Friday, March 7, 2008

Yes Virginia, They Do Make Wine.

Tonight our wine club explores Virginia wines. Virginia’s claim of “First in Wine” dates back to 1619. Though earlier settlers - notably the Huguenots on the Florida coast in 1562 and Spanish friars near El Paso a few years later - made wine from native wild grapes, the first commercial effort in the New World was at Jamestown. The colony was established in the hopes of supplying good wine for English tables.

Thomas Jefferson initiated the great American tradition of cultured wine appreciation. As minister to the court of Louis XVI between 1785 and 1789, he toured the wine regions of France, Germany and Italy, taking meticulous notes as he went. Back home he served the finest European wines during his two administrations at the White House, as well as sponsoring a variety of wine-growing experiments. He did his best to minimise wine taxes, having observed on his travels that “no nation is drunken where wine is cheap”.

The Jefferson Vineyards occupies 50 acres near Monticello, on the same land once cultivated by the Italian viticulturalist Filippo Mazzei, whom Thomas Jefferson had recruited in 1774 to grow European vinifera vines. Jefferson produces 8000 cases annually from its own grapes and fruit purchased from Carter Mt., Scoville, and other vineyards. The current winemaker is Frantz Ventre, who studied viticulture and oenology in Bordeaux.

Virginia’s modern wine industry began in the 1970s. The first vinifera grapes such as Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot were planted at Piedmont Vineyards near Middleburg. Hardy French hybrid vines, such as Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin thrived until more suitable sites with higher ground providing frost protection and better drainage could be developed.

Since then the industry has exploded, with impressive new wineries and estates such as White Hall Vineyards, Kluge Estate, King Estate, Pearmund Cellars, The Winery at La Grange and others. The state boasts 120 wineries today.

Check back for the results from our tasting.