An agricultural flair: Virginia’s wine scene is primed for adventures

Virginia wines on display at the International Wine and Food Fest. Courtesy of Jessica Strelitz.

When local wine writer Jessica Strelitz moved to the D.C. area in 1999, she knew there was Virginia wine to be tried.

After over a decade of sipping, savoring and talking with winemakers all over the state, she talked with GlassifiedDC about ideas and tips for anyone looking to get involved in Virginia wine culture  — or anyone that just wants a great bottle of local wine.

An explosion of wineries

Strelitz liked the idea of going out and exploring Virginia by meeting winemakers on their own turf. When she first arrived, the wine community in Virginia was relatively small –- a collection of around 15 vineyards worth visiting.

She remembers she would hop in a car with friends for a weekend adventure, back when gas was reasonably priced and wine tastings cost almost nothing.

“It was the cheap thing to do,” said Strelitz. “It was a really great way to gather your friends, go explore and get to know the farmers of alcohol.”

Since she was from a rural area, Strelitz felt particularly connected to Virginia’s wine community because of its agricultural base. She was familiar with farming but hadn’t ever been around people who combined agriculture and alcohol.

Fast forward to today: Virginia’s wine scene has grown to include almost 200 vineyards, partly because of the state’s commitment to agriculture and horticulture. The state began backing educational programs like the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech to spur increased interest in local winemaking.

“They’ve really come a long way in the last 10 years in terms of national recognition,” Strelitz said.

Northern Virginia in particular has seen an explosion of young people in recent years. She said they’re either taking over their parents’ land and planting crops for wine-making or coming onto the scene with a second career in mind.

“You see a lot more young faces, which I think makes it even more attractive for people in their 20s and 30s,” she said. “In addition, the wine is all very good.”

Virginia varietals

In the 90s, Strelitz said it was much harder to find good wine in the area.

“Now I’d say almost every place I go to has at least one or two really great bottles,” she said.

Because of its unique climate, location and temperature range, Strelitz said some varietals thrive better in Virginia wine country than anywhere else on the East Coast.

Viognier, a white wine varietal with floral notes, tends to be the standard white for most winemakers in the state. Strelitz said it’s because viognier grows so well in Virginia, with the late summer heat contributing to excellent grape growth in July and August. It’s also a good wine for people who don’t like the buttery quality of many chardonnays, but still desire substance.

For the reds, cabernet franc takes the Virginia wine crown. With hard notes akin to dark peppers, the grape is more complicated than the viognier. Because each winemaker works with it differently, the taste varies by winery.

“When it’s done in a softer style, depending on how the winemaker treats it, you can even bring out some fruits in it so it will seem a little lighter,” Strelitz said. “You really do have to taste it at every vineyard because it comes out a little differently everywhere.”

Strelitz cautioned that the future of Virginia reds is up in the air. She said some vineyards may not put out any 2011 bottles at all because so much rain fell at the end of the harvest season, which may affect the taste of the reds. But the whites will be fine – some of that year’s white grape harvest is already being bottled. And bottles from the years before 2011 are already getting rave reviews due to wonderful harvest seasons in the past, Strelitz said.

Wineries and winding roads

The physical structure of Virginia wineries varies greatly. While some are chateau-style, there are some wineries built back into the woods, reflecting Virginia’s farm culture.

“Sometimes you’re driving along a windy road and then all of a sudden it’s a dirt road and then at the end of the road there’s a whole wine-tasting room,” Strelitz said. “You just never know what you’re going to get. It’s a big adventure. It’s very different than wine-tasting in New York or wine-tasting in California.”

The biggest tip she gave about the adventure of Virginia wine tasting wasn’t about the wines, though. It was about asking questions.

“A lot of times, the winemakers will be on site and they’re either in their tasting rooms or somewhere nearby,” Strelitz said. “They love to know that people are interested in understanding what goes into making the wine and I think they really appreciate people coming with a cheeriness and an open mind.”

Strelitz said it’s best to go right to the source to learn about the intricacies of wines and the kinds that are available.

“Here, you’re able to do it,” she said. “You can’t do that everywhere.”

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