Three Top Wineries To Visit In This Scenic Southern State
Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know.’ – John Keats
While English Romantic poet John Keats never had a chance to enjoy the idyllic winding roads and pastoral hills of Virginia’s wine country, if this quote is any indication, he would have immensely enjoyed himself here.
Unlike Keats, I had the privilege of attending school in Charlottesville, Virginia. There, amidst the beautiful backdrop of the commonwealth’s burgeoning wine country, I first tasted the fruit of Virginia wines. After school, my work as a wine buyer within the hospitality industry added education to the passion that had been ignited during my college years. While my vino-centric travels eventually took me to fabled wine regions like Sonoma Valley and Tuscany in Italy, I maintained a soft spot for the wines of my youth.
It is, therefore, with some self-indulgent pride that I take you on a winery crawl featuring three of my favorite central Virginia wineries.
Prologue: A Crash Course in Weather & Wine
When one thinks of American wine, the first images are often the terraced hillsides of Napa County or the sun-kissed central valley of Paso Robles. Why is that? It relates to an old winemaking adage: ‘poor soil makes great wine.’
The west coast of the United States enjoys a temperate, dry Mediterranean environment. The arid climate and poorer-quality soil cause the vines to struggle, producing smaller, more flavorful berries. On the contrary, the eastern USA is hot and humid with lush soil and dramatic growing seasons. The grapes grown in these climates are large and water-filled, which makes them ill-suited to producing flavorful wine.
It is for this reason that early east coast wine-producing efforts were largely unsuccessful. European immigrants such as Thomas Jefferson attempted to apply successful French farming techniques to their own vineyards with extremely poor results. After the western U.S. winemaking boom of the 1970s, east coast farmers and winemakers started reconsidering their techniques. Through diligence, they slowly started planting much more successful grape varietals and cultivating vines in ways that took advantage of their specific climates.
In the past two decades, the wine industry in Virginia has grown to the fifth largest in the country. Wineries like the ones below pair fantastic presentations with products of increasingly fine quality.
So let’s pack our bags, set our travel budget, and take off on our winery crawl of central Virginia.
The first winery on our central Virginia winery crawl is more of an iconic institution than a personal favorite. Founded in 1976, Barboursville Vineyards is perhaps the most renowned and well-respected winery in all of Virginia.
From California to Bordeaux, wineries are as much about presentation as product. Capitalizing on the natural beauty provided by hillsides rowed by vines, wine producers place a continued emphasis on the beauty and approachability of their properties.
Landscape & Architecture
Situated between Jefferson’s Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier, Barboursville Vineyards enjoys a prime piece of Virginia real estate. The easternmost stop on our winery tour, Barboursville is nestled in a region where Virginia’s coastal plain begins the transition to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The result is a stunning checkerboard of cultivated fields and forest draped over rolling slopes.
Barboursville Vineyards is named for the original land owner, James Barbour, Virginia’s governor during the War of 1812. Without a doubt the most fascinating architectural artifact is the ruins of a mansion built for Barbour by Thomas Jefferson. The standing structures on Barboursville’s property date from 1821 and are currently used in a variety of capacities, from the tasting room to the restaurant and inn.
Food & Fun
Barboursville Vineyards prides itself on extremely robust culinary offerings. The Palladio Restaurant employs a team of accomplished chefs, a sommelier, and some of the top service talent in central Virginia. As you might expect from a winery restaurant, the offerings feature the best of local fare, including produce from the Barboursville grounds.
The calendar for Barboursville Vineyards remains full year-round with anything from an Annual Truffle Dinner to a Venetian Culinary Feast. In addition to public celebrations, the winery is a premiere venue for weddings, receptions, and other large private events.
Every winery offers tastings. Even if you’re not shopping, these fixed-priced samplings, curated by sommeliers or other knowledgeable staff members are often a great excursion in-and-of themselves. Open 362 days a year, Barboursville’s Tuscan Tasting Room provides narrated wine samplings for $10. In Library 1821, Barboursville offers a $25 tasting. This more robust experience housed in the winery’s historical hub includes private selection wines paired with culinary offerings.
