Virginia wine: A growing regional industry that dares to be different


Barboursville Vineyards is outside Charlottesville. It is named for a former governor of Virginia, James Barbour, whose mansion on the property, not an historic ruin, was desi)gned by Thomas Jefferson. (Image courtesy of

Barboursville Vineyards is outside Charlottesville. Barboursville produces Octagon, Virginia’s most noted red wine. (Image courtesy of

Today’s makers of Virginia wines surely embody the fearless spirit of our country’s founders.

These wines — the blends, the single varietals — demonstrate confidence, expertise and boldness, especially the reds.

Bordeaux-style blends in Virginia don’t start with Cabernet Sauvignon, they end with it. It’s not uncommon for Petit Verdot or Merlot, or Cabernet Franc to dominate a blend, with Cabernet Sauvignon assigned a supporting role.

The best ones undergo lengthy barrel aging and are packed with enough fruit, acidity and tannins to age a long time.

The range of unblended red varietals goes the usual gamut — but what you would say to Virginia Nebbiolo, the famous red grape of the Italian village of Barolo? Or Virginia Tannat, the grape of the French region hugging the Pyrenees bordering Spain, or Virginia Norton that can age like any champ in Missouri where Norton is king?

For whites, Virginia looks to Chardonnay, but also to the Rhone Valley’s Viognier. And oh yes, there’s terrific Virginia Petit Manseng — another one of those French wines.

When the vineyards aren’t ravaged by East Coast hurricanes or diseased by humidity the wines of Virginia can be glorious — and they are as close to you as the screen you are reading this blog on. Most wineries can ship directly to you. And if you visit the Washington, D.C., area, wineries are as close as a 20-minute drive from Dulles International. If you get to Charlottesville and its trove of historical sites, you are in the thick of wine country.

Tucked away in the foothills and on the plateaus of the mountain ranges, wineries pop up at abandoned farmsteads and acclaimed historical sites, many with a resident pack of dogs to chase away the deer and varmints.

Loudoun County, considered a part of metropolitan D.C., has such a fast-growing wine scene that it has branded the phrase “D.C.’s wine country”; Fauquier County, also near D.C., is another hot area.

Even Donald Trump has joined the industry by purchasing Kluge Estate outside Charlottesville in 2011. Trump Estate Vineyard and Winery leads the state with the most vineyards — 200 acres.

There are more than 250 commercial wineries in Virginia and many of them take advantage of the Commonwealth’s rich historical and agricultural past, and love of horse farms, and their beauty is unrivaled.

The 12 highest scoring wines in the Virginia Wineries Association Governor’s Cup Wine Competition earlier this year can be a road map for your next trip to the state. (Find travel help below.) The winner of the Governor’s Cup was the 2010 Adagio from The Williamsburg Winery in Williamsburg. Here’s a taste:

The Williamsburg Winery Adagio Virginia 2010, $72

This is Virginia on steroids: 42 percent Cabernet Franc, 30 percent Merlot and 28 percent Petit Verdot. It’s smooth as velvet, balanced and powerful. Wow: Like taking bell peppers and velveting them — you pick up the herbal notes, smooth tannins. Inhale, and the hairs in your nostrils curl: dark berries, plums, herbs, peppers, dark chocolate and spice. Great pride went into the selection of the heavy glass bottle for this wine. This wine puts Cab Franc on a pedestal:  It roars, it’s delicious! Tannins like velvet. Firm acidity.

The Duffeler family founded and operates The Williamsburg Winery. It is located in historic Williamsburg, Va.

Barboursville Vineyards Octagon Virginia 2010, $55

This 2010 Octagon — a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot — lives up to the standards set by past vintages. It’s such a Wow! wine — so packed with fruit but still young and tight with great aging potential. That Petit Verdot gives such a kick to the bold fruit of the Merlot and Cab Sauv and Cab Franc. The wine is black as midnight. Aromas are every purple berry you can think of, with an herbal, dried cranberry touch from the Cab Franc and spice and smoke off the oak barrels. Supple tannins and acidity encase the flavors and give character to the wine. It’s intense and dense, a velvet monster. Octagon is one of the state’s most iconic wines. This wine is aged 12 months in French oak and 15 months in bottle.

Barboursville Vineyards is in Central Virginia, north of Charlottesville, in the foothills and plateaus of the Southwest Mountains that run parallel with the Blue Ridge to the west. The founding owner is Gianni Zonin, a major Italian wine producer. The general manager, winemaker and “face” of Barboursville Vineyards is Luca Paschina.

Barboursville Vineyards Nebbiolo Reserve Virginia 2010, $55

Wow. Such an intense, concentrated wine: purple berries — blackberry, blueberry, boysenberry — and cherry, plum and dark chocolate. This baby is 100 percent Nebbiolo. It’s so delicious it melts in your mouth! Without this winery’s Italian heritage and sensitivity to terroir, it is unlikely this grape of Italy’s Piedmont region would ever have found its way to Virginia.

Barboursville Vineyards Malvaxia Passito 2008, $35

This amazing dessert wine is 50 percent Moscato Ottonel, 50 percent Vidal. The grapes were air-dried naturally — the passito method — for 120 days before pressing. Fermentation then lasted up to six months followed by 28 months of aging in small, older barrels. It’s a pale salmon color with tones of dried fruit, apricot, pineapple and raisins. The spiciness of the wood barrels and firm acidity frame the softly sweet flavors. This wine will age forever. Pour it with pates, cheeses and sweets.

