An Introduction To The Wines of Virginia
- By Sabra Lewis
- 29 Mar 2021
- 5 MIN
- Level 101
A Brief History
The Commonwealth of Virginia has a deep history of cultivating vines for wine production going back to the 17th century, just after English colonialists settled in Jamestown. The male heads of households were required by law to plant and tend to ten or more grapevines for wine production. The settlers explored, with some difficulty, both Vitus vinifera and local varieties.
Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson was a known oenophile and was instrumental in developing Virginia wine culture and vineyards at his Monticello estate in the 1770s. He was paramount in the establishment of The Virginia Wine Company and gifted over 809 ha of land for grapevine production. They were largely unsuccessful due to many factors including challenging climatic conditions.
The Norton Advancement
Around the 1820s there was a considerable breakthrough with the native grape variety, Norton, which was cultivated by Dr. Daniel Norton. A notable historical contribution from Virginia as it racked up accolades at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873 and aided in overcoming Phylloxera in European vineyards with its louse-resistant rootstocks.
An Explosion of Growth
The modern era of Virginia wine was revived in the 1970s with six newly established wineries after Prohibition and The Great Depression essentially wiped out the industry. Today, there are over 300 wineries in operation, giving one an idea of how quickly the state has scaled.
The Virginia wine region sits between the 36th and 39th parallels North, which is roughly where Sicily lies in Europe. However, the climatic conditions are very different. Virginia ranges from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west, with continental plateaus in the center, to the maritime shores on the coast. The climate overall is humid, subtropical, with warm to hot summers and moderate to cold winters. Typically, there are no significant temperature swings of harsh cold or intense summer heat.
Notable rainfall and humidity are consistent throughout the year. Frost and mildew are the main challenges during the growing season which is partly why it took the early settlers so long to find success with viticulture.
Virginia has over 1,619 ha in production with ten regions and eight AVAs spanning the state. There are five major geologic regions ranging from sedimentary to metamorphic rock. The elevation ranges from zero to 1,746 m.
Below are the regions and corresponding AVAs:
- North Fork of Roanoke AVA – Vineyards run along the Roanoke river to the eastern slope of Allegheny Mountains - Bordeaux blends
- The Rocky Knob AVA – Eastern slopes of Blue Ridge – well-drained loam and gravel
- Monticello AVA – The oldest AVA, established in 1984 - hilly, eastern slopes of Blue Ridge with fertile granite/clay - International varieties
- George Washington Birthplace AVA – sandy loam – Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Vidal Blanc, and Chambourcin
- Virginia’s Eastern Shore AVA – Bordered by the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic – maritime with a long growing season – Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc
- Virginia Peninsula AVA – The newest AVA – maritime and sedimentary soils
Heart of Appalachia – Mountainous slopes at the western tip of the state with a temperate climate
- Middleburg AVA – The fastest-growing AVA, rolling hills on granite and sandstone – good drainage for Bordeaux varieties
- Shenandoah Valley AVA – The state’s largest AVA – Very dry area as it sits in the rain and wind shadow of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains – rocky fertile soil – a blend of Vinifera and hybrids
Southern Virginia – The area around the border of North Carolina in the middle of the state
Virginia Mountains – The highest elevation in the state spanning the Appalachian Mountains and the border with West Virginia
Today, approximately 24 grape varieties are planted in Virginia’s vineyards. In addition to the noteworthy hybrid Norton, the French/American hybrid Chambourcin finds a home and a following in Virginia. Chambourcin is vigorous and disease resistant with herbal aromas and crisp acidity.
There appears to be a trend of France’s “secondary varieties” finding success in Virginia. Viognier is a leading player along with Cabernet Franc, Petit Manseng, Malbec, and Petit Verdot.
International varieties that play a role are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc along with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, often used as blending partners. Even Pinot Noir is grown in cooler mesoclimates. Nebbiolo, Riesling, Seyval Blanc, Rkatsiteli, Albariño, Vidal Blanc, and Tannat are in play with experimenting growers.
Wines bottled are made from sparkling to still in style and every colour including dessert wine styles. There is also an important orchard and cider culture amongst the Virginia wine regions.
Virginiawine.org relates the style of wines to “old world grace and southern grit” as the region straddles the old world and new world both geographically and stylistically.