For wine enthusiasts and U.S. history buffs, the Commonwealth of Virginia — rich with Colonial, Revolutionary, Civil War and also viticulture history — provides a great backdrop for these interests to intersect.
In July 1808, President Thomas Jefferson, widely considered the father of American wine, wrote in a letter to Count C.P. de Lasteyrie, “We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”
This statement, along with many of his records and notes, demonstrate Jefferson’s optimism for the potential of viticulture and wine production in America and, in particular, his beloved Virginia. Though Jefferson was ahead of his time by nearly 200 years, his dream of great wine being produced in Virginia is now being realized.
Virginia is home to over 275 wineries, spread across 10 regions, seven American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), and 25 different wine trails. Virginia ranks fifth in the number of wineries in the nation and is also the fifth largest wine grape producing state.
Thanks to a dedicated group of grape growers and winemakers, the quality of Virginia wine has improved significantly over the last ten to 20 years, earning accolades from major national and international publications like Wine Enthusiast, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Decanter, and The New York Times.
The following will provide insights into Virginia’s emergence as one of the most promising wine regions in the U.S. and beyond:
Virginia’s Viticulture History:
- Virginia’s First Cultivated Vines. Virginia has a long and rich history of grape cultivation. Acte 12, one of the nation’s earliest laws passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1619, required each male colonist to plant and tend at least ten grapevines. Virginia Burgesses speaker John Pory stated, “Three things there bee which in a few yeares may bring this Colony to perfection: the English plough, vineyards and cattle.” Williamsburg Winery, located just a few miles from the Jamestown church where the law was passed, produces a Chardonnay named ‘Acte 12 of 1619’ as a nod to the law requiring colonists to plant vines.
- The First Documented Virginia Wine Shipment. The first recorded international shipment of a wine made in Virginia was in 1622 when colonists shipped a small sample to London. Unfortunately, the wine spoiled en route. Today, Virginia wine is sold in over 20 states and exported to international markets like the United Kingdom and China.
- America’s First Oenophile. Best known as our nation’s third president, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and Virginia’s second governor, Thomas Jefferson is also considered the Father of American wine. Jefferson made several attempts at cultivating vines at Monticello but, sadly, never harvested a crop or produced a bottle of wine. His viticulture failures did not dampen Jefferson’s enthusiasm for wine. During his eight years as president, Jefferson reportedly purchased about 20,000 bottles of wine from European countries. His cellar included Champagne, Madeira, white Hermitage from the Rhone, Bordeaux wines including Rausan Margaux (now Chateaux Rausan-Ségla), d’Yquem and Chambertin from Burgundy, among others.
- Monticello. Jefferson planted two vineyard sites at Monticello: the southwest site (which measures 16,000 square feet) and the northeast (9,000 square feet). The first grapevines were planted at Monticello in 1771 followed by another planting three years later by Filippo Mazzei, an Italian viticulturist (followed by additional attempts years later). Mazzei also planted vines at the Colle farm, located a couple miles from Monticello, where Jefferson Vineyards is now located. In 1985, Jefferson’s 1807 plan for the northeast vineyard at Monticello was restored and, in 1993, the southwest vineyard was replanted with Sangiovese grapevines. Visitors to Monticello (Monticello.org) can walk through each of these original vineyard sites.
- First record of grape production with European vines. Though Jefferson never made wine from grapes grown at Monticello, Charles Carter, a member of the House of Burgesses (1736 – 1764), did make wine from grapes grown at his plantation. In 1763, Royal Governor Francis Fauquier, who was governor of the Colony of Virginia at the time, certified that Carter was successfully growing European vines at Cleve plantation in King George County. This marked the first official record of successful grape production with European vines in Virginia.
Virginia Wines Today:
- October is Virginia Wine Month. In 1988, then Governor Gerald Baliles launched Virginia Wine Month as a way to raise awareness of the Commonwealth’s growing wine industry. October 2016 marks the 28th anniversary of the celebration of wines, winemakers and wineries of Virginia. A complete list of Virginia Wine Month events is available at the VirginiaWine.org Events page.
