By Georgene Mortimer, Island Winery
The central part of the state hits the “sweet spot” for viniculture.
If your fall road trip to or from the Lowcountry takes you through Virginia, it’s worth a detour to spend some time in central Virginia. In addition to historic early American sites, Civil War battlefields and bucolic farmland, central Virginia is home to exceptional wines that have achieved world-class status.
The eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the rolling countryside offer excellent topography, fertile granite-based clay soils and, most importantly, a growing season that lasts over 200 days. Indeed, white wine grapes and some light-bodied reds thrive along the East Coast. Fine whites — such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling — can be found, as can delicious Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. However, a long growing season is key to producing fuller-bodied red wines.
Ideally, a long growing season provides warm temperatures that persist throughout early fall, and a low probability of a devastating frost that could hit before the grapes reach peak ripeness. Grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec and Zinfandel need the benefits of a long growing season to produce high-quality wines.
This perfect growing season typically occurs in the South but, unfortunately, it’s a region where other negating factors come into play. As we in the Lowcountry know well, Southern summers are infamous for high humidity. High humidity makes grapevines more susceptible to disease, and prevents the evenings from cooling down enough to preserve balanced levels of natural fruit acidity. In addition, the winters don’t get cold enough in the South for the vines to go into dormancy, which is another essential element for wine grape survival.
Central Virginia is the sweet spot. The area boasts a growing season long enough for full-bodied red wine grapes to ripen without devastating humidity levels, and also enjoys winters that are cold enough to encourage the vines to go into dormancy.
The wide variety of wine grapes thriving in central Virginia is a testament to the uniqueness of this geographic area. World-class wines are being produced from cooler climate grapes such as Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir, while award-winning Syrah and Zinfandel can also be found. This is because the varied topography of the region provides niche microclimates for the different grapes to grow.
Like all wine regions, central Virginia wine flavors are unique to their environment. However, if a comparison must be made, the Loire Valley in France comes to mind. Both areas share cold winters, moderate amounts of rain and humidity and a varied topography with granite-rich soils. The wines tend to showcase bright acid and mineral flavors, rather than the ripe fruit flavors found in hotter, drier wine regions.
Rows of cultivated wine grapes dot landscapes throughout the Southeast, but these grapes are of a different species. All grapes — including wine, juice and table grapes — belong to the genus Vitis. The common wine grape discussed in this article belongs to one species (Vitis Vinifera), while Southern grapes belong to another (Vitis Rotundifolia), commonly known as Muscadine grapes.
Next month we will explore those grapes in greater detail. Until then, have a great September!
The perfect bottle of hand-crafted artisan wine awaits at Island Winery on Cardinal Rd. Wine by the glass and cheese platters are available Monday-Saturday from 12:30-5:30 p.m. and Sunday from 12-4 p.m. (843) 842-3141 or islandwinery.com.