Virginia remains a bit of an underdog in the wine industry, despite its centuries-old grape-growing past—but it planted more roots on the map in September, when the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau established a new American Viticulture Area (AVA) in the Commonwealth. Dubbed the Virginia Peninsula, the region includes 112 acres of vineyards over five wineries, and sits about two and a half hours outside of Washington, D.C.
But let’s back up a bit. For the uninitiated, an AVA specifies a grape-growing region in the U.S. with certain geographic or climate features that make the grapes grown in that area unique compared to others. It’s a nod to the place—the terroir—and its soil, weather, and overall landscape, all of which plays into how a wine ultimately tastes when you uncork that bottle.
“It’s a subtropical climate,” says Tayloe Dameron Jr., wine manager of Upper Shirley Vineyards, which sits on the James River in Charles City. “Our average temperature over the summer is slightly higher than others in Virginia, so we have a longer growing season. There’s a little more humidity in the air as well. So where California tends to have warm days and cooler nights, we’re pretty hot all the time.”
And that, indeed, can lead to fine wines—they’re bolder, says Dameron, and benefit from the landscape. The peninsula has deeper roots and more fractured bedrock, leading to better drainage; the grapes can actually absorb the nutrients in the soil more efficiently, he says. The soil is Cenozoic, with all kinds of ocean deposits (clay, gravel, sand), and the region gets ample rain, so that drainage is key.
So what grows well here? Thick-skinned grapes, he says, which provide protection against fungus (it increases with the amount of rain). For reds, that’s Merlot, Petit Verdot and Tannat—this last varietal, he believes, representing the future of Virginia wine. Not only does Upper Shirley create a bottle of it (with lots of hearty tannins, inkiness, and depth), but his license plate reads “Tannat.” The folks here also produce a blend, 2016 Zachariah, with Merlot (46 percent), Petit Verdot (45 percent) and Tannat (9 percent) that’s well-balanced and texturally light, drinkable in its youth. As for whites? Viognier and Vidal Blanc—a hybrid that stands up to the frosts in the cooler months. (The Virginia Peninsula AVA can get snow and ice in the winter, and can be exposed to frosts in the spring.)
Williamsburg Winery, which was founded in 1985 and sits on 300 acres of land dubbed the Wessex Hundred, was behind the push for the AVA. It makes a phenomenal Petit Verdot; it’s a beautiful expression of the grape, opening with chocolate on the nose and a smooth, velvety mouthfeel. The winery also leans into its location, minutes from colonial Williamsburg, with a Jamestown Cellars Settlers’ Spiced Wine. Heat it in the crockpot on low with cinnamon sticks and apple cider for a warm holiday drink. (We’ve done it.)
And that brings us back to what truly makes the Virginia Peninsula so special: its history. Williamsburg forms the historic triangle with Yorktown and Jamestown, where John Smith is said to have made wine from grapes shortly after the colony was established in 1607. And 12 years after that, the House of Burgesses passed an act requiring each male colonist to plant and tend at least 10 grapevines. Sure, those early years didn’t exactly yield a pilgrim’s bounty of sweet nectar, but they planted the seeds for the future—and, today, it thrives.