Emblazoned on nearly every car licence plate in the US Southern state of Virginia you will find ‘Virginia is for Lovers’. I always found this tourism slogan stupid, until it started making sense to me. Or maybe I just got soppy. After a good mooch around, I discover that Virginia is indeed for lovers; lovers of life, lovers of good things, lovers of hiking, lovers of history… Even the wines are heady and lusty — for lovers! I embarked on a little tour of Virginia wine country to discover its hidden secrets, and ended being seduced.
During my sojourn in Charlottesville I read the author Stefan Zweig liken American adults to eternal children. What Zweig, disgruntled with his US stay, meant derogatorily at the time, to me translated as a zest and youthful enthusiasm. Interpreting this statement in a wine-related sense, this youthful spirit could translate into a freshness that is sometimes wanting in the old world ‘wine world’; In Virginia, I noticed that it is often to their advantage that innovative winemakers throw caution to the wind and just go for it, making exactly the kind of wines they feel like making.
Virginia wine country fans out from the Blue Ridge Mountain chain. The lush countryside is heady and extremely charming; like stepping back into softer, slower times. The scenery is seducing, and the area ideal for wine tourism. The climate, though a little challenging for winemakers, is actually very well suited to growing South-West France varieties like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat, and Petit Verdot. All the same, they grow a lot of varieties in Virginia, and single varietal wines seem to really shine here. Winemakers are open to experimentation, not too tethered to traditions, and happily ship in the French to lend a hand of expertise. The stunning, sprawling land is an enchanting playground for winegrowers.
Scouting the land
On day one of my winery hunt with my travel companions Peter (grape expert) and Alexandria (Pokemon expert) we head west from Charlottesville towards the town of Crozet. The weather is unseasonably (and rather unreasonably) warm, giving, it would appear, false hope to plants, animals, and humans. We swing past the tiny village’s little stores and Peter looks out the window and mumbles something he reads, which turns out to be ‘Death will be no more’ in ominous lettering outside a little Methodist chapel.
Lost in my own world I hear ‘death to pinot noir’..which, as it turns out, might be more fitting, as this region is decidedly Bordeaux rather than bowing to the Burgundian nuance of its finicky flagship grape.
Our first stop was King Family Vineyard, an impressively sprawling operation with surrounding mountain views. Wowza. We had a relaxed and informative wine tasting session with the polite and knowledgeable Dave, who filled us in on the happenings at King, which include polo matches on summer Sundays, and the opportunity for visitors to pack a picnic and luxuriate in the impeccable and expansive grounds with a bottle of wine and stellar mountain views. He was selling me the dream.
Similarly dreamy were a few of the stand-out wines; I swooned at a Petit Verdot which stole the show in all its bold, smooth, black magic; dark fruit, spice, and feminine floral notes. I was also charmed by an interesting red dessert wine called ‘Seven’ which is aged in whiskey barrels. It tasted like a perfect marriage between red wine, dark chocolate and smooth whiskey.
6550 Roseland Farm
Crozet, VA 22932
More information: kingfamilyvineyards.comMoving on from King we stopped in at nearby Grace Estate, and stepped into a airy and bright tasting room with an inviting soundtrack of rock ‘n’ roll: The Clash, Beatles, The Police, Tom Petty and the rest of them good old boys. I felt relaxed and in my element before I’d even sampled the wine.
Memorable at Grace Estate was an inky, weighty Tannat, brimming with character and reminiscent of French Madiran, aka the beast of South-West France. Our host Chris was a bit of a raconteur, and understood my being stunned by the delicious secret of Virginian wine. Hailing from the wine country of California, he says that when he first landed in town he was stunned that ‘a) wine came from Virginia, and b) GOOD wine came from Virginia!’
5273 Mt Juliet Farm,
Crozet, VA 22932.
More information graceestatewinery.com
On the recommendation of the other wineries, we swung by Stinson Vineyards before calling it a day. Stinson is small-scale, laid back, and has breathtaking surrounding Blue Ridge mountain views. The winery is run by the father/daughter team of Scott and Rachel Stinson, and they are distinctly French-influenced in their winemaking style.
