Back to Old Virginia
Here's an offbeat wine-history trivia question: Where in the U.S. did early settlers make the first wine?
California? Bzzzzt! Despite the early arrival of wine-guzzling Conquistadores in the Spanish-speaking New World during the 16th Century, that's the wrong answer.
Try Virginia. Jamestown, to be precise, where the founders of the first permanent British colony in 1607 brought with them a substantial thirst for wine and a desire to do something about it.
Jamestown's first wine was produced in 1609 from native grapes, according to the Virginia Wine Marketing Office's online "History of Virginia Wine." Two years later, vineyard specialists arrived from England, eager to establish commercial winemaking in the colony.
"Thus began two centuries of frustration in producing wine in the colony," the article goes on. French wine makers were summoned, and failed. President Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most ardent wine lover ever to occupy the White House, planted vines and watched them wither in the Old Dominion's icy winters and humid summers. Finally, an infant wine industry got started in the early 19th century, only to be destroyed in the Civil War. Later, Prohibition took its toll.
As recently as 1979, Virginia had exactly six wineries, all of them small, none well-known. But gradually a modern industry began to grow, assisted by modern agriculture and wine-making technology and boosted by relatively wine-friendly state policies that promoted wine as an alternative agricultural crop and made it relatively easy for small-farm wineries to set up and gain licensing approval.
By the late 1980s, the Virginia winery roster had grown to 29; in 2001, there were 75 Virginia wineries producing close to 300,000 cases of wine. Today there are 87 - most open to the public for tours and tastings - and Virginia has risen to 10th among the states in vineyard acreage and commercial wine-grape production.
And, in a development unusual among Eastern states, relatively little of that production is in the relatively unpopular "French-hybrid" grapes familiar to veterans of Eastern wine roads, as Virginia turns to the more commercially feasible European "vitis vinifera" varieties like Chardonnay, Viognier and Merlot. (A small but enthusiastic coterie is also devoted to Norton, alias Cynthiana, an unusual and highly promising native American grape with vinifera-like flavor and aroma characteristics.)
One of the most frustrating issues surrounding Eastern wineries and wines is the patchwork of protective state laws that restrict shipping wine direct from winery to consumer, an issue that's currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, as we discussed recently in the Aug. 4, 2004 Wine Advisor. It's difficult for Eastern wineries - even the very good ones - to earn much attention when it's all but impossible for them to gain a market outside the state where they're located.
Indeed, I've been admiring the Virginia wine industry for years, but even though I live only one state away, I can't buy it at local retailers since the distributors who fight so strenuously to bar direct-to-consumer wine shipment see no commercial benefit in handling the products of small-farm Eastern wineries. But I persevered, and after considerable effort was recently able to acquire a selection of wines from Chrysalis, one of Virginia's most promising wineries.
Chrysalis, established just 7 years ago by Jennifer McCloud, grows 30 acres of vineyards including familiar varieties and some decidedly offbeat French and Spanish grapes; it also has a strong commitment to the serious development of Norton. I have several Chrysalis Nortons that I'm saving for an extensive tasting of Nortons from across the Eastern U.S. later this year.
But I couldn't wait to sample a couple of the Chrysalis goodies - an amazingly good dry red, "Rubiana," made from a blend of Spanish grapes with Norton, and one of the best rosé wines I've enjoyed from any source, an intriguing Chardonnay-and-Norton blend.
No matter where you live, keep your eyes out for Chrysalis. If the vagaries of marketing ever permit, it's an Eastern winery with real potential to become a familiar name in wine-loving households everywhere.
VIRGINIA WINES ONLINE:
The Virginia Wine Marketing Office of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services hosts VirginiaWines.org, a comprehensive "portal" for the state's wine industry that includes maps and contact information for all the Virginia producers as well as information about the state's wine history, grapes and vines.
The Virginia Wine & Food Society's Virginia Wine Guide is a stylish and thorough consumer-produced guide, with tasting notes, features on wineries, wine news, restaurant advice and much more.
About Virginia Wine is Virginia wine-lover Rob Roy's testimony to the state's vines and wines, including extensive touring information and wine-tasting reports.
CALLING NORTON/CYNTHIANA PRODUCERS:
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Chrysalis 2002 "Rubiana" Virginia Red Wine ($18)
This dark, ruby-color wine, an exotic blend of the Spanish Tempranillo, Graciano and Fer Servadou varieties plus a shot of American Norton, shows bright reddish-violet glints against the light. The aromas are focused on black cherries, perhaps the signature of Tempranillo, enhanced with delicate herbal notes and a hint of black pepper, more like whole peppercorns than fragrant freshly ground. Tart cherries carry over in the flavor, juicy if a bit lean, shaped by almost tangy lemon-squirt acidity that makes it a particularly good companion with food. (Aug. 12, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: A natural partner with a free-range chicken served sizzling from the charcoal grill. (A bit of fresh tarragon tucked under the breast skin makes a stunning addition to the match.)
VALUE: It's a surprise to see an offbeat dry red from an Eastern U.S. winery selling for close to $20, but in fairness, its quality is a match for similarly priced price reds from more traditional wine regions.
WHEN TO DRINK: With no personal track record for this unusual blend, I'm loath to generalize; but the Tempranillo and Norton components bring the breeding necessary for a keeper, and the wine's good fruit-acid balance should carry it in the cellar.
WEB LINK: The Chrysalis Vineyards Website features the winery and its wines, plus information on ordering its wines (where the law permits) by E-mail or phone:
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: You'll find a few U.S. vendors for Chrysalis wines at Wine-Searcher.com,
Chrysalis 2002 "Mariposa" Virginia Dry Rosé ($13)
Made in the style of a Spanish clarete, this attractive rosé is not the usual pink wine made from red grapes with the skins removed, but an actual blend of a white (Chardonnay, about 80 percent) and a red (the all-American Norton). A pretty pink color about the shade of watermelon juice, it breathes a ripe, delicious red-berry scent unusually forward for a rosé, with an attractive floral back note. Full, dry and tart, this is no wimpy, sweetish "blush" wine but a real wine-drinker's rosé that presents tart but luscious berry fruit and a whiff of white pepper over a fresh core of lemony fresh-fruit acidity. Serving hint: Although it's refreshing served ice-cold on a summer day, it's such a "red" rosé that its flavors really show up best when you let it warm toward a more moderate "cellar temperature" in the glass. (Aug. 11, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: It was excellent with pasta topped with a quick sauce of chopped green olives and herbs, and would give fine service with poultry or grilled fish.
VALUE: Good value at the winery price.
WHEN TO DRINK: The conventional wisdom for rosé is simple: Drink it young and fresh. This exceptional example is so bold and flavorful, though, that you don't have to worry about it fading on the wine rack for a year or two.
WEB LINK AND LOCATING THE WINE: See above.
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Friday, Aug. 13, 2004