Virginia, my what pretty wines you have!

Starry Nights in the rain at Veritas Winery

Starry Nights in the rain at Veritas Winery

I looked out over a sea of color – hundreds of people, thousands actually, were huddled under a rainbow of bright umbrellas, or enjoying the refuge of cozy canopies, while torrential rains lashed down around them in the open fields at Veritas winery in Afton, Virginia.

This was the July edition of the overwhelmingly popular summer concert series held at Veritas each month between Memorial Day and Labor Day, called ‘Starry Nights’ – although on this occasion, it was more like ‘soggy nights’!  Still, the weather did little to drown the spirits of the concert goers who had flocked to hear the Beatles cover band (see the video at the end of the post).

This evening had been the impetus for my first visit to Virginia and around which was built a fantastic itinerary of winery visits throughout the state. I was a guest of Chris Parker, a charming and passionate Brit with whom I have been working, (doing his social media). Chris has lived in Virginia for 25 years with his wife Janina, and in 2009 he decided to bring wines from a carefully selected handful of wineries back to his wine drinking compatriots in the UK through a company he set up – New Horizon Wines.

Chris & Janina Parker of New Horizon Wines

Chris & Janina Parker of New Horizon Wines

I was very excited to visit the wineries of Virginia as the state is now the 5th largest wine producer in the US with somewhere in the range of 240-270 wineries (the number varies as new ones open practically daily!). My prior experience of the wines was limited, having only tasted a few, several months earlier with Chris in London. At the time I had been struck by the quality and elegance each one portrayed and was immediately curious to learn more.

The wineries & the wines
Over the five days of my stay, we logged many hours in the car traveling the length and breadth of the state visiting the eight wineries Chris has in his portfolio: Barboursville Vineyards, Boxwood Winery, Breaux Vineyards, King Family Vineyards, RdV, Veritas Winery, White Hall Vineyards and Williamsburg Winery.

With each winery, each chat with the family owners and winemakers, each stroll through the vines and each taste of the wines it became obvious to me that this region and these wines are a serious contender on the world stage of wine.

Why? Because the care was taken to plant the right varieties in the right places where they can benefit from the rich red clay soils and just the right amount of sun and wind each one needs to ripen optimally; the wines are well made and of superior quality; and very simply, they taste great!

The grapes that are making their mark in Virginia are Viognier, Petit Verdot, Bordeaux-style blends, a few excellent Nebbiolos, and the star red grape: Cabernet Franc.  The Viogniers are structured and layered, and the lack of over ripeness ensures a purity of acidity. The Petit Verdot is full of lush dark fruits and floral notes, a touch herbal, but not green, with tannins that are happy to take a back seat and let the fruit shine.

The Bordeaux blends are strikingly similar to their French namesakes and just as good (for less money) and are often made in Left- and Right-Bank styles. As for Cabernet Franc, it produces wonderful dark fruit with complexity, good acidity and supple tannins. The detailed article “Virginia: America’s Old World”, in the July 2013 issue of Decanter magazine sums it up nicely by quoting Veritas Winery owner Andrew Hodson and Bartholomew Broadbent:

Andrew Hodson, Veritas’ patriarch, highlights delicate tannins reminiscent of Chinon and Burgundy: ‘It should almost be called Pinot Franc instead of Cabernet Franc.’ Bartholomew Broadbent declares that ‘Virginia makes the best Cabernet Franc in the world’.

People are paying attention
Quite surprisingly for wines of this quality, they are not readily available on shop shelves or wine lists around the States – not even in the neighboring major vibrant restaurant scene of Washington DC.  This is mainly due to the fact that the majority of each winery’s total production is sold directly to their customers in the tasting room, rather than going into wholesale distribution. However, national and international exposure is crucial to the industry. At the forefront of worldwide interest is the UK, where there is a large and growing presence of the wines of Virginia. My friend Chris Parker has single-handedly created that market.

