Virginia on the Vine

Alabama-born chef Melissa Close weaves a Southern sensibility into her decidedly Italian menu at Palladio Restaurant at Barboursville Vineyards. Plan now to attend October's "Annual Autumn Explosion and Barrel Tasting" or November's "The Octagon," a special event pairing Melissa's four-course dinner with four different vintages of Octagon, Barboursville's signature red wine.

The Vineyard Cottage at Barboursville Vineyards is open to guests and features two suites. For more info visit www.barboursvillewine.com.

Winemaker Matthieu Finot (that's "Matthew" to you and me) hosts group tastings at King Family Vineyards. You need to call in advance and have at least eight in your party ($10 per person, which includes a souvenir glass).

No, this isn't Italy. This is the South. The fields of vines and rolling Virginia hillsides make Linden Vineyards an ideal place to taste wine.

There's no better way to enjoy the wine country than with a gourmet picnic, available at markets such as Greenwood Gourmet Grocery in Crozet.

Fall days in Virginia's wine country energize the senses. Winding roads pass by majestic farms ablaze with color. The cool mornings dawn with gentle sunshine, until deep blue skies blanket the mountains. In the foothills of those mountains lie fields lined with vines heavy with promise.

In Virginia, more than anywhere else in the South, that promise rings true. The state is by far the leader in our region for consistently good wine. Virginia's acreage devoted to wineries and the number of wineries here have more than doubled in the past 20 years. That translates into more feedback from the soil (telling vintners what grows best) and from consumers (telling them what sells best).

The state also leads the way in enticing not just wine experts, but also visitors who are still learning the difference between Chardonnay and Scuppernong. A wealth of special events, fine restaurants, wine classes, and family-friendly festivals make a trip here an autumn experience worth remembering.

Come along for a tour. You'll find great-tasting wine and a whole lot more.

Getting Started
Road signs sporting a cluster of grapes mark some stops along Virginia's various wine trails. Some trails are better organized than others and many produce a guide and a map.

The three largest trails are Blue Ridge Wine Way, Loudoun Wine Trail, and Monticello Wine Trail. Blue Ridge Wine Way (with 10 wineries and vineyards) and Loudoun Wine Trail (with 17 participating wineries) are both located in the northern part of the state. The Monticello Wine Trail (with 22 wineries) winds around Charlottesville and the nearby countryside.

A Quick Tasting Guide
We think two grapes in particular stand out here: Viognier (a full-bodied white traditionally grown in the France's Rhône Valley) and Cabernet Franc (a medium-bodied red traditionally used as a blending grape in France's Bordeaux region). You'll also find terrific examples of everything from Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio to Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo (and all sorts of delicious, food-friendly blends in between).

Blend It Like Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot--classic grapes from the Bordeaux region of France-are probably the most recognizable red wine-producing grapes in the state. In fact, if you see the word "Meritage" (which is a legal designation rhyming with "heritage") on the label, you'll find a combo of these grapes inside. Definitely Drink: 2006 King Family Meritage, 2006 Jefferson Meritage, 2006 La Grange Meritage, or 2006 Rappahannock Cellars 2nd Bottling Meritage.

Hometown Hero: Virginia's own Norton grape produces a hearty, Zinfandel-esque red that shouldn't be missed. Definitely Drink: 2004 Horton Cellars Norton or 2006 Chrysalis Vineyard Barrel Select Norton.

The Other White Wines: There's no denying the popularity of Chardonnay; however, in Virginia, Viognier is the premiere full-bodied white. For a lighter style white, consider Sauvignon Blanc. Definitely Drink: 2006 White Hall Vineyards Viognier, 2006 Chester Gap Cellars Viognier Reserve, 2007 Linden Vineyards Avenius Sauvignon Blanc, or 2006 Chester Gap Cellars Sauvignon Blanc.

That's Italian: The influence and growing popularity of Italian wines such as Pinot Grigio (white) and Sangiovese (red) in Virginia is unmistakable (and unmistakably delicious). Definitely Drink: 2005 Ingleside Vineyards Sangiovese, 2005 Villa Appalaccia "Toscanello" (a blend of Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese), 2005 Gabriele Rausse Pinot Grigio, or 2007 Barboursville Pinot Grigio.

A Couple More Surprises: Though not often talked about, Virginia turns out some pretty fabulous sparkling wine, particularly NV Thibaut-Janisson Winery Brut and NV Oasis Brut. If dessert wine is your thing, you'll flip for Linden's 2005 Late Harvest Petit Manseng and King Family 2006 "Loreley" Late Harvest Viognier.

More than Wine
Even with all these stellar wines, a trip to this part of the South is about more than sampling vintages in a tasting room. As the region's wineries have grown, so has the variety of experiences available for visitors. Barrel-room tastings, wine classes, blending parties, and food-and-wine festivals abound. We've come up with three ideal afternoons in Virginia's wine country. Try one of these itineraries to soak up what makes this area special.

At King Family Vineyards, every Sunday through the end of September, watch a polo match on the field just outside the winery. Tailgaters sip wine and watch the regal sport in a laid-back setting.

Get a crash course in all things Jefferson with a visit to Monticello, the former President's heralded home. Then head just 1 mile down the road for a tasting at Jefferson Vineyards, where the President tried (unsuccessfully) to make wine in the mid-1770s.

Have a late lunch at Palladio, one of the finest restaurants in Virginia. (If it's on the menu, try the beet-and-goat cheese ravioli with lump crabmeat.) Then, take a tour of the Barboursville ruins. The Jefferson-designed house, built in 1814 and burned in 1884, stands as a tangible and strangely compelling reminder of the living history in this area.

Pack a Picnic
Touring the wine country works up an appetite, and there's no better way to take in the pastoral beauty than a picnic at a vineyard. Our favorite three spots for buying a gourmet lunch-to-go are spread out in a loop that follows much of the Monticello Wine Trail.

BRIX Marketplace: Across the street from Jefferson Vineyards, this gas station-turned-market sells gourmet sandwiches, olives, cookies, and more.

Greenwood Gourmet Grocery: Just down the road from King Family Vineyards, you'll find everything local: cheese, honey, meats, you name it. The sandwiches are terrific, and they'll recommend a wine to pair with the one you choose.

Kluge Estate Farm Shop: This store, adjacent to the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyard, offers a great selection of cheeses, preserves, and gourmet meals.

Tips for the Trip
If you're renting a car, spring for the GPS. You'll be traveling down farm roads, some of which are marked well, while others aren't.

Pick up the 2008 edition of the Virginia Winery Guide (available at wineries and tourist information kiosks or by calling 1-800-828-4637) for a travel map listing the state's more than 130 wineries. Also, visit www.virginiawine.org/passport so you can participate in the Passport to Virginia Wineries program. Visit at least 15 wineries before the end of the year, and you'll be entered into a drawing for various prizes, including a one-year membership for the Virginia Wine of the Month Club.

Trail Guides and Maps

Do a little Internet research before you leave town.

Monticello Wine Trail: www.monticellowinetrail.com
Blue Ridge Wine Way: www.blueridgewineway.com
Loudoun Wine Trail: www.loudounfarms.org
Bedford Wine Trail: www.bedfordwinetrail.com
Wine Trail of Botetourt County: www.botetourtwinetrail.com

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