Exploring Virginia Wine Country

The birthplace of American wine

 


Virginia, the fifth largest wine-producing state in the U.S., now has more than 193 wineries in production and 22 wine trails to explore. And what better place to start your tour than where it all began? In 1807 Thomas Jefferson, often called America's first wine connoisseur, planted grapes at Monticello imagining his home state would make great wines to rival those of Europe. Now you can visit the Monticello Wine Trail around Charlottesville in central Virginia, the birthplace of American wine.

On the morning of Saturday, July 23, as part of the North American Wine Bloggers Conference, we hit the trail. Attendees boarded numbered buses, not knowing their destination, to visit wineries on the Monticello Wine Trail. My bus (#3) turned out to be a fantastic pick giving me the chance to visit two favorite wineries and a new discovery just 10 miles south of Charlottesville.

Photo courtesy william couch via Flickr/CC
Related Imagery
Jefferson at Monticello
Blenheim Vineyards Rose Greeting
Blenheim Vineyards
Monticello Wine Trail
*Virginia Wineworks: Our first stop was Michael Shaps and Philip Stafford's warehouse in the country, home to Virginia Wineworks and Michael Shaps Wines. Michael, who trained in France and currently has a winery there, came to Virginia in 1995 as a winemaker for Jefferson Vineyards. After five vintages he started consulting and began his own Michael Shaps label in partnership with King Family Vineyards before moving his wine making to Virginia Wineworks.

Michael and Philip started Virginia Wineworks in 2007 to meet the need for value-oriented Virginia wines. They produce a Chardonnay, Viognier, rosé, Cabernet Franc and red (65% Cabernet Franc, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon), and now the only “bag in a box” wine in the state, equivalent of four bottles at a cost of $30. Michael's Michael Shaps label is higher-end Virginia wines. He believes “wine is made in the vineyard” so he naturally ferments using no yeast. The label has a Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Meritage and Raisin d'Entre. No vineyards to see here. Michael believes in finding the best location for the right wine variety so they buy by the acre and work with the owners and growers.

The winery is also the first in Virginia to offer a custom crush operation allowing individuals and other wineries to produce their wines here. Of the 15,000 cases produced by the winery annually, 13,000 are custom crush.

In their rustic tasting room (so rustic in fact you can sip and spit right onto the floor drain), we had a good time as Michael tasted us through the full line of both labels. My favorites?
- Michael Shaps Viognier 2008: great example of Virginia Viognier done well; $32
- Wineworks Rosé: nice pink fruit forward picnic wine; blend of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot; $12
- Michael Shaps Petit Verdot 2008: up and coming grape variety in Virginia; heavy tannins, earthy, floral; $32

You can visit their tasting room daily 11am to 5pm.

* First Colony Vineyards: For our second stop just down the road from Virginia Wineworks, Jason Hayman, the 26-year-old winemaker, greeted us for a tasting in their tasting room of six wines: 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2009 Petit Verdot Estate Reserve, 2008 Meritage Blend, 2010 Seyval Blanc and 2009 Chardonnay. The winery produced their first vintage in 2002, and after apprenticing here, Jason has made the 2009 vintages forward. My favorite?

- Petit Verdot Estate Reserve 2009: 100% fruit from their vineyards; black pepper and wild blackberry taste; $24

Their welcoming tasting room is open Monday-Friday 10am to 6pm, Saturday-Sunday 11am to 6pm.

* Blenheim Vineyards: Our last stop is my favorite winery! They rolled out the red carpet for us with a mid-day wine tasting, tour and lunch. Kirsty Harmon, Winemaker and General Manager, and her team happily greeted us at the barn with their fantastic rosé and a snack of gazpacho with fresh made bread and goat cheese. The perfect welcome on a hot summer day!

