April 17, 2014
How a few vineyards are making their markSunday, December 29, 2013
Putting Virginia on the fine-winery map
Thomas Jefferson was a failure.
Yes, the man did some good work, writing the Declaration of Independence and running the country as our third president. Monticello is fairly impressive, too. But there is no way around it: as a winemaker, Jefferson was a disaster.
He began planting grapes in Virginia in 1771. In 1773, he had an Italian, Filippo Mazzei, plant a variety of European vines on his land. Yet in the years that followed, Jefferson had not a single harvest of grapes and produced not a single bottle of wine. His precious European vines were killed by insects, fungus and harsh winters. Some were trampled by horses. As recounted in a recent history by Richard Leahy, “Beyond Jefferson’s Vines,” the great man eventually packed it in, claiming that he “would in a year or two more have established the practicability of that branch of culture in the US.”
Sure he would have.
Instead of bringing viticulture to the New World, Jefferson may have helped set in motion the devastation of the wine industry in the Old World. The phylloxera vine louse, believed to have helped to kill off Jefferson’s vines, was eventually exported to Europe, where it wiped out most of the continent’s grapevines. It took the better part of a century for Europe to recover.
And for the next 200 years, wines in Virginia — based on native grapes not susceptible to the dreaded louse — were mostly undrinkable. When oenological pioneers revived winemaking in Virginia 40 years ago, the result was, as often as not, something that tasted like detergent. Gradually, the wines became tolerable, if usually unremarkable.
The past several years, however, have brought Jefferson vindication. A new generation of Virginia winemakers has begun to produce wines that can compete with the best of those from California and Europe. Here in the Mid-Atlantic, a petite Bordeaux is taking root. Technological advances in vineyard site selection, viticulture and winemaking have combined to create a critical mass for Virginia, establishing this area as what Decanter magazine in July called “the next big thing in American wine.”
“The current renaissance of serious vintners in the Virginia wine community has made Virginia a major contender,” says Jennifer Knowles, wine director at the Inn at Little Washington, which has 52 Virginia wines in its cellar and this year won a Wine Spectator Grand Award. She calls the wines “beautiful in their balance” and, ranging from US$30 to US$240 at the Rappahannock County restaurant, competitive with similarly priced wines from California and Europe.
This is not to say Virginia is the new Napa Valley. The Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office reports that the state has at least 230 wineries, and offers impressive statistics: an all-time high in wine sales in fiscal 2013, more than 511,000 cases sold, tied with Texas (yes, Texas) as the fifth-largest wine-grape-growing state. But independent experts I spoke to generally agree that many Virginia wineries are still making wine that ranges from unremarkable to unpleasant. That helps to explain why all but about three percent of Virginia wine is consumed in Virginia — much of that by tourists at wine festivals and winery tastings.
The making of high-quality wine is a rather different story. It is the work of about 20 producers. Some, such as Jim Law of Linden Vineyards and Gianni Zonin and Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards, have been at it for many years. Others are Johnny-come-latelies with deep pockets. Donald Trump bet on Virginia wines two years ago, buying Kluge Estate winery and naming it — what else? — Trump Winery, under the direction of Donald’s son, Eric. AOL founder Steve Case and wife Jean bought a producer and reopened it last year as Early Mountain Vineyards; they have said they’ll donate any profits to furthering Virginia wine.
In between are small, little-known estates with names such as Rappahannock Cellars, Pollak Vineyards and King Family Vineyards, scattered from Loudoun County to the Charlottesville area. Within a 90-minute drive from Washington, you can find three of the best:
n RdV Vineyards, in Delaplane, is the work of Rutger de Vink, a Dutch-American who poured a family fortune into building a great vineyard and now sells out his US$100-a-bottle wines.
n Delaplane Cellars, just a few minutes from RdV, was built by Jim Dolphin, who was in real estate and used proceeds from the sale of his home to turn his winemaking hobby into a business.
n Glen Manor, in Front Royal, was the brainchild of Jeff White, a fifth-generation farmer along Skyline Drive who discovered that his land was perfect for wine grapes.
