Crunch. Crunch. A shovel rhythmically dug into the porous soil of the Virginia countryside. It was 1774 and young Thomas Jefferson was overseeing the planting of grape vines near his Monticello estate in the days before the American Revolution. The seeds of America’s wine industry were planted and the Monticello Wine Trail was born.
Over 240 years later, we traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia and the Monticello Wine Trail to see just how far we’ve come since Mr. Jefferson’s time. As it turns out, America’s viticultural pursuits have come a long, long way. While starting the industry was attempted in the 18th century, Virginia’s wineries didn’t really get underway until the 1970s and 1980s.
Our trip involved visiting six wineries in the Charlottesville/Richmond area, including those on the Monticello Wine Trail and the Heart of Virginia Wine Trail. We found a tremendous variety, both in terms of the quality of the wines and in the tasting experiences.
Wineries on the Monticello Wine Trail
The Barboursville Vineyards are probably one of the most beautiful we’ve ever encountered anywhere in the world. The 180 acre vineyard was founded in 1976, but recalls the glory of the stunning 18th Century estate, which serves as the backdrop for this memorable wine tasting. Barboursville is the oldest vineyard on the Monticello Wine Trail and features historic ruins, which were designed by Thomas Jefferson.
We enjoyed a number of wines at Barboursville, including the Chardonnay , a cold fermented, strongly acidic vintage with lots of green apple notes. In dry whites, the Sauvignon Blanc Reserve has a heavy minerality and almost earthy quality.
For red wines, we both enjoyed the Cabernet Sauvignon – a complex varietal with lots of layered flavors, including black currant and cloves with a delicate tannin structure. Unfortunately, the woman conducting our tasting was more interested in getting to lunch, so our tasting experience was rather abbreviated.
On the current site of Jefferson Vineyards, the first New World vines were planted in 1774, giving birth to American wine. The plantings were a joint venture called The Virginia Wine Company between between Mr. Thomas Jefferson and Italian winemaker Mr. Filipo Mazzei (Jefferson had brokered the sale of the land bordering Monticello to Mr. Mazzei). Longtime readers of Travel Addicts will recognize the Mazzei name from our Cantine Aperte experience in Italy.
Mr. Jefferson was committed to viticulture and the evidence of his efforts remains to this day. Mr. Jefferson’s Monticello towers over the Jefferson Vineyards, making this an extremely picturesque spot for a picnic.
The tasting room can be extremely busy, but the wines are well worth the wait. The tasting room staff is extremely knowledgeable and helpful. We almost never like Rose, but this one surprised us – this dry, French-styled wine had a delicate peach bouquet and heavy melon flavors. The bold Chardonnay Reserve offered well-rounded vanilla and citrus flavors.
But the bottle we took home was the Meritage, a Bordeaux-style blend featuring just Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot grapes. The initial peppery tannin rush is rounded with deep black cherry and soft chocolate notes making this a very long finishing wine (I’m smitten). The Meritage is a varietal worthy of Thomas Jefferson himself!
King Family Vineyards
The family-owned and operated King Family Vineyards is the total package – an amazing location, an incredibly knowledgeable tasting room staff and world-class wines.
The two standouts at King Family Vineyards are the delicate Viognier – a lightly acidic white with a floral bouquet and a long, clean finish with just a hint of minerality reminiscent of a Sauvignon Blanc.
But the patriarch of this winery is the Meritage. This bold Bordeaux-style blend punches way above its weight. The addition of a small amount of Malbec gives it a spicy pop on the palate. However, this Meritage is more than gimmick – it is well tannined, with complex black cherry/berry fruit-forward elements and an earthy, black tea finish. This very well be my favorite wine of the year (we’ll have to see when we open that bottle!).
Wineries on the Heart of Virginia Wine Trail
Set among rows of vines, the copper-colored Cooper tasting room welcomes visitors from near and far. Since 1999, Cooper has been one of the archors of the Heart of Virginia Wine Trail. When we arrived, one Sunday afternoon, a local musician was just beginning his set on the outdoor balcony. Cooper makes for the perfect setting for a weekend picnic and dozens of families were engaged in that activity.
On the wine front, of note is the Estate Bottled Chardonnay, an unoaked, estate grown, smooth Chardonnay with strong floral notes. We generally don’t love heavily oaked Chardonnays, but the Cooper Chardonnay is a soft vintage with bright peach notes – an excellent wine for the hot summer and it just made me a crave a fresh avocado salad!
Of the notable red wines is one of Cooper’s top sellers – the Norton Reserve. The Norton Reserve is a complex estate vintage utilizing the native Virginia grape and projecting strong black cherry flavors layered with light spice notes and supple tannins. This is a beautiful complex wine and one of the favorites of the entire trip.
Carved into a forest not far from I-64, a gray building with a Japanese koi pond houses the South African inspired Grayhaven winery. Since 1978, Grayhaven has been a family owned winery, making it one of the oldest independent vineyards in Virginia.
We visited right after a large event and they were serving mostly South African imported wines, not their locally produced vintages. We had just returned to the U.S. from a South African vineyard tour, so we were looking forward to the estate wines. Of the few locally produced wines served in the tasting room, the refreshing sangria would be a perfect wine for the harsh, hot, humid East Coast summers.
Weston Farm Vineyard & Winery
Weston occupies a beautiful 14 acre hillside and operates as a vineyard, country B&B, and animal rescue. The vineyard focuses on pure varietals and fruit blends – with a strong focus on the latter. The one notable wine at Weston Farm is the Meritage – this bold Bordeaux-style blend possessed mellow tannins and a strong black currant character.
But, perhaps the real highlight of Watson Farm had nothing to do with wine – it is the owner’s French Bulldogs, which welcome guests to the tasting room.