Soon after the founding of Jamestown, the British made grape growing mandatory. In Jefferson’s time, he attempted seven harvests, but failed to ever make wine. Two hundred years later, a Venetian, Gianni Zonin, bought nearby Barboursville and brought with him “quality control.” This is the reason there are now more than 230 wineries in Virginia, 25 along the Monticello Wine Trail around the small-town charm of Charlottesville.
The rolling hills and sprawling vineyards of Barboursville Vineyards are enchanting. From one end of the estate to the other are distinct micro-climates. Luca Paschina navigates climactic challenges for a beautiful portfolio of wine. “To become a very good winemaker here you have to be creative, intuitive and precise,” he tells me. I swirl a bright and voluptuous Octagon 2009 blend of Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauv and Petit Verdot amidst the explosive fall colours of the surrounding easement. Within undulating rows of yellow, gold, copper and ruby leaves, grapes hang like clusters of jewels shimmering in the sun. In the winery’s Paladio restaurant we pair a lively, floral 2016 Vermentino Reserve with fresh pasta, fava beans and shaved truffles.
Virginia wines are different every year. Petite Verdot and Cab Franc do very well here, but the state grape is Viognier. Tasting verticals at Jefferson Vineyards reveals the delicious nuances of vintage variations. Quality is consistent, but there is a lot of experimentation and investment. “The camaraderie in our wine community is quite astounding,” shares Attila Woodward. The Monticello Winemakers Research Exchange encourages knowledge sharing. We sample a ripe tropical Viognier with crisp aromatics, and a Meritage with juicy blackberries, a hint of the woods and a kiss of spice.
Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards exemplifies the experimentation in the region. Spectacular panoramic views from the tasting room make this a highly sought-after wedding destination. Sampling fried oysters and a charcuterie board of local meats and cheeses, we mix and match with a range of wines from a juniper- and vanilla-hinted Chardonnay, to a vivacious Cab Sauv of cherries and cloves; a soft raisin-y late harvest Petit Manseng, to a port, Bin 21, reminiscent of chocolate-covered cherries.
Winding through the hilly forests of the Monticello Wine Trail is like something out of a fairy tale, where each new winery is a hidden gem to discover. A walk through the woods leads to Veritas Vineyards and Winery. A unique Sauvignon Blanc with zesty key lime, passion fruit and gooseberries is a perfect pairing with raw oysters. “We’re taking an old grape and we’re making a new wine out of it,” shares George Hodson. “When people come in, they’re surprised.” The Viognier, too, is atypical. There is no malolactic fermentation, so it maintains a crisp acidity from nose to palate. Its aromas of peaches and apricots pair with southern food like grits and fried chicken. An exciting wine to pair with a juicy steak is the Petite Verdot with deep cherries, dark fruit and a leathery essence.
Whether meandering past coastal towns and picturesque beaches of the Chesapeake Bay or winding through majestic forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, the “Old Dominion,” long known for Presidents, peanuts and country ham, has become one of the largest wine regions in North America, quietly over-achieving with balanced, elegant wines bursting with fruit, and paired with a resurrected oyster industry that is the envy of the world.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.