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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Jefferson Vineyards

From the moment the first colonist arrived in Jamestown, there has been a concerted effort to grow grapes in the new world - either from the English's desire to compete with France - or from the colonist's desire to reproduce life in the motherland. The early colonial governments encouraged planting vineyards by deeding property contingent on planting vines and even passing quotas on individual winemaking. The most famous colonial vintner was Thomas Jefferson who with the assistance of Italian winemaker Filippo Mazzei attempted to grow vinifera grapes around Monticello. Until then the only native grapes had been vinification on a consistant basis since they were generally resistant to disease and pests. Jefferson believed, correctly, that vinifera grapes were the future and hoped to "jump-start" the Virginian wine industry. He granted Mazzei over 2000 acres to plant grapes in addition to 50 acres adjoining Monticello on which Mazzei would build his home, Colle. Although never a farmer, Mazzei encouraged Jefferson's vision by declaring the land the most suitable for grape growing he had seen. However frost killed the initials year's crop and the Revolutionary War soon followed. Mazzei threw away his plow for a musket and the vineyard fell into disrepair. It was completely destroyed after Mazzei rented Colle to a captured Hessian officer. According to Jefferson, “Riedesel’s horses in one week destroyed the whole labor of three or four years; and thus ended an experiment which, from every appearance, would in a year or two more have established the practicability of that branch of culture in America." Event without Mazzei, Jefferson continued to experiment with vinifera vines - but not surprisingly - each effort failed. For without modern vineyard techniques - vinifera grapes would never succeed in this climate. By the turn of the 19th century, Jefferson did find success with the Alexander grape, a chance hybrid between an native labrusca and vinifera. By 1811 his vineyards had been replanted with 165 cuttings of Alexander and he apparently became accustomed to the grape's unique flavor. But no longer were vinifera vine grown around Monticello.

In 1981 the Woodward family decided to replicate Jefferson's vision and with the assistance of a young Gabrielle Rausse, they replanted the vinifera vineyards that Mazzei had first planted over two years earlier. Rausse, by the way, had successfully planted vineyards at Barboursville Vineyards a few years earlier and has been a regular consultant with other vineyards surrounding Charlottesville since. He also has his own brand, Gabriele Rausse Winery, available for purchase in several Charlottesville retail outlets. But back to Jefferson Vineyards, they have been making award winning wine since this first planting. A few years ago, they hired Andy Reagan to "jump-start" the winery, which had become a little stagnate in the preceding years. Reagan planned to use his experience in several East coast wineries (Benmarl Winery & Vineyard and Chrysalis Vineyards) to boost Jefferson wines to national and international class.

Andy met us in the tasting room and lead us on a short tour of the facilities. This is a small operation. They only have 20 acres of grapes planted and produce about 5,000 cases a year. Yet they produce a large portfolio of wines - and primarily the vinifera wines that Jefferson initially attempted. There was Chardonnay, Gewürztaminer, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and a Meritage blend. In fact Reagan even blends his "100%" varietals, adding just enough wine from other grapes to legally declare the wine a 100% varietal. Some may quibble with this approach, but it works. The wines were fantastic - the closest to Veritas that we had found since we had left that winery. The 2007 Viognier was excellent and a top medal winner. It includes a small percentage of Petit Manseng and Pinot Gris to add balance. The Reserve Chardonnay was also nice - aged sur lies and made from only the best grapes . I was aged in oak where the heads of the barrel were re-toasted; an interesting approach. This provided a slightly buttery finish - but the initial taste was refreshing and acidic. The reds were even more outstanding. The Reserve Cabernet Franc was the favorite of several in our party - it seemed to just melt in the mouth; for us the Merlot was awesome. Others preferred the Reserve Petit Verdot. Or maybe the Meritage. Basically they were all excellent wines - full bodied, oak aged - but still fruity; some had spicier tails, others more tannic; but all drinkable now. This was a fun round of drinking with almost everyone admiring the next sample - although there were a couple of dissenters... But for us, we will return - Jefferson would be satisfied.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this article immensely. Thomas Jefferson is uniquely fascinating.