The first recorded wine production in the United States took place in Virginia soon after the British established a colony there in 1607. Despite the historical achievement, however, the early years of winemaking in the region were rocky, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that Virginia’s winemakers truly caught their stride. Today, Virginia ranks fifth in the nation for wine grape production—not bad for a state the size of Cuba! In the 2016 fiscal year, Virginia sold over 556,500 cases of wine, a record high and an increase of 34% since 2010. Clearly, Virginia is a historic and increasingly high-quality American wine region that demands the sommelier’s attention.
Like the Vikings and Spanish before them, the British discovered wild vines carpeting the New World upon landing in the area they called Cape Henry. In Jamestown, the first settlement, colonists quickly went to work producing wine from the native grapes they found, spurred on by their long-standing rivalry with the French. They were further compelled by the potential economic viability of wine and the lack of safe drinking water. Soon, each male settler was required by law to plant a minimum of ten vines on his land. But the settlers soon discovered that the native grapes they found did not produce good wine; their finished wines were somewhere between rank and revolting. Cuttings were brought from France, but the vineyards the colonists cultivated were destroyed by pests and diseases. At the time, of course, no one knew that European vines could withstand phylloxera only if planted on American rootstock. Harsh winters, starvation, and diseases that plagued both the settlers and the vines further complicated Jamestown’s struggles, and colonists turned from wine to tobacco to seek their fortunes.
Nonetheless, winemakers in Virginia didn’t give up. Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and arguably the country’s first wine connoisseur, led the next push for the region. He had developed a love of wine during his time as Minister to France and imported it from all over Europe. Initially, he was partial to port and sherry but soon developed a taste for French and Italian wines. Not content to just import wine, however, Jefferson planted European vines at his estate, Monticello, encouraged others to plant grapevines, and reduced taxes on wine. He wanted America to be a wine-drinking and winemaking nation.
However, grapevines still wouldn’t take. Even Jefferson’s vines eventually died, and Virginians gave up on European grape varieties. Then, around the late 19th century, breeders began developing new hybrids that, while still frequently characterized by a somewhat unpleasant foxy taste, resisted many of the diseases that had plagued European cuttings. Dr. Daniel Norton experimented with the varietal that would eventually bear his name, finding that the wines it produced were far less offensive than the foxy Labrusca or sour Riparia. It was a success both in the United States and abroad and remains a grape used to produce high-quality wines in Virginia today. Other hybrids that emerged at the time were Vidal and Chambourcin. The future looked bright for Virginian viticulture. Yet Prohibition was just around the corner, and as in the rest of the country, this period of American history set Virginia’s wine industry back considerably.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that Virginia found its way as a wine region. In 1980, there were only five wineries in the entire state, and most vineyards were planted to hybrids. During this decade, however, great strides were made in viticulture and winemaking technology worldwide. Influential Virginia wineries such as Barboursville and Linden Vineyards were founded and started producing superior wines. Winemakers began finding success with grapes such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, now the most-planted grapes in the state. The number of wineries skyrocketed, and Virginia’s first AVAs were awarded, beginning with Shenandoah Valley in 1982. From there, the region has continued increasing its production and improving wine quality.
Virginia’s landscape is striking, with coastal plains, rolling hills, and rivers coursing through the countryside. The Blue Ridge Mountains and Allegheny Mountains, both part of the Appalachian range, line the west side of the state and cause a rain shadow effect for nearby AVAs including North Fork of Roanoke, Shenandoah Valley, and Rocky Knob. Most of Virginia’s wineries are located near the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a belt about 30 miles east of the range.
The Potomac River, which forms the boundary between Virginia and West Virginia, has an abundance of tributaries and branches and helps moderate the climate of nearby regions. On the coast, the Chesapeake Bay provides moderating influences as well, most significantly impacting the AVAs Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace and the aptly named Virginia's Eastern Shore.
