All fifty American states now produce wine, but 95% of it comes from only four of them. California is by far the most prolific state and it is responsible for five times more wine than the output of the next three combined: Washington, Oregon and New York. Of the other states, Texas and then Virginia are the fifth and sixth largest wine producers respectively. Although it might be a surprise to some to learn that wine is made in Virginia, I was aware of this fact but I had never had the chance to taste the Old Dominion’s vinous bounty until now.
At first glance, Virginia doesn’t appear to be an especially promising place to plant grape vines. Although Virginia lies on the same latitude as southern Spain, its climate is tempered by the ocean to the east and by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. The hot and wet climate might be ideal for growing tobacco and peanuts, but it rules out large areas from quality wine grape production. Many of the best vineyards are situated on the eastern slopes and foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, often at altitudes of 800 feet or higher, which are cooler during the state’s hot summers yet are above the frostline thereby avoiding the worst of the winters’ cold.
Historically, many of the species of vine planted were hybrids or native varieties that could withstand these difficult conditions. Whilst some of these are still grown, advances in modern viticulture have seen their popularity wane in favour of more prestigious, higher quality, European Vitis vinifera varieties. The quantity of wine produced in Virginia has also grown from that of a scant handful of wineries in the 1970s to that of over 230 today, with the area under vine currently standing at approximately 1,200 hectares and increasing by around 10% year on year.
The birthplace of American wine production, Virginia certainly has a notable viticultural heritage. Within a few years of the arrival of Jamestown’s first settlers in 1607, the Virginia Company of London wrote into its land patents that vines and other staple crops be trialled to ensure that private estates were not solely devoted to the production of tobacco. Virginia was also home to Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, a voracious collector of French wines and an enthusiastic, if wholly unsuccessful, vintner.
The wines we tasted were all imported by Chris Parker of New Horizon Wines who, after spending time working in Virginia, saw a gap in the market for this as yet undiscovered and high quality wine producing region. He soon decided to put his money where his mouth was and he is now doing a great job of highlighting Virginia on the UK’s wine map of the world.
1. White Hall Vineyards, Viognier 2011 (13% ABV, £20)
Viognier is a fickle and difficult grape to grow and to vinify correctly, as such I really had no idea what to expect from these Virginian examples. I needn’t have worried. The pale, greenish yellow colour of this example suggested an unoaked wine, although Chris thought that around 40% of the wine was matured in old oak for roundness rather than wood character. He also mentioned that this wine was in fact a blend of 95% Viognier and 5% Petit Manseng, the tropical and stone-fruited powerhouse of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh, Irouléguy and Jurançon. Aside from its complementary fruit flavours, it makes perfect sense to blend Petit Manseng with Viognier as its firm acidity lends rigidity to what can sometimes be a rather flabby wine.
That was unlikely to be an issue with this wine as its grapes were grown in the cool, breezy foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in granite soils reminiscent of those of Viognier’s native Condrieu in the northern Rhône valley.
Despite White Hall’s preference for harvesting ultra ripe fruit, the nose was intriguingly restrained with aromas of ginger flower and a touch of struck match smokiness. A prickle of ginger spice, a hint of white peach and honeysuckle plus firm acidity combined to form a lovely portrait of cool climate Viognier. Fresh, lithe and not all overblown, there was an almost bitter hint of grapefruit pith to the long finish. No wonder Viognier is rapidly becoming Virginia’s foremost premium white grape.
2. Barboursville Vineyards, Viognier Reserve 2011 (13% ABV, £20)
The town of Barboursville, in the Monticello AVA of Piedmont in central Virginia, is named in honour of the state’s eighteenth governor, James Barbour – friend and neighbour to both Thomas Jefferson and to James Madison. Thomas Barbour had founded a substantial plantation there in the mid-1700s and the Barboursville estate was the Barbour family’s own. It was Thomas Jefferson who designed the estate house and this was the Barbour family residence until it was accidentally destroyed by fire on Christmas day in 1884. The Barbours then moved into the Georgian villa next door and resided there for several generations. Although it is now just a brick shell, by virtue of its architect and of the quality of its design, the ruin of the Jefferson-designed Barboursville house was listed on the National Register Of Historic Places in 1969.
Founded by maverick Veneto winemaker Gianni Zonin in 1976, Barboursville Vineyards can rightly claim to be one of the earliest of Virginia’s new wave of quality-focussed wineries. Ignoring all suggestions to plant tobacco rather than grape vines, Zonin instead opted to experiment with a diverse selection of Vitis vinifera varieties and to explore the results this unique terroir would yield. His dedication and his open mindedness mean that today Barboursville Vineyards offers one of the widest arrays of wines of any of the world’s leading estates.
A similar colour to the previous wine, the only other direct similarity was the avoidance of malolactic fermentation. This wine was matured entirely in stainless steel and had been left on its lees for thirteen months. This prolonged lees contact and regular bâtonnage had supplied a soft, almost oak-like richness without any of the associated toasty or vanilla flavours to detract from the primary fruit flavours. Lean and citrussy on the nose, with peach and ginger elements that added complexity. Dry and relatively light on its toes for a Viognier, this was a touch softer and less firmly acidic than the previous wine but it was beautifully balanced. The palate was elegant and refined with a delicate streak of lime juice fruit that lead into a long, floral, ginger and minerally finish. An absolute delight.
3. Barboursville Vineyards, Viognier Reserve 2009 (13% ABV)
The unexpected presence of this older vintage was entirely accidental and it was noticed only as the wine was being poured. Although we had to stretch a single bottle of each vintage between us all to compare the two vintages side by side, it was a fascinating opportunity to track the evolution of a wine that is rarely given the chance to age.
There was a ripe, sweet, vanilla character to the nose with a slight toastiness noticeable. The palate was round, soft and almost creamy - probably due to the prolonged lees contact - with a firm acidity that seemed to remain somewhat aloof from the fruit. I don’t think that ageing had done this wine any favours as it no longer displayed the harmony of its younger sibling, although the stone fruit flavours were still fresh and the long finish had a very pleasant pithy aspect.
4. Barboursville Vineyards, Nebbiolo Reserve 2009 (13.5% ABV, £30)
An expatriate Italian, planting vineyards in an area called Piedmont that is prone to autumnal mists... you wouldn’t really have bet against the likelihood that Piemontese winemaker Luca Paschina would plant Nebbiolo at Barboursville.
Medium deep, russet-hued garnet in colour, this had a nose of sweet, ripe raspberry fruit, a suggestion of vanilla oak, peppery spice and an almost Pinot Noir-like, foresty undertone. Lighter than I expected on the palate with very fine but firm tannins and a bracing acidity that was distinctly Italian in nature. Raspberry and red cherry fruit, pepper and clove spice, smokey and coffee notes from the oak (12 months in 30% new and 70% second fill French oak barriques) balanced by a lovely sappy element to the mid-palate, all lead into a long, savoury, almost meaty finish.
This did not quite have the structure or the nobility of Barolo or Barbaresco’s finest, but it was certainly in the same league as much of Piemonte’s mid table Nebbiolo and it was far and away the best non-Italian example I’ve yet tasted. I could well be tempted to buy half a case so that I can open a bottle every couple of years and enjoy its evolution.
5. Veritas, Paul Schaffer 4th Edition Petit Verdot 2010 (14% ABV, £25)
Founded as recently as 1999 and now producing about 10,000 cases per year, there is no shortage of veritas in their vino. The Hodson family is happy to combine classic viticultural and vinification methods with state of the art technology to make complex, elegant wines that best express their terroir. Situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from White Hall Vineyards, the vines are planted in similarly difficult decomposed granite soils.
Inky dark and purple hued, it displayed violets and spiced bramble fruit on the nose with a tobacco/leafy edge. Dry, with plenty of very soft, dusty tannins, the fruit was ripe, dark and laced with black pepper spice and vanilla oak. I also noted a capsicum flavour to the firm acidity that invigorated the structure. The alcohol and the oak weren’t obtrusive and the wine was well balanced with a long, drying finish. Approachable now, but this will definitely improve over the next three or four years.
6. Barboursville Vineyards, Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010 (14.5% ABV, £25)
Grown in heavier, clay soils that that are paradoxically well draining yet are able to retain moisture during the heat of summer, Barboursville offers Bordeaux’s Cabernet Franc a perfect home from home. I mention Bordeaux as four of the five Cabernet Franc clones cultivated at Barboursville hail from there, whilst the fifth is from the variety’s other stronghold in France: the Loire.
