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Virginia’s state motto is “Virginia is for lovers” but it could also be said of dreamers because wine lovers have been trying to grow grapevines here since the founding of the country with varying levels of success due to poor climate, choice of grape variety, even pests. The French planted the domestic Scuppernog grape but didn’t like the taste while the Italians experimented with European vitis vinifera which didn’t adapt well to the climate. Thomas Jefferson tried – and failed – seven times to cultivate vitis vinifera at his estate Monticello beginning in 1807 based on a love for European wines. Jefferson developed a taste for these wines during his tenure as Ambassador to France between 1784-1789, during which time he made an epic tour of French and Italian wine regions in 1787.
As late as the 1970’s, Virginia farmers were experimenting with hybrids of European and American species like Chambourcin and Baco Noir – the European for quality, and the American for climate and pest adaptation. It was also during the 1970’s that modern pioneers such as Gabrielle Rausse started experimenting with vinifera at Barboursville Vineyards. Since then, there have been sea changes in canopy management, disease treatment and clonal selections that have secured vinifera’s place here.
Today, Virginia is the country’s fifth largest wine producing state with nearly 2,800 acres of vines throughout the state. The top grape varieties planted are Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Vidal Blanc, Chambourcin and Cabernet Sauvignon, with Cabernet Franc and Viognier deemed the best performing grapes in the region.
Visiting Virginia Wine Country
Since vines are planted in almost every part of Virginia, one can reach a formal wine trail within an easy hour’s drive from metropolitan Washington D.C., such as the Blue Ridge Wine Way via Route 66 west.
But if you want to experience the epicenter of wine idealism from the Thomas Jefferson days to the modern era, head to central Virginia and the Monticello appellation which encompasses about half of all vineyard acreage in Virginia. It is also home to the oldest vineyards at Monticello itself and its newest investors, the Trumps, who are neighbors. Monticello itself does not have a tasting room but they have seasonal wine tours that include tastings of local wines. They also recommend a wine trail itinerary.
If you decide to visit the Monticello Wine Trail, it’s an easy 2 – 1/2 hour drive from D.C. from the 495 loop to Interstate 66 west and south on 29 to the university town of Charlottesville (UVa). According to Rausse, the best times to visit for color (including the scenic drive down the 29), is late spring and mid-October.
To get details for the wineries on the Monticello Trail, map and recommended dining and lodging, check the website. For a map of all of Virginia’s wine regions, wine trails and links to individual wineries to visit, check the Virginia Wine website.