Food & Drink

Dunne on Wine: If Thomas Jefferson could see his Virginia now

In the foreground, a barn believed to date from the 1800s; in the back, Early Mountain Vineyards, the Virginia winery estate of Jean and Steve Case of America Online (AOL) fame.
In the foreground, a barn believed to date from the 1800s; in the back, Early Mountain Vineyards, the Virginia winery estate of Jean and Steve Case of America Online (AOL) fame. Picasa

Californians heading to Virginia to check out fall foliage in all its sunset glory have another bright treat awaiting them: Wines diverse, familiar and finely honed.

Thomas Jefferson’s failed dream to see American viticulture take root at and about his Monticello estate finally is being realized.

Today, more than 250 wineries are tucked into Virginia’s hollows, turning out cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, viognier and several other varietal wines that Californians will recognize immediately.

Their availability and polish surprised me when late this summer I helped judge the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition just outside Washington, D.C.

I’d expected most of the 503 entries to be made from native and hybrid grape varieties accustomed to the challenging growing conditions along the East Coast, which in contrast to California, include withering humidity, intense thunderstorms, killer freezes and even hurricanes.

Virginia was no place for esteemed if relatively fragile European vitis-vinifera grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and the like, Thomas Jefferson reluctantly concluded, and I bought into that history.

“Was,” however, is the operative term. Today, vitis-vinifera strains are thriving throughout Virginia, with some – cabernet franc, petit verdot, viognier – doing better than others. As in California, chardonnay yields the most tonnage, but also as in California, quality is wildly inconsistent. Though extensively planted, cabernet sauvignon remains a struggle in Virginia, while pinot noir virtually can’t be found.

After the competition, I lingered for a couple of days in Virginia to ask growers and vintners why they are succeeding when Jefferson failed so miserably. I kept hearing the same answers. For one, farmers now have American rootstock for grafting, in contrast to relying on French cuttings that Jefferson tried to transplant. Also, farmers have sprays to better deal with the persistent threat of mildew and mold during the summer growing season.

“He didn’t have the right tools at his disposal, mostly,” says Ben Jordan, winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards just north of Charlottesville.

Growers and vintners began to take advantage of these developments mostly over the past two decades, leading to a surge in plantings and construction of wineries. Today, Virginia ranks fifth among the states in terms of vineyard acreage and number of wineries.

But despite technological and scientific developments in vineyard and cellar, winemaking in Virginia remains a study in determination and patience. Vineyards typically stretch up against dense woodlands that harbor squirrels, bears, deer, birds and other critters with an appetite for juicy grapes. Deer fences around Virginia vineyards look to be the tallest and sturdiest on the continent, and crews routinely string nets over vines as grapes near their prime ripeness.

And there’s no avoiding the brutal hand that weather can deal. Name a kind of rot – noble, sour, black – and Virginia grape growers know it. Emily Pelton, winemaker for her family’s Veritas Vineyard & Winery west of Charlottesville, rues the vintage of 2011, when three hurricanes soaked her vineyard. “I lost 32 tons of grapes to rot,” she recalls.

And then there are cold snaps; during a fierce freeze two winters ago, winemaker Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards northeast of Charlottesville lost some 20,000 young vines.

For wine enthusiasts, such wide swings in vintage echo the sort of variability in wines common to Europe but not as frequent or as extreme as in California, where consistency in quality and style are expected. Thus, the Virginia wine pilgrim is in for a treat if he is adventurous, or in for confusion and frustration if he expects a given varietal or style to be the same vintage to vintage.

Nonetheless, in my tastings in Virginia I found some varietals and styles to be consistently rewarding, despite variations from year to year. At the top of that list is petit verdot, a black grape typically used to add color and structure to Bordeaux blends. In Virginia, on the other hand, petit verdot is yielding stand-alone varietal wines fragrant, focused and quietly complex, with sturdy spines, a splash of spice and relatively relaxed tannins.

Blended wines based on Bordeaux grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot also were appealing for their freshness, elegance, layering and equilibrium.

The varietal wine most closely identified with Virginia is viognier, and here again the wines were spirited, pointed and fruity, their builds leaner and their acidity crisper than what commonly is found in viognier from California.

To experience Virginia wine basically requires a special trip or at least a detour from Washington, D.C. An amazing 95 percent of Virginia’s wines are sold in the state, says Annette Ringwood Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office. With fall here, the forests alight with color and the harvest under way, now seems as good a time as any.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne@