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History comes alive in the vineyards of Virginia

Thomas Jefferson attempted to plant European varietals like Sangiovese at Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson attempted to plant European varietals like Sangiovese at Monticello.
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Tim Fish

Some places have a humble beauty, a quality that hooks you and never quite lets you go.

The wine region in Charlottesville, Va., is a place like that, set in the thick woods and gentle foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Located an hour’s drive northwest of Richmond, Charlottesville (population 40,750) is home to the University of Virginia and a downtown area that boasts a quaint outdoor mall inhabited by theaters, bookstores, antiques shops and fine restaurants.

The area is rich in colonial and Civil War history. Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, is the leading historical attraction. Visiting the area around Charlottesville, you understand why America’s third president and first true viticulturist left the area to serve as U.S. minister to France with great reluctance.

“It’s a tremendously satisfying place to live,” says Kluge winery owner Patricia Kluge, a native of Britain and a long-time resident of the city. “Living in a university town is of incredible value—great culture, great arts. It’s just one of the best places on earth.”

Virginia has been turning people into wine drinkers since the early 1600s, when the first vines were planted there, but the cold winters and humid summers have challenged even the most devoted vintners. Jefferson famously failed in his efforts to grow European varieties such as Sangiovese at Monticello, although his vineyards have since been restored and now produce wine.

Today, there are many notable wine achievements in Virginia, across a diversity of wines. Good examples from the Charlottesville area include Viognier from White Hall, Petit Verdot from Blenheim, Petit Manseng from Horton and a sweet Malvasia Passito from Barboursville.

The Monticello American Viticultural Area, which surrounds Charlottesville, is home to more than 20 wineries. Roughly encompassing 1,250 square miles, it’s the 26th largest AVA in the country, dwarfing regions like Sonoma and Napa valleys. Yet navigating it is not difficult; most of the wineries lie within 15 miles of Charlottesville.

The array of wines produced in the region’s red-clay soil is staggering. It’s not unusual for a winery to have 30 or more different releases a year. Tour the tasting rooms and you’ll find Bordeaux grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, Rhône reds and whites, Riesling and Chardonnay, and even Spanish and Italian varieties. Then there are sweet wines made from blackberries, pears and the like, plus native and hybrid grapes such as Norton and Niagara.

The economics of producing a little bit of everything may encourage such overachievement—there’s something for everyone—but the lack of focus means that even after all these years, Virginia hasn’t discovered which wines it does best. And it doesn’t do everything well—too many wines are diluted, vegetal or bitter.

New players are arriving with the money and dedication to take the state’s wines to the next level. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner has planted his own 15-acre vineyard in Dogue, about 50 miles north of Richmond. He grows Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sangiovese and Viognier and sells his grapes to Ingleside Plantation. And Kluge has deep enough pockets to employ French winemaking consultant Michel Rolland, whose U.S. clients include Staglin and Bryant Family in Napa. While the early results are mixed, Kluge’s wines show promise.

Virginia wines, as you might expect, are featured prominently in Charlottesville-area restaurants, albeit the best dining rooms also include wines from beyond the state line. The Clifton Inn is the most historically significant, although the wine cellar had to be rebuilt after a fire, while Fossett’s at Keswick Hall, a Best of Award of Excellence winner, offers possibly the best selection of Virginia wines in the state.

Many of the restaurants are on or near Charlottesville’s open-air pedestrian mall, the town’s former Main Street, now brick-lined and closed to cars. With its shops, bars and movie houses, the mall is a hub of activities; consider taking in a show at the Paramount Theater, a performing arts center set inside a restored 1930s movie house.

The only lodging choice in the mall is the Omni Charlottesville, a recently-renovated business hotel. In other areas, Boar’s Head Inn is a handsome resort with all the benefits of a full-service hotel, while the more intimate Clifton Inn is central to many of the best wineries and Monticello. There’s also Keswick Hall, which offers luxury-level service and a challenging golf course.

Any trip to Charlottesville should begin or end at Monticello. Just walking around Jefferson’s home will help you develop a deeper understanding of the author of the Declaration of Independence and a key figure in American wine. The fact that Monticello’s vineyards have been restored and are now producing wine somehow brings everything full circle. With that and many other wineries thriving in the area, you can’t help but think that Jefferson’s fascination with Charlottesville and central Virginia would have been even greater today.

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