Friday, July 31, 2009

Virginia Wines – Fun, Elegant and Distinctive

It’s hard to believe that Virginia is now 5th in the nation in terms of wine production, but it is true according to several Virginia wineries I have visited this past week. What’s more – Virginia has over 140 different wineries and 7 AVA’s (American Viticulture Areas). The most prolific AVA in terms of total number of wineries and highest production rate is the Monticello AVA – where Thomas Jefferson’s famous house and estate are located. At the same time, there are also many wineries about one hour’s drive outside of Washington DC in what is called “Mid-Northern Virginia, but is not yet an AVA. I was fortunate enough to visit both areas, as well as the Shenandoah AVA, and I found the wines to be elegant and food friendly. Maps and directions can be found at

This was not my first time to taste Virginia wines, as I’ve tried them at the Unified Conference in California each year during their trade show tasting, as well as during the Grand Harvest wine competitions. I’ve always been very impressed by the viogniers – for which Virginia has already achieved much acclaim, but while here this week, I found myself equally impressed with some of the cabernet francs and petite verdots. In addition, they seem to be experimenting with other unique varietals, as we encountered tannat, touriga national, rkatsiteli and others!

We flew into Dulles on Saturday, June 27th and then drove 2 hours to the Massanutten Resort in the Shenandoah Mountains. It is a beautiful resort with 2 golf courses and a ski area, as well as many activities. Our condo is perched high on the hillside and we are surrounded by the tree covered hills. Just a few miles up the road is the famous Skyline Drive that runs along the Appalachian Trail.

On first glance, it doesn’t appear to be a place where you would think of planting grapes. There are many trees which had to be cut down, the weather is humid, and the soil is primarily red clay. However, there are several wineries within a 20 minutes drive, and one hour away is Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home; and a multitude of wineries. Of course, this is where Jefferson had his original vision of growing grapes and encouraging every family to live the Agrarian Ideal by farming and making wine. Unfortunately, though he tried to plant his vineyard 7 different times between 1774 and 1816, it always failed due to the powdery and downy mildew that haunt this part of the world. Today, however, his vision is alive and well, and there is a burgeoning pride in Virginia wine.

The first night we arrived, we stopped at a grocery store and I bought a bottle of 2005 Merlot from the Williamsburg Winery in southern Virginia. It was a great deal at $9 and we weren’t sure what to expect, but it was pleasant, elegant with subdued plum fruit and soft tannins. Definitely more European in nature that the big concentrated fruity wines of California. However, it paired quite well with the meatballs we had the first evening – around 11pm when we finally made it to our condo, after a 3 hour plane delay in SFO. However, it was only 8pm at home, so we were still wide awake.

Waking up the next morning, however, was more challenging, and if the front desk hadn’t called us at 9am to invite us to a timeshare presentation who knows when we would have awoken. We politely declined the presentation and enjoyed coffee on the deck in the warm 80 F weather while viewing the amazing Appalachian Mountains rising around us.

After checking out the resort and golf courses, we had lunch at the Fareways Restaurant and I was delighted to see that they offered a flight of 4 Virginia wines for only $6. Of course, I promptly ordered it, and they brought it out with impressive presentation on a wooden board with all 4 wines proudly presented and a card describing each wine. I am always pleased to see restaurants which feature local wineries in this way, even though they were missing vintage dates:

Rapidan River Semi-Dry Riesling with a rather subdued nose for a Riesling but citrus and peach on the palate and diesel plus residual sugar (RS) on the finish. Simple and straight-forward, but we found out later it was actually “American” grapes made in Virginia.
Horton Rkatsitel – lovely floral nose; honeysuckle, peach and citrus palate. Good attack, but rather cloying finish with some yeasty notes. I had only had a Rkatsitel once before – from Bulgaria – and I thought the Virginia one was better made. The most prolific grape in Russia, this is a varietal that is not often found, so it was fun to be able to try it. There was a trace of RS on this one, but not as sweet at the Riesling.
Prince Michel Merlot – Red berry and plum nose; medium bodied with a very tart finish and high acid. Not as elegant as the merlot we had the evening before, but the acid allowed it to work well with food. It paired well with my sirloin burger.
Prince Michel Cabernet Franc – Lovely violet nose, medium body, but strong herbal palate with sour finish.

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