The landscape and climate of Virginia offers countless choice sites for vineyards. Each of the state’s five main land regions – the Appalachian Plateau, the Appalachian Ridge and Valley Region, the Blue Ridge, the Piedmont, and the Atlantic Coastal Plain – boasts vineyards and wineries. Granite-based soils in western areas of the state and sandy loam soil in the eastern both offer prime grape-growing ground. And good drainage can be found on all landscapes at all elevations.
Virginia’s five distinct climate regions – the Tidewater, Piedmont, Northern Virginia, Western Mountain and Southwestern Mountain – provide a temperate climate that’s not too hot or cold for extended periods. Virginia’s varying weather patterns see the mountainous southwest and Shenandoah Valley average a 160-day growing season; and east of the Blue Ridge, an average of 200 days.
Virginians have made wine for more than four centuries. The Jamestown settlers had such hopes that Virginia would become a major source of wine for the British Empire that in 1619 they signed into law a requirement for each male settler to plant and tend at least ten grape vines. Little came of it. Every effort to grow vinifera, or vines of European origin, met with failure from an unknown pest, Phylloxera as well as diseases in a new environment.
In hopes of one day realising the promise of fine Virginia wines, Thomas Jefferson cultivated European grapes for more than 30 years. His Monticello vineyards never produced a single bottle of wine from his years of vineyard trials. He wasn’t alone in trying. After 11 years of efforts at Mount Vernon, George Washington, too, had nothing to show for it.
In the 1820s, wines made from Native American grapes met with great success. Then a Virginia Norton wine was named “best red wine of all nations” at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873. Plus a gold medal for Norton at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 when the Eiffel tower was constructed. The discovery in the late 1800s that native and European vines could be grafted gave Virginia’s nascent wine industry a lift – but in the early 20th century, Prohibition promptly brought it to a standstill. The industry was slow to bounce back.
By 1995, Virginia had 46 wineries. By 2005, 107. At 200 wineries and counting today, only California, New York, Oregon and Washington have more wineries in the U.S. than Virginia. The persistence of generations of winemakers is paying off. And the vision of one of Virginia’s most renowned native sons, Thomas Jefferson, is now coming true.