On the east side of the state, vineyard soils are primarily clay and loam. To the west, soils tend to be granite based.
While Virginia’s soils are similar to those of the competing regions of Napa and Bordeaux, the hazards and threats experienced in Virginia are considerably greater. The climate is classified as humid subtropical, and the heat, humidity, and high rainfall of summer pose the greatest climate-related challenges for grapegrowers. Humidity contributes to rot and mildew. Rainfall levels vary across the state, but hurricanes are a considerable threat in coastal areas. The winegrowing season is short, and winter can be fierce as well. Frost and major winter storms can devastate vineyards.
The state is home to five climate regions: Tidewater has a maritime climate, Piedmont has a maritime-influenced climate, and a continental climate is found in Northern Virginia, Western Mountain, and Southwestern Mountain.
According to 2015 figures from the Virginia Wine Board, over 75% of Virginia’s planted grapes are vinifera varieties. Winemakers produce a full range of styles: red, white, rosé, still, sparkling, and sweet. The top four grape varieties for both production and acreage are Chardonnay (441 acres), Cabernet Franc (382 acres), Merlot (332 acres), and Viognier (259 acres). In 2011, Viognier was declared Virginia's state grape, and with good reason. It is well suited to the region, as its loose bunches and thick skins help it withstand summertime humidity.
Native grapes make up a small proportion of Virginia’s vineyards. Norton, a hybrid, is the most planted, followed by Niagara and Concord. French-American hybrids round out the picture, with the white grapes Vidal Blanc, Traminette, and Seyval Blanc and the red grape Chambourcin representing the majority of plantings.
Monticello: Taking its name from Jefferson’s estate, Monticello is home to many of Virginia’s most well-known vineyards and has been the site of much of the state’s vinifera-based renaissance in recent decades. It is located in the central Piedmont region, tucked alongside the Blue Ridge Mountains and encompassing the Southwest Mountain ridge.
Middleburg: The other key AVA and the state’s youngest, Middleburg earned its status in 2012. It takes its name from the town of Middleburg, located within the AVA, and is just 50 miles west of Washington DC. The Potomac River serves as Middleburg’s northern border, and mountains surround it on the other three sides. Soils are granite, and many vineyards are planted to Bordeaux varieties.
Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace: Located off Chesapeake Bay, this AVA is moderated by the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, resulting in milder winters than AVAs further west. Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin, Chardonnay, and Vidal Blanc are all grown here.
North Fork of Roanoke: Situated in the eastern slopes of Allegheny Mountains, this is a higher elevation AVA, with altitudes ranging from 1,200 to 2,200 feet. Grapes grown here include Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Norton.
Rocky Knob: Also a higher elevation AVA, Rocky Knob is located in the southwestern part of the state, on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the name suggests, its soils are primarily well-draining gravel mixed with loam.
Shenandoah Valley: This AVA was Virginia’s first, receiving the designation in 1982. The AVA is shared with West Virginia, though most of its vineyards are in Virginia. The Blue Ridge Mountains are located on the eastern border of Shenandoah Valley, and the Appalachian and Allegheny Plateaus are situated to the west.
Virginia's Eastern Shore: Located on the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula, Virginia’s Eastern Shore AVA is tucked between the Chesapeake Bay to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Breezes come in from the Chesapeake Bay, and the region’s soils are sandy. There are only a few wineries located here.
Today, there are over 250 wineries in Virginia. Here are a few to know:
Barboursville Vineyards: This is where modern-day Virginia winemaking was born. The land, farmed by the Barbour family since the mid-18th century, was acquired in 1976 by Gianni Zonin, heir of a winemaking family in Veneto. On a visit to Virginia, he decided that the land and climate were perfect for winemaking, and with this estate, he was the first to attempt planting European varieties since Jefferson’s era. Barboursville Vineyards is known for Bordeaux varieties as well as its wines produced from Italian grapes, including Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Vermentino. Though Zonin continued expanding his family’s projects back at home, Barboursville remains the family’s only estate outside of Italy.
