THE BLOG
04/28/2012 08:39 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2012

Explore America: Virginia Is For Wine Lovers

While "Virginia is For Lovers" has been the widely recognized ad slogan for 43 years, Virginia is also now fast becoming the destination for wine lovers. After the top American wine producing regions of California, Washington, Oregon and New York, Virginia is next on that list, with more than 200 wineries.

What we've learned covering American wineries on our blog CarsTravelFood, which celebrates domestic travel to support U.S. businesses, is that many American wineries fortunately have not felt the effects of the recession. And with the boon of tourists discovering these high-caliber wines and visiting wineries here, Virginia is one such state that boasts a great many successful wineries.

"We've had double digit growth for the last three years and that's in a recession," says Annette Boyd, director for the Virginia Wine Board marketing office. "For a lot of people - the whole 'staycation' concept, people might not fly to Europe or Napa Valley, and they'll do a mini-vacation and Virginia has really benefited from that. A lot of people from Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York say, 'Let's take a weekend in Virginia.'"

So if you're looking for a new road trip destination, Boyd notes that Virginia is a day's drive for two-thirds of the U.S. population. This accessibility to such a large portion of the country's population makes Virginia a perfect destination for those who want to stay close to home. "We are an eight hour drive from New York City, we are seven hours from Atlanta," Boyd says. "We've got everything in between with Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, Ohio, Charlotte, and we're a day's drive from Ohio, too. So we're strategically positioned."

Of course, no drinking and driving, so stay awhile and enjoy the plethora of interesting historical sites this region has to offer.

It's not just the close proximity that attracts wine lovers to Virginia wineries, it's that Virginia wines have also been getting national and international acclaim and of course, the bonus of supporting these wines is that they are lovingly grown and made in the U.S. products.

"The grapes that we're getting the most recognition for is Virginia Viognier," Boyd says. "Somebody said, 'Viognier is Chardonnay's sexy, exotic, tropical sister.' It's a grape originally from the South of France from Condrieu region in the Rhone Valley."

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In Virginia, there's also Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot, both blending grapes from the Bordeaux region. "They grow exceptionally well here to the point where they make excellent varietal wines," Boyd says. "We also grow Cabernet Sauvigon and Merlot and of course, we grow a grape variety - Norton. Norton is indigenous to Virginia. It actually came from Richmond, Virginia. Missouri made it their state's grape, but it came from Virginia."

While places like California, Australia, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina are classic New World wine regions, Virginia is an up-and-coming New World wine region, but as a state that was at the center of American history, it's befitting that wines here have a close resemblance to their Old World counterparts.

According to Boyd, it's "because of our climate and soil, our wines are much more similar to wines of the Old World. We are right on part of the same latitude to the south of France, Spain, and Italy. Our climate is much more similar to that than California or the Northwest."

Speaking of the Old World, the history of Virginia wine dates back some 400 years to 1691 in Jamestown, where they hoped Virginia would provide a great source of wine to the British Empire. "The British had such high hopes for grapes being grown in the new world that they required every male head of a household in Jamestown to plant 10 vines," Boyd says. "What the settlers didn't understand was we have root louse Phylloxera. It attacks the root stock of these foreign vines, so they were never successful at it."

The one root stock resistant to Phylloxera was the Norton grape, the native Virginia grape. "The root stock was resistant because it's from this area and now it's standard practice, they take the Norton root stock and graft it to root stock so that the vines will live."

Founding father Thomas Jefferson, who's been called "America's first distinguished viticulturist," didn't know how to combat Phylloxera, and so he was never successful at planting vines at Monticello.

"He tried all of his life, for 30 years he tried to plant vines at Monticello," Boyd says. "That was the only thing in his life he felt he was never successful at."

Jefferson made a prediction that although they were not successful, in 100 years people would figure out how to successfully grow vines here. "He was spot on," Boyd says. "He knew there was something they didn't understand then that they would figure out later.

In more recent history, after Prohibition was repealed, Virginia only had 15 acres of commercial grapes. By the 1970s, there were six new wineries in Virginia and by 1995 there were 46 wineries. By 2005, there were 107 wineries and today there are at least 220 wineries.

