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Virginia Wines: What to Sip and Serve this Holiday Season

wineaVirginia has a storied wine history dating back to Thomas Jefferson, who called wine “a necessary of life.” He and an Italian viticulturist planted the first vines around Monticello in 1774. While harsh winters, various grape diseases, and a little thing called the American Revolution prevented this initial crop from coming to fruition, he remained a staunch proponent of growing local wines, like those that can be seen on the best wine tours, and educating the palate, and is known as America’s first wine connoisseur. Over two centuries later, Virginia boasts a thriving wine industry that has garnered increasing attention and accolades.

Autumn is a busy season in the wine world. At the vineyards, grape varietals are harvested and fermented, then aged in either oak or stainless steel until ready for the bottle and cellar. At wine shops, cooler weather means a shift for many customers from the frosty beers of summer to both red and white wines. The holiday season, filled with entertaining and special meals, is an especially popular time to share a bottle of wine with friends and family. Not to mention, it’s hard to go wrong with this classic hostess gift.

When selecting a bottle of wine for a meal or gift, many of us gravitate toward wines from Europe, California or Australia. But with the rise of the “locavore” movement, which includes locally sourced meat, dairy and produce, people are also looking to purchase and consume regional wine and beer, and discover some new tastes along the way. Microbreweries in our area have gotten a fair bit of attention lately, but have you heard about Virginia wineries?

Close up ripe, heavy red wine grape clusters on vine at VineyardWith over 230 wineries and growing, Virginia ranks fifth in number of wineries by state, behind California, Washington, Oregon and New York. The different growing regions, with their varying soils, elevation and weather, produce a wide range of flavors, making it possible to find something to please any palate. In recent years, high-profile Virginia winemakers like Gabriele Rausse and Michael Shaps—who both helped establish some of the state’s top vineyards and now produce their own labels—have been the subject of industry buzz. At the same time, it’s become a bit of a pastime among oenophiles to sniff out “dark horse” wineries, whose small productions can produce hidden gems. Recent advances in viticulture and winemaking technology have begun to transform growing, harvesting and fermenting techniques, and industry watchers have pegged Virginia as one of the world’s emerging wine regions.

What that news in mind, why not try a Virginia wine this holiday season? A good way to choose one is to begin with the occasion. There are a variety of wines which pair well with holiday meals, including the opening act, Thanksgiving. In France, the grape harvest is celebrated every November with the release of Beaujolais Nouveau, a young red wine. The timing of its release, along with its fruity, light-bodied quality, means it is frequently served at Thanksgiving tables, where its easy-drinking qualities pair well with a variety of fall flavors. Pinot Noir, another delicate red, which grows especially well in Oregon, is served for this same reason.

In Virginia, there are several red varietals that grow well and produce a light-to-medium bodied red wine, such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. At King Family Vineyards in Crozet, James King says they intentionally make their reds slightly lower in alcohol (around 13 percent versus 14 percent or more) so that they can be enjoyed either by themselves or with food. He describes their Cabernet Franc as having “notes of strawberry and raspberry, with a spicy, peppery finish” and advises pairing it with turkey, pork or lamb.

Lovingston Winery, located midway between Charlottesville and Lynchburg, is one of the state’s smallest vineyards, yet their focus on distribution means their wines are available throughout our region. Manager Stephanie Wright likes their Pinotage, a South African grape bred from crossing Pinot Noir with Cinsault, for the Thanksgiving meal. Though the name may be unfamiliar to some, she advises keeping an open mind when it comes to varietals, saying, “Yes, we’ve got a climate that’s conducive to specific Bordeaux grapes, but there are things out there which are opinion-changing.” She says that in their microclimate, Pinotage expresses mostly its Pinot Noir side, resulting in a wine that is “fruit driven, with soft tannin.” Wright says Pinotage pairs beautifully with fall foods such as fowl and butternut squash, due to its “cranberry and dried cherry nose and palate.”

winecWhite wines are also popular for Thanksgiving dinner, both dry and semi-dry. It’s generally considered preferable to avoid full-bodied, heavily oaked Chardonnays at this meal, since fruitier wines tend to pair better with the dishes being served. That said, not all Chardonnays are produced in the big, bold, California style. Virginia Chardonnays are predominantly made in the lighter European method, aged in gentler French oak or simply stainless steel to express more green apple and citrus notes.

Chateau Morrisette, set just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Floyd, is one of the oldest and biggest producers in the state, and offers a variety of white wines. Some, like the 2013 Reserve Chardonnay, are available for purchase only at the winery, but many other wines can be found at wine shops locally. Keith Toler, Chateau Morrisette’s director of marketing, says that Thanksgiving is a great meal for their best-selling wine, “Our Dog Blue” (the winery’s logo and wine names were inspired by the owner’s Labrador Retriever.) Our Dog Blue is a semi-sweet wine made from a blend of Riesling, Traminette and Vidal Blanc, with melon, apricot and floral notes.

White Hall Vineyards, also just outside of Charlottesville in Crozet, debuted a Gewurtztraminer (an off-dry white wine) in October which General Manager Lisa Champ describes as having “a typical rose nose, a floral palate with fruit, and a dry finish.” Champ says it’s a good Thanksgiving wine because typically it complements everything on the table, without overwhelming it.

Fruit-forward reds like Pinotage, along with well-balanced, slightly sweet whites, also pair beautifully with other holiday classics such as ham and goose. Both of these meats, with their higher fat content, do well with a fruity or off-dry wine that has just enough acidity to offset the richness of the flesh.

