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Photo courtesy RdV Vineyards
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Photo by Brandon Fox
Winemakers have been harvesting grapes in Virginia since the late 1700s, but the commonwealth's varietals have only recently gained serious acclaim.
"Virginia wine would not be growing in popularity with the public if it weren't good," says Richard Leahy, a Charlottesville-based wine writer and consultant, "and for those who wrote off the category a decade ago, they would be shocked and amazed at most of the high quality of the Virginia wines today."
Now the fifth largest wine-producing state in the country, Virginia has seen its number of wineries nearly double in the last decade to more than 200, with a density around Charlottesville in Virginia's Piedmont region and Loudoun County, which is easily accessible from Washington. Industry experts and government leaders credit this growth in large part to strong marketing, funding and support at the state level. Gov. Bob McDonnell and former Gov. Tim Kaine both prioritized the industry as a part of economic development, and the enology-grape chemistry group at Virginia Tech supports cultivation and innovation. Virginia's signature varietals are Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Viognier and the Norton. "We're doing those grapes as well or better than anyone else in United States," says Todd Haymore, state secretary of agriculture and forestry, who takes the wines on international trade missions.
Wine aficionados have taken notice. In 2007, Travel & Leisure mentioned Virginia as one of the five up-and-coming wine regions in the world, highlighting Barboursville Vineyards in Orange County. Wine Enthusiast named Virginia one of the top 10 travel destinations of 2012. Virginia wines are also getting attention at national and international competitions.
"Virginia is both geographically and stylistically between Europe and California," says Leahy, who has written about Virginia wines since 1986. His book Beyond Jefferson's Vines, published this year, chronicles the evolution of Virginia winemaking. "We have the freedom to make wines any way we want without the restrictions of European regulations, but our climate is much more European."
Leahy describes the European Viognier grape as generally "esoteric and hard to produce." He says, "Viognier has proven to have consistent high quality here. Anyone who can do it well consistently will get a reputation in top wine circles."
Taking inspiration from Europe, where restaurants often feature wines from the region, Kendra Feather chose to serve only Virginia wines when she opened The Roosevelt with partner Lee Gregory in Church Hill. Results have been mixed.
"The whole concept of our restaurant was to embrace being ‘of a place,' " Feather says. "Some people love it. Other people turn their nose up immediately. But in Italy, it's not about getting the most expensive bottle of wine; it's about ordering the wine from where you are."