I was in Charlottesville, Virginia for the wedding of our dear friends Karen and Phil, and had the chance to have a drive through Virginia wine country, visit a winery, and try some of the local vino. It’s a very cool trip if you find yourself in the area. Virginia wine country is gorgeous, the wines are quite delicious, and the entire region is overlaid with the history of some of the first attempts of fine winegrowing in North America.
Early efforts to grow vitis vinifera grapes, the subtype of grapes used in fine wine production, were foiled by phylloxera. This North American root louse had not yet been identified as the sworn enemy of the vinifera vines.
(As a sidenote, this was the same Phylloxera that would go on to devastate nearly every vineyard in Europe in the late 19th century when it was accidentally brought to Europe by a botanist. Whoops!)
One of these early growers was a Mr. Thomas Jefferson, who tried valiantly to grow grapes in his Monticello vineyards for over 30 years. Not a single bottle of wine was produced from this estate, despite TJ’s admirable ‘stick-to-itiveness.’
Vintners of the world eventually figured out how to combat phylloxera, by grafting the vitis vinifera vines onto North American native grape rootstocks, which were hardier and immune to the root louse (an American horticulturalist named T.V. Munson eventually figured this out, and saved the entire Old World wine industry in the process. You're welcome, Europe). Once this innovation reached Virginia in the early 20th century, the ‘noble experiment’ of Prohibition set in, and completely crushed the rebounding local wine industry.
(one more sidenote: we can also thank Prohibition for the circuitous three-tier, state-level distribution system and some of our crazier alcohol laws in the USA. Somehow we haven’t gotten around to adding some sanity to these regulations in the past 90 years. I’m sure Congress will get to it soon…)
A few bold vintners took up the banner for Virginia wines once again in the 1970s, and Virginia is now in the midst of a wine industry renaissance. Drive the backroads around Charlottesville, and there can be no doubt in your mind that this is truly a legit wine country.
As for the wines, they can be really nice as well. I’ll start with the bad news…
The reds tend to be on the thinner, unripe side. I didn’t come in expecting California ripeness levels, but I at least would like to see fully ripened grapes, correct to their type. The earthy notes, reminiscent of European winemaking styles, were quite interesting and welcome to find from new world vintners. For me, the green, stemmy, pyrazine-y notes were just a bit too prominent. It certainly isn’t fair to write off an entire region based on tasting a few red wines, but after tasting perhaps 10 examples from 4 different wineries, I think the region may have a tough time ripening red wine grapes.
The whites are a completely different story.
I tasted several examples throughout my stay, from a number of different wineries, and they we’re pretty consistently solid. The best examples showed just ripe fruit notes, stone and chalky minerality, and the racy, nervy acidity of a well-made, cool climate wine. Very impressive.
The standouts for me came from Pollak Vineyard, which we also had the good fortune of visiting. My favorites were their 2012 Viognier and 2012 Chardonnay. Both wines drank like bridges from the old world to the new.
The Viognier (my favorite wine of the weekend) showed the beautiful ripe tropical fruit and full texture so distinctive in a good Viognier, but with the backbone of acidity and minerality that the grape sometimes lacks in California. I later learned that Viognier is the state grape of Virginia, so I’m guessing lots of local vintners do good work with this Northern Rhône native.
The Chardonnay was made in a low oak style (fermented in oak then aged in stainless, with a bit of lees contact) that let the grapes speak for themselves. Compared to a big, ripe and oaky California Chardonnay, this was more subdued and elegant, and I imagine far more food friendly.
The Viognier and Chardonnay from Pollak are world class wines that really demonstrated the fine wines that can be grown in Virginia.
Coupled with beautiful hilly vineyards surrounding the winery, and the gorgeous tasting room that wouldn’t be out of place in the heart of Napa Valley, I’d highly recommend a visit to Pollak if you find yourself in Charlottesville.