My Thanksgiving table invariably includes at least one Virginia wine. I grew up and went to school in the Old Dominion, and I’ve followed the impressive growth of Virginia’s wine scene throughout my nearly three decades of writing about food and wine. Thanks to a history of experimentation with different grape varieties and styles, Virginia also offers the diversity the meal calls for: classic Chardonnay, exotically perfumed Petit Manseng, savory Cabernet Franc and spicy Petit Verdot — it’s all here. And more.
The region’s strength is its defiance. “You can’t make wine here,” they used to say. Too humid in summer, too cold in winter. Tropical storms during harvest.
All true — and yet, here we are with the state’s top wineries proving the skeptics wrong. The success has come through experimentation and innovation with unusual grape varieties and blends you won’t see in more conventional wine regions. Where else can you find Petit Verdot blended with Tannat?
Virginia’s wine country extends roughly along the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains from south of Charlottesville north to the Loudoun County suburbs of Washington, D.C., with a smattering of wineries closer to the Chesapeake Bay. Recent growth has focused attention on higher elevation vineyards in the Shenandoah Valley and near Front Royal. There are eight American Viticultural Areas, the most important of which is Monticello, which rings Charlottesville.
“Virginia has red wines versatile enough to pair with anything on a menu,” says Neal Wavra, co-owner with his wife, Star Wavra, of Field and Main, a farm-to-table restaurant in Marshall, Virginia, that has become a mecca for wine country visitors. “Cabernet Franc especially gives you the option of several foods, because of its acidity, body and moderate tannin,” he says. Virginia has become known for its Cabernet Franc, which ripens earlier and more consistently here than Cabernet Sauvignon.
As Virginia matured as a wine region, several wineries gained national and international recognition for producing wines that can stand among the world’s best. These include “icon” Bordeaux-style reds such as Barboursville Vineyard’s Octagon, Early Mountain Vineyard’s Rise, and Glen Manor Vineyard’s Hodder Hill. RdV Vineyards commands triple digit prices for its Lost Mountain blend, which consistently shows well against the best of California and Bordeaux in blind tastings.
Here, fit for any Thanksgiving banquet, are eight superb Virginia wines that can stand proudly among the world’s best and reflect the commonwealth’s diversity of flavors:
Champagne-born Claude Thibaut made bubbly in Australia and California (Kendall-Jackson, Jordan, Iron Horse) before coming to Virginia in 2003 to create the sparkling wine program for Kluge Estate winery (now Trump Winery). In 2005, he created his own label with boyhood friend Manuel Janisson, proprietor of Champagne Janisson & Fils. The T-J (a fitting nickname with an echo of Thomas Jefferson) quickly became a darling of the sommelier set and helped introduce Virginia wine to fine restaurants in Washington, D.C, and along the East Coast. There is no better way to start a Virginia feast than with a glass of T-J.
“T-J is not just the best sparkling wine in Virginia, it’s Top 10 in the US,” says Jarad Slipp, a Master Sommelier and owner of Tremelo restaurant and Knead Wine pizzeria and wine shop in Middleburg, in the heart of Northern Virginia wine country.
Petit Manseng was virtually unheard of outside its native southwestern France when Virginia grape growers began experimenting with it in hopes its loose bunches would ease disease pressure in Virginia’s humid climate. Today it surpasses Viognier as the state’s favorite white wine. The grape’s exotic tropical perfume and combination of high acidity and high sugar enable winemakers to go sweet or dry (the trend is now decidedly toward dry).
Early Mountain winemaker Maya Hood White draws out an extra nuance from Petit Manseng by aging some of the wine in a “perpetual lees” barrel that contains lees from each vintage starting with 2017. Early Mountain’s Cabernet Franc wines are also worth seeking out, and Hood White produces a variety of pet-nats.
Jim Law planted his first vines at the site he calls Hardscrabble in 1985. He’s replanted several times since, exploring different grape varieties, vine spacing and trellising systems. Chardonnay has been Hardscrabble’s mainstay from the start, and has earned a reputation as Virginia’s best, inviting comparisons to Burgundy with a mineral-driven style and intensity that seems to come from deep within the Earth.
Law’s impact on Virginia wine extends through the many winemakers he has mentored and who share his devotion to site-driven, vineyard-designated wines. Some have found similar hillside sites and are producing wines with national and international acclaim at wineries such as RdV Vineyards, Glen Manor Vineyards and Crimson Lane Vineyards, among others.
Virginia is known for red Bordeaux varieties, but a few pockets of Pinot Noir exist. Elevation is key, and Ankida Ridge, on a steep slope at about 1,800 feet in the Blue Ridge foothills, sets the standard. Winemaker Nathan Vrooman coaxes a silky texture and high-toned fruit from his Pinot Noir. Ankida farms sustainably, maintaining a flock of sheep to tend and fertilize the vineyard in the off season. Their Chardonnay is also exceptional.
Lightwell Survey is an unconventional winery producing quirky, innovative natural wines. It’s the brainchild of D.C. sommelier and restaurateur Sebastian Zutant and winemaker Ben Jordan of Midland winery, who aim to challenge our preconceptions of what wine should taste like.
The Weird Ones Are Wolves is 85% Cabernet Franc and 15% Petit Manseng, a head-spinning blend you won’t find elsewhere in the world. Yet it works — the PM gives aromatic lift and acidity to the savory tea and mushroom flavors of the Cab Franc.
Michael Shaps helped establish several wineries around Charlottesville and now makes wine for several more at his custom crush facility. His Cabernet Franc is consistently textbook for Virginia, with flavors of blackberry, plum and white pepper accented by black tea and olive. His Chardonnay and Petit Manseng are also perennial standouts. Shaps trained in Burgundy and makes wines there under his Maison Shaps label.
Veritas Petit Verdot Monticello 2020 $45
Petit Verdot is a minority player in Bordeaux, but it stands out in Virginia, where it was first planted to add color and tannin to reds, but quickly excelled on its own. The wines tend to be inky in color and tannic in structure, with jammy blackberry and boysenberry flavors and a hint of sour-plum candy. Emily Pelton, winemaker at her family’s Veritas Vineyards, makes one of Virginia’s best PVs, combining opulence and elegance in seamless harmony.
Barboursville Vineyards Paxxito 2019 $40 (375 ml)
Piemonte-born Luca Paschina just finished his 34th vintage at Barboursville Vineyards, north of Charlottesville. Founded in 1976 and still owned by the Zonin family of northern Italy wine fame, Barboursville is Virginia’s most significant winery in terms of quality and commercial impact.
Barboursville also has seamlessly integrated into its story the mythology of Thomas Jefferson as Virginia’s first enophile. The grounds include the ruins of a mansion Jefferson designed for a friend, James Barbour. Its restaurant is named for Andrea Palladio, the Renaissance architect who inspired Jefferson’s designs for Monticello and the Barbour mansion. And Paschina named his icon wine Octagon, the shape Jefferson used for the domes in both buildings.
Octagon is a Merlot-based Bordeaux blend Paschina launched in the late 1990s to demonstrate Virginia’s capability to produce world-class, age-worthy reds in a classical style. And while the success of Octagon has made the Bordeaux blend a Virginia mainstay, Paschina has gravitated in recent years to varieties of his native Italy. His Vermentino and Nebbiolo are favorites among Virginia wine fans.
The Paxxito is one of Barbourville’s sweet wines, a perfect partner for any custardy desserts such as the traditional Thanksgiving pumpkin pie. Made with Moscato Ottonel and Vidal grapes that are air-dried for several months before pressing and then fermented and aged in older barriques, the wine is unctuous and nutty, fragrant with dried citrus peel and rose petals.