As I mentioned in the intro, although wineries have never been the hallmark of Virginia agriculture, recent developments have allowed ambitious and well-funded producers like Barboursville Vineyards to release some very competitive wines.
Variety & Varietals
In 1976, Gianni Zonin, heir to six generations of Italian wine-making tradition, purchased the current Barboursville estate with the intent to produce wine with native fruit. Using techniques borrowed from continental Europe, Zonin and his family explored techniques for planting both native and imported varietals. Barboursville currently offers 10 reds, seven whites and rosés, two sparkling, and two dessert-style wines. Many of the wines are well-recognized Bordeaux varietals such as Merlot and Cabernet or Italian grapes such as Nebbiolo.
Like the majority of Virginia wineries, Barboursville Vineyards produces wines with approachable price points. With most products from $15-35, Barboursville wines aren’t exactly gas station buys, but they won’t break the bank, either. If you visit the winery, join the wine club, or purchase by the case, and you can enjoy discounts.
Available for $55 on its website, the crown jewel of Barboursville’s collection is the Octagon. This red blend is made in the classic Bordeaux style utilizing four of the five traditional varietals. Barboursville encourages you to cellar this wine for up to 20 years, an ambitious claim from an East Coast winery. In a region that generally relies on the palatability of white and dessert wines, this signature blend is one that holds up to its West Coast competition.
King Family Vineyards
On the other side of Charlottesville from Barboursville Vineyards, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, sits gorgeous and well-manicured King Family Vineyards.
Founded by Texas natives David and Ellen King, the winery reflects both their commitment to excellence and their dedication to family. It is a balance between the precision of a much more robust enterprise and the quaint approachability of a family-run boutique.
Landscape & Architecture
If Barboursville Vineyards is an icon in the middle of central Virginia’s rolling pastures, the backdrop of King Family Vineyards demonstrates how quickly the Virginia landscape can shift. From the main buildings of the property, the impressive Blue Ridge Mountains appear almost to cradle the winery and vineyards. While the architecture of King Family Vineyards isn’t nearly as old or historic as that of Barboursville, it is a gorgeous and well-appointed destination.
One visit to King Family Vineyards (or even its website) is enough to draw notice to a prominent and unique element of the grounds: a polo field. David King is such an avid fan and practitioner of the sport that he made the field’s construction (all 12 acres) a priority when he bought the property in 1995, even before the winery was built.
Food & Fun
King Family Vineyards doesn’t have its own restaurant. Instead, it focuses its attention on providing an award-winning venue for weddings and wedding receptions. From quaint to lavish, the property has a variety of beautiful spaces. The winery staff includes event planners that can walk you through preparations.
Did I mention POLO? From May through October, King Family Vineyards hosts weekly polo matches on its pristine field.
Like Barboursville, King Family Vineyards offers standard non-reservation tastings for $10/person. It also features a private tasting for $15/person at a $100 minimum. In addition to an enhanced product sampling, the private tasting enlists the services of a personal guide who provides some in-depth knowledge about the product and the offerings. Finally, King Family will give you a full-fledged winery and vineyard tour (including the standard tasting) for $20 a head.
Surprising considering its relative youth, King Family Vineyards offers a bevy of wines for purchase online and at their winery.
Variety & Varietals
Like Barboursville, King Family Vineyards grows both native and imported varietals. One of its signature wines is Viognier, an approachable varietal that does very well in the Virginia climate. It also offers a number of ‘Library’ wines: single varietals and blends from previous vintages that have developed well in the bottle. King Family highlights its collection of ‘Meritage’ wines. A portmanteau of ‘Merit’ and ‘Heritage’, this designates an American version of the classic Bordeaux, both in terms of grape selection and winemaking style.