The three have little in common, except that they all learned the trade from Jim Law at Linden Vineyards. In just a few years, they have employed technological advances to make world-class wines, at times exceeding the quality of their mentor’s.
As I write this, I am sipping 2010 Hodder Hill, a Bordeaux blend from Glen Manor, which sits on the west side of the Blue Ridge. The vines are grown on impossibly steep slopes at altitudes above 1,000 feet, using viticultural advances unknown just a few years ago and hand-pruned with the care of bonsai artists. It’s mostly Cabernet Sauvignon — a finicky grape hard to ripen in Virginia — softened by Merlot and given rich colour by Petit Verdot, a favourite grape here because it resists fungus and rot. The result is a flawless, silky wine with flavours of black cherry and currants that won a gold medal in the 2013 Virginia Governor’s Cup; the 2009 Hodder Hill won the 2012 Governor’s Cup overall.
At US$48 a bottle, it’s a steal — if you can find it. White produced only 350 cases of the stuff.
“There was a tendency in the past in Virginia to think, ‘I just have to get my fruit through the growing season clean, disease-free, so I can harvest it,’ “ White told me. “Now we’re kind of pushing the envelope.”
At first glance, there is no reason anybody would try to make wine in Virginia.
Its clay soil has poor drainage. It gets far more rain than is good for grapevines, and in the form of torrential thunderstorms. The high humidity encourages fungus and rot. A short growing season means grapes don’t have time to ripen. Then, just as harvest season arrives, there is the annual threat of bad weather related to tropical storms that can wipe out harvests.
“You look at our climate, and you don’t jump up and down and say, ‘Oh, my God, this is a perfect place to grow grapes,’ “ said de Vink, the RdV proprietor.
Essentially, what’s good for most crops — fertile soil and ample moisture — is precisely what you don’t want if you’re trying to make good wine. When a vine is in nutrient-rich soil and gets plenty of water, the plant puts its energy into leaves and shoots. But when a vine is stressed — not getting enough nutrition and water — it devotes its energy to perpetuating the species and protecting its seed by producing the most succulent fruit.
These new Virginia winemakers are mimicking the conditions of great wine regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy. Consulting with soil scientists, they are finding rocky soils on steep, wind-swept hillsides that promote drainage and air circulation around the grape clusters. They graft European varietals onto phylloxera-resistant rootstock and use new techniques in “canopy management.”
There have been advances in the wineries, too, including micro-oxygenation, enzymes and concrete tanks, and more widespread use of stainless-steel equipment. But while such techniques can make an otherwise bad wine tolerable, the real difference has been outdoors. The fickle climate, says Knowles, of the Inn at Little Washington, “means an incredible amount of time spent physically tending the vines. This is where Virginia viticulture differs from most wine-growing regions in the world and why winemakers here have to have an almost fanatical attention to detail.”
MORE IN COMMON WITH FRANCE
The vagaries of nature, and the resulting need for labour-intensive farming, means the top Virginia wines have more in common with the understated wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy than the bold wines of California. California wines are all about ripe fruit and heavy oak, but Virginia wines are more delicate and require gentler extraction of juice from the grapes.
Virginia’s Old World style has won some critical acclaim. Four years ago, The Washington Post’s wine writer, Dave McIntyre, hosted a blind tasting in which Virginia wines only narrowly trailed competitors from France and California. Then, last year, Steven Spurrier, the British wine merchant who arranged the “Judgment of Paris” wine tasting in 1976 that put California wines on the map when they beat their French rivals, arranged a blind tasting of Virginia wines alongside top candidates from France, Italy, Portugal and California. Spurrier preferred the Virginia contender in six of eight comparisons, and the other two were ties.
Also on that blind panel was Jay Youmans, educational director of the Capital Wine School, who runs the annual Virginia Governor’s Cup competition. In the past two years, his well-credentialed judges have given 88 of 100 points to more than 40 wines from a handful of Virginia producers. The influential British wine writer Jancis Robinson, too, has called the Virginia wines she tasted “thrillingly good,” and McIntyre has been a key figure in spreading the word about Virginia’s advances.