With wine’s image as a luxury item, it’s easy to forget it’s essentially an agriculture product grown by farmers. Wine starts in the field, as winemakers study each grape cluster’s growth and how it interacts with Virginia’s unpredictably predictable climate: four distinct seasons with hot, humid, and rainy summers to snowy, cold—is it hailing?!—winters. As Virginia winemakers better understand the soil and weather patterns, they’ve found which grapes work best here, and what doesn’t. These four grapes define Northern Virginia’s wine scene.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on October 29, 2021.
Structure: full body, firm acidity, dry
Notes: wild, grapey, cloves, cinnamon
If there is a true Virginia grape, it’s Norton.
In his Richmond lab in the 1800s, Dr. Daniel Norton experimented with crossbreeding and discovered a grape that could thrive here. He later sold it and in “1830 the vines found a home in Missouri, which at the time was the closest thing America had to a Napa Valley,” writes Adam Teeter in VinePair. “Missouri would become the wine capital of the new country, and Norton the signature grape.”
Then, the country’s progress in creating a sophisticated, adult-beverage culture vanished with Prohibition.
Cut to 1989 when Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards in Gordonsville brought Norton, America’s oldest native grape, back to where it started.
These days, Norton is synonymous with Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg. There, Jenni McCloud tends to 40 acres, which might be the largest planting of Norton in the world. Norton, says McCloud, is “multifaceted. If Norton didn’t make great wine … the rest wouldn’t matter.” The rest being its ease in the field: Because it’s native to Virgina, it evolved with the climate and pests, and naturally developed disease resistance.
Norton is an outlier. It’s a different species (vitis aestivalis) than grapes from Europe (vitis vinifera), as reflected in its chemical makeup, and, says McCloud, has a “wild character,” tasting “grapey,” with a “round, juiciness.”
While Virginia wine still battles negative stereotypes, Norton, because it’s a New World grape, has a harder time seducing drinkers. McCloud remembers when the general sentiment was: “If it’s from America, it can’t be very good. There was this hold over that any good wine came from Europe. That concept has been cracking and falling away.” She says “a lot of young people are interested and enamored that it’s our grape.” Local love is a big motivator in decisions for food and craft drinks, and it’d make sense Virginia’s native grape garners that same attention.
Above all, says McCloud, Norton “better make good wine, and it does.”
Petit Manseng /peh-TEE mon-SONG/
Structure: medium body, high acidity, dry
Notes: mango, candied fruit, pineapple, mandarin orange, lime zest, honeysuckle
Lesser known grape varietal petit manseng is having a year.
Horton Vineyard’s 2016 Petit Manseng won the 2019 Governor’s Cup, a statewide competition by the Virginia Winery Association of bottles made with 100 percent Virginia fruit.
“White wines have historically been rare winners of the Governor’s Cup, and this is the first time a petit manseng has been the overall winner,” stated the Virginia Department of Agriculture’s press release. Another petit manseng, one made by local legend Michael Shaps, placed into the Governor’s Cup Case.
This obscure vinifera grape, originally from the Jurancon region of southwest France, “isn’t a grape that would fare well in Napa,” writes Carrie Dykes in Wine Enthusiast. “Petit manseng is a wet-weather grape, perfect for regions like Virginia.”
As Virginia wines continue to make a name on the national stage, an award for petit manseng proves growers are on the right course. “There comes a time in the maturation of every major viticultural region when its best producers segue from the grapes that everyone knows to those that thrive in the local conditions,” writes Bruce Schoenfeld for Saveur.
With petit manseng’s loose clusters, “tiny berries,” its “high, natural acidity” and “unusually thick skins, so they’re more likely to stay disease-free in humid weather,” writes Schoenfeld, makes it “perfect for America’s Piedmont.”
Chris Pearmund agrees: His Broad Run-based winery, Pearmund Cellars, is the largest producer in the world of this grape, which was first grown stateside in Fauquier County. “It’s a wine that’s recognized, and that is respected in the Old World, but does well in the New World,” says Pearmund.
