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Jefferson's Virginia: America's hottest new wine country

By Logan Ward
Southern Accents
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(Southern Accentsexternal link) -- "Think of the world's great travel destinations," says Luca Paschina, wine maker at Barboursville Vineyards near Charlottesville. "Each has history, landscape, food and wine. That's the beauty of Virginia. It has all these things."

Washing down a morsel of Virginia Pecorino with Barboursville's deliciously sweet Malvaxia Passito at Palladio, the winery's restaurant, I find it easy to concur. Outside, history and landscape await -- the homes of America's third, fourth and fifth presidents nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But they'll have to wait a bit longer. After a four-course lunch with wine pairings, I need a nap.

I have come with my wife, Heather, to explore the wineries of the Monticello appellation, the largest of six designated viticultural regions in a state that has a quickly growing wine industry. Having resettled from New York to the nearby Shenandoah Valley, we want to learn more about the expanding local wine market and follow those white road signs emblazoned with a grape cluster and the word "Tours."

The first sign led us here, to the 850-acre Barboursville estate, the birthplace of Virginia's modern wine industry and an ideal starting point on the Monticello Wine Trail. Thirty years ago, Italian wine maker Gianni Zonin bought this land and sent vineyard manager Gabriele Rausse to grow European grapes, a dream that had eluded Virginians since the early 1600s, when delicate French vines imported by Jamestown colonists succumbed to heat, humidity, and pests.

Through expertise and patience, Rausse succeeded, and today, the state boasts more than 250 vineyards and attracts half a million winery tourists every year. Now the head viticulturist for Monticello, Rausse passed the Barboursville mantle on to Paschina, who oversees 150 acres of cabernet franc, sangiovese, viognier, pinot gris and other vinifera varietals, as well as the production of 30,000 cases of wine a year.

Like its wines, the Barboursville estate has aged well in its three decades. It now draws visitors from all over the world to taste wines or sample chef Melissa Close's northern Italian fare at Palladio while staying overnight at the sumptuous 1804 Inn, a restored manor house opened last year. Decorated with antique chests, tables and oil portraits, the three-room suites overlook the ruins of the landmark Barbour mansion, which burned in 1884 and was one of only five residences designed by Thomas Jefferson. The mansion's octagonal drawing room inspired the name of Barboursville's signature wine, Octagon, a Bordeaux-style blend.

After exploring the ruins and the tree-sized boxwoods surrounding them, Heather and I head to the tasting room. Smelling, swirling, sipping and chewing, we sample the wines we missed at lunch. We learn which grapes prosper here and which vintages are considered tops from Alan Sarbin, a wine lover from Ohio who retired to Virginia and decided he'd rather sniff corks than chase golf balls. Sarbin gives us a tour of the facility, with its crushers, stainless steel chilling tanks and stacks of oak barrels. Though we're here on a quiet weekday morning, "people line up six deep at the tasting bar on weekends," he says, a sign of the exploding popularity of the wineries.

That evening, we discover more evidence of the burgeoning local wine scene. With an hour to kill before our dinner reservations in Charlottesville, we pop into Vavino, a wine bar, retail shop and education center on the historic downtown pedestrian mall. From a menu of more than 30 wines, we each order a flight of four samples. (More than 150 wine selections are offered by the bottle.) "We're always rotating brands," says co-owner Christie Shaps, who gives us the lowdown on what we're drinking. Her husband, Michael, is a wine maker who consults for several wineries in the Monticello appellation, including Keswick Vineyards and King Family Vineyards.

Dinner is yet another chance to try something different. At the nearby C & O Restaurant, sommelier Elaine Futhey's much-lauded wine list places local wines alongside heavy hitters from California and France. I order a glass of Gabriele Rausse cabernet sauvignon, a light-bodied red with a cherry finish made all the more exciting by the fact that it's produced in quantities small enough to deliver by pickup truck. That's the beauty of touring the Virginia wine country -- discovering the small producers, learning about their personal history (Rausse is a legend around here), and beginning to connect to something intimate and neighborly.

At Jefferson Vineyards, a few miles southeast of Charlottesville next to Monticello, you also feel a connection to historic soil. The next day, Chad Zakaib, Jefferson's general manager, pours the winery's signature Estate Reserve, made from fruit grown on the same land where Thomas Jefferson and Italian Filippo Mazzei started a vineyard in the 1770s. They nearly fulfilled Jefferson's dream of launching a wine industry in Virginia, but the vineyards were destroyed during the American Revolution. Two centuries later, the industry is thriving. We could spend a week visiting the 21 Monticello appellation vineyards alone.

"Our 30-year tenure shows in the way we understand soil and climate," says Paschina about Barboursville, "but the best is yet to come." Jefferson, who called good wine "a necessary of life," would certainly raise a glass to that.


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Copyright 2006 SOUTHERN ACCENTS Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Kluge Estate Winery & Vineyard is one of the Monticello Wine Trail's fastest growing wineries.

SPECIAL REPORT

WEEKEND ITINERARY

Barboursville Vineyards: Virginia's oldest and most scenic winery. 17655 Winery Rd., 540/832-3824, http://www.barboursvillewine.com.

Jefferson Vineyards: Small, high-quality winery on grounds once planted by Thomas Jefferson and Italian Filippo Mazzei. 1353 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., 434/977-3042, http://www.jeffersonvineyards.com.

Keswick Vineyards: This winery at Edgewood Estate hosts tastings at Keswick Hall. 1575 Keswick Winery Dr., 888/244-3341, http://www.keswickvineyards.com.

King Family Vineyards: Features Michael Shaps' award-winning wine in a mountainside setting near Crozet, west of Charlottesville. 6550 Roseland Farm, 434/823-7800, http://www.kingfamilyvineyards.com.

Kluge Estate Winery & Vineyard: Started in 1999 and rapidly growing, thanks to founder Patricia Kluge. 100 Grand Cru Dr., 434/977-3895, http://www.klugeestateonline.com.

Veritas Vineyard & Winery: This small, family-run winery is known for its tasting room and warm hospitality. 145 Saddleback Farm, 540/456-8000, http://www.veritaswines.com.

VARIETALS & VINTAGES

Suggestions from Luca Paschina

  • Although many grapes grow well in Virginia, those that really thrive are chardonnay and viognier (white) and cabernet franc and merlot (red). The finicky pinot noir grape is a consistently poor producer in Virginia.

  • Dry years tend to produce the best fruit for wine-making. Most people consider 1998 to be the best vintage in Virginia. Also good were 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2005. Avoid 2000 and 2003, which were wet years.
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