Along The Virginia Wine Trail

The chardonnay at Pollak Vineyards tasted of crème brûlée and fig. Or was that the viognier?

After our fourth Virginia Charlottesville-Piedmont region winery of the day, my notes were just a wee bit wine-spotted. The chardonnays and viogniers were beginning to swim together.

After a total of six wineries in two days, we learned three important lessons about Virginia wines: 1. They are not  California  wines and do not try to be; 2. The beauty of their setting is equally intoxicating; 3. The region's gourmet inclination is deeply steeped in local heritage.

Thomas Jefferson himself uncorked the story of Virginia wine and food obsession, and so there we began our foray into grapes and grub.


Monticello Legacy

Jefferson has been credited with bringing grape rootstock and recipes from France to the U.S., to his Virginia mountaintop home of Monticello.

"Dinner is served in half Virginian, half French style, in good taste and abundance," Monticello signage quotes Daniel Webster, circa 1824.

The former president was a farmer first and foremost, growing 40 varieties of peas alone in addition to a number of other crops, producing food for the table, beer, and wine. The historic site tour takes in the home's kitchen, wine cellar, and beer cellar.

With nearly 25 wineries in the surrounding two-county area (250 in all of Virginia), Jefferson's legacy for growing grapes and making wine survives, along with his delight for fine food.

The still-functioning garden at Monticello keeps the historic site's Café in fresh produce and special garden tours are available with paid admission. Gift shops sell heirloom seeds and Monticello brand peanuts, root beer, and preserves.

On the Vineyard Trail

After a bolstering 18th century-inspired lunch at neighboring Michie Tavern, another historic complex where the fried chicken is legendary and part of an all-you-can-eat buffet of dishes Jefferson himself probably once enjoyed, we were ready to hit the wineries.

First stop, nearby Jefferson Vineyards. Here, we started our lessons on Virginia wine, which is quickly inching in on the West Coast wine industry.

The drive around the region is enough to feed the soul, with its mountain vistas, orderly vineyards, orchards, horses, and farms.

The terroir produces certain varietals that perform better here than anywhere else in the world, including viognier, cabernet franc and petit verdot. Whites are crisp and clean, while reds on the other hand tend to be the state's weakness.

"There's a lot of red clay — what a grape needs to be struggling a little bit," said Hunter Sisser, our guide and tasting jockey at Jefferson Vineyards. Jefferson Vineyards produces about 8,500 cases of the state's 450,000-case annual production, he said.

"The Virginia wine industry is slowly growing," he added. "It's gaining its own national and international renown."

Subsequent winery visits substantiated his claims.

Keswick Vineyards won "Best White Wine in the U.S." at the Atlanta International Wine Summit with its first vintage, a 2002 Viognier Reserve. And it continues to rack up the medals, at the 2011 San Diego International Competition the 2010 Verdejo, another Virginia niche varietal, won a platinum medal and "Best Verdejo" award.

"It's taken Virginia awhile to realize we're not California," said winery co-owner Cindy Shornberg. "It's been eye-opening all across the state. Our goal was to make a good red wine, and now we're winning awards for that."

"Reds are tough in Virginia because of the weather," said Kirsty Harmon, winemaker at Blenheim Vineyards, a gorgeous property owned by musician Dave Matthews.

She described them as "softer reds" as we gazed out windows from the tasting bar atop a hill that overlooks grapes in the making. Beneath our feet, wines aging in American, French, and Hungarian oak barrels are visible through a glass floor.

Equally gorgeous, Pollak Vineyards too claims national and international awards: gold and silver medals from the Dallas International, San Francisco, and California Cabernet Shootout competitions.

The Zonin family operates nearby Barboursville Vineyards, along with 11 wineries in Italy, so it is no surprise to find some Italian reds among the vineyard's 15 varietals and 21 types of wine.

The climate here is similar to the Piedmont region of Italy, notes Carter Nicholas, sales manager.

Octagon, their signature brand, is a blend of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and petit verdot, and scores big points in both regional and worldwide tastings.

The 830 acre-large Barboursville harks back to its Jefferson-based roots with ruins of the circa-1820 mansion designed by the former president. Mostly destroyed by fire in 1884, the estate's servants' quarters did survive.

The Zonins use the historic home when they visit, but otherwise let out The 1804 Inn's three suites and three other cottages as exquisitely appointed accommodations for overnight guests.

Click here for more information on where to eat and sleep.

— Chelle Koster Walton, Snooth


Chelle Koster Walton is a regular contributor to the food and travel sections of the Miami Herald, Tampa Tribune, Naples Daily News, and dozens of other regional and national newspapers, magazines, Web sites, guidebooks and apps.