During the years 1771-1816, Thomas Jefferson — a passionate oenophile who firmly believed that great wines could be produced in America —labored in the gardens of his beloved Monticello, struggling to grow grapes with vines imported from Europe. In the end he failed miserably, his plantings the victims of inclement weather, fungus rot, and the dreaded Phylloxera pest that has decimated so many Old and New World vineyards.
But today, 200 years later, this very same growing region is undergoing a remarkable renaissance — so much so that for some industry insiders, the Virginia wine industry seems poised for Napa-like fame.
While wine is produced throughout Virginia, with currently over 250 wineries in operation, two regions stand out in quality — the Blue Ridge Mountain area in the northern part of the state and the clay-rich farmlands surrounding Monticello in Charlottesville. Though modern winemakers face the same problems that plagued Jefferson, they are aided by the latest advances in viticultural technology, including help from soil scientists to choose optimal growing sites. As a result, top Virginia winemakers are producing world-class wines, a number of which have won international blind taste tests.
Since Virginia’s fickle climate resembles that of Bordeaux or Burgundy, varietals like Merlot, Chambourcin, and even the gravel-loving Cabernet Sauvignon thrive here. Virginia’s most successful
red grape is Cabernet Franc, producing wines that are earthy and medium-bodied with red and black fruit balanced by food-friendly acidity. The mildew-resistant Norton — a 19th-century hybrid, also grows well — as does the inky, tannic Petit Verdot. In the realm of whites, the floral-perfumed Viognier is the stand-out grape, alongside Chardonnay and the sweet Vidal Blanc, another New World hybrid.
Virginia wines are distinguished from oaky, fruit-driven West Coast varietals by their higher acidity and more delicate fruit. They have more in common with French, Italian, or Spanish wines than with their big, bold California, Washington, or Oregon counterparts.
• Alison Mochizuki
Trader Joe’s (Downers Grove)
- 2014 TJ Reserve Chardonnay Lot 135 $10, a full-bodied, creamy, classic Napa Chard, with pungent aromas of pineapple, melon and apple with notes of caramel, all mingling on the palate with flavors of oak and buttered toast.
- 2014 Ormarine Picpoul De Pinet $8, from Languedoc, Picpoul is a crisp, clean white, pale gold in the glass, and redolent with
a nose of flower blossoms, passion fruit and lemony citrus. In the mouth, there’s a bit of creaminess with notes of citrus and tropical fruits.
• David Poweska
Binny’s Beverage Depot (Bloomingdale)
- 2014 Neyers Sage Canyon $23, an impressive red Rhône blend, smooth, lush, and complex, with layers of vibrant black raspberry, cherry and blueberry fruit flavors that meld together into a long, peppery finish.
- 2014 Furst Gewürztraminer $18, a full-bodied, off-dry white, exuberant and seductive, offering a complex bouquet of tropical fruits, citrus, honey, roses and baking spices. This is a wine with finesse and nuance.