French Grapes – Grown In Virginia

French Grapes – Grown In Virginia

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I recently gave a talk on great French wines at a Virginia wine festival. The association is a natural one – after all, Thomas Jefferson, or “Mr. Jefferson” as they still call him in Charlottesville (as though the third President might stroll down the street at any moment), was a great connoisseur of fine wines who tried to grow an assortment of French grapes at Monticello without much success.

Present day Virginia wine producers are having much better luck, and they are doing it with a variety of French grapes. Furthermore, if I could generalize about the wines I tasted, there seems to be a striving for quality and finesse that producers in other states might well emulate.

The Viognier grape is my discovery of the summer. I first tasted it at the French Embassy, while enjoying some Condrieu offered by E. Guigal. This Northern Rhône white wine deserves to be better known. It is certainly a flavorful change of pace from the oakey Chardonnays one often gets nowadays. Like neighboring Château Grillet, it is made from 100% Viognier grapes. There are also Viognier varietal wines successfully prodced in the Pays d’Oc at far less cost and now, I find, this varietal seems to be flourishing in Virginia.

Actually, it nearly died out entirely. In the 1960s, there were just a few acres left in France. It is not an easy grape to grow, being prone to mildew, and having low yields. And yet, when it is properly cultivated, and picked at just the right time, it has nearly a floral essence and is full of flavor, with apricot notes. American vintners brought the varietal here, and now it is grown increasingly in California and in Virginia. I look forward to tasting the former, but can say that Virginia Viognier wines, averaging $16-$22, are a treat. Serve them chilled as a change of pace from Chardonnay, and you’ll see.

We greatly enjoyed a prizewinning Horton Vineyard Viognier 2006 (from Gordonsvlle in Central Virginia) at the State Department in Washington recently, at a fine luncheon on the Eighth Floor. The wine had been donated by a retired diplomat, and it went perfectly with the salmon for luncheon. A grape varietal that has only been here for a few decades, and which has developed to the point where it can be served in a fine setting, is one that has succeeded, and at $20 a bottle, this is an affordable treat!

Rebec Vineyards (from Amherst in Central Virginia) served a variety of their 2005 wines. Their Viognier ($21) was elegant, with a nice bouquet and a taste of freshness and body. Their Merlot ($19) was smooth and somewhat tannic, but showed promise. Their Cabernet Franc ($18) had more character than expected, and will age well. Usually part of a Bordeaux blend, it was interesting to taste this varietal on its own. The Pinot Noir ($21) had pleasant fruit notes, largely plum.

The north Mountain Vinerd in the Shehandoah Valley highlighted several ecent vintages. Their Vidal Blanc 94170 was clean, crisp and dry, a rfreshing wine which would go wll with scallops and other substantial fish dishes. It is vinified in stainless steel, as I suspected from the taste. The 2005 Cabernet Franc 94220 was a very good dry red wine, of medium body. It receives 9 months of aging in French oak before bottling. The 2005 Chambourcin (said to be a Franco-American hybrid variety) was a rich wine, something like Crozes Hermitage. The grapes are grafted onto U.S. root stocks, and the Chmbourcin is blended with just 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Clearly, this winery knows its craft, and takes it seriously.

The Williamsburg Winery (which welcomes visitors. Contact them at, offered an assortment of fine wines. I particularly enjoyed their 2005 Vintage reserve chardonnay ($28), which was balanced and substantial. Interestingly enough, the winery uses three different oaks for the barrels, from France (imparting a buttery note), Hungary (for spices – must be the paprikas!), and the United States (a smoky note). Their 2006 Barrel Aged Seyval Blanc ($16) was very goo, medium sweet with nice floral notes. I can just taste this well chilled with a pork roast with fresh pineapple. The producer said that her favorite wine was the Virginia Cabernet Franc Trianon, which I did not taste.

Lopudoun Valley Vineyards served two varieties of its 2004 Chardonnay. The Vintner Select ($19), oak barrel aged, had substantial body, very flavorful. The Stainless Steel ($17) was more accessible, crisp and pleasant. I was amused to note that since Virginia state law forbids fortified wines, their Sangria ($18) was blended with brown sugar, berries and Sprite! It was refreshing, but could have used more heft.

Hillsborough Vineyards, from Purcellville, offered their 2006 Carnelian ($19), a blend of 50% Chardonnay and 50% Roussane. It was crisp, smooth and good. Their Opal 2006 ($22) was said to be their best seller, and I could see why. A blend of 70% Viognier and 30% Chardonnay, Opal was a tasty and medium bodied wine, quite satisfying. It would go well with poultry, or just by itself with a cheese platter.

This by no means exhausts the list of Virginia vineyards. Clearly they have come a very long way from the time, 35 years ago, when I had returned from Saigon and m family and I spent a pleasant afternoon harvesting the grapes at a winery in The Plains, Virginia, that was in the early years of production. Then, it was said that Prohibition had set the Virginia wine industry back many years. It seems to me that with regard to choice and dedication to quality, Virginia has long since recovered. Try a glass of refreshing Viognier and you’ll see what I mean!