Just before Christmas in 1784, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend and wine contact John Bonfield, The American Consul in Bordeaux. He expressed a fear. He wrote to his friend, “I have written a letter to Monsieur d’Yquem for 250 bottles of his newest vintage, but I am afraid he will not know who I am.” Mr. Bonfield in favor wrote to Monsieur d’Yquem introducing Thomas Jefferson, Minister of The United States of America. By February of 1785, Jefferson had received his 250 bottles which were described as “bottled with greatest care” in a letter signed by Count Louis-Amédée Lur Saluce, the newest proprietor of what Jefferson referred to as “House of Yquem.”
ThomasJefferson’s introduction into the circles of French society was welcomed. The French intelligentsia viewed him as “warming to intelligent conversation” and found his colonist lifestyle intriguing. His greatest friends included French liberals such as the Duke of Rochefoucauld, the Marquis de Chastellux, and General Lafayette. Through these influences and eventual life long friends, Jefferson discovered that fine wine and fine food is a great way to meet informally with political friends and foes. He approached gastronomy as a gentile art, and encouraged the newly American citizens to embrace it as a refined accompaniment for everyday life. During his presidency, Jefferson frequently hosted dinner parties as a form of legislative lobbying.
The success of Virginia viticulture was one of Jefferson’s dearest hobbies and greatest ambitions. He saw a vision in a state of breathtaking views, majestic mountain ranges, favourable climate, and diverse soils. “The best Virginia soil from an agricultural point of view is clay soil.” Exclaims Gabriele Rausse, the dubbed Godfather of Virginia wine and current Director of Gardens and Grounds at Jefferson’s beloved home of Monticello. “As the Virginia wine industry started to take off people started to experiment with areas which were not clay.” Says Rausse. “Virginia also has a lot of loamy soil.”Virginia has a topography which compares very much to the Friuli region in Italy, and now produces quality wine as well. Though Jefferson’s predictions of Virginia wine were seen as over enthusiastic, now, over 200 years later Gabriele Rausse along with other Virginia winemakers have turned Jefferson’s vision into a reality.
As Virginia Wine Month comes to a close, allow me to provide insight to the Commonwealth’s wine region. The Monticello Wine Trail has over 30 wineries throughout Orange county. The most recognized perhaps is Barboursville. Now under guidance of Luca Paschina, Barboursville was first in the hands of Gabriele Rausse – who now has his namesake vineyard. Barboursville is legendary and Mr. Rausse and Mr. Paschina are legends. A visit to both places is a requirement if exploring the Monticello Wine Trail.
Early Mountain Vineyards is rich in wine as well as rich in history. Located at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is said original landowner Lt. Joseph Early offered hospitality to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Today, an air of hospitality still lingers as owners Jean and Steve Case are committed to preserving such bountiful and historic land. Adjacent to their tasting room is a balcony restaurant that overlooks the vines with a backdrop of mountains that blend into the sky. The menu offers fresh bites from their garden and farm. The breakfast radishes with hummus is recommended and flights of wine are encouraged!
Horton Vineyards is known for its wine of beautiful texture, finesse, and elegance inspired by the old world. Their Sparkling Viognier is dry and perfect for your at home cellar as an everyday sparkling. Their Petit Manseng has been called the perfect grape of Central Virginia, and is rich with unforgettable aromas of toasted hazelnuts, and Pyrenean honey. Wine lover Dennis Horton discovered that although the warm Virginia summers are suitable for ripening various grape varieties, the humid weather allows for thicker skinned grapes to flourish. Horton Vineyards currently grows varieties from Portugal, Spain, and Rhône Valley.
Old House Vineyard has a particular jewel which I was very happy to discover in Virginia. Pétillante! Old House uses the classic French technique of second fermentation occurring in the bottle to create tiny bubbles! It is beautiful and bursting with a crisp green apple flavor!
“Jefferson’s determination to bring viticulture to the commonwealth has been a triumph!” Says Jennifer Knowles, Sommelier at Washington D.C.’s recently awarded one Michelin starPlume. “I love sharing the bounty of his vision with the guests at Plume.”Plume offers a wine list of over a dozen nationalities, over 50 vintages, 1,300 labels, a wide range of Virginian wines, and is also home to the country’s largest Madeira collection including a rare bottle of 1720!
It is difficult to find Virginia wine from state to state, but it is not difficult finding Virginia wine in the U.K. Boxwood, Barboursville, RdV vineyards and Veritas are just a few wines that are widely available throughout London and Southern England. The U.K. is the globe’s largest importer of wine after all, with a retail value of $21.1 billion (£7.6 billion)!
The irony of Virginia wine being enjoyed in the U.K. 4,000 miles away is amusing, but wouldn’t be possible without Chris Parker owner of New Horizon Wines U.K. the only importer of Virginia wine. Since 2009 the popularity of Virginia wine in the U.K. has been an influencing factor on how Virginia wine is perceived internationally, as well as in the states. The Virginia varieties most enjoyed by U.K consumers are Virginia Viognier, Virginia Cabernet Franc, and Virginia Petit Verdot. They are all old world classic, with purely delicious Virginian flair!
Thomas Jefferson would be very proud!