Understanding Virginia’s Diversity in Wine
By Matthew Fitzsimmons
Understanding Virginia’s Diversity in Wine
Most American wine regions have a signature grape. For Napa, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon. In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Pinot Noir dominates. New York’s Finger Lakes are famous for Riesling.
Yet Virginia doesn’t have its own defining grape or style – and this is a good thing. VA is a relatively young wine region so growers are still learning what performs best. Viognier was temporarily the ‘official’ state grape but was quietly dropped when wine growers pushed back. Cabernet Franc is sometimes considered as a replacement, but so far hasn’t received any special endorsement.
Some argue the lack of a signature Virginia ‘brand’ that consumers can easily identify hurts the state’s visibility in the larger wine market. But Virginia’s landscape is too varied to be defined by a single terroir, and too young to have a signature style of winemaking. This means branding Virginia with any overarching label likely does the industry a disservice.
So if Virginia lacks a defining grape, then what is it known for?
The short answer is this – Virginia is known for its diversity. When planted in the right location, we can grow nearly everything. There are over 100 grape varieties planted in the state, ranging from internationally famous varieties to obscure vines the world has nearly forgotten. No matter where the grape is from, there’s probably a Virginia vineyard growing it.
As a newer, less defined wine region, Virginia also has the luxury to experiment with varieties that wouldn’t get a second look elsewhere in the United States, and may be forbidden under Europe’s much tighter winemaking rules. This allows VA to pioneer lesser-known wines such as Petit Manseng and Petit Verdot, high-acid grapes that do well in Virginia’s terroir.
So for Virginia Wine Month, let’s celebrate the diversity of Virginia wine. Here are four varieties that wine lovers probably don’t realize can be found in Virginia, but need to try.
Ankida’s name is based on a Sumerian term for ‘where heaven and earth join’. It’s an apt description; located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Ankida one of the highest elevation wineries in the state. It’s also home to one of the best Pinot Noirs in the country.
This may be a bold statement, but they have the credentials to back it up. When Ankida participated in the 2016 International Pinot Noir Conference, they were the first mid-Atlantic producer to be invited. A year later, Wine Business Monthly named Ankida Ridge one of the top wine brands of the year.
As with many Virginia wine stories, the path to starting a vineyard – much less with one of the world’s most finicky varieties – happened almost by accident. When Christine & Dennis Vrooman purchased the property they hadn’t planned on building a vineyard, but loved Virginia wine so much they decided to give it a shot. After some research they were advised their special microclimate gave them the ability to plant grapes that wouldn’t thrive anywhere else. So by good fortune, Pinot Noir was planted.
The secret to Pinot Noir’s success here is elevation. At 1800 feet they are able to avoid the heat and humidity that would stunt Pinot’s growth most anywhere else in the state. Now, they are Virginia’s most famous Pinot makers. They also make a delicious Pinot Noir Rosé and Chardonnay.
Arterra’s wines stand out due to owner/winemaker Jason Murray signature style, which he refers to as ‘clean wine’. This style includes the use of natural yeast fermentation and minimal use of pesticides, which allows him to produce wine that emphasizes bright, intense flavors. His Chenin Blanc is an example of this style.
Chenin is nearly unheard of in Virginia; Arterra is one of only a handful of producers in the state. While more commonly identified as one of the grapes of France’s Loire Valley, Jason’s inspiration for Chenin is drawn from South Africa where it’s the country’s most cultivated variety.
A relatively recent addition to the vineyard, Jason picked Chenin for two reasons. One, it stylistically fits Arterra’s tasting profile. ‘Crisp and delicate’ are often used to describe Jason’s whites, but those descriptors are especially apt here. While Chenin is a versatile grape which can range from sweet to completely dry, these wines trend towards dry.
Second, Chenin’s presence in South Africa demonstrates it does well in hot climates. While it somewhat struggles in Virginia’s humidity, it does well enough to justify continuing their half acre block.
Petit Manseng is one of the star grapes of Virginia. Two decades ago it was barely on the radar. But since 2016 it’s won 20 gold medals in Virginia’s Governor’s Cup wine competition – second only to Chardonnay. In 2019 it made history as the first white wine to win the Governor’s Cup itself.
The variety’s success is largely due to its suitability for Virginia’s climate. The grape’s small, loose clusters minimize water retention and improve airflow to the grapes, boosting its resistance to rot caused by Virginia’s frequent rainfall and intense humidity. The state’s hot summers allow winegrowers to help tame its high acidity. These qualities have led to Virginia becoming the second largest planting of Petit Manseng in the world, after the grape’s home in the Jurancon region of France.
These wines are made in many styles, ranging from dry to dessert-style wines. One of the best is Pearmund’s 2019 Petit Manseng, which won Double Gold at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. This dry wine has lots of texture and intense flavors, suitable for either a hot day or paired with food.
Only 13 acres of Syrah are planted in the entire state, making it one of the least-planted red vinifera in Virginia. Its scarcity is likely due to its inconsistent yield. But Rosemont remains a believer in this varietal, planting more vines from different clones when other vineyards are pulling it out.
Not only does Rosemont have Syrah and Grenache, they’ve recently planted Mourvèdre. In a few years this combo will allow them to make one of the very few true GSM wines in the state. Until then, you’ll still be able to enjoy their medium-bodied wine which combines a spicy bouquet with bright cherry and notes of cardamom.
Getting the most from Virginia Wine Month 2021
October 16th is Harvest Day. This home-grown event is a time to toast Virginia winemakers as they bring in the last of their grapes and start the 2021 vintage.
Be sure to visit https://www.virginiawine.org/ for trip ideas. Wineries around the state will be hosting special Virginia Wine Month events ranging from cookouts, outdoor music, and special wine flights. Visitors can expect the extra treat of seeing fall foliage up close.
If you wish to assist your favorite winery in harvesting grapes, they are looking for volunteers! Many vineyards are offering special treats. Everyone will earn bragging rights. You’ll never look at a bottle of wine the same way.
Author: Matthew Fitzsimmons is a blogger who has visited nearly every winery in Virginia – most of them twice. Track his progress at https://winetrailsandwanderlust.com/.