I spent some time chatting with Rachel, former photographer, who was captured by an unexpected love for making French-style wine with her dad. She is part of a younger generation of female winemakers making great wine using traditional techniques, while embracing innovation in the industry.
The white wines at Stinson really stood out, particularly a steely Sauvignon Blanc that was very Loire Valley in style; with muted citrus, strong mineral notes, and a searing acid line zipping through it. The tasting room also serves as an artisan farm store, selling local organic, grass fed meat and cheeses, and also offering meat and cheese platters to snack on while you sip.
4744 Sugar Hollow Rd,
Crozet, VA 22932
More information: stinsonvineyards.com
On another morning, with fresh palates and new companions, I head south from Charlottesville to my eagerly awaited encounter with the wines of Michael Shaps. Shaps is a prominent figure on the Virginia and even international wine scene; the quality of his wines positions him alongside some of America’s finest winemakers today. Shaps produces complex wine that is very influenced by old world winemaking technique, having studied and worked in wine in Burgundy for some time. He has also been making wine in Burgundy since 2004.
The red wines are powerful, highly extracted, and long-lived, and the whites are bursting with varietal intensity and scintillating acidity. Winemaking is an art form for Shaps, and he really reveres his craft, believing that Virginian wines can stand up to the most prestigious wines being made in the world today. Every Shaps wine we tasted was impressive, from the richly textured and wildly aromatic Viognier to the weighty, complex Meritage blend. My favourite was the spicy, dark-fruited and intense Cabernet Franc, and I remember thinking: here are new world wines with old world sensibilities.
1781 Harris Creek Way,
Charlottesville, VA 22902
More information: michaelshapswines.com
Of all the US presidents past, none has a reputation for a being a wine lover as Thomas Jefferson does. In fact, Jefferson could well have been one of America’s first wine connoisseurs, and he was especially fascinated with French wine. Jefferson believed that ‘cultivators of the earth are the most virtuous and independent citizens.’ and was also a master gardener.
The Ambassador to France had wine shipped directly from the best vineyards in France to his home in Virginia. In his personal endeavours to grow European varieties on Virginian soil, however, he failed again and again, and never did see good wine grown on his home turf. Jefferson would be glad to see that these days things are changing, and Virginia is finally being taken seriously as a wine region.
No need to search for the ghost of Jefferson in Charlottesville — the founding father’s legacy is everywhere, and very much alive in his home state. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in the early 1800s. His architectural genius is imprinted all over it; from the polished and glowing Rotunda (modelled after the pantheon in Rome), to the grand domes and columns. In nearby Monticello, Jefferson’s sprawling, palatial plantation, he incorporated a mish-mash of architectural styles, and a stunning, expansive garden.
The college city of Charlottesville is a great base; nearby are 12 vineyards within easy driving distance, and the town itself is adorable — all brick and oak tree-lined — the downtown mall is filled with beautiful shop-fronts, and even has a gorgeous 1930s theatre — The Paramount — with a Greek facade and ornate interior. It is a pretty, welcoming city, and a perfect hang-out for the sip-happy.
PS: Worth a mention for pastry snobs like myself is the French-style bakery Marie Bette, where French pastry techniques have clearly been impeccably mastered, as the delicious viennoiseries on offer are almost as good as France — croissants with a crisp, flaky outside, and the lightest, fluffiest inside. The bakery even has Breton and Bordeaux favourites with the incredibly buttery kouign amann and caramelised, crisp cannelés. Their brown buttered, almond-scented financiers are knock-out good. Overall this buzzing little bakery-cafe convincingly conjures up Paris with added Southern charm and warmth, which makes it definitely worth a morning pit stop.
Naomi Ní Chatháin is a WSET-certified wine specialist from Co. Clare. She studied French and Philosophy in NUI Galway before pursuing a master’s degree in Wine Tourism (or ‘oenotourisme et projet culturel’) in Nimes.
Naomi loves French culture, and has lived in different parts of France over the years.
Her other passions include the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer, the music of Bob Dylan, and road trips across America. Naomi is also a professional baker, and founder of NaomiBakes.com.
She is a firm believer in eating delicious, healthy cakes every day, and has a small subscription-based healthy cake kit delivery business.