Old Dominion shows a new dominance in winemaking

VINTAGE POINT

January 16, 1994|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Ten years ago one did not buy Virginia wine on its own merits. Mostly it was an amusing diversion.

You might have bought a Virginia wine out of intellectual curiosity, a sentimental attachment to the Old Dominion or a desire to surprise a friend, but not strictly as wine. Yes, the state was producing some decent wines, but you could get more bang for your buck out of California, France or virtually anyplace else.

Judging by a recent tasting of more than a dozen wines, that's not true any more. Several of the wines were eminently worth buying, whatever their state of origin. They were simply excellent wines for the price.

Virginia has come a long way in the 20 years since the late Elizabeth Furness of Piedmont Vineyards became the first modern commercial winegrower to plant top-quality European (vinifera) vines.

In 1976, the state had 169 acres of vineyard land, less than 10 percent of it vinifera. By 1991, the state's total had grown to 1,310 acres, 73 percent vinifera.

More than 40 wineries are in business in the state, the largest of which produces about 40,000 cases a year -- as big as many nationally distributed California wineries. Total Beverage, the massive wine "super-store" in Northern Virginia, carries about 160 of the state's wines at its Alexandria store.

For now, most of Virginia's wines are being slurped up by Virginians, with help from thirsty Marylanders and Washingtonians. Outside the mid-Atlantic, a Virginia wine is still a rare find.

That might not be the case for much longer. Several of Virginia's better wineries are delivering as much value for the money as the best of California or Washington state.

During my first forays into Virginia wine country a decade ago, red wines were a definite weak spot. Not only were they far below the standard of California, they couldn't hold their own with the products of Maryland's much smaller wine industry.

That's changed. Some producers are still struggling with reds, but such producers as Oasis and Montdomaine are making reds from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc that are worth buying by the case.

A decade ago, the state's great white hope was chardonnay. But now the state's most exciting white wine is Horton Vineyards' viognier, the once-rare Rhone variety that has become the hottest fad grape in California. Little do Californians know that the 1992 Horton would blow almost every Golden State viognier off the table. Only Calera's viognier is clearly superior, and the Horton ($21) costs more than $10 less.

Virginia still hasn't produced a chardonnay that will make connoisseurs forget Montrachet, but the state produces a bevy of fine wines from this varietal. Most refreshingly, Virginia chardonnay has a character of its own, distinct from the styles of California and Burgundy. Top producers include the Williamsburg Winery, Linden Vineyards, Piedmont and Prince Michel.

Riesling and gewurztraminer have also shown promise in Virginia, especially at Rapidan River Vineyards, which makes some of the nation's best wines from these varieties. Sauvignon blanc is tough to grow, but it shows great promise in the hands of Naked Mountain and Piedmont, which blend it with semillon to make a wine that is similar in style to white Bordeaux.

And while vinifera is clearly king of the winemaking world, the state's winemakers continue to put such good French-American hybrids as seyval blanc and vidal to good use in blends and on their own. Vinifera snobs risk missing out on some perfectly charming, inexpensive wines.

Some Virginia wines are still rather rustic creations, but tasters should keep in mind that the state's industry is still very young. It takes many decades, even centuries, to learn which grape varieties suit which vineyard parcel. Winegrowers in California's Napa Valley are still sorting out the tricky question of what goes where.

Some 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson looked over the rolling hills of Monticello and was reminded of his travels through the wine regions of Europe. In the climate and the contours of the land, he saw the potential for great vineyards.

Jefferson's own efforts to launch a Virginia wine industry failed as the tender European vines were devoured by native pests. But now, with those pests controlled by grafting and modern sprays, it is clear that his eye was keen and his agricultural judgment was basically sound.

If he could taste what his beloved state is producing today, he'd be proud.

*

From the electronic mailbag:

Q: My friend has recently informed me that when pronouncing merlot you must make sure to hear the T at the end. He says this information was uncovered in the New York Times Wine Guide, and that this is a common misconception to not pronounce the T. Which is correct?

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