Virginia is considered the birthplace of America because the first English colonists settled in Jamestown in 1607. Virginia’s roots in wine history run deep. In 1619, the Virginia House of Burgesses, which was the legislative body for the Colony of Virginia, enacted “Acte 12.” This law required each male colonist to plant and cultivate a minimum of 10 grapevines in order to make wine for the crown.
England wanted to reduce its dependence on French wine, and the New World appeared to be the way to do that. Unfortunately, this lofty goal was not met, because the settlers found that it was difficult to grow grapes.
In the 1700s, Thomas Jefferson, who served as ambassador to France and found a deep passion for fine wine while there, decided to plant 2,000 acres of vines at his home in Monticello, Virginia. The European grape varieties that he planted failed to thrive due to the damp and cold winters, along with the hot and humid summers. Black rot would destroy the crops, and an aphid-like root louse called phylloxera would destroy the vines themselves, over time. Jefferson’s home would not successfully produce wine until the late 20th century.
Those early attempts at grape growing provided more knowledge, and things improved. Dr. Daniel Norton, of Richmond, was able to cultivate the first “native” grape successfully in Virginia, and today it bears his name. A wine made from the Norton grape was named “best red wine of all nations” at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873, shocking the wine world.
The Virginia wine industry would see a rebirth in the 1970s when the Zonin family, from Italy, purchased property in central Virginia, and established Barboursville Vineyards. They brought in Gabriele Rausse as their winemaker. He is often referred to as the “father” or “godfather” of the modern Virginia wine industry.
When discussing Virginia wine, one cannot forget the contributions of Dennis Horton, who experimented with many grape varieties including Viognier. Horton’s Viognier received international recognition and helped to get Virginia recognized as a competitive wine-growing and wine-producing region.
The Virginia wine industry has seen a substantial number of vineyards and wineries in the past couple of decades and there are nearly 300 wineries across the state. The state of Virginia ranks fifth in the United States in the number of wineries, behind California, Washington, Oregon, and New York. The state is home to seven designated American Viticulture Areas (AVAs), representing defined climatic and geological areas. The seven AVAs are Middleburg, Monticello, North Fork of Roanoke, Northern Neck (George Washington’s Birthplace), Rocky Knob, Shenandoah Valley, and Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
According to the 2018 Commercial Grape Report, Virginia has 2,700 acres of vines in the ground with 2,366 of those currently bearing fruit. Of the 2,366 acres, 377 are Chardonnay, 306 are Cabernet Franc, 239 are Merlot, 216 are Cabernet Sauvignon, 201 are Viognier, 173 Petit Verdot, 102 are Vidal Blanc, 64 are Petit Manseng, 62 are Norton, and there are many other grape varieties planted in smaller amounts of acreage.
Visit City Vino as we celebrate Virginia Wine Month!