In July I went to the annual Wine Bloggers Conference, held in Charlottesville, Virginia. I'd never been to that area of the country, but had always heard it was beautiful, with Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, and the University of Virginia. Throw in wine, and to me it was a trip not to be missed.
I took advantage of an option to visit a few Virginia wineries before the conference. I'm glad I did as I discovered some wonderful Viogniers. This white varietal is the state's official grape, even though Viognier is native to France, where its spiritual home is in the northern Rhone Valley, in the region of Condrieu. Virginia is also known for Norton, a red grape variety that is native to the state. However, Missouri claims Norton as its state grape. Go figure.
I've sipped Condrieu that was life changing -- and tempted me to splurge on a bottle with a $100+ price tag. I'm always on a quest for the next great bottle of Viognier (at a much lower price too).
Why does Viognier do well in Virginia? Earthquakes aside (a few of the state's wineries had minor damage and bottle breakage), it's a warm growing climate. The grape clusters on the vine are bunched loosely, allowing air to flow through and dry any moisture that might lead to mildew. The grape also has a thicker skin and can stand up to rain.
Loudoun County was the destination for our Virginia winery tour. Loudoun calls itself "DC's Wine Country" because the 22 wineries there are within an hour drive outside of the nation's capital. As we left metropolitan Washington, DC, the landscape turned into gently rolling hills, pastures and vineyards as we approached Tarara Winery. The 475 acre property is on the Potomac River (although we never saw the river and it's too bad that we never got to go into the vineyards).
I'd never tasted a wine from the state and wasn't sure what to expect. Winemaker Jordan Harris put my mind at ease. Virginia is home to serious, talented and passionate vintners. The first sip was memorable: Tarara's 2010 Viognier from the Williams Gap Vineyard ($15). I thought was a lovely wine with a beautiful floral nose and peach notes. It's summer in a glass, and a great introduction to Virginian Viognier. Otherwise Tarara is known for Chardonnay and their red blends.
At Breaux Vineyards we met owners Chris Blosser and Jennifer Breaux Blosser. Jennifer is a WineFashionista with a great sense of style. Her family is Cajun and they honor that heritage with the red crawfish on the wine labels and with the Cajun Fest in June (too bad we missed that!). Breaux has been voted Virginia's favorite winery for the past three years running.
We went on a hayride through the vineyards on the 404 acre estate. Breaux grows 18 varietals, including Viognier, on 105 acres. In the barrel cellar we tried the 2010 Viognier ($24), full of stone fruits and white flowers. Breaux is also known for Nebbiolo, and a barrel sample of the '07 was fantastic.
I also went to two wineries in the Charlottesville area during the conference. Vintner Dennis Horton is a legend in Virginia wine country. At Horton Vineyards, he was at the forefront of the state's modern day wine industry by being the first to produce Viognier and Cabernet Franc.
Horton makes a beautiful Viognier (2010 - $20), but the real gem here is the sparkling Viognier. I'd never even heard of such a thing. It's a non-vintage wine made in the traditional Champagne method. This brut sparkler is delicious and lively. I bought one bottle ($25) and now wish I had more.
Barboursville Vineyards has deep roots in Virginia's history. James Barbour was governor of Virginia and Secretary of War under President John Quincy Adams. He was also friends with Thomas Jefferson, who designed the Barbour home, which was reminiscent of Monticello. Ruins of the home still remain from the fire which destroyed it in 1884. You can stay in a small in next to this, in a restored carriage house from the Barbour estate.
The Barboursville Viogniers were not just good, they were the best I'd tasted during the entire conference trip. Off the charts good. We got to taste a vertical that included a 2002. It was divine, complex and still had plenty of fruit. Who knew Viognier could age this well? Ok, maybe some Condrieus do. I convinced them to sell me a couple bottles of the 2002 and I also bought the 2009 ($22) which was completely different, fruiter and not as complex as the older vintage. Both yummy.
You've probably noticed that the Virginia wines don't cost what comparable wines in California or even from France cost, which makes them a great bargain (and why I shipped a case of wine home).
If you're a Viognier lover like me, you want to get to Virginia wine country as soon as possible or seek out some pretty amazing bottles. Now I can't say every Virginia wine is good or worth seeking out. Me and my fellow bloggers had some that we'd call plonk at best. The point is that it's about time the really good wines -- especially the Viogniers -- get the recognition they deserve.
Follow Mary Orlin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/WineFashionista