Ultimate Guide to Virginia Wine Country

By: Heather Kolich

Virginia has more than 20 wine trails throughout the state.
Virginia has more than 20 wine trails throughout the state.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Although it's still relatively new to modern winemaking, Virginia has a long history in the industry. The first attempts to grow European wine grapes occurred -- by law -- at the Jamestown settlement in the early 1600s. The imported vines were a bust, even when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington tried to cultivate them more than a century later.

Virginia growers finally found success with grapes native to North America. The Virginia norton wine earned the top award among wines of all nations at the 1873 Vienna World's Fair, and took a gold medal at the Paris World's Fair in 1889. Then, in 1920, Prohibition shut down the industry.

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Virginia vineyards made a comeback in the 1960s, when growers grafted European grapes onto hardy, disease-resistant native American grape rootstock. Now Virginia vineyards grow a wide variety of Old World wine grapes in a climate very similar to their parent regions. Virginia's terroir -- the soil, climate and environment where wine grapes are grown -- imparts distinct qualities to the grapes. See why on the next page.

Virginia Wine Regions and Characteristics

This illustration circa 1754 explains how Jamestown settlers in the 1600s unsuccessfully attempted to make wine in Virginia.
This illustration circa 1754 explains how Jamestown settlers in the 1600s unsuccessfully attempted to make wine in Virginia.

Most of Virginia is considered wine country. Vineyards spread from the state's peninsula to the eastern foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, but according to Chris Pearmund, wine industry innovator and owner of Pearmund Cellars, Virginia wines have a European influence. "We [Virginia growers] look to the grape regions that have a climate similar to ours, like the Loire Valley of France, and grow what grows well there," Pearmund said.

However, the climate and soil conditions of Virginia's six wine regions impart distinctly local qualities to European wine grapes. They range from the sandy soils and ocean breezes of the state's eastern region to the higher-elevation, granite and clay soils of the Appalachian Mountains' foothills, and the names of these American Viticultural Areas -- Monticello, George Washington Birthplace, Eastern Shore, North Fork of Roanoke, Rocky Knob and Shenandoah Valley -- evoke the state's legacy in American history.

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Read about Virginia's signature wines next.

Virginia's Signature Wines

In 2007, Virginia made Travel + Leisure magazine's top five list of worldwide wine regions worth visiting. Virginia growers cultivate all types of grapes, including traditional French varieties, native American vines and hybrids of the two, and the state's varietals of viognier, cabernet franc and Virginia norton, have earned praise from wine experts around the world.

"As a wine style, viognier represents Virginia," Pearmund said. Sweet honeysuckle aromas draw you into the citrus and apricot spark of this signature white wine.

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Cabernet franc, a grape from France's Loire Valley, is usually blended with other grapes, but not in Virginia; with spice, berry and cocoa richness, it's one of the state's don't-miss reds, as is Virginia norton, which has hints of coffee and spice.

Pearmund is optimistic about the industry's future. "People want to know more about their food and want more identification with their food products."

Many wineries on Virginia's wine trails cater to this desire with classes related to viticulture. Take a look at some on the next page.

Virginia Wine Tours

Jefferson Vineyards grow grapes and make wine from Thomas Jefferson's original grapevines. The white wines are desired for their freshness, vibrancy and full flavor.
Jefferson Vineyards grow grapes and make wine from Thomas Jefferson's original grapevines. The white wines are desired for their freshness, vibrancy and full flavor.

With more than 20 established wine trails, some with more than two dozen participating wineries, you're sure to find something pleasing to your palate. Tasting trails run through every region, so you can enjoy the beauty of the state along the way, from the energetic Atlantic coast and Chesapeake Bay to the tree-covered, ascending peaks of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains.

All Virginia wineries must grow grapes on the premises, so you'll be visiting vineyards, as well. Pearmund says looking at the vines is a good way to judge the winery; vines that are well tended and healthy are reliable indicators of the quality of the wine.