Medium deep ruby in colour, with noticeably long legs. The nose was a deep and savoury melange of coffee-laced black fruit. Leafy black fruit, black pepper spice, well integrated oak, firm acidity and chewy tannins made up the palate and, although not unbalanced, there was a noticeable warmth from the alcohol. The finish was long and savoury but the overall impression was of a wine that was still rather young and tight. Give it 2 - 3 years and see what happens. A good quality and well made wine, but its style was less to my taste than the previous Barboursville wines.
7. Barboursville Vineyards, Octagon 2009 (13.5% ABV, £35)
Barboursville, the burnt-out shell of Governor James Barbour’s mansion, was designed by Thomas Jefferson and features his signature architectural feature at its heart. As at his own house, Monticello, Jefferson arranged the accommodation around a two-storey octagonal drawing room that should have been topped with a dome but never was. The house is now part of the Barboursville Vineyards estate; its floor plan graces the label of the winery’s premier red cuvée and its distinctively shaped tribuna provides the name.
Made only in the best vintages, this right bank Bordeaux blend falls somewhere between its French muses and its Californian compatriots, both geographically and stylistically. Composed of 75% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 10% Petit Verdot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, the blend is matured for twelve months in new French oak barriques and then for six months in bottle prior to release.
Deeply coloured with black fruit and toasty oak to the nose, but not much else was noticeable until it began to open in the glass. Dry, with pretty, dark fruit and carefully judged toasty oak. The acidity and tannins were far more elegant than the straight Cabernet Franc above. Still very young, it needed five years or so for its complexity to evolve and open. Savoury, rich and poised; full-bodied and long. Definitely new world, but not in a bad way, and good enough to have been served at the White House for the last two inaugural presidential balls.
8. Breaux Vineyards, Nebbiolo Ice 2010 (37.5cl, 13.8% ABV, £22.50)
Despite being one of Virginia's largest winegrowers with 104 acres under vine, Breaux Vineyards doesn’t cut any corners in its pursuit of quality wines; indeed its grapes are still harvested and sorted by hand.
A delicate rose pink, this displayed a leafy, raspberry jam nose. The palate was sweet without being cloying, its firm acidity and a streak of Nebbiolo’s signature tannin kept it honest. The fruit character was fresh rather than raisined as the grapes had not been affected by botrytis. Instead, they were harvested late (November) and the whole bunches were frozen before pressing, explaining why this could not be labelled as a true icewine. There was bright strawberry fruit on the finish and, although it wasn’t hugely complex, overall it was very enjoyable. This might well keep for a couple of years, but I can’t foresee any benefits from so doing.
9. Barboursville Vineyards, Malvaxia Passito 2008 (13.9% ABV)
This final wine of the evening was an unscheduled surprise from Chris. This is not yet imported into the UK, and he only had a single half bottle to pour for us, but what an interesting bottle it was.
Made from Moscato Ottonel and Vidal, the grapes are dried for 120 days before being pressed, fermented and matured in oak for 24 months. As with passito (dried grape) wines from the Veneto, the Barboursville team initially attempted to dry the grapes on traditional bamboo mats (arele), but Virginia’s climate was too humid and the grapes rotted. To counter this problem, they designed their own ventilated plastic trays and left the grapes to dry in a long barn with a good flow of air.
Golden yellow and with a noticeable viscosity, this had high-toned quince and pineapple fruit on the nose and a toasty element, too. The palate was redolent of pineapple, apricot and canned pears in syrup, and there was plenty of acidity to balance and refresh. It maybe lacked a little of the complexity that a degree of botrytis could offer, but it was certainly very pleasant nonetheless.
Obviously it’s not only Masi that has successfully exported its native appassimento technique to the Americas, proving to me that you can take the winemaker out of the Veneto, but you can’t take the Veneto out of the winemaker.
These are not, and cannot be, inexpensive wines, but I have to say that I was extremely impressed by their quality and I will certainly be drinking them again in the future. A big thank you to Chris for a great tasting, and thanks as always to Hanging Ditch, and to Sophia in particular, for piquing my interest.