Barren Ridge Vineyards Meritage Virginia 2009, $32

A super wine for  a trying vintage like 2009. This is a blend of Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The herbal, floral, dried cranberry tones of the Petit Verdot set the pace, filled in with plums and brown cooking spices and red berry fruit. Flavors are enhanced by cedar, spice and vanilla off the oak. Tannins are like velvet. Acidity holds the package together. It was aged 18 months in French oak.

Barren Ridge is located on a high ridge in the Shenandoah Valley. The owners are John and Shelby Higgs.

Fabbioli Cellars Tannat Virginia 2011, $45

This black beauty is still young and closed in. It’s full-bodied, woven with smoky, spicy oak and exuding aromas of dark fruits — blackberry, dried cranberry, plum — plus floral notes and herbs. Flavors are tightly stitched encased in firm acidity and dusty tannins, with a dry, herbal finish. It’s 76 percent Tannat filled out with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot: Now that’s a blend that should send chills down your spine. This guy is serious! (It’s aged 17 months in newer American oak, including Virginia oak.)

Fabbioli Cellars is owned by wine consultant Doug Fabbioli and wife Colleen. Doug is the winemaker. The winery is located north of Leesburg in Loudoun County.

Horton Cellars Tannat Orange County Virginia 2010, $25

Tannat is best known in Southwest France. But in Central Virginia? You betcha. It cooks up powerful aromas, complex flavors, firm acidity, smooth tannins. Aromas explode with oak, dark berries, dark chocolate, espresso, vanilla. In the mouth, flavors are intense — fueled by supple tannins, acidity and oak. This is a big, beautiful dry red so dense you can cut it with a knife. Yes, it’s got that cranberry thing from Virginia going on, and it’s so singularly super. Big, dynamic, delicious.

Horton Cellars is in Central Virginia near Charlottesville. It is owned by Dennis and Sharon Horton and business partner Joan Bieda. Dennis Horton has tested hundreds of grape varieties, including many from the Rhone. He even grows South Africa’s signature grape, Pinotage.

King Family Vineyards Meritage Monticello Virginia 2011, $30.95

This beauty is 49 percent Merlot, 30 percent Petit Verdot filled in with Cabernet Franc and Malbec. That’s a blend that should catch your eye. Aromas are so Virginia: ripe plum, ripe blackberry, cola, dried cranberry and black pepper. Tannins are smooth; the package is laced with acidity and smoky oak. It’s dry and ever so complex and layered in flavors. It was aged 18 months in French oak.

King Family Vineyards is in Central Virginia at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains. David and Ellen King and their sons started planting vines in 1998. The winemaker is Matthieu Finot.

North Gate Vineyard Meritage Loudoun County Virginia 2011, $22

This bright, aromatic red wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot Cabernet Franc. What a pretty wine: soft, fragrant fruit framed in acidity and smoky, spicy oak. On the nose, it’s berries, dark licorice, dried cranberry and cassis. In the mouth, the dry, tangy character unfolds as berries, dark roasted coffee beans, black licorice — all bound up in acidity and supple tannins. It was aged 20 months in a combination of new and neutral French and American oak. It’s still young and tight, but drinking like a champ. Delish.

Northgate Vineyard in Loudoun County in Northern Virginia is owned by Mark and Vicki Fedor, who also make the wine. Their winery is LEED Gold Certified. 

Rockbridge Vineyard DeChiel Reserve Meritage Virginia 2008, $20

This beauty is a true Bordeaux blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, finished with Petit Verdot and Malbec. The 2008 vintage is a rewarding one. This wine is now beginning to fill out, letting the acidity and tannins knit the flavors together without dominating. Inhale the deep purple berries, dark chocolate and vanilla. In the mouth, tannins are like velvet. Acidity still gives it backbone. The fruit is so expressive: the black currant/cherry off the Cab Sauv, the plum and brown spice off the Merlot, the herbal, floral tones of the Cab Franc, and the inky color and spice of the Petit Verdot and Malbec. It was aged 27 months in French oak. Amazing.

Rockbridge is in the Shenandoah Valley. The owners are Shepherd Rouse and wife Jane Millott-Rouse; Shep Rouse is winemaker.

Sunset Hills Vineyard Mosaic Virginia 2010, $50

This blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot is intense, complex, layered with flavor. Inhale dark plum, blackberry, red currant, dried cranberry and dark chocolate. These aromas are mirrored on the palate framed with soft, supple tannins, acidity and spicy oak. What fruit! It stands up to all the oak. This is a powerful wine.

Sunset Hills is located in Loudoun County in Northern Virginia. It is owned by Mike and Diane Canney. 

Two Twisted Posts Chardonnay Virginia 2012, $23

“A good wine is let to be itself” — the words on the back label of this rich, textured, complex Chardonnay. Inhale the vanilla, spice off the wood, the tart green apple and pear. On the palate, it has a silky texture, firm acidity and profound fruit.

Two Twisted Posts is located in Loudoun County in Northern Virginia. It is owned by Brad and Theresa Robertson.


I recommend my friend Richard Leahy’s book, “Beyond Jefferson’s Wines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia (Sterling Epicure, $19.95) for its up-to-date, thoroughly researched and highly readable account of the modern-day Virginia wine industry. Richard has wine credentials a mile long and lives in Charlottesville. In the book, he takes you on the road with him to explore the cellars and hear all the backstories.

Download a Virginia wineries guide at

Also get travel help at Virginia is for Lovers.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at Many thinks to the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office for their assistance with this blog. Also thanks to people like Andrew Hodson at Veritas Vineyard & Winery, Michael Shaps at Virginia Wine Works and Jim Law at Linden Vineyards for helping me discover Virginia wine.