Other than the Big Three on the Pacific Coast, any state in our union professing to make wine has to suffer the ignominy of being asked, “Why bother?” There’s also the assumption that the whole thing is a vaguely quaint, kitschy, tourism-bureau-induced sort of regional boosterism – not, ultimately, serious wine.
Sure, there are a bunch of states that can boast of having grown wine grapes since before the Civil War, but with a few exceptions (thanks, Finger Lakes) the emphasis is usually on history rather than quality, even if the grapes are vitis vinifera, the species best suited to fine wine.
All that is changing, and quickly, due to dramatic changes in global commerce, climate change, travel and education. The more we learn about the science of soil, grapes and fermentation, the more possibilities are opened up for where and how to bring a wine into being.
And nowadays, when even the eighth-generation inheritor of a family estate in Burgundy performs internships in New Zealand, Napa and Mendoza before coming home to carry on the ancestral domaine in Chambertin, any kid anywhere who dreams of making wine in her hometown has a real chance to see if it’ll fly.
This brings me to Virginia. Barboursville, Virginia’s first estate to plant vitis vinifera varietals (in 1976), is not the story of a Blue Ridge Mountain girl with a dream.
It’s actually a story of some pretty big players in the international wine scene, and of one of the most famous men in American history. It’s not rags to riches, but the reasons the winery was established, not to mention the fascinating wines they’re producing there now, are worth exploring.
Zonin is who made it happen. Most famous for their widely available Prosecco, Casa Vinicola Zonin is a large, family-run company that owns several wineries throughout Italy. In the late 1970s, they wanted to expand to the New World. Napa was hot, but Napa was expensive and already full of “Cal-Ital” family wineries. Seeking an alternative, they found central Virginia.
This didn’t quite come out of nowhere. Virginia’s own Thomas Jefferson, after all, loved fine wine and had long dreamed of establishing quality winemaking in his home area. He tried several times to bring it about, never successfully.
Jefferson was a colleague and friend of James Barbour, the 19th governor of the Virginia Commonwealth as well as a congressman and secretary of war, and helped design Barbour’s estate, Barboursville.
Gianni Zonin concluded that the clay soils and moderate elevation (around 500 feet above sea level) of the 870-acre estate had viticultural promise. Several years of failed plantings ensued.
Then Zonin brought in Piemontese winemaker Luca Paschina. Paschina replanted all the vineyards (there are now roughly 160 acres under vine), matching a wide variety of grapes to appropriate rootstocks and micro-parcels, changed the trellis and pruning systems, and altered the vinification practices as well.
The dense soils and relatively humid climate are similar to Bordeaux’s, and so a lot of the grapes planted at Barboursville are Bordeaux varietals. The best of these go into the winery’s shoot-for-the-stars monument, Octagon, a majority-Merlot blend. It costs around $50, and I haven’t tried it. I’m still wrapping my head around the supremely silky Cabernet Franc ($25).
I’m sort of crazy for Cabernet Franc, the strong-accented blending grape of Bordeaux, content there to stand in the shadows of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but which leaps to center stage as a single-varietal wine in Bourgeuil and Chinon along the Loire Valley. I’m usually tickled, often frustrated and sometimes soul-stirred by the temperamental Cab Franc. Delicate, fragrant and youthful in Chinon or severe, woodsy and ripple-muscled in Bourgeuil until time in the bottle subdues its edges – those are my templates for a Cab Franc encounter.
Those templates have now been dislodged. Barboursville’s Cabernet Franc Reserve 2011 is eloquent rejoinder to the question posed in the first sentence of this article.
I’ve never known that Cab Franc could do this. And the only plausible set of reasons it can do what it does emerges from place: from a particular Virginia soil, climate and rootstock, under the watchful eye of Paschina and his vineyard manager Fernando Franco.
The wine dances. Sure-footed and stable but light on its feet, its successive layers of depth come in gentle undulations of fruit, flower and earth, never pushy or bristling. Few of us have opportunity to taste the Napa Cabernet Sauvignons of the 1980s and earlier, when alcohol levels were under 13 percent and the aim was balance rather than blowouts. Barboursville’s Cab Franc (13 percent alcohol) has some of that quality, though silkier and minus the tannic bite: old-school, spine-tingling, dusty, a gratifying fusion of angles and curves.
It’s a wine to make a comfort-cook’s heart soar. A grilled steak, rare and sliced thin, is the classic call, but a heap of grilled vegetables atop a flatbread pizza with goat cheese and minced herbs, or tossed into warm, oil-licked farro, would be at least as wonderful. A sturdy whitefish, grilled whole and slathered in ratatouille, is another route to take.
The Barboursville Viognier Reserve 2011 ($23) is the second Barboursville wine you should try. After the Cab Franc – though it’s white, it’s the bigger wine. Viognier is that kind of grape. Even in the tiny part of the world generally thought to be the source of its greatest wines, Condrieu in the Northern Rhône, it’s often blowsy, obese, jungly.
Viognier is so often a sickening blast of potpourri, hotel soap and peach jam, unmitigated by any refreshment, that I can’t think of a wine grape I’d be less sorry to never taste again.
Except, dammit, when it’s this interesting. There’s a stinky-cheesy note upon first sniff. Ripe orange, sun-drenched apricot and hay all follow. The wine’s lanolin viscosity is like Chenin Blanc’s; the tropical notes recall the best aspects of a judiciously oaked Chardonnay. If good wines are artists and the Barboursville Cab Franc dances, then the Viognier is a sculptor, a molder of dense forms. And it never tires.
For its Viognier, mercifully, Barboursville uses only stainless steel tanks for the crushed grapes and prevents malolactic fermentation. This yields a Viognier whose amplitude and spherical embrace are balanced by thrillingly zippy acidity.
Both these wines are rather special.
They’re not worth drinking because they’re American and so are you, or because there’s a Thomas Jefferson connection and that’s kind of cool, or even because you’re planning a trip through Virginia and wouldn’t it be nice to do a wine tour there? Barboursville is worth drinking because the question of “why bother” never really comes up.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at: