Virginia is now on the wine world's radar

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Despite a wine making tradition that pre-dates California's by hundreds of years, Virginia has only recently earned itself a seat at the big table of international vintners.

For many years, Virginia's winemaking reputation elicited little excitement but plenty of snarky comments — even from the commonwealth's own inhabitants. But that is rapidly changing as the state's wine producing industry has risen to pose a formidable challenge to the traditional California and European powerhouses.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Virginia jumped four spots since 2005 to become the nation's fifth largest wine producing state after California, Oregon, Washington and New York.

That's good news to wine connoisseurs and neophytes alike who now have 190 wineries — most within a day's drive — to explore in Virginia.

It's a good time to head out and try something new or get re-acquainted with an old favorite. Many of the state's wine producing regions and wineries — including the Peninsula-based Williamsburg and New Kent wineries — offer broad-based wine experiences that include lodging, fine dining and other amenities such as spas, golf, hot-air ballooning and tasting festivals such as the Neptune Fall Wine Festival next weekend in Virginia Beach and the Oct. 1. Yorktown Wine Festival at Riverwalk Landing on the historic York River waterfront.

There are currently 18 "wine trails" in Virginia where individual producers work cooperatively to link their operations so wine lovers can tour the offerings available in specific regions of the state.

Pete Johns, managing partner of the New Kent Winery, said his operation, the Williamsburg Winery and New Kent's other winery — Saude Creek Vineyards — are working to establish a "Colonial Virginia Wine Trail." Within five years, Johns said he expects up to three more wineries to open in New Kent.

"A lot of effort is being put forth to achieve the highest quality possible," said Johns, a former Houston Oilers free-safety from 1967-1970. "I don't think it (Virginia's wine industry) will ever be as large as California, but certainly the quality is here."

That statement appears to be supported by a tally of 2011 national and international awards captured by Virginia wines.

State winemakers took home 12 Decanter awards at this year's London International Wine Fair; a top honor at a Hong Kong wine competition; and 86 medals, including a "Double Gold," at Finger Lakes International in New York. The San Francisco Wine Competition also recognized 22 Virginia wines, according to the Virginia Wine Board.

"That shows you Virginia can compete in the international market," said Patrick G. Duffeler, the Belgian-born founder of the Williamsburg Winery.

In Virginia, he said, it's "quality that matters. Virginia is still in the learning process. As a state, we will be known as the state providing the best Cabernet Franc, the best Bordeaux-style wines."

Winemaking in Virginia dates to 1607 when Jamestown settlers were required to cultivate 10 grapevines each with the intent of creating a viable wine industry in the New World, according to Virginia Wine Board information. Even though Thomas Jefferson failed in his own attempt, the state saw a flourish of winemaking activity into the 19th century, but that was thwarted by Prohibition.

"It wasn't until the 1970s that Virginia winemaking was re-established — and the past 40 years have seen a steady climb in the quality and popularity of our commonwealth's wines," the wine board states in promotional materials.

Popular wine varieties are now successfully produced in every region of the state. Chateau Morrisette in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Linden Vineyards in Northern Virginia, Chatham Vineyards & Winery on the Eastern Shore and the Williamsburg Winery on the Peninsula are among the most well known.

The Peninsula-area's newest winery, Saude Creek Vineyards, opened in mid-July. The winery offers a total of 10 vintages that include popular red and white wine varieties, and touts its "complex and food-friendly wines."

Duffeler said the Williamsburg winery "went back to basics" and has re-invented itself since 2000.

"It's not quantity we're looking for, we're upgrading quality at every level," he said.

The Williamsburg Winery grows grapes on 37 acres — a sizable operation in comparison to many of the state's offerings. New vineyards, clones and (grape) varieties have all been introduced in recent years as the winery worked to improve quality. Growers from around the state provide additional grapes that don't thrive in eastern Virginia, Duffeler said.

The 300-acre property, that was settled in 1615, also includes the 28-room Wedmore Place hotel. In addition, an organic garden and 48-foot-long greenhouse provides some of the ingredients for the regionally-focused fare available at Café Provencal and the Gabriel Archer Tavern — both of which are on-site.

With 50,000 to 60,000 cases of wine produced annually and a "reserve cellar" with more than 10,000 bottles of old vintages, Duffeler said the Williamsburg Winery is one of the largest in the state.

"It's definitely a destination in itself with the hotel and restaurant," Duffeler said, of his winery that hosts 50,000 visitors annually. "You can stay a couple of days and never leave the property."

In contrast, the not even 3-year-old New Kent Winery is situated on 2,500-acres. The grounds include 21-acres of grape vineyards, Viniterra — a gated, golf course-community — and K. Hovnanian's Four Seasons — an age-restricted housing development.

In addition, a "neo-traditional village," farmers' market and a 62,000-square-foot Spa Mirbeau, that will include a restaurant, café and 60 rooms, are planned, Johns said.

"It's a unique project — one of the biggest on the East Coast," he said, of the winery that is co-owned by Boddie-Noell Enterprises Inc., the North Carolina-based parent company of the Hardee's fast food chain.

Johns said the New Kent Winery produces about 7,700 cases of wine per year and offers special events such as a murder-mystery dinner theater and cooking classes. About 2,200 paying tour and tasting customers pass through the winery annually, he said, adding that many are international visitors.

On a recent afternoon, Richmond residents Heather Asplundh and Jennifer Hutchcroft were sampling the New Kent winery's selections on a day trip.

The women described themselves as inexperienced consumers who would like to visit more of the state's wineries.

"It's a good way to experience wines without having to spend a ton," Hutchcroft said.

Want to learn more?

http://www.newkentwinery.com

http://www.williamsburgwinery.com

http://www.saudecreek.com

http://www.virginiawine.org

Upcoming wine festivals

September and October bring lots of wine festivals to Hampton Roads. Go to dailypress.com/thedish for a complete listing, dates and ticket information.

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