Monday, December 10, 2012

Book Review: "Beyond Jefferson's Vines - The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia" by Richard Leahy, USA

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Richard G. Leahy at Boxwood Vineyard

"Beyond Jefferson's Vines - The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia" by Richard G. Leahy ($19.95, Sterling Publishing) is a fascinating book about the emerging wine region Virginia in the United States.

Over the past 50 years or so, Virginia wines have experienced a tremendous development - to elegant and balanced, mostly European vinifera-based wines. Today, Virginia is the 5th largest wine industry in the US, with about 200 wineries and 2,500 acres of vineyards.

Picture: Beyond Jefferson's Vines - The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia

Amazingly, Frenchman Stephane Derenoncourt, a famous wine consultant who now plays in the same league as Michel Rolland, is advising not only star producers in Bordeaux such as Chateau Canon la Gaffeliere in St. Emilion, but also newcomer Boxwood Vineyard in Virginia, USA. I recently tasted some wines with owner Count Stefan von Neipperg at Chateau Canon la Gaffeliere in St. Emilion, Bordeaux, France and I tasted some wines with owner/General Manager Rachel Martin at Boxwood Vineyard in Virginia, USA. Both wines - the Bordeauy and the Virginia wine - were made with the advice of Stéphane Derenoncourt.

It all began with Thomas Jefferson.

See  more:
The Wine Empire of the von Neipperg Family in France, Bulgaria and Germany
Boxwood Winery in Virginia: Lunch with Wine Makers Rachel Martin and Adam McTaggert in the Chai between the Tanks – TasteCamp 2012 East Kick-Off, USA

President Thomas Jefferson and Wine in Virginia

Before becoming President of the US, Thomas Jefferson was American Ambassador to France. He was appointed in 1785 and spent five years in Europe. There, the third President of the USA - and notable bon viveur - mingled effective statesmanship with frequent trips to the wine regions of France and Germany.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Gerhard Bauer, Otium Cellars

See more:
Tasting the “German” Otium Wines with Gerhard Bauer and Ben Renshaw at Otium Cellars, Virginia, USA

Thomas Jefferson visited the Rheingau in Germany in 1788 and wrote that the wine of the "Abbaye of Johnsberg is the best made on the Rhine without comparison … That of the year 1775 is the best." He also referred to the Rheingau’s Riesling as the "small and delicate Rhysslin which grows only from Hochheim to Rudesheim". Impressed by the quality of the Rheingau Riesling wines, he bought 100 grapevines in Hochheim to take back to his estate in Virginia.

Before moving to Europe, Jefferson had already tried to grow wine in Virginia, but without success. In 1773, Jefferson first tried to grow wine by hiring an Italian winemaker. However, he produced only a small quantity of American wines and none from the imported European Vitis vinefera vines.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Jim Law, Linden Vineyard

See more:
Jim Law and Linden Vineyards in Virginia – A Profile, USA

That did not change when he came back from Europe with new European plants. While his personal foray into wines only saw success as a connoisseur and not a wine producer, he was considered an expert during his lifetime. For more than 60 years, Jefferson wrote about wine growing and wine making.

Today, Jefferson's dream of wine growing in Virginia has been achieved. Virginia is among the top US wine producing regions. At Jefferson's Monticello, more than 20 varieties of grapes are grown.

The Wines of Virginia

As far as white wines are concerned, the European vinifera grapes Chardonnay and Viognier are the leading varieties today. Increasingly they are made “naked” or with little oak only, with the objective of retaining natural acidity and freshness. Indeed, Viognier has been named as the official grape of Virginia.

For French-American hybrid varieties, Seyval Blanc is still popular, but resembles now the fresh and crisp wines from France’s South West. Vidal has become the backbone of the artificially frozen ice wine (cryoextraction), which I am not a great fan of.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Owner/General Manager Rachel Martin, Boxwood Winery

See more:
Boxwood Winery in Virginia: Lunch with Wine Makers Rachel Martin and Adam McTaggert in the Chai between the Tanks – TasteCamp 2012 East Kick-Off, USA

The first ice wine was reportedly produced in Germany in 1794. Today, ice wines are highly prized wines that are made not only in Germany, but also in Austria and Canada as well as other countries, including the United States. Canada has experienced an amazing ice wine boom in the past decades. See about German and Canadian ice wine here. In the context of ice wine, some wine regions, including Virginia, are pushing cryoextraction. This is an approach, which kind of simulates the frost in the vineyard in the wine cellar. It was developed by the French. Instead of waiting for Mother Nature to produce frosty temperatures in the vineyard, the winemaker subjects the grapes to frosty temperatures in the cellar and presses them while frozen.

