After our fourth Virginia Charlottesville-Piedmont region winery of the day, my notes were just a wee bit wine-spotted. The Chardonnays and Viogniers were beginning to swim together.
After a total of six wineries in two days, we learned three important lessons about Virginia wines: 1. They are NOT California wines and do not try to be; 2. The beauty of their setting is equally intoxicating; 3. The region’s gourmet inclination is deeply steeped in local heritage.
Thomas Jefferson himself uncorked the story of Virginia wine and food obsession, and so there we began our foray into grapes and grub.
Jefferson has been credited with bringing grape rootstock and recipes from France to the U.S., to his Virginia mountaintop home of Monticello.
“Dinner is served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance,” Monticello signage quotes Daniel Webster, circa 1824.
The former president was a farmer first and foremost, growing 40 varieties of peas alone in addition to a number of other crops, producing food for the table, beer and wine. The historic site tour takes in the home’s kitchen, wine cellar and beer cellar.
With nearly 25 wineries in the surrounding two-county area (250 in all of Virginia), Jefferson’s legacy for growing grapes and making wine survives, along with his delight for fine food.
The still-functioning garden at Monticello keeps the historic site’s Café in fresh produce and special garden tours are available with paid admission. Gift shops sell heirloom seeds and Monticello brand peanuts, root beer and preserves.
On the Vineyard Trail
After a bolstering 18th century-inspired lunch at neighboring Michie Tavern, another historic complex where the fried chicken is legendary and part of an all-you-can-eat buffet of dishes Jefferson himself probably once enjoyed, we were ready to hit the wineries.
First stop, nearby Jefferson Vineyards. Here, we started our lessons on Virginia wine which is quickly inching in on the West Coast wine industry.
The drive around the region is enough to feed the soul, with its mountain vistas, orderly vineyards, orchards, horses and farms.
The terroir produces certain varietals that perform better here than anywhere else in the world, including Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Whites are crisp and clean, while reds on the other hand tend to be the state’s weakness.
“There’s a lot of red clay – what a grape needs to be struggling a little bit,” said Hunter Sisser, our guide and tasting jockey at Jefferson Vineyards. Jefferson Vineyards produces about 8,500 cases of the state’s 450,000-case annual production, he said.
“The Virginia wine industry is slowly growing,” he added. “It’s gaining its own national and international renown.”
Subsequent winery visits substantiated his claims.
Keswick Vineyards won “Best White Wine in the U.S.” at the Atlanta International Wine Summit with its first vintage, a 2002 Viognier Reserve. And it continues to rack up the medals, at the 2011 San Diego International Competition the 2010 Verdejo, another Virginia niche varietal, won a platinum medal and “Best Verdejo” award.
“It’s taken Virginia awhile to realize we’re not California,” said winery co-owner Cindy Shornberg. “It’s been eye opening all across the state. Our goal was to make a good red wine, and now we’re winning awards for that.”
“Reds are tough in Virginia because of the weather,” said Kirsty Harmon, winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards, a gorgeous property owned by musician Dave Matthews.