Throughout the holiday season, meat dishes such as roast beef and game are likely to be on the menu. King says, “Our Merlot is a medium-bodied red with notes of cherry, which has been aged in French oak for 16 months. It goes very well with delicate beef, venison, quail, rabbit and duck.” For heavier meats such as roasts or rich game, he suggests their Meritage, a blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec, which is aged for 18 months in oak and has a bit more tannin and structure. They also offer Petit Verdot as a varietal wine. A dry, heavy red, it has notes of black cherry and black currant, a weightier mouth feel, and a longer finish, and is suitable for beef or venison.

At White Hall, a Portuguese grape called Touriga Nacional grows well and is generally made into Port, a red, fortified dessert wine. But on certain years, they use Touriga to make a varietal wine, which Champ describes as having “a smoky nose, a fruity palate, and a smooth finish with no ‘burn’ at the end.” She especially recommends pairing it with lamb. Lovingston’s “Rotunda Red,” one of their most popular offerings, is a medium-bodied blend of Merlot, Pinotage and Cabernet Franc that would pair well with most meats.

wineeWhile red wines are a must for a Dickensian roast beef Christmas dinner, white wines go well with other popular holiday meals. Many Italian-Americans enjoy serving “The Feast of the Seven Fishes” on Christmas Eve. For this Southern Italian meal, Wright recommends Lovingston’s Seyval Blanc, a crisp, dry wine with some citrus and mineral flavors. She says, “We leave a bit of CO2 in the bottle so it has just a bit of sparkle. It’s fresh and will wake up your palate.”

Another wine that can pair well with seafood is Viognier, a dry white that many consider to be Virginia’s signature wine. Though some winemakers feel that declaration is premature, given the difficulty of growing the fickle, low-yield grape, King says, “It doesn’t produce a lot, but what it does produce is very good.” He calls it a “great party wine,” which pairs well with crabcakes, scallops and mussels, as well as charcuterie plates. Viognier is also the primary component of White Hall Winery’s signature “White Hall White,” described by Champ as having a “fruity nose and palate, but a dry finish.” She also suggests Viognier, with its smoky note and long finish, as a white wine option for people who mostly prefer red.

Viognier’s versatility and name recognition make it a good choice for cocktail parties. Another adaptable but less-known white is Petit Manseng. Wright and King both say the varietal is taking off in Virginia and that we’ll be seeing a lot more of it in the coming years. (Wright notes it was featured at a recent workshop with industry retailers and sommeliers from across the country.) Petit Manseng typically is made into an off-dry wine that features notes of peach, pineapple and honey. At Lovingston, Wright says they have changed their fermentation technique to produce a Petit Manseng with elements of pear cider and fall spices. This pairs well with cheeses and spicy fare. Chateau Morrisette offers an off-dry white called “Nouveau Chien,” which Toler says is a Petit Manseng base blended with other varietals, that is suggested with crab cakes and oysters. White Hall also has a Petit Manseng, which they recommend with food such as scallops, spicy Thai or Indian, and bleu cheese.

No holiday wine list would be complete without mentioning sparkling wines. King Family Vineyards’ sparkling wine is called “Brut,” and is made from 100 percent Chardonnay grapes. Brut is aged for two years in the traditional “sur lie” method, which means the wine rests in the bottle along with the lees (or sediment) that result from the fermentation process, imparting a distinctive flavor. It pairs well with all cheeses, including Brie, chevre, baby Swiss, and Gouda. Chateau Morrisette’s “Star Dog” is a sparkling wine also made from Chardonnay with secondary aging in the bottle, and Toler says that it’s made in small batches and has limited availability, but can be ordered online.

Last but not least, Virginia wineries offer a selection of dessert wines, both from wine grapes and from other fruits. White Hall’s “Soliterre” is made from Petit Manseng in an “icewine” style, where frozen grapes keep water trapped in ice crystals, allowing only a small amount of concentrated sweet juice to be pressed. Chateau Morrisette’s “Frosty Dog” icewine is made from Vidal Blanc and Traminette, while their “Heritage” is a Port-style fortified wine made from Chaumbourcin.

PrintIf you find yourself inspired to try some new local wines this season, don’t forget that half the fun is visiting the winery itself! Be sure to check winter hours, especially at smaller establishments, but many vineyards feature weekend tours and tastings. Lovingston Winery, with its low-key facility, offers what may be the only free wine tasting in the state, often with a knowledgeable pourer such as a family member or the winemaker himself. White Hall Vineyards is open year round for tours and tastings, and hosts an annual wine, cheese, and chocolate Valentine’s event that is a sell-out every year. King Family Vineyards boasts a tasting room with leather chairs and a large stone fireplace, along with a patio for live music and food trucks during warmer months. Speaking of food, some wineries offer their own. At Villa Appalaccia in Floyd, during weekends they offer a grazing platter of various breads, cheeses, and olives to complement their Italian-style wines. Chateau Morrisette has its own restaurant, where each dish has a suggested wine pairing, and they also host year-round events, including several during the holiday season. Barboursville Winery, 30 minutes north of Charlottesville, is a stunning estate featuring an upscale restaurant, an historic inn and cottages, and the ruins of a Jefferson-designed historic mansion.

Whichever you sip and wherever you visit, you’ll discover something new. With Virginia wines on the rise, the next few years will see more local wines widely available. And if you’re in the market for wine storage solutions, Avintage is a French manufacturer of high-quality ageing wine cabinets that you might want to check out.

The holiday season, so steeped in tradition, is the perfect time to introduce a bit of Thomas Jefferson’s locavore philosophy to your table.

502 E Market St, Charlottesville, VA 22902
(434) 293-3663

(Downtown Location)
311 E Market St, Charlottesville VA 22902
(434) 979-9463

Rio Hill Shopping Center
1908 Rio Hill Center, Charlottesville, VA 22901
(434) 295-8466

Barracks Road Shopping Center
1047-B Emmet Street, Charlottesville, VA 22907

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