International Wine Spotlight: Virginia, USA

When we think of fine wines, many fail to ponder past the investment grade wines of France. So, it may surprise some to know that a) the USA actually does produce quality wine, and b)… it’s really rather good.

One region of America that is fast becoming an epicentre of viticulture excellence is Virginia, with numerous vineyards creating what numerous experts are citing as world-class wines.

We caught up with one of the region’s leading producers, Chris Parker, of New Horizon Wines, to find out more. Chris originally hails from Blighty – but has enjoyed a new life state-side for over 20 years, as the specialist exporter of these wines to the UK.

Chris and his wife Janina toured the region many years ago, and discovered a host of boutique, family run wineries, producing genuinely impressive and elegant wines, offering a fresh takes on traditional varietal grapes, including the state’s signature Viognier grape. The idea came to them then to introduce these hidden gems to the UK, and they set up New Horizon Wines in 2009.

As Chris explains, “this region is certainly not new to the wine making industry, and in fact the history of wine production in Virginia started in 1607 when three ships embarked from England to establish settlements in Virginia. ‘Act 12’ of 1619 actually required landholders to plant vines for their own consumption.”

It is said that Thomas Jefferson is the father of American wine. He believed in the potential to grow vitis vinifera vines in Virginia to make wines that would rival the best in the world. Of Virginia itself Jefferson remarked “Wine being among the earliest luxuries in which we indulge ourselves, it is desirable it should be made here and we have every soil, aspect and climate of the best wine countries, and I have myself drank wines made in this state of the quality of the best Burgundy” .

For a variety of reasons he did not succeed in his lifetime, but his vision is coming to fruition through the hard work and skills of winemakers from around the world that have made Virginia their home.

Recently documents have been discovered that proves that the Carter Family of Virginia made wines, one from “the Lisbon Grape”, and presented them to the Royal Society of Arts exactly 250 years ago. More is being discovered everyday about the history of the Virginia winemaking, the foundation upon which the Virginia wine industry is building today.

Over the last 40 years Virginia has grown from a handful of wineries to over 220. The growth in number is significant. What is more significant is the focus on producing high quality wines that are truly Virginian.

Well structured, elegant wines. Winemakers through experimentation, trial & error, and instinct have discovered the strengths of the region.

The climate and soil in Virginia and the desire of the winemakers to make wines that are truly a reflection of the region results in wines that are more European in style and certainly suited to the British palate.

Chris continues “not all grapes grow well in the region. In the early days vineyard owners planted many types of grapes, many that were not well suited to the environment. We now know that Viognier, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot, among others are well suited to Virginia. We are playing to our strengths but it has taken many years to fully understand those strengths. Now the wines are being recognized as wine that will rival the best in the world.

“The enjoyment of wine is not just about the wine in the bottle, it is the story behind the label. Virginia has a rich heritage and a strong historical connection with the UK. It is an elegant and beautiful part of the US.

“The Blue Ridge Mountains to the West, the Atlantic Ocean to the East, and Washington DC to the North. Native American culture, colonial history, civil war, and cultural change through to present day has shaped the region.

“Winemaking has threaded through those years, with critical milestones that started with the early settlers in Jamestown, Thomas Jefferson and his work at Monticello, and in recent years investment on a wave of excitement about the possibilities of truly realizing a dream that Thomas Jefferson voiced.”

Many wineries are on or near the east side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and to the West of Washington DC, and along the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. The diversity of soils and climate gives life to a canvas of possibilities.

Great Estates

Barboursville Vineyards

A magnificent and historic Virginia estate between Monticello and Montpelier, home to Virginia’s most honoured winery, founded in 1976 by the Zonin family, prominent in Italian viticulture since 1821.

A synergy drawing on the extraordinary resources of this terroir, the incomparably inspiring legacy it embodies, and the infusion of a literal “muse of fire” of Italian winegrowing genius has created one of the most compelling destinations for the wine traveller on the East Coast.

