Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Vines on Waltons' Mountain: Virginia wine

If you are of a certain vintage then Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains will mean just one thing:  The Waltons.  I can still hear that rather melancholic signature tune and picture John-boy and Jim-bob in their dungarees, doing some shucking or another mysterious American rural poor activity. 

Now, however, we have to adjust to the fact that Virginia produces more than just wholesome family dramas and has embarked on a mission to make wine. 

As so often happens, what we think of as the New World newcomer actually has a long history of vine-growing:  Virginia’s wine journey had its beginnings in the 1600s.  Its most famous historical influence is Thomas Jefferson, the French wine-loving US president who brought vine cuttings from Bordeaux to his home in Monticello in the 18th century.  However, the modern-day incarnation of its wines really only began around 40 years ago, so its wine-makers are still getting into their stride when it comes to matching the best sites to grape variety and establishing their signature style. 

Virginia ranks as the US’ 5th largest wine producing state but, with just 0.5 million cases produced annually, they are still a small player in the market.  Domestically most of their production is consumed locally – Virginia is lucky that “local” also includes the thirsty capital, Washington DC. 

A company called New Horizon Wines began importing Virginia wines into this country in 2009 and now sell around 2,000 cases a year here – putting us in the novel position of being Virginia’s number one export market. 

Conditions on the Eastern seaboard of the US are somewhat challenging for vine-growing.  Anyone who has visited there in the summer months will know that hot and humid is the norm.  Coastal sites stay fresher, but poor transport links mean this area is under-developed in general, with few vineyards.  The central area has red clay based soils and a high concentration of wineries, though land use pressure from urban development is acting as a cap on new plantings and driving up vineyard prices .  The Blue Ridge Mountains in the north and west of the state are home to a cluster of wineries where the soils (shale, decomposed granite and volcanic), climate and elevation are all favourable. 

The state’s most popular grape varieties are Viognier for white wines, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, alongside Bordeaux blends for reds.  French oak is favoured over American, setting them apart from the leviathan that is California, though a little of the tight-grained Virginian oak can be found.
It’s unusual, to say the least, to find Viognier as a signature white grape – outside of its home in the northern Rhône valley in France, it is generally a supporting actor rather than a lead.  Part of the reason for its popularity here is because its thick skins help to protect it from rot during the humid summers. 

While Virginia wines are not exactly commonplace over here, there are some available for you to search out.  Here are some of my favourites: 

Veritas Viognier 2011 - £19.50 from Prohibition Wines and Bedales
Here, vines from various sites help to give interest and 7% Petit Manseng (a decidedly niche grape really only grown in the very far southwest corner of France) adds its trademark acid structure and grapefruity tang.  Fermented in stainless steel and then given six months in old oak barrels, its intense, pure apricot aromas lead onto a relatively restrained and zesty palate with lingering spice. 

Barboursville Viognier Reserve 2010 - £17 from The Wine Society, also at Christopher Piper and Handford Wines
This was fermented and aged in stainless steel by a producer whose Viogniers are renowned for ageing (albeit for a modest 4-6 years).  The wine is fairly deep-coloured and the nose has an earthy, mineral dimension. The palate is big on texture, with a beginning, middle and end, and flavours of hay, straw and ripe mirabelle plum.  A big-boned but well-proportioned wine. 

One of the things that I particularly enjoy about these two is their fully dry nature and balanced alcohol, which is perhaps lacking in the commercial styles of California wine.   

On the red front, it’s always fun to see what varieties like Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot can do when allowed to shine alone, instead of being subsumed into a Bordeaux blend.   

Barboursville Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010 - £18.50 from The Wine Society, also at a range of independents including Oxford Wine Company
There is ripe fruit and plenty of oak, but good freshness too, despite the 14.5% alcohol.  Tannins are ripe, with no hint of greenness.  It has a rich ripeness, and is about as powerful as Cabernet Franc gets. 

White Hall Petit Verdot 2010 - around £20 from Christopher Piper, Prohibition Wines and Selfridges
There is not much Petit Verdot planted as yet but producers are growing in confidence with the variety and are working to achieve elegance and complexity in what can be an overwhelmingly powerful grape. The nose is a typical blend of ink, spice, pepper and quite toasty oak, followed by a ripe and dense attack and acidity backing up the structure.  It still feels very youthful, ripe and opulent, but remains rather immovable.   

This Petit Verdot, like Virginia as a whole, is one to watch for the future.  Perhaps in time we’ll come to associate the Blue Ridge Mountains with fine wines rather than pick-up trucks and dungarees.  Goodnight John-boy.

1 comment: