I must admit that Thomas Jefferson is my favorite president, and not just because of his love for wine and dream of Americans growing winegrapes -- but also because he was a world-traveler, well read, and the author of the Declaration of Independence. When we discovered that his home, Monticello, was only a 1-hour drive from our resort, we immediately decided that a trip was in order.
The day greeted us with a perfect blue sky and a balmy 85 F degrees, and when we arrived at Monticello, it was even warmer. The $20 admission fee seemed rather steep at first, but it was worth it because it included an inspirational 20 minute movie on his life, then a shuttle ride and guided tour through his house, gardens, and plantation. They actually have a small vineyard planted below his house now, though it didn’t survive when he was alive.
It turns out that the place that Jefferson had selected to plant his vineyard is actually one mile away, and is now the location of the Jefferson Vineyards. So of course, that was our next stop, and we had another delightful tasting with a relaxed down-to-earth pourer. The winery was started in 1981, has 29 acres, and is on Rabun Clay loam soil. They produce 5,000 to 9,000 cases ; are 60% estate wines, 100% Virginia grapes, and sell in 34 states. Wine Spectator has awarded them the “most consistent” wines in Virginia with decent scores in the mid to high 80’s. We tasted 9 wines, of which I had 4 favorites:
2008 Jefferson Vineyards Pinot Gris – lovely floral and citrus nose with grapefruit palate and very crisp refreshing high acid finish. Yes! I could drink this all summer.($18)
2008 Jefferson Vineyards Viognier – classic viognier with honey, peaches, apricot, bigger body, creamy and a slightly sweet finish. Very well made, but I wish it could have been completely dry.($25)
2006 Jefferson Vineyards Meritage – inviting dark berry and spice nose; medium body; elegant; coffee and herbs. Good acid; great food wine. 37% cabernet franc; 30% merlot; 23% petite verdot; 10% cab. ($30)
2007 Jefferson Vineyards Petit Verdot – perfumed nose of spice, dark berry, and tobacco with consistent palate. Good concentration and bigger structure than the 2006. We purchased a bottle of this and had with rib-eyes at our condo a few nights later – it was so good! ($20)
Next stop by Kluge Estate, about 15 minutes up the winding road through beautiful green meadows, vineyards, and leafy trees. It turns out the Kluge specializes in sparkling wine and is the largest vineyard holding in Virginia with 210 acres. When we arrived people were sitting outside on the porch tasting wine in the most intriguing glasses I have seen in a long time. They were thin triangle shaped “thimbles” and were placed in a wooden rack holder – 6 glasses per rack. When we received ours, I was surprised to find that the glasses were made of a light plastic. How very clever, and what a unique and beautiful presentation.
Unfortunately the reception at Kluge was not as charming as the wine presentation. We were kept waiting along with several other customers for almost ten minutes while the one tasting rep talked loudly on the phone in the other room. When she finally came back in the room she announced that it was her boss who was detaining her on the phone and seemed quite flustered and not very friendly. She couldn’t answer our viticulture and winemaking questions, and there was nothing written up to explain the process to us.
We decided to sit inside the air-conditioned tasting room to try the six wines in the $12 tasting. Outside it was quite humid and felt like the temperature had climbed into the 90’s. My favorite wine was the basic Kluge SP Blanc de Blanc for $28 which was made from 100% chardonnay and had a very refreshing citrus finish. My husband, who has opposite tastes from me when it comes to sparkling wine, preferred the bigger more yeasty Kluge SP Reserve 2005 for $48. The rose and blanc de noir both had a strange sweet tart finish and lacked finesse. We also tasted 2 still reds which had a very green edge to them. Definitely a place to buy sparkling. We left without any acknowledgement or good-bye from the stressed out tasting rep.
On the way to our next winery, we stopped at the historic Michie Tavern established in 1784 and enjoyed walking through the shop filled with so many unique items. Next we headed west towards Veritas Winery – which had been recommended to us by 3 different people along the way. It turned out to be a great suggestion, as one of the owners, a woman from the UK, was helping out at the tasting bar. She was extremely informative and passionate about Virginia wine, and we had a great time tasting with her and the staff.
The location of Veritas is about 30 minutes from Charlottesville and off the beaten path a bit, but is surrounded by vineyards and hillsides, and includes a large welcoming wooden tasting room with a big porch with rocking chairs. They have 24 acres, produce 14,000 cases, use riparia and 3309 rootstock, and are planted on the famous red clay soil of Virginia. She explained that most of the vineyards are on a south-facing slope so they can get enough sun. She also mentioned that the reason you don’t find much cabernet sauvignon in Virginia is because the growing season isn’t long enough and they can’t get it ripe. Therefore, cabernet franc triumphs here.
All of the wines we tasted were well-made, and the owner told us her daughter was studying winemaking in California. We actually tasted through 12 different wines, including some unique varietals such as Petite Munseng, Traminette, and the Tannat and Touriga Nacional in their signature port Othello. My favorites included the following:
2008 Veritas Sauvignon Blanc ($18) – a bracingly high acid, fresh grapefruit white wine that I fell in love with. It had a classic grass and citrus nose, and a pleasing lime blossom accent. Perfect with seafood.
2008 Veritas Chardonnay Saddleback 2008 ($18)– modeled after a Chablis, this is a clean minerally unoaked chardonnay (well – some neutral oak), with hints of green apple and a long well balanced finish. Elegant!
2008 Veritas Viognier ($20)– lovely floral nose; palate of peach and apricot. Classic, and with a dry finish.
2008 Veritas Rose ($14) – a very dry rose with spicy fruit nose and strawberry palate.
2007 Veritas Vintner’s Reserve ($25)– a blend of cabernet franc, merlot and petite verdot, this oak aged red provided dark red fruit, cedar, and some herbal notes. Elegant, but with a firm tannin structure; it will pair well with a big steak.
The rest of our week in Virginia included 2 days in D.C. where we visited the National Art Gallery, the White House, and the Smithsonian – including the space shuttle exhibit near the airport. It was my first visit to this great city, and I was amazed to find that all of the sites are free! A nice benefit to tax paying citizens. We also parked our car outside the loop and rode the subway each day. By the time we were finished touring the capital, we were happy to drive the 2 hours back to Massanutten and relax in the peaceful Virginia countryside.
We continued to taste Virginia wine by the glass at the various restaurants we visited, but didn’t have the chance to go to anymore wineries. I found several more excellent chardonnays which were crisp and refreshing – not the big over-oaked butter bombs we often find on the West Coast. In the end, I left impressed with Virginia wines – especially the viogniers, chardonnays, cabernet francs and petite verdots. We also met some wonderful people at the wineries, and would recommend that others visit charming Virginia wine country. The wines are well-made, elegant and distinctive – with a sense of place. The people are passionate, friendly, and fun.