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The character of each winery is unique. Most are family-owned, small-acreage vineyards; for example, Flying Fox Vineyard on the Explore Nelson Wine Trial is only 6 acres. Tastings tend to be relaxed, playful and, if you like, educational, and tour guides are eager to answer questions and share knowledge about how wine is made.

Virginia wine country has much more to offer than wine tasting, though. There are plenty of fun things to see, do and learn. You can visit historical landmarks along the wine trails, but in some cases, history is served along with your wine. The pre-Revolutionary War manor house at Piedmont Vineyards and Winery is a registered historic landmark. The tasting room at The Winery at La Grange is in a fully restored, circa 1790 manor house with cozy parlor rooms and ghost with his own special cabernet franc, Benoni's Dead But Still Red.

Many wineries offer one-hour to full-day classes in cooking with wine, pruning vines, winemaking and food and wine pairings. There are plenty of outdoor sports to enjoy, too. Pearmund Cellars has a hitching post for their horseback riding customers. DelFosse Vineyards and Winery boasts 5 miles of hiking trails. You can also learn to play polo, venture down rivers in canoes, or spend a day antiquing. And for the true oenophiles, there are wine festivals all year long. Learn more on the next page.

Virginia Wine Festivals

Virginia is proud of its wines. No matter what region you're visiting, you'll easily find one or more festivals celebrating local varietals.

Festivals flow with the seasons. As the vines awaken in spring, celebrations pop up all around -- at parks, conference and expo centers, hotels, historic sites, you name it. Wine tastings are combined with art, music, polo, wine education and, of course, food. Fall harvest festivals typically begin in September, and winter celebrations focus on special events to mark holidays from Thanksgiving to St. Patrick's Day.

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Throughout the year, many wineries host their own unique celebrations of wine. These include summer cookouts, intimate dinners with fine wine pairings, cooking classes, winemaking demonstrations, barrel tastings, historical reenactments and open houses. Even more exciting, the celebration doesn't have to end with your visit. You can take your wine country adventure home in the form of your favorite Virginia wines.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Fauquier County Wineries. "Mission Statement." (July 20, 2011) http://fauquierwines.com/main_pages/aboutus.html
  • Piedmont Vineyards and Winery, Inc. "Piedmont Vineyards." April 1, 2010. (July 20, 2011) http://www.piedmontwines.com/
  • Pearmund, Chris. Owner and executive winemaker, Pearmund Cellars. Personal Interview, July 18, 2011.
  • Rowe, Walker Elliot. "Development, Sustainable Agriculture, and the Virginia Wine Business." Richmond Times Dispatch, April 22, 2008. (July 20, 2011)http://www.walkerrowe.com/2008/04/development-sustainable-agriculture-and.html
  • Rye, Erik and Marcy Rye. "Virginia Varietals." Wine Guideline. Sept. 5, 2008. (July 20, 2011) http://www.wineguideline.com/features/snobgoblet/844
  • Schoenfeld, Bruce. "Wine-Lover's Guide: Five Regions to Visit Now." Travel + Leisure, July 2007. (July 20, 2011) http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/wine-lovers-guide/1
  • The Winery at La Grange. "Rich in History, Rich in Wine." 2011. (July 20, 2011) http://www.wineryatlagrange.com/winery.htm
  • Virginia Wine. "Regions and AVAs." Virginia Wine. 2011. (July 13, 2011) http://www.virginiawine.org/regions
  • Virginia Wine. "The Land of Virginia." 2011. (July 13, 2011) http://www.virginiawine.org/learn/virginia/
  • Virginia Wine. "Virginia Wine Today." 2011. (July 13, 2011) http://www.virginiawine.org/learn/wine-history/
  • Virginia Wine. "Wine Varieties." 2011. (July 13, 2011) http://www.virginiawine.org/learn/wine-varieties
  • Virginia Wine Country. "Events." 2011. (July 20, 2011) http://virginia.winecountry.com/special_interest/current_events/dec.html
  • Walker, Danielle. "Virginia's wine industry is aging well." Inside Business: Hampton Roads Business Journal. Aug. 13, 2010. (July 20, 2011) http://www.insidebiz.com/news/virginias-wine-industry-aging-well