Northern Virginia Feature

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Virginia's Winemaking Roots

In 1609 English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, produced the first wine—however humble—in America. In the nearly 400 years since, it has been sink or swim for the state's wine industry—mostly sink. But after numerous tries, Virginia can claim some 135 wineries.

In 1611 the Virginia Company, eager to establish wine making in the Colonies, brought over French winegrowers along with slips and seeds of European vine stocks. For the next two centuries, French viticulturists attempted but failed to transplant European rootstock to the New World. In 1769 the Virginia Assembly appointed the Frenchman Andrew Estave as winemaker and viticulturist. He couldn't get the European stock to take either, but realized that the problem lay with Virginia's harsher climate of cold winters and hot, humid summers. Estave believed that growers should therefore use native American grapes, which were more likely to flourish.

Thomas Jefferson was anxious to promote grape growing, to encourage wine drinking for itself, and to create a cash-crop alternative to tobacco. Although he appreciated European wines, Jefferson believed that successful wine making in America would depend on native varietals. By 1800 he and other Virginians had begun developing hybrids of American and European varieties, resulting in grapes that combined American hardiness with European finesse and complexity. The most popular are still grown today.

A strong wine-making industry developed in Virginia between 1800 and the Civil War. The war's fierce battles destroyed many vineyards, but as recently as 1950 only 15 acres of grapes were being grown. In the 1960s the Virginia grape industry began a revival that has made it the sixth-largest wine-producing state. The revival began with American hybrids but has shifted to French hybrids.

Today Virginia's wines are winning national and international acclaim. The state sells more than 357,000 cases of wine yearly from close to 3,000 acres of wine grapes. The most popular variety, chardonnay, comes as a medium- to full-bodied dry white. It may be fruity, with a hint of apples or citrus. Other whites include vidal blanc, viognier, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc, and a Seyval blanc. Virginia's reds include cabernet franc, petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, and Chambourcin.

Virginia's wineries are spread around the state in six American Viticultural Areas. The wine industry begun by Jefferson is in the Monticello region in central Virginia. Other areas are the Shenandoah, Northern Neck George Washington Birthplace, North Fork of Roanoke, Rocky Knob, and Virginia's Eastern Shore. Each area has been designated for its unique wine-growing conditions.

The "Virginia Winery Guide" lists each of the state's wineries (many offer tours and tastings). It's free and can be picked up at visitor information centers throughout the state or by contacting the Virginia Wine Board. From there you can also find descriptions of more than 500 wine events and festivals that take place each year, attracting half a million visitors. Middleburg, VA. 804/344–8200 or 800/828–4637. www.virginiawine.org.

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