"The wines have gotten so much better," Boyd says, adding the wineries in Virginia are all so different and yet unique in their own right.

Virginia Wine Festivals
There are many Virginia wine festivals that celebrate locally grown and made wines. Here are just a few...

Great Grapes Wine, Art & Food Festival held in Reston Town Center is on April 28 and 29 and Sept. 8 and 9. You can taste 200 Virginia wines from 20 wineries in two days.

Monticello Wine Festival on May 12 is takes place on the beautiful grounds of Jefferson's own Monticello. Enjoy spring while tasting wines from this region. You can walk the restored vineyards and wine cellar and meet Monticello's winemaker Gabriele Rausse. The man who plays Thomas Jefferson at Williamsburg will also make a visit. Local experts will be on hand to answer questions on the region's wines and also how they compare to the vintages Jefferson tasted.

The 26th Annual Virginia Wine & Craft Festival on May 19 in historic downtown Front Royal, Virginia is where you can enjoy tastings from 20 Virginia wineries and there will be 100 artisans and crafters from all over the East Coast who will be selling their uniquely crafted Made in America musical instruments, jewelry, pottery, artwork and more.

The 31st Annual Vintage Virginia Wine Festival on June 2 and 3 is one of the oldest and largest wine festivals in this area and it's known as the cornerstone of the East Coast wine festival season. It's held at Bull Run Regional Park, just 20 minutes from Washington D.C. and features 300 Virginia wines.

The Southwest Virginia Wine Festival will be held June 16 at Heartwood and will feature regional wines. Heartwood is another interesting place here in Virginia to visit and support, as we noted in this CarsTravelFood blog post. This is one-stop shopping if you enjoy supporting local artisans and it's a great place to buy local uniquely Made in America crafted gifts for yourself or others.

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Virginia Wineries
With more than 200 wineries and some two dozen wine trails here in Virginia, there's plenty to choose from if you're looking to go wine tasting and visit wineries in this region. Virginia Wine has an easy to navigate website that offers the various wine regions and trails. Here are some Virginia wineries...

One popular wine trail is the Monticello Wine Trail in the Charlottesville area where you can find Jefferson Vineyards down the hill from Jefferson's Monticello. Here, they grows grapes on land Thomas Jefferson once owned. Jefferson brokered the sale of that land to an Italian viticulturist to become his neighbor in hopes that he would help Jefferson realize his dream of making wines from grapes grown here. The first vines were planted in 1774, but Revolutionary War interrupted this endeavor and it wasn't until 1981 that vineyards would once again be established. These vineyards now produce award-winning wines that range from Pinot Gris to Cabernet Franc.

Blenheim Vineyards is just down the road and it's another popular stop on this trail. Musician Dave Matthews owns this winery, which was established in 2000. There are two vineyard sites that grow wines including Chardonnay, Viognier, and Cabernet Sauvignon. From the timber frame tasting room, you can see Jefferson's "sea view" as well as look through paneled glass floors at the wine production facilities.

White Hall Vineyards is a farm winery 13 miles from Charlottesville, with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their wines include Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Petit Verdox, Touriga.

Williamsburg Winery, which celebrates 25 years and 38 awards, makes wines that include Seyval Blanc, Traminette and Syrah. You can stay here at the winery's Wedmore Place. You can enjoy the café, private dining, and they also offer spa service such as hot stone massage.

Breaux Vineyards was named Virginia's favorite winery for the fourth consecutive year. They are on a 404-acre estate that grow 18 different varieties of grapes on 100 acres. Their internationally recognized wines include Vidal Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Two Virginia wineries were recently recognized by Virginia Green which we profile in this blog post, as Green Travel Leaders, for being green businesses. Cooper Vineyards utilizes rainwater collection and low flow fixtures to reduce water usage by 40 percent. They also have solar panels and recycled materials or used locally-sourced materials in its construction.

The other winery recognized by Virginia Green is DuCard Vineyards in Madison County, which has solar panels as well as uses local and recycled materials. In giving back to the community, they help train locals in vineyard operations at a local college.