Blenheim was started in 2000 by Dave Matthews (yes, that Dave) and the first grapes were planted in 1999. The winery and vineyard are gorgeous! Dave and his mom, an architect, designed the A-frame wooden structure with an upstairs tasting room and a downstairs cellar. You can see the cellar’s barrels and tanks from the tasting room thanks to glass flooring. From the deck, you can enjoy sweeping views of the Albemarle countryside. The winery makes 5,000 cases per year from their ten acres and get 50% of their grapes from growers across the state.

Kirsty joined Blenheim in 2008. Her winemaking philosophy is to make wines that are approachable, balanced and drinkable now. She also introduced the screw top bottle to all their wines when she joined. After training in New Zealand and France, she was exposed to early-1990 wines aged in screw top that were all fabulous. No risk of cork tainting. She was sold.

Why is this my favorite? First, every wine I’ve tasted of Kirsty’s is great. You don't often have that experience with a winery. No matter what you like, they have one for your taste. Second, Kirsty is super cool, knowledgeable, a University of Virginia graduate and an apprentice of Gabriele Rausse, the father of modern Virginia wine.

We tasted six more Blenheim wines over a BBQ lunch in the library with special guest Gabriele: the 2009 Blenheim Farm Chardonnay, 2010 Viognier, 2009 Seven Oaks Merlot, 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon and just bottled 2010 Syrah. My favorites?

- Rosé 2010: 100% Merlot; bright pink color, fragrance of banana and rose with light, crisp taste; $14
- Chardonnay 2010: aroma and taste of pear and honey, very little oak; $15

When on this part of the Monticello Wine Trail, you can also stop by Jefferson Vineyards.

While you’re here, why not make it a weekend? Central Virginia, only 2 1/2 hours south of Washington, DC, is beautiful with more than 20 wineries on the Monticello Wine Trail, and Charlottesville is home to the University of Virginia. I love to stay at the Boars Head Inn. The Omni is a central point close to great restaurants like Brookville Restaurant (225 Main Street) and Maya (633 W. Main Street).

Two other clusters of the Monticello Wine Trail also have great wineries worth visiting: King Family Vineyards, Veritas Winery and Afton Mountain Vineyards, west of Charlottesville; and Barboursville Vineyards, Keswick Vineyards and Horton Cellars to the north.

Cheers to Virginia, the birthplace of American wine!

Mentioned in this article

Comments

  • Snooth User: Leah Mansback
    Hand of Snooth
    555565 1,286

    I had no idea that Virginia had so many wineries! I have been wine tasting in Virginia on the eastern shore and the wines were spectacular, just make sure NOT to go during fruit fly season!

    Aug 11, 2011 at 12:01 PM


  • I was also part of the excursion that day except we went to two other exciting wineries. Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyards and Veritas. Pippin Hill is located in the foothills of the Blue Grass Mountains near the home of author John Grisham. Veritas is so popular that they receive 50,000 visitors per year. Read more about these two wineries here: http://bit.ly/rawNfq

    Aug 11, 2011 at 1:02 PM


  • Snooth User: suziqcu
    505632 10

    Wonderful expose of "our" local wineries. Blenheim is a wonderful treat and getting to hear Gabrielle Rausse share his wealth of knowledge was a great way to end your day. Each vineyard around Charlottesville holds its own charm and all are certainly worth a visit.

    Aug 11, 2011 at 1:27 PM


  • Virginia wines have really come a long way, even in the last five years that I have been tasting them. Not only is the wine good, (at times even great!), but the scenery of the mountains cannot be beat. Some of my personaly favorites include: Veritas, Jefferson Vineyards, Pollak and Delfosse. The Viognier at both Veritas and Jefferson is not to be missed.

    Aug 11, 2011 at 2:54 PM


  • Snooth User: bstaikos
    418885 0

    You should also check out Maryland wines. Sugarloaf Mountain Vineyards. Delicious.

    Aug 11, 2011 at 3:53 PM


  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 6,296

    I keep hearing more and more about Virginia wines. Looking forward to getting my hands on more but I tend not to see them too much in stores yet. It's my own fault for not getting down there to visit yet.

