Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Thomas Jefferson’s heritage lingers at Virginia winery

Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia offers lovely views.
Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia offers lovely views.

So, you’re on holiday in Washington, D.C., but as a California wine enthusiast you need your fix.

Luckily, two hours southwest of the nation’s capital is the only winery you really need to visit to understand how the East Coast wine trade is developing, specifically in Virginia.

Barboursville Vineyards has history, a scenic setting, comfortable tasting venues, a restaurant and an inn.

More to the point, it is widely seen as the most reliable of Virginia’s growing number of wineries, though the competition is intensifying.

That’s fine by Luca Paschina, Barboursville’s tall, lanky and engaging general manager and winemaker.

More wineries and more skilled winemaking is just what the state needs to show that its wines are the equal of any made in the United States, Paschina said during a tour of the 900-acre estate, of which 182 acres are planted to such diverse varieties as sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, pinot grigio and chardonnay.

“A few years ago we didn’t have enough professionals here,” Paschina said. “Now we are seeing more people who know what they are doing.”

A lot of them have Paschina and the estate’s proprietor, fellow Italian native Gianni Zonin, to thank for showing the way.

Zonin began to develop the site in 1976 after scouting Oregon, New York and California for prospective vineyard land. Virginia won him over for its resemblance to northern Italy and its land prices, but mostly because it accommodated his acquisition philosophy, which was to find places whose vineyard potential hadn’t yet been fully appreciated. He’d done it throughout Italy and was now ready to tackle the U.S.

Before Paschina joined the enterprise in 1990, however, Barboursville’s potential remained unfulfilled. Paschina brought in new clones, rootstock and cultivation techniques. Since then, Barboursville’s profile steadily has risen despite the extremes that Virginia’s climate can throw farmers.

“There’s always some challenges in agriculture,” Paschina said. “At the end of the day you just hope that people appreciate the wine.”

Helping him adapt to those vagaries has been the happy discovery that traditional Italian grape varieties look to be at home in the Virginia countryside. He is so tickled with the caliber of nebbiolo he’s producing that he’s added five acres to the four he originally planted. This year he harvested the estate’s first fiano, a green grape indigenous to Italy’s Campania region. And he’s put in what is believed to be Virginia’s first plot of ribolla gialla, a green grape not grown much beyond Italy’s Friuli region.

Paschina isn’t the first farmer in Virginia to be drawn to Italian grape varieties, however. In a barrel room just behind the winery’s tasting room he pauses along a display of historic documents and points to an invoice for vine cuttings ordered in 1807 by Thomas Jefferson for his nearby Monticello estate. The inventory includes such Italian varieties as trebbiano, malvasia and aleatico.

Jefferson’s influence also is evident just down the slope from the tasting room. It’s the ruins of an 1814 brick mansion he designed for his pal James Barbour – Virginia governor, U.S. senator and secretary of war under President John Quincy Adams – but gutted by fire on Christmas Day in 1884.

The structure’s central room was octagon-shaped, inspiring the name for the estate’s flagship wine, Octagon, made only in vintages when Paschina feels he has received fruit that measures up to his standards for the wine, based largely on merlot and cabernet franc. To judge by tasting three recent vintages, Paschina wants the wine to be plush, complex and elegant, with generous fruit and the structure and acid to age confidently for a decade or two. The current release of Octagon, the 2012, sells for $55, half or so of what such a dramatic wine would command if its appellation were Napa Valley and not Virginia.

Virginia wines show more vintage variability than California wines, where the weather is more benign and predictable. Therefore, Paschina adjusts the output of this or that wine according to the nature of the harvest. He went six years between vintages of Octagon, for example, before he felt he had the fruit to maintain the standard he had set for the wine.

Current especially impressive wines from Barboursville include a 2013 viognier that’s leaner and snappier than customary takes on the varietal from California ($22); a frisky 2014 vermentino with uncommon minerality and endurance ($23); a cohesive and sturdy 2012 nebbiolo that’s exceptionally floral, tarry and approachable with angular styling and edgy acidity ($35); and the 2010 Paxxito, a honeyed and intensely fruity dessert wine not far removed from Vin Santo in style or breeding, which includes the long air drying of its moscato ottonel and vidal grapes to concentrate sugars ($32 per 375-milliliter bottle).

In the model of Jeffersonian agrarian ideals, Barboursville Vineyards is a diversified working farm, given over to a herd of Black Angus cattle, Berkshire hogs and fields of hay as well as vineyards. Paschina’s winemaking goals are similarly varied as he aims to squeeze individuality from each variety rather than shoot for an overall house style. “We have no specific goal other than to produce the best wine we can from the conditions here,” he says.

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


Barboursville Vineyards

The tasting room at Barboursville Vineyards (17655 Winery Road, Barboursville, Va.) is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays.

Nearly half of the winery’s production is sold at the estate, with six wines sold outside of Virginia. Californians can order Barboursville wines online: www.bbvwine.com.