Richmond, Virginia has long had its roots in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Surprising to most, its wine industry also has roots dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s time. Richmond, the capital of the Commonwealth, is undergoing a cultural resurgence and one of the main driving factors has been the wineries near Richmond and Charlottesville.
Nearly a stones throw from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is Jefferson Vineyards. Just beyond that are Kluge Winery and New Kent Winery. As different as night and day, these three wineries are examples of changing perceptions about Virginia wines.
Jefferson Winery is located on part of Thomas Jefferson’s original property dating back to 1774. That’s pretty much all there is to the historical value of the vines, which were only planted two and a half decades ago. “We first replanted Thomas Jefferson’s original vineyard sites in 1981 and the winery opened in 1986,” says Chad Zakaib, general manager.
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Of Jefferson’s original 6,500 acres, the vineyards are planted in the same location as their original plantings due to an important factor. “This site is well protected from the prevailing weather patterns,” Zakaib notes, allowing for more sunshine and less intrusive inclement weather because of its elevation.
Their portfolio includes chardonnay, pinot gris, petite verdot, cabernet franc, merlot and several others. Employing a direct-to-consumer model means that you won’t find a lot of these wines on the open market. “Most of our wines are being soaked up by the local communities.”
Producing a respectable 5,000-7,000 cases each vintage, if you visit Monticello, a stop at Jefferson Vineyards is a must. There you’ll sample 8 to 12 wines for five bucks. “We use Thomas Jefferson’s name and signature on our bottles of wine and we feel that we have a responsibility to that legacy,” Zakaib told me.
Jefferson was the first president to budget for wine in the White House and he went on to effectively act as sommelier to several other presidents.
The tasting room and facility itself is a converted horse barn, a simple structure in direct contrast to Jefferson’s beloved Monticello. Their strong suite, like many wineries in the area are their white wines, specifically viognier and Vidal, both capitalizing on a competent acidic structure to make them work. They currently produce several reds including a classic Meritage blend. “We can’t afford to make a poor impression because we’re up against California, Oregon and Washington and we don’t get the benefit of the doubt,” Zakaib admits.
Kluge Estate, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains has gone to further extremes. Founder Patricia Kluge has long been in love with wine and she decided to do her part to help place Virginia on the world wine map, planting her first vines in 1999.
The drive to the property is rewarded by a beautiful tasting room, complete with outdoor seating for spring days. Kluge offers their wines not in glass, but in what looks like large plastic vials, which fit neatly into a plastic holder. They are easy to carry about, unbreakable and offer a different approach to traditional wine tastings, and they also offer a cheese pairing as well.
Kluge produces sparkling wines, made in the traditional method champenoise style, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
Their reds include blends like the New World Wine, an everyday drinker, priced at $13 and comprised of cab, merlot and cabernet franc, rose and their most fun wine, the Kluge Estate Cru, a 100 percent chardonnay mixed with Virginia brandy and aged in old Jack Daniels barrels for two years. They have chosen only French oak as their barrels of choice for their wines.
“At Kluge Estate we are engaging the best winemaking and vineyard management talent we can to assist us in planning and executing our goals, and using the best practices and materials that we can obtain,” says Kluge CEO Bill Moses. They have brought in winemaking consultants from as afar away as France to help give direction to their wines. But being located in Virginia can cause any winery to get lost in the national wine press, much to the detriment of wine lovers everywhere.
“Every region no matter how new can produce some great wines,” Moses acknowledges. “It seems, however, that the media focuses first on the establishment of a ‘region’ rather than the quality of a single winery.” This can be an unfortunate and myopic focus. And whereas Virginia is not new to the wine game by any means, it’s an uphill battle to secure new converts.
On the other side of Richmond, New Kent Winery was partly the brainchild of former pro linebacker Pete Johns and it sits squarely in the middle of a development of homes and a Rees Jones golf course and started in 2008. (It’s actually a great marketing strategy, as homeowners who become wine club members receive special discounts.)
Their Sweet Virginia is a mélange of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and concord, an often underused grape that, when blended, can help yield a variety of flavors. Their two chardonnays are quite good, with the more acidic and less oaked regular chardonnay being the more comprehensive of the two.
“Chardonnay is a natural fit for the area,” says consulting winemaker Tom Payette. “Our reserve chardonnay is sur lee in barrels for three years.” While chardonnay is their leading variety, their most popular wine is white Norton.
Norton, a North American variety has long suffered from being considered “foxy” and with “briary” components, but if used judiciously, makes for an interesting wine. Norton was hybridized into whole clusters, making it financially viable as a grape to crush. Being a red skinned grape, New Kent decided to make a white version. “We whole cluster press, use cool fermentation and have no skin contact,” Payette says, allowing New Kent to produce the only white Norton in the Commonwealth, but avoiding the traditional foxy notes. They also produce viognier, a Meritage blend and merlot.
Their tasting room is built almost entirely out of reclaimed materials. Cypress wood doors came from the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. Timbers and woods came from New York and brickwork came from Civil War structures.
Currently at 7,800 cases, they are setting their sights on over 40,000 and are marketing their wines in unconventional ways.
The wine world is ever expanding and Virginia wines are quickly using tried and true methods alongside innovative approaches to compete with well known wine regions on the world stage. Though tough to find on shelves outside of the Virginia, metro DC and Boston areas, when in Virginia, make certain to taste and experience what is fast becoming a compelling region. The majority of Virginia restaurants carry some Virginia wines and the 150 tasting rooms are ready to accommodate you.
Other wineries in Virginia to keep an eye on include Ingleside and White Hall Vineyards. There may be a lot of history to the area, but a new wine history is currently being written.