Virginia emerging as a producer of boutique wines

Mostly small wineries dot the Colonial landscape

Trips

July 07, 2005|By Jessica Merrill | Jessica Merrill,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

On a hazy morning glimmering with the early warmth of spring, the fog rises from a valley pond, and a flock of geese cries out a morning wakeup call. It is the day's first greeting at Barboursville, the site of a historic landmark in central Virginia, the ruins of one of only five homes designed by Thomas Jefferson.

Later, at a Colonial-era estate called Waverly, the end of the day is just as tranquil, with the sun descending behind the trees, cascading a golden glow over more hills, another pasture and a different pond.

And at both estates, the sunlight also dapples willowy rows of vines running along the hillsides, their exposed branches still unadorned with grapes or green. This is Virginia's wine country, a place where, like the roots of the vines tangling with the soil, the state's historic past and agricultural future intertwine.

After a slow start in the 1970s, Virginia's wine industry has taken off in the past decade, now adding about 10 wineries a year. Virginia will have more than 90 licensed farm wineries in production in 2005; there were 29 in 1990. Regional pockets like central Virginia, near Charlottesville, and northern Virginia, outside Washington, with more than 50 wineries between them, are both ripe for exploration.

Many of Virginia's emerging wineries incorporate historic buildings and properties, with the owners preserving, and in some cases restoring, valuable landmarks. Some are expansive - places like the Jefferson ruins at the Barboursville Vineyards; Waverly at the Piedmont Vineyards; and the 3,000-acre Ingleside Plantation vineyards on Virginia's northern neck, owned by the Flemer family for more than a century.

Others are smaller, like Rebec Vineyards, a 70-acre farm listed on the National Register of Historic Places and built in the 1700s. Its tasting room was constructed by the owner, Richard Hanson, with chestnut siding and exposed beams from a 200-year-old tobacco barn on the property. Hillsborough Vineyards is a stunning fieldstone farm high on 36 hilltop acres with sweeping views. Bora and Zeynep Baki purchased the farm a few years ago and converted the mid-19th-century stone barn into a tasting room and a separate horse barn into a winery, where their son Kerem makes the wines.

An appropriate place to kick off a Virginia wine tour is where the country's early winemaking evolved. A few miles east of Charlottesville and a mile from Monticello is Jefferson Vineyards, where, in 1774, Jefferson persuaded an Italian winemaker and industrialist, Filippo Mazzei, to plant the first European vinifera vines in the Colonies. Upon surveying the 400 acres on which he was to plant, Mazzei is said to have declared his approval, stating: "I do not believe that nature is so favorable to growing vines in any other country as this."

From the outdoor deck at Jefferson, up a long, winding hill, the view is a sweeping panorama across the vines to the steady Blue Ridge Mountains. Although Jefferson and Mazzei never produced a significant amount of wine on the estate, partly because of disease and the start of the American Revolution, they did bring the notion of winemaking to Virginia. In 1986, Jefferson Vineyards turned that idea into reality.

About half the winery's visitors stumble upon it by way of Monticello, according to Alan Moore, who has been dolling out reserve chardonnay, viognier and cabernet to tasters for more than four years. "The history is a big lure," he said. "And the fact we are on land traditionally owned by Jefferson."

Come weekends, the wineries are far more crowded. Indeed, on a Saturday afternoon at Hillsborough, Bora and Zeynep Baki worked behind the bar, pouring tastes of their Ruby, Opal, Moonstone and Garnet wines to the 40 or so people packed in the barn.

North of Jefferson on Route 231, which winds by plantation-style estates with moneyed names, are two more historic vineyards, Keswick, a white-columned wonder and 400-acre estate used as a Confederate camp in the Civil War, and Barboursville, where the property includes ruins of the house Jefferson designed in 1814 for James Barbour, a governor of Virginia; it burned on Christmas 1884.

Keswick's first vintage was produced in 2002, and a tasting room is still in the planning stage, but Barboursville is one of Virginia's oldest commercial wineries, opened in 1976. Owned by an Italian winemaking family, Barboursville combines Virginia history with European flair.

On the estate's 830 acres, in addition to the ruins of the Barbour mansion, there is also a magnificent Italian-style winery and tasting room, its vivid white archways and centered cupola contrasting with the Colonial architecture and the casual attitude of the Virginia countryside.

Barboursville packs a crowd on the weekends, filling up with visitors from Charlottesville, Washington and Richmond who are eager for the countryside and a dash of wine. There's even a new luxury inn on the estate.

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