While new wineries continue to pop up across the East Coast from New York to North Carolina, there is no region gaining more ground in both quality and recognition than the greater Charlottesville wine region. Farmers over the past 200 years cultivated the soil for fruit crops like apples and peaches, which set an ideal stage for what is now known as the Monticello American Viticultural Area (AVA).
One major factor in its success, according to King Family Vineyards owner David King, is precisely its lack of newness. Time has already proven many of the rolling Blue Ridge slopes conducive to cool-climate fruit production, and with the help of Virginia Tech’s viticultural research department and some recently acquired expertise, Monticello has lived up to the wine-growing potential that Thomas Jefferson foresaw there centuries ago.
Luca Paschina, Italian-born winemaker of Barboursville Vineyards, came to Virginia in 1991 after years working in Italy and California, to one of the worst vintages Virginia had seen in decades. After surviving that initial challenge he now produces some of Virginia’s fully ripe and high-quality grapes. “In good years,I really can’t see that much difference from the growing seasons of Piemonte,” says Paschina, whose expertise and education comes Piemonte, the renowned winemaking region in Italy.
While Monticello has the climate, soil composition and slope elevations favorable to growing a wide variety of grapes, choosing the varietals most suited to a particular site is the most important factor, Paschina explains. The clay-like soil common in Monticello is fairly rich in nutrients and a grape like the Cabernet Sauvignon may grow too vigorously. This in turn would produce flat, underdeveloped wines.
Over the past twenty years, an increasing number of wineries have been honing in on a few varietals that are poised to become the flagship grapes of the region.
While some producers continue to experiment with different grape varietals, Viognier and Petit Verdot, in addition to Merlot and Cabernet Franc, have produced excellent, complex wines that prove unique to their Virginian terroir (a term denoting the characteristics of the overall qualities of the land). For Monticello to gain acclaim as a world-class region within the international wine community, wineries must focus on these high-performing varietals and build an original niche in the market. As the region forms a cohesive identity, it’s reputation as the Napa of the East grows.
While the region lends itself to vital viticultural growth, elevations can go from 500 to 2000 feet with each site’s microclimate varying drastically. This means that while most wineries are evolving toward growing the same varietals, there is still a wide spectrum of fruit expression and winemaking strategy.
Paschina say that Monticello, unlike many other East Coast wine regions, has few “hobbyists” left, and is comprised of a large number of winemakers formally educated. This concentration of expertise has produced wine comparable to that of Europe and the West Coast. “Making wine is easy; making good wine is quite complicated,” Paschina says.
Michael Shaps, a consultant for Virginia Wineworks and Pollack Vineyards, a producer of his own private label and the owner of a vineyard in Burgundy, France, brings old-world winemaking techniques with him when working with vineyards such as picking grapes earlier than usual to produce more a more elegant and balanced taste, as opposed to tannic or jammy.
While Shaps says he sees some wineries trying to follow the consumer-driven trend of New-World California-style Cabernets, the biggest producers in Monticello follow his more European-style philosophies. Jake Busching, winemaker and General Manager for Pollak Vineyards, sees each varying vintage as a new opportunity to express the distinctive character of that year’s fruit and its soil. Busching says that the nuanced differences from varying winemaking styles only benefit the diversity within the region.
As more consumers have discovered the burgeoning industry right in their backyard, wineries are able to employ state-of-the-art methods and improve marketing strategy because of the new capital. While necessary for greater acclaim, there are still many challenges and misconceptions that must be overcome.
As the volume and quality of wine continues to increase, the government of Virginia and the commercial and historical tourism industries facilitate growth for the wineries around Charlottesville. David King attests that there is still a large local market in Virginia and its bordering states that has yet to be tapped, and with the state legislators helping to promote local wines in more shops and fine dining establishments, consumers have more opportunities to support local growers.
“We sell everything we make,” says King. “Yet wine made here is only 4.5% of the wine consumed in the state. Our biggest goal right now is merely to make more wine.”
There are also several brand-new operations such as DelFosse Vineyards & Winery that dove into producing old-world style wines that found immediate favor with many of Charlottesville’s wine lovers. Michael Shaps see in-state sales as non-essential to the greater goal of international exposure and recognition, though in-state sales may provide a backbone for sustainability. Often, wine drinkers in other regions are unaware that the East Coast produces wine at all.
Shaps, Paschina and many other Virginia winemakers periodically stage blind tastings and enter into competitions where their wines consistently come out equal to if not better than their European counterparts. Yet stigmas are still rampant outside of the immediate area.
It inevitably takes time for vines to become expressive in a new terroir and then for the wine region to develop its own identity. Paschina, for one, continues to experiment with varietals, pulling out underperforming vines and trying out clones that may have similar growing patterns to the ones that have shown the most success. With innovators like this, Monticello will continue to evolve for decades to come. However, with the number of Viogniers, Chardonnays, Merlots and Petit Verdot blends now being produced by the wineries it is about time that the greater wine world began paying more attention.
“When there is more than just wine, when you have wine and great food, wine and a beautiful landscape, a history, a story,” Paschina says. “When you create this full experience, that’s when wine is best and most interesting. And here in Virginia, we have it all.”