Virginia Wine Tour: A Sampling of Appellations

Text: Chris Myers • Photography: Chris Myers, Kathy Myers

Wine and motorcycles are an odd, yet appealing, combination. If mixed the wrong way, the two can leave one scarred for life. In my younger days, I found that out the hard way. But, if handled responsibly, these two endearing disciplines can uncork memories that last a lifetime.

Like motorcyclists, fine wine varietals seem to prefer interweaving with areas of stellar beauty. Places like Napa Valley, Tuscany, Portugal’s Douro Valley, and the South of France do come to mind. Now, I’m sure that soil, climate, and seasonal variations play into that equation as well, but I’m no farmer, so I’ll just stick to my “grapes love beauty” theory. That said, maybe there’s something to the oenological rumblings emanating from the Commonwealth of Virginia. The amazing scenery, magnificent roads, and 200-plus wineries dotting the Old Dominion make for an intriguing excuse to break out the saddlebags. 

It Takes Grapes 

The roots of wine making in Virginia go back 400 years. The original Jamestown colonists were required by law to plant at least ten grape vines native to the old country. And while the imbibers did rejoice, so did the pests. The Phylloxera, an east coast aphid with a taste for European vinifera, made short work of those early attempts. 

Even our nation’s finest came up bust at early Virginia viticulture. Thomas Jefferson tried for 30 years yet never managed to produce a single bottle of wine from European varietals. President George Washington also failed in his ten-year attempt to do the same. And then, when colonists and traders realized that tobacco was far more suited to the local clime, the cash crops gravitated more toward Philip and Morris than Ernest and Julio. 

The Triumph of the Norton 

Not all was lost. Some Native American varieties made excellent wines and could stand up to the local pests. Most notably the Norton, a grape indigenous to Virginia, was used to cellar some juice that went on to be voted “best red wine of all nations” at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873. Another bottle of Norton struck gold at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889. By the turn of the century, the science of grafting allowed those vexing vines from the old country to be mated to heartier local stock. Then prohibition began, and Virginia’s wine industry effectively ended. 

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the January/February 2013 back issue.