As far as red wines are concerned, there was a shift in top Virginia reds from straight varietal wines to blends. And blends have gone from being dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with a significant amount of Petit Verdot. There is an increasing focus on neutral oak and clean, vibrant fruit, mirroring the evolution of Virginia white wines.

Picture: Christian G.E. Schiller with Jennifer Breaux Blosser, Breaux Vibeyards

See more:
Visiting Jennifer Breaux Blosser and Breaux Vineyards in Virginia, USA

Tannat, Uruguay’ signature grape from the South West of France, is showing up in more Virginia wines, usually as a blend. The only red French American hybrid which has performed consistently well in Virginia is Chambourcin, which, with its bright cherry aromas and flavors, crisp acidity and low tannin, resembles the Gamay grape of Beaujolais.

Finally, while respectable sparkling wines have been made in Virginia in the past, sparkling wines have been taken to a new level in Virginia by Claude Thibault. His NV Thibault-Janisson Brut, made from 100 percent Chardonnay, which President Obama offered his guests at his first state dinner, is as close as you can get to Champagne outside of France.

Beyond Jefferson’s Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia

Richard G. Leahy’s book provides an excellent overview of the emergence of Virginia as a serious wine producer. His book is not so much a well structured textbook, but more a collection of most interesting articles about the emergence of the wine country Virginia.

Pictures: Richard G. Leahy

The book starts with a chapter about a rather new winery in Virginia, RdV Vineyards in Delaplane. Owner and principal Rutger de Vink’s “goal is nothing less than to make world-class wine in Virginia”. Indeed, is on the right track and Jancis Robinson has already reviewed his wines in her weekly column in the Financial Times.

Richard G. Leahy then moves to the 2010 vintage.

This is followed by a profile of Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyard. The husband and wife owner-operators Dean Andrews and Lynn Easton Andrews do not want to make world class wines but want to transform a spectacular mountain site into an events venue and culinary destination. Generally, some Virginia wineries concentrate on making the best possible wine, while others are entertainment venues. Richard G. Leahy sees a role for both.

The next chapter is on Virginia’s historic roots and in particular on the role of Thomas Jefferson.

In what follows, there are chapters on the women who helped shape Virginia’s wine industry, and on how Virginia wines have slowly gained national media attention. The chapter "How the British Feel about Virginia Wine ... and Why it Matters" provides a perspective from the other side of the Atlantic.

Finally, various chapters cover the different regions of winemaking in Virginia. These chapters provide useful information for a Virginia winery trip.

All in all, Richard G. Leahy’s book "Beyond Jefferson's Vines - The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia" is a most entertaining book on the Virginia wine success story, written by an eminent expert of Virginia wine. "The story," Richard G. Leahy writes, "encompasses many people in many fields: university researchers, grape growers, winemakers and winery owners, politicians, marketing professionals, the media and many others - all players in an industry persevering in the attempt to make not just wine, but fine wine that will restore Virginia's reputation as an important American wine region."

Richard G. Leahy

Richard Leahy is a wine writer and consultant who has been reporting on the wines of Virginia and Eastern North America since 1986. He works with numerous wineries in Virginia and along the East Coast.

Richard Leahy began writing about wine with a regular column in the Connection Newspaper Group in 1986. Under Bruce Cass and Jancis Robinson MW he was Mid-Atlantic and Southern Editor for the groundbreaking Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America (2000). He wrote the foreword to Virginia Wine From Grapes to Glass by Walker Elliott Rowe (2009, The History Press) and was featured by Todd Kliman in his book The Wild Vine (2010, Crown Publishing/Random House). He is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and is a member of the Board of Directors of “Drink Local Wine.”

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