- Virginia is for Viognier Lovers. In May 2011, Viognier was designated as Virginia’s official Signature Grape by the Virginia Wine Board. Dennis Horton, founder of Horton Winery in Gordonsville, north of Charlottesville, planted the first Viognier vines in the Commonwealth in 1989. Viognier is best known as the aromatic white grape of the Condrieu appellation in the northern Rhône Region of France, but Horton sourced Virginia’s first Viognier vines from California’s Napa Valley. The popularity of Viognier has grown significantly since Horton planted those first 13 acres in 1989. Today, there are 259 acres of Viognier planted across Virginia, with over 80 wineries offering a wine made from Viognier.
- Over 6.6 million bottles of Virginia wine were sold in fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, up from 6.3 million in fiscal year 2015.
- The Virginia wine industry employs 4,700 people and contributes almost $750 million to the Virginia economy each year.
- Over 2.3 million people visited Virginia wineries last year.
- Virginia’s Most Popular Grapes. Over 60 grape varieties are cultivated in Virginia for wine production. Chardonnay is the most planted wine grape in the state with 441 bearing acres under vine, followed by Cabernet Franc with 382 bearing acres planted, Merlot (332 acres), Cabernet Sauvignon (289 acres), Viognier (259 acres), Petit Verdot (198 acres), and Vidal Blanc with 150 acres planted.
- Petit Manseng Rising. Of the lesser-known grape varieties (like Vermentino, Nebbiolo, and Verdejo) thriving in Virginia, Petit Manseng, a small, thick-skinned grape from the Jurançon region of southeast France, may be the most promising. Its loose clusters and small berries make Petit Manseng well suited for the state’s heat and humidity. Petit Manseng is versatile — styles range from from dry to off dry to opulent and sweet — offers loads of acid (often added to Viognier to boost acidity), and tends to age beautifully. There are currently 78 acres of Petit Manseng planted in Virginia and nearly 35 Virginia wineries offer a wine made from this promising grape. Michael Shaps Wineworks, Horton Vineyards, Delaplane Cellars, Glen Manor Vineyards, Veritas Vineyards, and Granite Heights Winery among others, offer delicious wines made from Petit Manseng.
- Virginia’s Native Grape. Though there is much mystery surrounding the origins of the Norton grape (sometimes referred to as Cynthiana), a physician from Richmond, Dr. Daniel Norton, is widely credited with its discovery (or creation) around 1817. Dr. Norton made the grape commercially available in 1830 and it soon became one of the most notable grapes used for wine production in the U.S. In 1873, a wine made from Norton won the gold medal at the international exhibition in Vienna. Chrysalis Vineyards, in Middleburg, VA, is home to the largest planting of Norton in the world — 42 acres — where owner Jenni McCloud is working to restore ‘the native American grape, Norton, to its position of prominence as a source of world class wines.’
Visiting wineries is the best way to know Virginia wine and to experience Jefferson’s dream of ‘making as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe’ being realized.
October is a perfect time to discover, or rediscover, Virginia wine!
A Virginia native, Frank Morgan works in the Legal and Data Privacy group of a global company by day. He is the author of the DrinkWhatYouLike.com wine blog, started seven years ago to chronicle his wine travel experiences and to share stories of the wines, wineries, and winegrowers of Virginia. His site was recently named one of the top wine news blogs by Millesima. Morgan is also a contributor for edibleDC magazine, the wine site Snooth, founder of the monthly virtual wine tasting series Virginia Wine Chat (started in 2013), and is the associate editor of Virginia Wine Lover Magazine, the only print magazine dedicated to the state’s wine industry.
When not writing to raise awareness of the local wine industry or taking Wine & Spirit Education Trust classes, he can be found playing at the park with his daughter or reading his way through every published work of David Foster Wallace. He lives in the Tidewater area.