King Family wines are not quite as affordable as those from Barboursville. With no wines below $20 and ranging upwards to $70, they represent the higher end of the Virginia wine market. While the wines are certainly of high quality, this is an ambitious price point considering the winery’s youth and location.
The King Family has done what any business with an adequate funding and limited experience should do: bring in talent. In this case, that pedigree comes in the form of French Winemaker Matthieu Finot. With a resume that traces all of France’s storied wine regions, Rhone Valley native Finot brings wine-making passion and precision to King Family Vineyards.
Veritas Vineyard & Winery
For the conclusion of our central Virginia winery crawl, we travel 10 miles further into the Appalachian Mountains from King Family Vineyards. Afton, Virginia’s Veritas Vineyard & Winery is the quaintest of our three stops… and my personal favorite.
Landscape & Architecture
Veritas Vineyard & Winery looks a lot like a high-end horse farm. The gabled buildings embellished with towers, porticos, and weather vanes give a pastoral feel that is both quaint and impressive.
As far as geography goes, this is in one of the most photo-friendly nooks of Virginia. With the north entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway only five miles away, mornings and evenings are the best times to capture a swollen sun peeking through layers of mountain fog.
Food & Fun
Like King Family Vineyards, Veritas Vineyard & Winery bills itself as an event venue, primarily for weddings and receptions. With a variety of well-curated spaces (both indoor and outdoor), the property has a lot to offer large groups who are looking to impress. The mountains and surrounding vineyards serve as perfect backdrops for memorializing a major life event.
While it’s not as renowned as the restaurant at Barboursville, The Terrace at Veritas Vineyard & Winery serves comfort food made from seasonally-appropriate local ingredients.
When it comes to wine tastings, Veritas has pretty standard offerings. The $10 tasting fee covers up to 10 wines, a pretty good deal, whether or not you end up purchasing a bottle. Packages are also available for tours and picnics. At $35, the picnic tour (which includes the tasting) is a very economical way to see the facilities, taste the products, and have a little lunch.
The motto at Veritas Vineyard & Winery could be “Come for the Wedding. Stay for the Wine.” Although most locals know it primarily as a premiere event space, the juice here ain’t bad either.
Variety & Varietals
Like Barboursville and King Family, Veritas offers a mix of red, white, rose, & sparking; old world and native grapes. Unlike the other two, Veritas Vineyards & Winery rolls the dice on some pretty wacky blends and varietals. From the Claret to the Petit Manseng, it sells a lot of wines that most people haven’t had before – or at least not as the primary grape, featured on the label. This is where the tastings come in handy. Try before you buy.
Of the three stops on our Virginia Wine Crawl, I think Veritas provides the best value. No Virginia winery offers many options below $20. As boutique wineries, they don’t produce enough volume for that sort of economy. That said, Veritas Vineyards & Winery makes an obvious effort not to be cost-prohibitive. The vast majority of its wines fall below $35/bottle with additional savings to be had if you join the wine club or buy in bulk.
Head winemaker Emily Pelton stands out from her peers in several ways. Relatively young for her depth of experience, she is a woman in a male-dominated field and is part of a small group of winemakers who learned their craft in Virginia. Her philosophy that Virginia wine takes a unique approach when it comes to varietal selection and wine-making methods drives the product line that she curates. For a producer with only 15 harvests behind it, Veritas Vineyard & Winery turns out some top-notch wine and shows a lot of promise.
Epilogue: What’s Next?
Between weddings, winery tours, retail purchases, and restaurant orders, I’d say I’ve experienced a couple dozen Virginia wineries during the last two decades. In 2012, there were 230 independent wineries operating in Virginia, putting me just over 10%. The world of wine is always growing. New wineries open, and every year provides a new vintage for each of those wineries. Even within the bottle, wines continue to evolve, gaining complexity with the passage of time. For lovers of wine, great scenery, or just travel in general, wineries will continue to provide excellent destinations.
I hope that something I’ve touched on in this article has piqued a dormant interest. Be safe and courteous when you travel. Always be exploring. Always be learning.