The wine-growers of Virginia bravely grasped the nettle of introducing Virginia wines to the British market by holding their first overseas wine-tasting in London in May 2007. While California, Washington & Oregon and upstate New York are well-known as exporters of U.S. wines, your wine correspondent Lovat Stephen must confess that wine-growing did not rank high in his knowledge of this Mid-Atlantic state on the east coast.
He had travelled through much of it in his summers at a U.S. university, but was then more interested in Virginia's history — from early colonial days to the battles of the Civil War between 1861 and 1865. Yet Virginia can claim to have grown wine grapes for nearly 400 years. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson, author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and the country's third President, had brought vignerons from Tuscany in Italy to produce wine at his home of Monticello in the 1770's.
Since then Virginia has had to contend with Phylloxera, fungal diseases and extreme weather swings — as well as the Prohibition years of the 1920's; but today the state boasts 262 vineyards and 119 wineries.
A brochure promoting the Virginia Wine Experience in London draws attention to the acidic clay soils east of the Blue Ridge Mountains as being particularly suitable for white wine varieties such as Chardonnay and Viognier, and for reds, Cabernet sauvignon, Cabernet franc and Merlot.
Your correspondent has declared his fondness for Viognier in the past, which he feels for too long had been seen as a variable and unfashionable grape, a poor yielder and sometimes subject to disease. In France it is mainly found in a small area of the northern Rhône, but since then it has been grown extensively and is exported from Australia and Argentina, and California, home to some 80 % of all U.S. wine.
Lovat Stephen, who admits to often being overawed by the number of different varietals offered at London's international wine-tastings, has made a habit of using Viognier as a test in his approach to white wines.
When Viognier is on offer, and treated seriously by an exhibiting country, it can be approached by a wine-lover without all the overtones that accompany better-known and more famous grape varieties.
According to the brochure accompanying this tasting, producers of most Rhone varietals in North America acknowledge that Virginia consistently produces the best Viognier, achieving ripeness without excessive alcohol.
And after testing all the Viognier from eight of the Virginia wineries featured, Lovat Stephen can certainly testify that "V" sensibly stands for Virginia and its Viognier. Luckily he feels no Judgement of Paris is expected from him until London retailers have made their own choices and brought the wines to market.
Most of the Viognier on display was from the 2005 vintage, and his own favourites came from White Hall Vineyards at White Hall and the Cooper Vineyards at Luisa; with highly-commended runners-up from Breaux Vineyards at Purcellville and Rappahannock Cellars at Huntly.
Looking back at his tasting notes he strayed only once from comparing Viognier with Viognier, and admits he particularly enjoyed a contribution from the Cardinal Point Vineyard & Winery of Afton, which was a mix of 54% Chardonnay and 46% Viognier and thus perhaps in this case an unfair comparison with 100% Viognier.
But do bear in mind that good Viognier comes from Virginia too.