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The History of Winemaking in Virginia

The History of Winemaking in Virginia

Mar 12, 2015

Ever since California wines achieved international acclaim in the 1970s, the American wine industry has been steadily growing and evolving. Wineries have opened in all 50 states, with regions from Willamette, Oregon to Long Island, New York becoming popular wine destinations. Many people would be surprised to find out that the state of Virginia is now the sixth largest producer of wine in the United States. The number of wineries in Virginia has grown from just three in 1975 to over 200 today. Once considered to be inferior by wine connoisseurs, Virginia wines are now gaining recognition and delighting wine lovers everywhere. Travel and Leisure Magazine recently named Virginia as one of five up-and-coming wine regions along with areas of Italy, Spain, Chile and New Zealand. Although Virginia has only recently begun to receive praise from wine critics for its production of fine wines, Virginia has a long history of winemaking tradition.

Colonial Winemaking in Virginia

Sometimes called the “birthplace of wine” in the United States, Virginia has had a flourishing wine industry for nearly four centuries. The early English settlers of Jamestown, Virginia hoped to make the New World a major source of wine for the British Empire. They even passed a law in 1619 requiring every male settler to plant ten grapevines. However, their efforts to grow European wine grape varietals in the New World were largely thwarted by pests and diseases.

Thomas Jefferson, a well-known wine connoisseur, cultivated European wine grapes on his Monticello estate for over 30 years. Unfortunately, the vineyards at Monticello were never able to produce even a single bottle of wine. With the tobacco trade in Virginia quickly gaining ground, Virginia’s early settlers began to lose their interest in wine production.

Beginning around 1820, winemakers in Virginia began to produce wine made from native grapes. These early Virginia wines were quite successful, with a Virginia Norton wine being named the “best wine of all nations” at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. In the late 1800s Virginia winemakers began to graft native and European vines together to produce fine European-style wines.

The Civil War and Prohibition

The winemaking industry in Virginia began to lose ground with the outbreak of the Civil War. The fierce battles on Virginia’s soil destroyed many vineyards and damaged Virginia’s economy. Prohibition sentiment in the later 1800s slowed the revival of Virginia’s wine industry. By the time Prohibition passed in 1914, there were only 15 acres of wine grapes left in Virginia. The wine industry in Virginia was very slow to recover once Prohibition was repealed.

The 1960s and the Rebirth Of Virginia Wine

The 1960s brought a surge in the nation’s interest in fine wines. The discovery of new cultivation techniques and favorable growing conditions led to the opening of six new wineries in Virginia by the 1970s. The recovery of Virginia’s wine industry was officially underway as vintners experimented with the production of European-style wines. The Waverly Estate in Middleburg produced a European Chardonnay in 1973. The influential Italian winemaker Gianni Ronin hired Gabriel Rausse in 1976 to cultivate wine grapes near Charlottesville. Together they established Barboursville Vineyards, one of Virginia’s oldest producers of world class wines in the European tradition. The founders of Barboursville encouraged a renewed local interest in wine production. The 1980s brought a boost to Virginia’s wine industry with experts at Virginia Tech developing various new techniques to cultivate high quality wine grapes in Virginia. Today there are over 200 wineries in Virginia, with winemakers producing world class wines to rival those coming from other established wine regions such as California and Oregon. Virginia’s wine industry, with its various jobs and related sales, now adds about $750 million yearly to its economy.

Virginia Wine Country – A Rich and Varied Landscape

Virginia boasts several regions offering both humble beauty and prime grape growing conditions. Each of the five major areas of the state offers distinct advantages for the production of wine. Vineyards and wineries can be found in every area of the state, including the Atlantic Coastal Plain, the Appalachian Ridge, the Appalachian Plateau, the Blue Ridge and the Piedmont. Good conditions for growing grapes can be found in the granite-based soil in the state’s western area as well as the sandy loam in the eastern area. Each region offers a temperate climate that is neither too hot nor too cold for extended periods of time. The distinctive geographic features of each area influence the characteristics of the wines produced in each region. The mountainous area of the southwest as well as the Shenandoah Valley averages a 160-day growing season. The region east of the Blue Ridge features a 200-day growing season. Because each of Virginia’s regions offer good conditions for growing grapes, fine wines are now produced in all areas of the state. Virginia’s wine country is now considered one of the strongest wine regions of the East Coast, attracting tourism as well as many exciting wine festivals and events.

