Virginia: Old World Wine from the USA

IMG00291-20130515-1931The May tasting at NEWTS was a selection of wines from an area of the US with a long, if somewhat chequered history with winemaking.

The Commonwealth of Virginia , nicknamed “Old Dominion” , the “Mother of Presidents” and the “Mother of States”, was home to the first permanent English settlement in North America (Jamestown, 1607) and one of the original 13 Colonies who came together to form the United States of America in 1776.
Although it was the Spanish settlements in present-day California, Arizona and New Mexico that had the first successful (and long continuing) winemaking enterprises on what is now US soil, over on the east coast the first English settlers saw the abundance of native grape vines and knew of the market back in Europe. Less than 2 years after setting up the colony, wine from local grapes had been made but was found lacking in the tastes expected from Vitis vinifera species.

Over the next few years vines and French winemakers were imported from Europe in an attempt to set up a new industry, with the Virginia Assembly passing a law that each householder plant and tend 10 cuttings. Despite records of relatively large vineyards in existence between 1619 and 1622 the enterprise failed, likely a combination of factors including disease, tension between English and French and sometimes viscous conflict with the indigenous population restricting the growth and industry of the fledgling colony.

For the best part of 200 years attempts to work with vinifera continued; in the early 1700s German winemakers from the Rhineland settled in Spotsylvania; in 1769 Frenchman Andrew Estav was appointed as official winemaker and viticulturist for the colony; Thomas Jefferson experimented with countless European grapes for more than 30 years at his Monticello vineyards – he wasn’t the only Founding Father to do so, George Washington also tried for years at Mount Vernon. All ended in failure, with the then unknown phylloxera louse likely playing a major part (it wasn’t until the 1870s, after phylloxera had devastated European vineyards, that the rootstock grafting method that saved modern winemaking was discovered).

Jefferson and other Virginians had greater success with the Scuppernong, a native Muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia) and a successful winemaking industry developed based on this and later with the Norton Grape, a variety (or hybrid ) of Vitis aestivalis named for Dr. Daniel Norborne Norton  of Richmond, Virginia. Commercialisation of the grape let to success at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873 where a Norton wine was named “Best Wine of all Nations”, but with so many battles of the 1861-65 Civil War fought on Virginian soil the economy (and vineyards) were destroyed. Prohibitionist sympathies followed until a complete Virginia ban on alcohol in 1916, effectively ending the wine industry in the State.

Although Prohibition ended in 1933 recovery was slow – by 1950 there were only 15 acres of vines and in the 1970s there were only 3 commercial wineries, including the Piedmont Vineyards & Winery who planted the state’s first Chardonnay on the Waverly Estate in 1973.
1975 was the year that change started, with the purchase of Barboursville Vineyard by Italian Gianni Zonin (heir to Casa Vinicola Zonin founded in 1821). Zonin’s millions restored Barboursville (the original estate house was designed Thomas Jefferson in 1814 for his friend James Barbour) so that it now produces 20 styles of wine including a Cabernet Franc, which is Virginia’s most planted red grape and the one believed to be most at home with the region’s soils and climate.

Investment such as this revitalised Virginian winemaking so that by 1995 there were 46 wineries, 107 in 2005 and over 200 today. Most of the wineries in the state are “boutique” size, with many owned by millionaires or successful business retirees (Donald Trump has a winery in Monticello). With typical production fewer than 5,000 cases annually most of them rely heavily on tasting room traffic and associated winery events – more than 1.6 million tourists visited Virginia wineries in 2011.

There are 9 distinct regions and 7 AVAs (American Viticultural Area) – September 2012 saw the approval of the most recent AVA, Middleburg, in the Northern Virginia Region.Virginia

With a varied geography from Atlantic coast to the Blue Ridge Mountains inland and the Appalachian & Shenandoah Mountains on the state’s western border there are five distinct sub-climates; the Tidewater, Piedmont, Northern Virginia, Western Mountain and Southwestern Mountain.  In general Virginia is a humid, subtropical region and has a temperate growing season which varies between the regions at 160 to 200 days.
With rolling fields, lush greenery and a large amount of clay in the soil the state is akin to “the best of England” and, in comparison to Bordeaux, has slightly warmer summers and slightly cooler winters with frosts.

As of 2012, the state has approximately 3,000 acres (12000 ha) under cultivation, with a total harvest of over 7,500 tons – the majority of which was Vinifera. The state ranks fifth in the US for grape production behind California, Washington, Oregon and New York.
The top 5 planted varieties are all Vitis vinifera; Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Viognier. The Hybrid variety Vidal Blanc just pips Petit Verdot for 6th, with another hybrid, Chambourcin 8th and the Norton variety 9th.

The NEWTS May tasting covered 8 wines from 6 estates from the Monticello and Middleburg AVAs – for a list of the wines tried at the tastings see the North East Wine Tasting Society website tastings page for May 2013 all from the Oxford Wine Company.
Virginian RescueThe wines were a great success and surprised many who were prepared to judge them based on their West Coast cousins. I hesitate to say they would appeal to the “European Palate”, as I’m not convinced such generalisations are required in wine tastings, but it has been said by others that the Wines of Virginia show an elegance and style which is more Old World than New.


Further reading;

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