Tastings: In the fall, Virginia is for wine lovers

Grapes have been grown in Virginia since the colonial era

Every red-blooded American wine-lover must at some point visit a vineyard and winery to fully perceive and appreciate just what goes into a bottle of our beloved fermented grape juice. And the more regions you visit, the more profound that understanding will be. Seeing the soil, the situation and exposure of the vineyards and talking with the person who makes the wine is sort of like getting credits towards a master's degree in wine knowledge.

And the fact that most wine regions are situated in gorgeous landscapes makes the trip doubly compelling. Whether it's to Chianti, Beaujolais, Sonoma or Niagara-on-the-Lake, a trip to wine country never disappoints on delivering sensual pleasure on multiple levels.

Pittsburgh wine-lovers are fortunate to live within driving distance of a world-class wine region. Grapes have been grown in Virginia since the colonial era. Thomas Jefferson planted vineyards at Monticello in 1771, although he never harvested a single crop. Speculation is that phylloxera and fungal diseases were to blame, but I would add the possibility that the European varieties he chose to plant were poorly suited to the climate. Eventually native vines such as Catawba and Concord were planted throughout the state and created a successful wine industry.

It thrived until Prohibition. Prohibition was repealed during the Depression, when few people were anxious to make a large investment in grapes, so the growth in vineyards in Virginia was slow to materialize.

The real renaissance of Virginia's wine industry began in 1960 with the planting of hardy French hybrid varieties, essentially Seyval Blanc and Vidal Blanc for whites and Chambourcin for red. By the mid-1970s there were some plantings of Chardonnay. Gradually, from that time until now, the hybrids were replaced with more vitis vinefera varieties from diverse European regions. Today, the popular varieties range from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to Merlot, Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo, Tannat, Petit Verdot, Viognier, Albarino and Petit Manseng. Viognier has been an undeniable commercial winner in Virginia, leading to lots of new plantings of it.

When I first visited wineries in Northern Virginia in 1988, there were still a lot of hybrid grape wines being produced. I am horrified by anything made from non-vinefera grapes so I didn't find the wine-tasting experience then particularly fruitful. I remember meeting a German winemaker who had been imported to make Riesling at a beautiful new winery near Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison.

The winery was state-of-the-art and the winemaker was charming, but I remember finding his riesling flat, fat and sadly without any redeeming character. During that trip, I didn't purchase a single bottle or get excited about the potential of Virginia wines in general.

There's been an earth-shaking revolution since then. With the new century, Virginia has become a hot spot for award-winning wines, wines that clearly can be judged by international quality standards. There is an explosion in the number of wineries reminiscent of California in the 1970s. Today there are more than 200 wineries and some of the wines are being exported to the United Kingdom. Alas, only five Virginia wines are available from Pennsylvania wine and spirits shops, most of them by special liquor order.

Virginia wine country is a moderate driving distance from Pittsburgh. You not only can taste some amazing wines, but also will be rewarded by beautiful countryside, visits to historic homes of our early presidents (Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, James Madison's Montpelier and James Monroe's Ashlawn) and charming Virginia towns such as Middleburg, Charlottesville and Orange.

There is a website, virginiawine.org, with useful information. I called 1-804-344-8200 to request a map of the wine country, which arrived in three days. It lists all the wineries with visiting hours, directions, phone numbers and tasting prices. Travel time to the Northern Virginia sites is between four and five hours and there are delightful B&B's along the way.

For the perfect guide, I recommend a fabulous new book by Richard Leahy, the Mid-Atlantic and South editor of "The Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America." The book is "Jefferson's Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia" (Sterling Epicure, $19.95). It gives you an insider tour of different Virginia wine regions with invaluable profiles of the winemakers and the strengths of each winery. He even tells you which tasting rooms welcome dogs! And which offer picnic tables or food. It will make your visits more interesting and productive.

My starter list included Barbourville and Horton in the Monticello region and Linden, Chester Gap and Barrel Oak near Middleburg.

Other gorgeous areas are the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge regions, but they are more distant. Wherever you roam in Virginia today, you will find interesting wineries and tasting-room delights. And what better time to indulge so many sensory treasures than the fall when grapes are ripening and leaves are turning?

We are so fortunate to have this area at our doorstep.

Elizabeth Downer: elizabethdowner@gmail.com.


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