Linden Vineyards: A great pioneer of Virginia wine, Jim Law started Linden in the mid-1980s. Compelled by experiences studying in Europe and teaching agriculture in the Peace Corps, he sought out vineyard work in Indiana and Ohio before falling in love with the Shenandoah Valley. He purchased an abandoned farm in 1983 and produced his first wines in 1987. Today, Linden Vineyards makes world class wines based primarily on Bordeaux grapes, including single bottlings of Petit Verdot as well as Chardonnay, Riesling, and Vidal. Law has served as a mentor for many Virginia vignerons, with passion for the region and widespread influence reminiscent of Jefferson’s during the state’s early winemaking years.
RdV Vineyards: Owner and winemaker Rutger de Vink is a former student of Jim Law and spent time training in Bordeaux and Napa. RdV Vineyards employs a Master Sommelier, Jarad Slipp, as well as high-profile French consultants who assist with viticulture and enology. The estate is known for its Bordeaux-style blends, and RdV wines are consistently considered some of the best in Virginia. The RdV “Lost Mountain” bottling, a Cabernet blend, is currently the most expensive bottle out of the state, routinely priced above $100. Though the profile of RdV Vineyards would not be unique in Napa, it is notable for Virginia.
Valhalla Vineyard: Located in the North Fork of Roanoke, Valhalla Vineyard is owned by James and Debra Vasick. They have received recognition for their Rhone varietals as well as Alicante Bouchet (a cross of Petit Bouschet and Grenache) and Norton planted in a higher elevation site in the Appalachian foothills.
Chrysalis Vineyards: Chrysalis arguably has the largest acreage of Norton in the world and is a tremendous advocate for the grape. The estate also produces Viognier, Albarino, Tempranillo, and Graciano.
Others wineries to look for: Ankida Ridge, Breaux Vineyards, Early Mountain Vineyards, Horton Vineyards, Glen Manor Vineyards, Jefferson Vineyards, King Family Vineyards, Pollak Vineyards, Thibaut-Jannisson, Wisdom Oak Winery
Characterized by a turbulent early history, a dramatic climate, and passionate local winemakers, Virginia has made enormous strides in the wine world since its stumbling beginnings in the early 1600s. As today's vintners continue to cast an eye towards quality, the state is well on its way to becoming the American wine region Jefferson envisioned.
Great point. Noted.
I'm surprised some or all of this well-written feature has not been incorporated into the North America study guide where Virginia merely merits a mention in "other wine-making regions." Maybe a future expanded guide?
Camille, finally a Somm who takes the VA seriously! Thank you for writing this piece and reminding us of how important VA is. I live near Virginia and see so many vineyards so the subject matter is personal for me. Thanks again!
Thanks for the contribution and attention to a less well known wine region. I have family in North Carolina often drive up the Shenandoah south to NC. Like Virginia, North Caroline is working hard to replace their tobacco agriculture with wine. In Yadkin Valley I have visited a number of wineries. Like Napa or Sonoma, you drive on to the properties and see rows of grapes and even drip lines. As you noted, with the humidity and amount of rain they get during the growing season creates a challenge; both with the lower yields, about half (2-3 tons per acre) vs. Napa or Sonoma, as well as the hang time and days of sun light . The latter may work to their advantage in obtaining more moderate sugar levels and corresponding alcohol levels (typically 13.5%). It's my understanding, that much of these issues are due to a lack of prevailing moderating west wind from the ocean that are enjoyed by Bordeaux & European wine countries in general, California/Washington, South America, South Africa and east coast locations of Australia which dip down in to the ocean.
This article is awesome and very helpful for someone who has just moved to D.C. Just starting to bone up on Virginia wines as it is relevant but also enjoyable! Thank you, Camille.
One thing, a map detailing the AVAs would be helpful.