Discovering Virginia Wine and Vineyards

Virginia’s red clay soil and temperate climate offer conditions ideal for the cultivation of several different wine grape varietals. Over the last 25 years, Virginia winemakers have grown to understand the characteristics of Virginia’s climate and growing conditions. Certain popular varietials, such as Reisling and Pinot Noir, favor cooler temperatures, but there are several types of wine grapes which thrive in Virginia’s hot, humid summers. Virginia’s wineries have built an excellent reputation for several varietals, including Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, as well as the Norton wines that have played a large part in Virginia’s wine history. Wineries in Virginia now offer fine wines in most styles, including red and white wines, sparkling wines, fruit wines and meads (honey wines).

The following list includes a sampling of the offerings available from some of Virginia’s noteworthy wineries:

  1. Barboursville Vineyards

One of the oldest wineries in the state, Barboursville produces some the best-known wines in Virginia. Barboursville is known for exacting standards and a commitment to bringing Old World European techniques to modern New World wines. One of the largest wineries in Virginia, Barboursville sells over 38,000 cases of wine each year. The winery is currently owned by Luca Paschina, a third-generation winemaker born in northern Italy. Barboursville’s premium wines, such as the Bordeaux blend named Octagon, require extensive aging in oak barrels and are produced only in years that feature ideal growing conditions.

  1. Trump Winery, Charlottesville, Virginia

Located only a few miles from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, Trump Winery continues to produce award-winning wines in the Old World tradition. Trump Winery features traditional Bordeaux style blends using varietals such as Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. Trump Winery also produces sparkling wines made from cooler weather varietals including Chardonnay and Pinot Meuniers.

  1. King Family Vineyards, Crozet, Virginia

This family-owned boutique winery is known for excellent examples of small-production, premium wines. The vineyards feature stunning views of Blue Ridge Mountain, and visitors enjoy proximity to a picturesque horse farm. The Michael Chaps Monticello Viognier has received high ratings from several major wine magazines.

  1. Veritas Vineyard and Winery, Afton, Virginia

This family-run winery is known for its Merlot, Petit Verdot and dessert wines. Various family members, including owners Andrew and Patricia Hodson, offer tours of the vineyards. Special events are held throughout the year, including a Valentine’s Day winemaker’s dinner and other holiday events.

  1. Prince Michel Vineyard and Winery, Leon, Virginia

This winery can be found along a scenic drive though Shenandoah National Park. Its unpretentious tasting room offers samples of a variety of crowd-pleasing wines. Tourists will enjoy a wine museum offering a history of winemaking in Virginia.

  1. Jefferson Vineyards

This winery is set on the site of Thomas Jefferson’s original vineyards. It’s within eyeshot of Jefferson’s Monticello estate and seeks to continue Thomas Jefferson’s legacy of winemaking in Virginia. They offer a variety of wines containing no additives or commercial concentrates, including a Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

The Future of Virginia Wine

The recent remarkable success of Virginia’s winemakers suggests that Virginia is here is stay as one of America’s noteworthy wine regions. As the market for fine wines continues to grow, Virginia’s wine industry is poised to challenge the tobacco industry as the most profitable agricultural industry in Virginia’s economy. Steven Spurrier, the wine expert who famously organized the “Judgment of Paris,” a blind taste test which shocked the world in 1976 when two California wines beat their French competition, recently called Virginia’s wine country an “emerging region.”

In just 25 short years, the perception of the Virginia wine industry has changed completely. Customers of the trendsetting Brooklyn Wine Exchange recently began asking for Barboursville wine. Chefs are also taking notice. One exclusive restaurant in Chicago is featuring Virginia wines along with its 10-course tasting menu priced at $350 a plate. As Virginia’s wines gain recognition and acceptance among the world’s wine connoisseurs, the years of hard work and dedication of Virginia’s winemakers are finally paying off. Thomas Jefferson’s dreams of world class fine wine are finally coming true.