Petit Verdot /peh-TEE vair-DOH/
Structure: full body, medium acidity, dry
Notes: fruit-forward, cherries, cocoa nibs, violets, lilac
Petit verdot is best known for its role in Bordeaux blends (along with merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and malbec), but in Virginia, it’s rising as a single varietal.
“Full bodied and fiercely tannic, this boozy, high-acid red is bursting with flavors of ripe black fruits, smoke and spice … It’s a whole lot of wine on its own, so even in small doses it makes a big impact on a blend,” writes Maryse Chevriere in Grasping the Grape.
With those qualities, plus the fact that it’s hardy enough to hang on the vine through late-harvest pickings in October, it is one of the grapes catapulting Virginia’s reputation in the larger wine world.
“It delivers here in Virginia—middle weight, great color, great character—there’s a style to it,” says Doug Fabbioli of Fabbioli Cellars in Leesburg. “The French would look at it and say it can’t stand on its own. We’ve learned in Virginia to grow the grapes that grow well. It might be out of tradition, but that’s OK.”
At Leesburg’s Casanel Vineyards & Winery, winemaker Katie DeSouza prefers to make varietals. “It’s tough to make a varietal as dynamic as a blend because you get all of these different flavors from layering with the different fruit. Varietals can be one dimensional or flat or boring,” says DeSouza. With petit verdot—which she jokes as being zombie-proof because of its ability to thrive in the rain, heat and just maybe survive an apocalypse of the walking dead—she says, “It’s very strong, our boldest wine, but still very balanced and finessed.”
Petit verdot, says DeSouza, “is what the wine world is looking at for Virginia.”
Structure: full body, medium-low acidity, dry
Notes: stone fruits, peaches, apricots, tropoical fruits, floral, long finish
The story of Virginia’s ascent in the wine world is tied to Dennis Horton and viognier.
It was Horton, who died this summer at 72, who “believed familiar varieties such as chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon were ill-suited to Virginia’s wet climate, and looked for grapes with thick skins and loose clusters that might help them cope with rain and humidity,” writes Dave McIntyre, for a tribute in The Washington Post to Horton Vineyard’s owner.
Viognier was that grape.
The “1993 Horton Vineyards Viognier—only his second vintage—achieved critical acclaim and impressed California winemakers in a Judgment of Paris-style blind tasting. More Viognier was soon planted throughout the state, and today it is considered Virginia’s signature grape,” continues McIntyre.
For the next 30 years, Virginia clung to the white grape, which, writes Marissa A. Ross in Wine. All the Time., “smells like a perfume you actually want to drink, with aromas not unlike a favorite Bath & Body Works scent.”
Now that there’s a generation of vines and bottles under Northern Virginia’s collective belt, some are questioning Viognier’s shine.
In Delaplane, RdV Vineyard’s estate director Jarad Slipp is ready for Virginia to move away from viognier. “Originally, Virginia hung its hat on viognier, and that was an epic failure because, A, viognier is disgusting and nobody wants it, and B, it’s not really right for this environment,” says Slipp. There’s more: “It’s gross. There’s no acidity. It’s all alcohol. It’s flabby. It’s the me-me-me-enough-about-you-let’s-talk-about-me grape. You want to drink viognier? I’ll save you a lot of money: You can get apricot baby food and mix it with vodka.”
Not everyone feels that way. International wine critic Oz Clarke named Purcellville’s Breaux Vineyard Viognier as its No. 87 pick out of 250 in his Best Wines of 2012. Jim Koennicke, the lead educator at Breaux’s in-house Virginia School of Wine, says viognier “helped Virginia become the robust winemaking region” it is today. He credits Virginia’s success with the grape as the inspiration for California and South America to start growing it.
In Virginia, says Koennicke, viognier “retains its vibrant acidity while still having very powerful aromatics.” While viognier can be challenging to grow, “the wines that are made from it put everyone on notice that we can do a fantastic job winemaking here in Virginia.”