Having been surrounded by the wine culture of Northern California’s Bay Area before moving to sourthern Virginia, I was very surprised to find the wine culture alive and well here in the Mid Atlantic region. Actually, Virginia is currently in the stage of vineyard growth because of several factors that would have had Thomas Jefferson smiling if he was around today. With over 160 wineries now dotting the map heavily in the center of the Commonwealth, it would be hard not to find something that you like amongst the varieties offered.
It was over 400 years ago that English settlers in Virginia hoped to establish a flourishing wine industry at Jamestown and become a source of wine for the British home islands. A law in 1619 was signed making it a requirement for each male settler to plant and grow at least ten grape vines. Unfortunately, the vines were of European origin and they could not stand up to the diseases found in the new world. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington tried to cultivate European grape vines for many years. Washington gave up and stuck to ciders and whisky, while Jefferson spent more than 30 years trying and his Monticello vineyards never produced a single bottle of wine. It would only be after the grafting of local and European grapes in the late 1800s before a break through was made on grapes that could grow in Virginia. Soon after that, prohibition occurred and there were very few vineyards left afterwards.
In the late-1950s, experimental plantings of a new grape showed promise. With the firm establishment of six new wineries in the 1970s, the recovery of the Virginia wine making was underway. Today, wineries in Virginia are mostly small family operations, with a few larger exceptions to that rule. If you go to a winery for a tasting - your likely to meet the whole family and find their passion for creating a world class wine while talking with them sipping their product. And here you will find the merlot, rose, red, and white wines are now plentiful and of a huge variety of tastes, tectures, and alcohol contents.
Knowing the history of how the other than local grapes could not grow in Virginia for so long, it is much easier to see how the fruit wines came about here. These can be found in many of the wineries, with some of the best being apple, blackberry, pear, or pomegranate wines. There may have been a time when the limited selection of these made them a poorer showing item, but that definitely is no longer the case these days. As a guy who really likes sweet white Riesling wines and dessert wines – Virginia holds many great surprises with all the fruit wines being produced in small batches.
Both Hilltop and Horton offer a great variety of fruit wines that are well worth a sample at any wine tasting. It is also surprising how many meads are available now. Mead has been around since time eternal, and made by almost all cultures. But finding mead in the USA takes some searching. Some meads retain some measure of the sweetness of the original honey, and some may even be considered as dessert wines. But it is the mix of the fruit wine and mead that really creates a unique wine that I probably never would have tried if not for a wine festival tasting. If you happen to see Dragon's Blood and sample it - I am sure you will be buying a bottle of it just like the rest of us have.