Barboursville Vineyards has established a reputation for excellence. The wines of Barboursville Vineyards are consistently honoured in competitions and demanded by wine stewards in top restaurants from Washington to London.

The historic 1874 Inn situated on the estate complements the combination of great wine and food. Within sight of the Inn is a historic landmark designed by Thomas Jefferson, linking the present with the roots of the Virginia wine industry, a vision set by Thomas Jefferson 250 years ago.

Boxwood Winery

John Kent Cooke, a former owner and president of the NFL Washington Redskins, owns the Boxwood Winery in Middleburg, Virginia. Boxwood is committed to making premium red wines in the Bordeaux tradition, but with distinct Virginia expression: Boxwood, reflecting the “Medoc” style (a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Petit Verdot blend) and Topiary, in the “Saint-Emilion” style (a Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend).

In 2002 Cooke hired renowned viticulturist Lucie Morton to design a 16 acre vineyard and acclaimed architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen and Dr. Richard Vine, enologist at Purdue University, to design The Boxwood Winery. The first vines were planted in 2004, the winery was completed in 2005, and internationally respected Bordeaux wine consultant Stephane Derenoncourt agreed to consult at Boxwood Winery in 2006.

John’s daughter Rachel Martin, became Executive Vice President of the Winery in 2005.

Breaux Vineyards

Voted “Best Winery in Virginia” for four consecutive years between 2008 and 2011, Breaux Vineyards is a family owned and operated winery in Loudoun County, VA. The 404 acre estate has over 104 acres planted in 18 different grape varieties. Nestled between the hills, vineyard plantings extend up the Short Hill Mountain. Long vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains can be enjoyed from their tasting room, Patio Madeleine and the landscaped terraces. Breaux is located only an hour from metropolitan DC, Dulles and BWI airports and a short distance from historic Harpers Ferry, WV.

King Family Vineyards

King Family Vineyards is a family owned and operated boutique winery located in Crozet, just fifteen minutes from Charlottesville at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The winery specialises in small productions of ultra-premium wine that showcase the remarkable qualities of nearly 100% estate grown fruit.

Founded in 1998, the winery’s first vintage was only 500 cases. Today the winery produces approximately 5000 cases of wine per year. The covered veranda, expansive lawn, or brick patio are perfect for outdoor picnics while the Tasting Room and warm stone fireplace are inviting on cooler days.

Veramar Vineyards

The Bogaty Family hails from the Italian Alps where, even today, members of the family still own and operate a small vineyard. A generation later, Jim decided that it was time to return the family to its roots.

Three generations of the Bogaty family, Jim and Della, along with their son, Justin, daughters Tiffany and Ashley, and numerous grandchildren continue the legacy of the family’s tradition of excellence in winemaking.

The estate is comprised of 100 acres, with 17 acres currently planted in grape vines. Cabernet Franc is the most widely planted varietal, with 7 acres under cultivation.

The average harvest yields roughly 4.5 pounds of grapes per vine (2.5 tons per acre), or the equivalent of 2 bottles of wine per vine.

Veritas Vineyards & Winery

The Hodson Family Veritas Winery, a family business owned by Andrew and Patricia Hodson, opened for business in June 2002. With the help of their daughters Emily Pelton and Chloe Hodson Frey they have succeeded in consistently producing a range of complex and elegant wines.

The idyllic setting is easy to find but hard to leave located just off I64 at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The unique wines of Veritas are of high quality, derived from vitis vinifera with the exception of one French hybrid. Their philosophy is to make wine with the classic old world principles of Viticulture and Vinification at the same time using state of the art technology to capture varietal and regional character.

We love Viriginian wines and would recommend them to anyone, but you don’t have to just take our word for it. We’ll leave it to the experts to give you the final word on this wine producing paradise:

“Recently, when I’m asked if I’ve discovered any new world-class vineyard regions, I’m quite likely to say yes, one of the oldest in America – Virginia” Oz Clarke, 250 Best Wines Wine Buying Guide 2012.