Why Not Virginia?

By Posted on Sep 05 2010 | By

Certain Wine Grapes Are Not Often Seen in the Old Dominion

Virginia’s ascendency in the world of fine wine has been dramatic. Over a span of some forty years we have gone from zero to almost 170 wineries. Why for?

Perhaps the single most important impetus for success has been the ability to grow and vinify the Vitis vinifera grape, which produces 99.9 percent of the world’s wines. Think Chardonnay, Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and many other popular bottlings.

Can you imagine a thriving wine culture if we only were selling Alexander, Catawba, Niagara, Rayon d’or, Villard Foch, Villard Noir and Scuppernong? In the not so distant past, those wine grapes were grown in Virginia. And it’s one of the key reasons why so few commercial wineries existed.

Not only did these grapes make less than stellar wine, getting the public to buy a bottle made from strange sounding grapes was difficult. In the 1970s, American wine was breaking away from its reputation of making cheap, fortified and sweet wines and commanding international attention for producing a product that could compete with of best France. Virginians demanded the same.

When the challenge of producing wines in the commonwealth from classic grapes was overcome, the public’s curiosity turned to intrigue and tasting rooms began appearing like fireflies on a soft summer evening.

Notwithstanding this dramatic success, certain classic grapes—and their finished wines—are still not often seen in the Old Dominion. True enough, there are a few adventurous wineries out there growing such grapes. But most vintners elect to devote their talents to fruit more likely to produce consistent quality.

Our hot humid summers, abundant rainfall and dense clay soils create an environment that taxes the skills of the most gifted vineyard manager. Introduce certain ultra sensitive, high strung grapes into this climate and the challenge becomes almost insurmountable. Let’s find out why.


Considered one the “noble” grapes, Riesling is native to Germany where it has been grown for as long as 2,000 years. Its aromatic, flowery, almost perfume-like nose and high acidity produce wines ranging from dry, to semi-sweet, to sweet. The grape is highly terroir expressive, with different soils producing a variety of flavors. It demands a cooler climate with calcareous slate, sandy clay or sandy loam soils. It especially excels in thin soils with poor fertility.

The wine is often naturally fermented using no commercial yeast, rarely blended and receives no malolactic fermentation or oak aging. It’s considered by many wine enthusiasts as the greatest white variety.


The actual name of this grape is Pinot Gris (Gree), but most wine lovers know it by its Italian name Pinot Grigio. Gris means “gray” in French and the clusters produce grapes with a silvery blue to grayish violet hue. It’s the most popular imported wine in the United States and widely known and loved as a crisp, easy drinker. It is thought to be a clone of Pinot noir and shows faint flowery aromas of honey, rose and orange rind.

It is widely grown in areas as diverse as Italy, France, Australia, New Zealand and Oregon. The grape desires a cool climate with long mild summers. Cooler temperatures help the grapes fully develop. Among connoisseurs, much of the wine is considered uninteresting. However, Oregon produces some very tasty Pinot Gris. The grape thrives best in warm and fairly sandy soil and in loose soil lying on top of bedrock.

Pinot Grigio is a wine some Virginia wineries, in fact, do produce. But plantings are generally limited to the cooler regions of the Piedmont and you will not find many renditions appearing on local tasting notes.


This thin skinned beauty produces some of the greatest and most expensive wines in the world. Consider that in 2007, a Sotheby’s auction saw a case of 1990 Romanée-Conti go for $262,000…almost $22,000 a bottle. The grape is a beast to grow almost anywhere, including Burgundy.  Andre Tchelistoheff, the dean of American winemakers in the post prohibition era, said, “God created Cabernet Sauvignon whereas the devil made Pinot Noir.”

The grape thrives in cooler climes, and likes a long growing season with sufficient amount of warm days and cool nights. Grown in a hot, humid climate the wine will produce an overripe, cooked flavor. It is very susceptible to spring frosts due to its early leafing propensity. It thrives in well-drained chalky clay and marly loam soils.


Considered California’s red wine grape, it’s not widely grown elsewhere in the world. Its colorful history dates to the gold rush days when it was introduced to America by Italian prospectors from 1852 to 1857. The berries are medium sized and thick skinned and produce a wine that is full-bodied, showing briary flavors with black fruit, plum and raisin notes. It is a moderately vigorous vine and requires a long, warm and abundantly sunny growing season. Hot days and cool nights aid flavor development and help maintain sufficient acidity.

It ripens early but notoriously unevenly, with green berries and raisins often co-mingled in a cluster of ripe grapes. It thrives best in thin, minerally, well drained soils which help curbed its vigorous productivity. The grape shares DNA characteristics with Italy’s Primitivo, not too surprising considering how it found its way to California.

While these four wines are not readily available in Virginia, we should not feel deprived. Our state is home to a majority of the world’s best grapes. If we need to visit a wine shop occasionally to fill in the missing gaps, what’s the issue?

The search for great wine should lead us to a variety of sources. Diversity is one of the libation’s greatest attractions. Our hunt for a good bottle of wine should be as enjoyable as the capture.

Published in the 2010 Harvest edition edition of the Virginia Wine Gazette.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES