Against All Odds: The Wines of Virginia
There are three reasons for planting a vineyard. It can (as in Champagne or Burgundy) be the most sublimely profitable agricultural act among many; more often, though, it is the only agricultural use for land which would otherwise be desert or scrub. Wealthy nearby population centres create vineyards, too. Only in the American state of Virginia, perhaps, can we add a fourth reason: historical imperative.
The European wine vine (Vitis vinifera) was first spread its roots in North American soil in Virginia in 1619, planted by English colonists with the advice of 'divers skillful vignerons' from France. California's first mission vines didn't follow the Virginia lead for a century and a half. No less significant were the five decades which the third President of the United States spent trying to grow and make wine at his Virginia estate, Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson initiated the great American tradition of cultured wine appreciation when, as minister to the court of Louis XVI between 1785 and 1789, he toured the wine regions of France, Germany and Italy, taking meticulous notes as he went. Back home, he served Europe's finest during his two administrations at the White House, as well as sponsoring a variety of wine-growing experiments other than his own, and doing his best to minimise wine taxes, having observed on his travels that "no nation is drunken where wine is cheap". As a Virginian vintner, though, the great polymath failed abjectly; by 1809, he had given up on Vitis vinifera altogether. Native Vitis labrusca and, later, hardy hybrids held sway throughout Old Dominion until the 1970s. Since then, the weight of history combined with well-lined Virginian pockets, the thirst of Washington DC and a big splash of innate American optimism has made Virginia the fifth most important vinifera-growing State. There were just six wineries in 1979; Virginia now boasts 120 and rising. Jefferson would be proud.
Growing vines in Virginia is no easier now than it first was, three years after Shakespeare's death; what's changed is that the chemical industry has given winegrowers better weaponry to defeat occasional hurricanes, ten tornadoes a year, 30 to 50 days of thunderstorms and up to 1,000 mm (40 inches) of rain. Meterologically speaking, these are the humid, sub-tropical conditions rarely propitious for viticulture - with spring frost thrown in to test growers' fortitude further. (In Jefferson's day, phylloxera would have been the last straw.)
The state takes the form of a squat triangle: a chain of ridged highlands dominates its long western side, with a dense braid of rivers draining from the Blue Ridge mountains eastwards down to Chesapeake Bay. High-sited vineyards (like the ten in the Shenandoah Valley) are dry but cool; low-lying vineyards near the coast are warmer but wetter. The pretty hill slopes of the Upper Piedmont just east of the Blue Ridge combines the best of both zones. Most wineries lie here.
To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement at mosquito-ridden Jamestown, members of the Virginia Wineries Association travelled to London in May 2007 to show off their wines. It wasn't a sales trip; growers just wanted to see what British palates would make of them.
I was struck by their petite dimensions. Since California produces the biggest-boned wines in the world, wines in which low yields and ripe fruit send alcohol levels cruising effortlessly past 14 per cent, it was something of a shock to taste wines grown south of Mason-Dixon which had inched their way to full ripeness. This isn't necessarily a failing - fellow-taster Steven Spurrier mentioned lower alcohol levels as one reason why he liked the wines - but it does require palate-recalibration.
It also has an impact on choice of varieties. Chardonnay leads plantings; at best, it is bright, juicy and fresh, but it can also be slight, sweet and mawkish. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot jog along behind, and the patchy quality of all three in the tasting suggested that consumer familiarity takes precedent over site aptitude. Authentically fragrant Viognier has been a recent success, though the temptation to leave residual sugar in these wines is inadequately resisted. Many growers champion Cabernet Franc. Petit Verdot and Petit Manseng are in the ascendant, too, in both cases due to naturally thick skins providing the grapes with a useful raincoat. Hugh Johnson felt Virginia's Petit Verdots were "more than promising", and took a bottle of the Veritas home to drink with dinner.
Few Virginia wines would retail in the UK at less than £10, which suggests they will struggle to achieve more than curiosity status. The only major commercial buyer to find time to attend the tasting was Nick Room of Waitrose, and he estimated only four to six wines out of the 68 shown might succeed in the UK, and only then "to interested experimentalists. Too many of the wines have peculiar flavours that I didn't associate with their varieties - maybe due to climatic conditions." The 'more consumer-friendly' wines of Washington State still struggled to find UK drinkers, he pointed out; Virginia, he felt, would find it harder still. Perhaps, though, the wind of history can help fill their sails.
2002 Malvaxia Passito, Barboursville
My top-scoring wine of the tasting by two clear marks is this idiosyncatic but beautiful dessert wine made by Gianni and Silvana Zonin of the giant, Vicenza-based company of the same name, using the attic-dried-fruit techniques of their native Italy. Magnificently complex scents of white peach, hawthorne blossom and vanilla, and luscious, comely flavours which retain that aromatic power.
2002 Kluge Estate New World Red
It was inevitable that the Michel Rolland wand would be waved somewhere in Virginia. The faint greenness at the end of this Bordeaux blend points up the deficiencies of the location, but its extraction has been cleverly reined back to a minimum, leaving hallmark Rolland soft textures unusually combined with an old-style claretty refreshment.
2005 Cabernet Franc, Linden
Owner Jim Law wasn't at the tasting, but was described by some of his fellow producers as 'our best viticulturalist' and 'Virginia's terroiriste'. This was a close-grained, dark, brooding Cabernet Franc whose cool freshness and curranty depths suggested a kind of Stateside Friuli red.
The three best Viogniers on show were all from the 2005 vintage: the aromatically charming if candied Rappahannock Cellars Reserve, the delicate, blossomy version of The Winery at La Grange, and the teasing White Hall Vineyards version, which also includes Chardonnay and a little Petit Manseng.
Two Barboursville wines (though not the Malvaxia) are available in the UK from Zonin UK (01932 340780). More information on Virginia wines is available through www.virginiawines.org and stockists of individual wines in the USA from www.wine-searcher.com.