    Aug 11, 2011 at 4:07 PM


  • Winetraveler, hate to correct you, but it is the beautiful Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains, not Blue Grass Mountains.

    Aug 11, 2011 at 4:38 PM


  • Good informative article on Virginia Winemaking. I enjoyed the notes on Pinot G too. It's a wine that is too often misunderstood and weakly marketed in this country.
    I really like the changes you have been making in your site graphics - better and more photo coverage, better more sensitive use of colors and shading. Looking great!

    Aug 11, 2011 at 5:38 PM


  • Great commentary on Virginia wines. Well written article. Would like to hear more from Grape Occasions.

    Aug 11, 2011 at 11:46 PM


  • Great commentaty on Virginia wines. Informative and well written. Would like to hear more from Grape Occasions.

    Aug 11, 2011 at 11:57 PM


  • Snooth User: shakti
    324610 0

    We live in Southern Maryland and are as of this date unable to receive shipments of wine so my husband and I make quarterly trips out to Blenheim to pick up our selection as club members. Always enjoy a tasting, a glass of wine and the wonderful view. Plus...the drive through wine country is delightful. Thanks for this article on Virginia wines.

    Aug 12, 2011 at 7:52 AM


  • Snooth User: ChipDWood
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    83884 1,002

    @ ScottLauraH: Completely agree about Pollak. I was blown away by their '08 Petit Verdot. Afton Mountain (JUST up the hill from Veritas) too deserves a mention for their intuitive approach to their white varietals but also (and of particular note) for their "Festa di Bacco"- an entirely unique blend of 40% Sangiovese, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 25% Petit Verdot.

    http://www.snooth.com/winery/afton-...

    (Keep in mind the image linked to above was taken a year ago at Monticello, 2010 & may be dated)

    Virginia continues to be the best kept secret on the Atlantic Coast, which remains as the best kept secret Nationwide. For my two cents it is also the most interesting region with regard to emerging varietals, hybrid development, styles & potential, on the planet.

    Aug 12, 2011 at 9:07 AM


  • Of interest purely to readers in the USA?

    Aug 12, 2011 at 9:45 AM


  • @ChipDWood, I have visited Afton Mountain once, back in early 2009 after a wine festival in Waynesboro. By the time we got there, my palate was slightly fatigued to say the least. I have not been able to make it back there since. However, this past weekend my husband and I stayed at Thistle Ridge Bed and Breakfast and purchased a bottle of Afton Mountain Reisling from the innkeepers, and found it nice. We also went tasting at several new wineries. The two standouts for us were Barren Ridge (GREAT reds) and Ox Eye, who has a unique tasting room in downtown Staunton. Ox Eye had a Lemberger, which we enjoyed with grilled steak, grilled vegetables and couscous in roasted red pepper sauce just last night. The Lemberger was PERFECT with our meal.

    Aug 12, 2011 at 10:22 AM


  • Snooth User: Jimmy Cocktail
    Hand of Snooth
    204415 379

    As Chip mentions above, Virginia is one of the best kept secrets in wine, but that really is about to come to an end. This article just begins to scratch the surface as to what we have available in the state but those were some nice places mentioned. I guarantee that the number listed of 193 wineries is already obsolete, there seem to be new wineries opening every month. If you visit Washington D.C., Loudoun County, Virginia has 29 wineries alone within a 2 hour drive of the nation's capitol.

    It should be noted that at the end of May, the Virginia Wine Board voted to make an emphasis on the marketing of Viognier. You should expect to see and hear more about Virginia Viognier soon. However, one should not make the mistake of thinking about Virginia only in terms of Viognier. Some of the best things happening in Virginia center around non-traditional varieties that seem to have found their home here. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are two Bordeaux varietals that produce exceptional wines here and both Tannat and Albariño are present here in the state. I won't tell you what wineries are making wines from those last two grapes, but I will tell you that should you take up the challenge to find them, your efforts will be highly rewarded.

