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Under Your Nose: Barboursville Helped Put Virginia Wines on the Map

Correction Appended

Thomas Jefferson famously tried — and failed — for more than 30 years to produce wine on his Monticello estate.

Now, over the past three decades, Virginia has become an award-winning wine region, including a recent designation as one of the top five new wine travel destinations in the world by Travel + Leisure. [IMGCAP(1)]

Less than 30 years ago the Commonwealth had only six wineries, according to the Virginia Wineries Association. By 2001, there were 75 wineries producing more than 285,000 cases annually.

And at last count, Virginia was home to more than 122 wineries boasting some of the best varietals in the country, including a sweet white wine known as viognier.

But before most Virginians ever knew what viognier was, famed Italian winemaker Gianni Zonin bought an 800-acre sheep farm near Charlottesville and began to grow European grapes. Succeeding where others hadn’t, Barboursville Vineyards was at the very outset of the state’s wine culture.

It was there, at Jefferson’s old stomping grounds east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, that the patriarch’s vision finally came true.

Now one of the largest wineries in Virginia, the estate sits on 900 acres, with 250 acres of it prime for grapes, 150 of it planted. The total product just at this one vineyard: about 42,000 cases annually.

Barboursville, located in the green hills between the homes of Jefferson and James Madison, was designed by the former and often visited by both. The historic estate, home to former Virginia Gov. and Sen. James Barbour, is about 13 miles south of Madison’s Montpelier and burned down in 1884, but the picturesque brick ruins remain part of the estate.

“The idea is to keep it as is,” Barboursville general manager and winemaker Luca Paschina said.

Defining Wines

“Virginia is a very young wine region and needs to define itself, but it’s coming along,” said Paschina, who was born into a viticultural family in Piemonte, Italy, and has overseen Barboursville since 1991.

The Old Dominion, mainly known for its white blends, use of native Norton grapes and high percentages of residual sugar, finds an innovator at Barboursville.

“Cabernet franc was among the first successful harvests [at Barboursville] back in the 1970s,” Paschina said while giving some background during a recent tasting, “and its success started the trend to grow it throughout the state.”

To this day, the winery’s Cabernet Franc Reserve is ranked among the best in the nation.

It also has earned praise for the Octagon, Barboursville’s famed “finesse” wine that has only been produced 11 times in 17 years, he said.

“The most important thing a vintner can do is call a vintage off when it’s not doing well,” Paschina said.

Only produced in superior vintages, Octagon is a combination of Bordeaux varietals: mainly merlot — Sen. Harry Byrd’s (D-Va.) house favorite, according to the winery — and of course the winery’s famed cabernet franc.

The merlot adds body and softness, so it is good that it’s the best-performing grape in Virginia, Paschina said, explaining that the state’s soil is “fertile and rich.”

A wine bought with aging in mind — the 2004 vintage is said to hit its peak in 2010 — the 2005 Octagon was bottled just last month and won’t be on sale until spring 2008. It is currently aging in its elegant French barriques, resting as if on exhibit in the brand-new Octagon Cellar, which saw Byrd, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D), former Gov. Gerald Baliles (D) and state Sen. Edward Houck (D) as some of its first visitors.

Also recently opened is the Wine Museum, with an awe-inspiring view of the vineyard and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It contains an exhibition depicting the traditional past of winegrowing in Italy, including antiques dating back as far as the 1820s.

Promoting Wineries

On a recent Sunday, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) — a friend of the winery, according to Paschina — held a fundraiser at Barboursville, speaking of “a bright future for Virginia’s wineries.”

Paschina said taxes and operating costs are high, making it difficult to be in agriculture, and with all the development and expansion in the region, “it’s great that a legislator helps fight for the preservation of land for agriculture.”

“I am proud of the many successful wineries in my Virginia district,” Cantor, a member of the Congressional Wine Caucus, told Roll Call. “It’s wonderful to have been able to watch them flourish and bring tourism and business opportunities to the Commonwealth.”

As wineries across the Old Dominion open their doors for Virginia Wine Month, take some time to experience the stellar cellars of the region. With the impressive expansion of the industry, thanks in large part to Zonin’s foresight 30 years ago, it’s like discovering Northern Italian jewels right in Northern Virginia.

The fall foliage is finally making its colorful appearance, so at less than two hours from Washington, take a trip into the crisp autumn air of open pastors. Make a day out of it, visiting other close-by wineries including Horton Winery and Burley Vineyards, or make a reservation at the winery’s 1804 Inn or Vineyard Cottage and make a weekend out of it, visiting Monticello, Montpelier and Skyline Drive or going to a UVA football game or hiking in Shenandoah.

And if you can’t find the time for a getaway in this crazy legislative season, you can pay tribute to the local varietals at your next dinner meeting — both Charlie Palmer Steak and Old Ebbitt Grill name Barboursville on their extensive wine lists.

Correction: Oct. 19, 2007

Because of incorrect information from the winery, Sen. Robert Byrd was attributed as a fan of Barboursville Vineyard’s merlot. In fact, it is former Sen. Harry Byrd (D-Va.).

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