You know that thing? That thing that sounds like something you should already know about, so you don’t really want to ask? Well, we know about it, and we’ll give you the intel. Welcome to What’s the Deal With.
Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have seen a Virginia wine on any high-brow restaurant wine list north of the Mason-Dixon. Now, it’s another story: We attended a dinner last month during which chef Rob Newton served a series of exclusively Virginia-made wines at his Brooklyn restaurant, Seersucker.
“I’ve made several trips to Virginia’s wine communities, and they’ve continued to get better and better right before my eyes,” said Newton, who offers three Virginia wines by the glass on his regular drinks list. “Everything’s not world-class, but everything in France isn’t world-class, either.”
The point is: some of it is world-class, and that’s a relatively new thing.
“In 2009, we took a shot at taking our Viognier overseas to the London International Wine Fair,” says Christopher Blosser of Breaux Vineyards in Purcellville, Virginia. “We were able to show our wines to some of the most educated palates in the world: Steven Spurrier, Oz Clarke… And they were blown away.” Clarke listed Breaux’s Viognier number 87 in his 250 Best Wines of 2012. “No other Virginia wine had been in his book before that.”
“The Virginia wine business is at a tipping point in terms of quality and recognition,” says Dave McIntyre, a wine writer for the Washington Post. “The industry hasn’t exploded, but the quality has gotten much better across the board. And the top wines of Virginia are easily world-class. You couldn’t really say that ten years ago.”
Where It Comes From: There are currently 231 wineries and 386 vineyards all across the state of Virginia, from the Shenandoah Valley to Virginia Beach to the heart of the Appalachia region.
Why It’s Catching On: It’s a mix of attention—“Success builds on success,” as Blosser says—and of winemakers honing in on what grapes work best in Virginia’s humid climate.
“It’s like anything: You edit it down and find out what works best,” says Newton. “Now, they’re not going to grow Chardonnay just because they need to grow Chardonnay. They’ve discovered what grapes work well down there.”
“We’ve learned to walk away from Riesling,” for example, says Blosser.
Christine Vrooman of Ankida Ridge, located on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, agrees that it’s a perfect storm of increased knowledge (understanding the terroir, planting vines closer together for more intensity of flavor), of the vines coming of age, and of publicity. “[Former] Governor McDonnell and his wife Maureen were extremely supportive of the industry, Jean and Steve Case from AOL purchased a bankrupt winery and replanted it, and Donald Trump purchased the whole Patricia Kluge estate for very good deal (which is probably why he is Donald Trump!)” That, she says, plus ”the wines finally taste delicious.”
Defining Characteristic: Viognier, a grape that produces full-bodied white wines, is one of the stars here. “Viognier in Virginia in general tends to be more on the floral side,” says Blosser. “It’s not as heavy as what they produce in California or warmer climates. There’s a nice sort of minerality and depth to our Viognier.”
“This is the way my wife describes it to someone who’s never had it,” he continues. “‘Imagine Chardonnay wearing high heels and lipstick.” It’s got a little bit more flair to it. It’s dressed up and ready for the night.”
While Cabernet Franc has been the other popular grape in these parts, McIntyre says the red Bordeaux blends are looking particularly good now. “They’re somewhere between California and Europe,” he says, in terms of taste. “You don’t get the weight of California or the power and rarely the alcohol levels. They have a European sensibility with American fruit.”
Petit Verdot, a classid Bordeaux red, also does well. “Some people argue that VA should be emphasizing that more than Cabernet Franc,” says McIntyre, “since virtually no other region in the world does Petit Verdot so extensively.”
How to Buy: Blosser says that most of his sales go to Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina, but the wines can be ordered directly from the vineyards regardless of where you live. Wine lovers have caught on in London, where he sells Breaux’s Viognier and Nebbiolo, but that’s about it internationally. So get in now, before these bottles start wracking up triple-digit prices.
Wineries to focus on, according to McIntyre: Breaux (for Viognier, 2012 $28), Barboursville (“Luca Paschina is Virginia’s premier winemaker,” Phileo Moscato, $17; Octagon 2010, $55), Veritas (for Petit Verdot, 2010, $50), RDV (“The closest we have to the cult winery in Virginia,” Rendezvous 2010, $75), and Ankida Ridge, where “they’re making Pinot Noir, for crying out loud!” (Pinot Noir, 2011, $42).
Yes, Vrooman, with the help of well-known consultant Lucie Morton, has been growing Pinot Noir on her mountain property since 2008. Famous wine critics Jancis Robinson, Eric Asimov, and David Schildknecht all approve.