Chris introduced the wines of Virginia to the UK in 2009 when he founded New Horizon Wines, and he is still the sole importer of these wines.  The reaction from the wine buyers, press and the public has gone from strength to strength. Virginia wines are listed on the wine lists some of London’s top restaurants, are on the shelves of renowned department stores and independent retailers around the country, and respected critics including Steven Spurrier, Jancis Robinson and Oz Clarke have all spoken about their admiration for the wines. At an event in DC, ‘Jancis Robinson Toasts American Wines’, in March of this year, Jancis said during her speech: “There is one man in London, Christopher Parker, who is a sort of a one-man band for promoting the wines of Virginia. And he has actually made quite an impact – he has got the listings”. In the Decanter article, Spurrier is quoted during a visit to Virginia, as saying “Very simply, Virginia makes the kinds of wines I like to drink.”

Chris Parker with Jancis Robinson

Chris Parker with Jancis Robinson

No matter whether large (Williamsburg Winery produces 600,000 bottles per year) or small (RdV only makes a small production of two wines, both red), each winery has a distinct personality and unique setting, but they all share the same conviction to produce wines of terroir, of precision and of superlative quality.

Popularity comes at a price
But it’s not all rainbows and roses for the Virginia wine industry. They are on the brink of a serious shortage of grapes. The number of wineries is increasing faster than I can drink a glass of wine, and many of these neither own vineyards nor have facilities with which to make wine.  Therefore they need to purchase grapes, but wineries with substantial acreage are mostly keeping their grapes to supply the growing demand for their wines, and what grapes are being sold, are at dizzyingly high prices.

Instead of boasting about the increase in the number of wineries the state is experiencing, a more exiting and beneficial report would be that vineyard plantings have risen. And even when this does happen, which it is bound to, we won’t feel the impact of the results for between 3-5 years as young vines are not harvested until they are least 3 years old.

New vine plantings at White Hall Vineyards

New vine plantings at White Hall Vineyards

The UK Connection
Driving through the state reminded me a lot of the sprawling English countryside with gently rolling waves of vibrant, peaceful green hills. In fact the similarities and connections to the UK are all around, in the climate and the history of the region.

It’s fair to say that Virginia’s weather is variable at best. Even though summer temperatures see the mercury soar, often to over 100˚ Fahrenheit (38˚C), which is fundamentally different to UK summers, the humid, rainy, cold traits of the other three seasons are remarkably comparable.

Virginia's excellent impression of the UK

Virginia’s excellent impression of the UK

What this means for the wines is that they are much more European in style (refined and elegant) than the powerful, fruit-driven wines we’ve been used to from sun-drenched California.  The weather also becomes a challenge in certain years for the Virginia winemakers, but since many of them are from France, Spain and Italy, they inherently know how to handle inconsistent weather which helps to avoid major issues with vintage variation.

And of course we can’t forget the historical connection to the UK – Jamestown was the first permanent settlement in the early 1600s in, what was then, the colony of Virginia. The settlers had grand plans that the area would be ideal to grow grapes and supply the UK with wine. In 1619 they implemented a law requiring every male head of household to plant a minimum of ten vines (this is called Acte 12 which is also the name of a delicious Chardonnay made by Williamsburg Winery).  Unfortunately the plan didn’t work and they were unable to produce wine.

In the 1700s, Thomas Jefferson, a big wine lover, tried for 3 decades to make wine in the beautiful area of Monticello Virginia (where Barboursville is located),  and sadly, was also unsuccessful.

At Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello

At Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello

The potential that these early pioneers knew the area exhibited, is finally being realized in this picturesque state making wines far beyond its relatively short 30 years of serious winemaking.

As the skies cleared and the rain let up, I looked out over the people dancing to ‘All You Need is Love’ (see video below) while enjoying the range of Veritas wines at the ‘Starry Nights’ concert, and couldn’t help but think there’s certainly a lot of love for the wines of this state, and the American forefathers would be proud of what Virginia and it’s wines are achieving.

Staying dry at Starry Nights with Andrew Hodson & Chris Parker

Staying dry at Starry Nights with Andrew Hodson & Chris Parker

Stay tuned – you’re going to hear a lot more about the wines of Virginia in the months and years to come.

See all the photos from this trip on Facebook.

Here’s to trying something new, learning something new and enjoying every glass a whole lot more!

Tara – the Wine Passionista

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