc and Viognier wines that are world-beaters,” citing a Saveur article in which wine critic Paul Luckas named two Virginia Viogniers among the best available.
Wines from the Commonwealth are winning national and international recognition for their elegant qualities. Virginia’s terroir – those special characteristics of the land that affect wine – helps vintners create wines stylistically between those of California and Europe that go particularly well with food. Chefs have noticed. An exclusive Chicago restaurant features a Virginia wine on its 10-course dining experience at $350 a plate.
Virginia Viognier, now an accepted term among wine fanciers, is already on its way to being one of Virginia’s most notable wines. Also getting national recognition are Virginia Cabernet Franc and Virginia’s native Norton.
Virginia wine history
Virginians have made wine for more than four centuries. The Jamestown settlers had such hopes that Virginia would become a major source of wine for the British Empire that in 1619 they signed into law a requirement for each male settler to plant and tend at least ten grape vines. Little came of it. Every effort to grow vinifera, or vines of European origin, met with failure from an unknown pest, Phylloxera as well as diseases in a new environment. The booming tobacco trade diluted British interest in the possibilities of American wine. Americans themselves lost interest. While fine wine could be had only from Europe, whiskey, beer and brandy were plentiful.
In hopes of one day realizing the promise of fine Virginia wines, Thomas Jefferson cultivated European grapes for more than 30 years. His Monticello vineyards never produced a single bottle of wine from his years of vineyard trials. He wasn’t alone in trying. After 11 years of efforts at Mount Vernon, George Washington, too, had nothing to show for it.
In the 1820s, wines made from Native American grapes met with great success. Then a Virginia Norton wine was named “best red wine of all nations” at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873. Plus a gold medal for Norton at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 when the Eiffel tower was constructed. The discovery in the late 1800s that native and European vines could be grafted gave Virginia’s nascent wine industry a lift – but in the early 20th century, Prohibition promptly brought it to a standstill. The industry was slow to bounce back. Some 17 years after Prohibition’s repeal, Virginia had all of 15 acres of commercial wine grapes.
In the late-1950s, experimental plantings of vinifera showed promise. With the establishment of six new wineries in the 1970s, the recovery was officially underway. A renewed effort to grow a European Chardonnay succeeded at the Waverly Estate in Middleburg in 1973. Then in 1976, Italian pioneer vintner Gianni Zonin hired Gabriele Rausse to grow and harvest vinifera grapes near Charlottesville. He established Barboursville Vineyards and then helped other vineyards do the same. By 1995, Virginia had 46 wineries. By 2005, 107. At 192 wineries and counting today, only California, New York, Oregon and Washington have more wineries than Virginia. The persistence of generations of winemakers is paying off. And the vision of one of Virginia’s most renowned native sons, Thomas Jefferson, is now coming true.