Wine: Virginia’s best wines mix French grapes and Italian knowhow

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I HAVE always been a little underwhelmed by the wines of America’s east coast. In comparison to its better known counterparts from the west in California, the USA’s east coast regions tend to get forgotten by most of the UK’s wine importers – and for good reason.

So I was interested to see that one of our most traditional wine merchants, The Wine Society, had just taken two Virginia wines onto its list.

America’s east coast has plenty of wineries. New York has 300, Virginia has 200 and there are plenty of keen vintners in Pennslyvania, Michigan, Missouri and New Jersey; but the heat and humidity of summer combined with freezing winters don’t give those keen to make quality table wines here an easy ride. In fact, many of the vineyards don’t make wine at all as they grow labrusca grapes to make grape juice and jellies.

However, the east states are trying to reinvent themselves as serious wine regions with acres of new plantings of vitis vinifera grapes (which are essential for making quality table wines) – so the wineries and vines of Finger Lakes, Long Island and along the Hudson River are very young.

Of all the eastern regions, Virginia is the fastest growing quality-wise for wine-making. Virginia has an interesting wine history. It is the homeland of wine connoisseur Thomas Jefferson, Governor here from 1779-1781. He was a passionate collector of Bordeaux wines, a keen vine grower and master gardener at Monticello near Charlottesville. He tried his best to grow vitis vinifera grapes from Bordeaux, with the help of an Italian grape grower Filippo Mazzei – but failed due to pests and diseases which used to dog humid wine regions before modern viticultural techniques were invented.

Today, Virginia has 3,200 acres of vineyards. Bordeaux grapes are now planted successfully, but this time in the right sites with modern canopy techniques and know-how.

Interestingly, the two new Virginia wines imported by the Wine Society from one of the best producers on the east coast, Barboursville, are based close to Jefferson’s home just outside Charlottesville – and the wines are also made by an Italian.

The Barboursville wine estate was originally owned and named after Governor James Barbour. Today it is owned by Gianni Zonin, of wine producer Casa Vinicola Zonin. Back home in Veneto, Italy, Zonin make prodigious quantities of prosecco.

In Virginia the Zonins have planted Italian and French grapes. They have been experimenting with Italian grapes nebbiolo, vermentino and barbera – but their most successful grapes are French viognier and cabernet franc, a grape that grows well in Veneto and Friuli in Italy’s north east where Zonin are based, so they have had plenty of experience with this red grape.

The winemaker in Virginia, Luca Paschina from Piedmont, has worked here since 1990 and has overseen the extensive replanting and investments here. Not surprisingly they also run an Italian restaurant at the Barboursville estate too – so they are open to visitors for an American/Italian experience.

If you want to learn more about the USA’s burgeoning east coast wine regions, the newly published American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy (£40, Octopus Books) is a great place to start.