More than 150 years before California had vineyards, settlers in Jamestown, Virginia were crushing grapes.
And by the time Father Junipero Serra brought the Mission grape to San Diego, Thomas Jefferson was planting Monticello with European vinifera.
For the next century Virginia wineries struggled and then were killed off by Prohibition. It was not until the 1970s when new wineries planted chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet franc that people took notice of the state’s viticulture.
Since then, Virginia’s wineries have grown from six in 1979 to 230 today. It boasts 15 distinct wine regions, seven approved as American Viticultural Areas, annual production of 475,000 cases and 2010 retail sales of $73 million, according to the most recent data available.
Wine tourism has become big business, too, with 1.6 million visitors spending $131 million annually. The state has 26 wine trails, many on or near Civil War battlefields.
Driven largely by investors from other industries and other states, millions of dollars have been poured into land far less expensive than Napa or Sonoma Valley.
Not all have succeeded: in 1999 Patricia Kluge and her husband Bill Moses invested $10 million to build a 100-acre Charlottesville winery. A messy divorce was followed by bankruptcy, allowing Donald Trump to scoop up the entire 1,300 acre Kluge estate last year, re-naming it Trump Winery.
Over the past decade I’ve been impressed with the progress of Virginia’s wines, especially its Bordeaux-style reds. A tasting of several showed me that they have gone from promising, one-dimensional wines to well-made, more complex varietals with standout fruit flavors.
The most impressive was a Stinson Vineyards Meritage 2011 ($35), made in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a Bordeaux blend at just 13.4 percent alcohol, aged 14 months. It had everything I look for in a red wine -- a balance of pronounced fruit, softened tannins, and enough acid to give it spark.
Pollak Vineyards of Monticello, founded in 2003 by Margaret and David Pollak, wine pioneers in California’s Carneros region, produces a range of white and red wines. I tasted their cabernet franc 2009 Reserve ($40), aged in French oak for ten months. It had an amazing amount of bright cassis flavors and soft tannins characteristic of a varietal that is wonderful to drink with chicken and pork. The 2011 vintage is $22.
So, too, I was delighted with the velvety texture of Lovingston Winery Josie’s Knoll 2009 Estate Reserve($25), with 85 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet franc and 5 percent petit verdot to buoy the body of the wine. There is complexity from start to finish, and this is very well priced.
King Family Vineyards Meritage 2010 ($28) shows a sweeter profile, the merlot up front, the alcohol hitting 14.5 percent, which blunted finesse. RdV Vineyards Lost Mountain 2010 Bordeaux blend was even hotter, dense and unappealing. And at $88 upon release this fall, it is aiming for those who like huge red wines with high alcohol, at 14.7 percent. The winery’s Rendezvous 2010 ($75), even higher at 14.9 percent, was grapey, without an acid component to tame it.
I was much happier with a $50 bottle of Sunset Hills Vineyard Mosaic Red Wine 2010, with 14 percent alcohol. The winery aims to make big reds that will age 15 years, but I found the 2010 quite appealing. Sourced from three vineyards in Loudon County, the Bordeaux blend, with only 186 cases made, may hint at what Virginia terroir can do for a Bordeaux blend of varietals, with a sunnier profile.
Philip Carter Winery takes pride in its tenure of the land for three centuries. The 2010 Cleve is a 50:50 blend of petit verdot and tannat, aged in French and American oak, and “designed for longevity,” a decision that makes this very cherry-fruited, big-bodied red highly tannic at this point. It will be at least two years before this really shows any maturity.
Petit verdot all on its own is behind Cooper Vineyards Reserve 2010 ($30), with 13.8 percent alcohol. The grape shows its warm fruitiness without being cloying, and the wine is very smooth from start to finish, which makes it a good match for lamb and Mediterranean dishes like couscous and tagines.
Jefferson, who considered wine “the only antidote to the bane of whiskey,” must be smiling under the soil of Monticello.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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