    Aug 13, 2011 at 10:17 AM


  • Snooth User: Jimmy Cocktail
    Hand of Snooth
    204415 379

    @williamsimpson - I know that there is a selection of Virginia wines being exported to England so I would answer your question no. However, I don't believe that they will be easy to find.

    Aug 13, 2011 at 10:21 AM


  • Snooth User: ChipDWood
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    83884 1,002

    Barren Ridge! LOVE the Barren Ridge wines, the people- even the DOG there is fantastico. Barren Ridge is a great example of how wine is beginning to make its move over the mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley- that 'other' side of Charlottesville.

    ...LOVE Barren Ridge. Their '08 Viognier is stunning, and I think is consistently under-rated.

    & I totally agree with Jimmy: Virginia's ripe. Not just Viognier either, though that's been the real superstar & been largely responsible for building Virginia's now blossoming reputation as a place to tend vines and make globally competitive wines. And the Tannat from Chateau O'Brien http://www.chateauobrien.com/ will knock you down. While I have only had the '06, I am sure the '07 is absolutely slammin'.

    Another one to keep your eye out for is Petit Manseng. I've tried the 2010 from Veritas and I absolutely love the stuff. It's only going to further push Virginia into the spotlight- along with the bright minds behind the making of it.

    Lastly, if you haven't seen it yet, I can't recommend enough this documentary:

    http://www.silverthornfilms.com/vin...

    It's a fantastically written film that tells (a big part of) the story of Virginia wine as well as what it's like in the year of the Wine Maker.

    ...Wife and I are having grilled baby lamb chops tomorrow night with some other Greek stuff for dinner. All this talk about Virginia vino has me thinking about popping one of my (treasured) bottles of the '07 Michael Shaps Meritage.

    It's not going to be easy to hold back from the temptation.

    Aug 14, 2011 at 12:23 AM


  • Snooth User: Jimmy Cocktail
    Hand of Snooth
    204415 379

    Chip, the 07 Chateau O'Brien Tannat is fantastic and all gone. He sold out last month. As you may know, 07 was a great vintage here in Virginia. We had only enough of our 07 Norton Locksley Reserve to give to our wine club members and about 15 cases left for sale to the general public. Well, our owner Jennifer McCloud came by the tasting room about two days after it went on sale and did a tasting of that wine. She immediately pulls all the wine from inventory and puts it in the library. In about ten years when it starts to mature, it is going to be a an out of this world experience.

    Word is that the 2010 vintage is of similar quality. I do know that the whites I've tasted for 10 are some of the best I've ever had from the state. At least those that weren't hit by the Mother's Day Frost (we lost almost 50% of our Norton and Petit Manseng crop in that one fateful evening). One more variety to keep an eye on is Traminette. This is a cross between a Seyve hybrid and Gewurztraminer. Very aromatic with lots of fruit (pears, peaches, apricots) on the palate, this is a grape that you will continue to see more of in Virginia.

    Aug 14, 2011 at 9:41 AM


  • Very informative and well-written article on Virginia wines! I will look for more good info on GrapeOccasions. Thanks!

    Aug 29, 2011 at 10:36 PM


  • Snooth User: Helen Poole
    1337036 29

    outstanding

    Aug 30, 2013 at 5:59 AM


  • Thank you Helen! Lots of great stuff going on in Virginia wine country since I wrote the piece too. I have more on my Grape Occasions website. Cheers!

    Aug 30, 2013 at 10:45 AM


  • Snooth User: anvilpep
    1370081 34

    good

    Sep 24, 2013 at 12:57 AM


  • interesting

    Sep 27, 2013 at 2:28 AM


  • interesting

    Oct 07, 2013 at 12:15 AM


  • good

    Jan 21, 2014 at 1:05 AM


  • nice

    Jan 21, 2014 at 1:06 AM


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