Some Virginia wine enthusiasts believe the state’s vineyards produce wines on par with the Napa and Rhone valleys.
During Virginia Wine Month in October, the Virginia Wine Board and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services have been promoting winery visits as family-friendly, yet socially distanced activities. The Virginia Wine website lists virtual tasting events and wineries that offer to-go options.
“I think the quality factor is there this year,” said Dr. Tony Wolf, director of viticulture for the Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester. He added that 2021 wines are expected to also be good, but may be in short supply due to a late frost in this year’s growing season. “So get it while you can. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for 2021,” Wolf said.
Virginia is home to 312 wineries, and most are family-owned. According to the wine board, 28 varieties of red and white grapes are planted on more than 4,000 acres in Virginia. The wine industry creates more than 8,000 jobs and generates $1.37 billion annually. Vineyards and wineries welcome more than 2.2 million visitors each year.
Virginia’s soil is so amenable to cultivating quality grapes that even lesser-known varieties thrive.
“The petit manseng variety has been around a while, and it does well in the kind of growing conditions in the state,” Wolf said. “Some of our wineries have done a great job producing different styles of wine from petit manseng. In France, it’s known as dessert-style wine, but some of our wineries are making drier versions of it, so it can be consumed as a table wine.”
Hybrids are standing out too.
“There’s a variety called chardonel, a cross between chardonnay and seyval blanc,” Wolf said. “That one has also been around a while, but I feel upbeat about it. It produces good quality wines, excellent quality in some cases. And it’s easier to grow than either of its parent varieties.”
James River Cellars in Henrico County has debuted its second vintage of chardonel that they describe as rich and smooth with the crisp citrus notes of un-oaked styles. It pairs wells with cream sauce, mushrooms or grilled chicken.
Co-owner Mitzi Batterson said despite fewer grapes this year, there is still plenty of vineyard work to prepare for the 2021 growing season.
“Instead of ripening the grapes, all the energy is put into the vines, which are growing aggressively,” Batterson said. “It takes just as much work, if not more, to get that vineyard in check, so next year it will be healthy in 2021.”
Wolf said that fortunately frost does not impact grape vines’ perennial welfare.
“We typically anticipate a slight uptick in yields in the year following frost,” he said. “I think we had a pretty good fall in terms of ripening conditions. If you’ve still got fruit on the vines, you should be seeing some pretty nice reds coming in, particularly from the later-ripening Northern Virginia area.”