Recently, at one of Philadelphia's best restaurants, I got into a conversation with the sommelier about up-and-coming wine regions of the world.
His passion for the subject was as rich as his French accent. The wine guru had cozied up to every wine-worthy region of the world, from New Zealand and Germany to South Africa and Argentina. But I'd be surprised, he said, to hear which part of the planet was piquing his oenological fantasies of late.
More than 200 years ago, one legendary Virginian dreamed of turning a corner of the New World into a wine region to rival those across the pond.
"We could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good," Thomas Jefferson once said.
In 1774, the former president tried, however unsuccessfully, to harvest European grapes and make fine wine in Charlottesville, VA. And history shows that wine was being made in the Old Dominion as far back as 1608.
But contemporary Virginia is where all things wine-related really get interesting.
Sure, it's no Napa. Nor Sonoma. But when it comes to humble beauty and surprisingly grape-friendly terrain, Virginia is carving its own niche in the little black books of savvy wine lovers searching for the next big thing.
In the past few decades, the wine business in Virginia has grown from a cottage industry with only 6 statewide wineries in 1979 to today's tally of over 130 wineries and growing.
From vineyards overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Southwest corner of the state to viticulture bastions barely removed from the Washington, D.C., suburbs, Virginia's wine world is worth a deeper look.
The state is widely considered the nation's sixth most important when it comes to wine making. And Virginia's neither here nor there locale in the mid-Atlantic lends vineyards flexibility, climate-wise, when it comes to making both New World and Old World wine styles.
The most noteworthy Virginia wines include Chardonnays, Cabernet Francs, Petit Verdots, Viogniers and wines made from the state's native Norton grape.
More than 30 of the state's wineries can be found within a 40-mile radius of Thomas Jefferson's home. Start your tour right in Charlottesville at Jefferson Vineyards, set on the site where T.J. planted his original vines and within eyeshot of Monticello. Then get your designated driver to tour you and your entourage along the Monticello Wine Trail for more tasting fun.
Here's a sampling of the local vineyards that await:
Kings Family Vineyard, Crozet, Virginia
A family-owned boutique winery in Crozet, VA, about 20 miles from Charlottesville, King Family Vineyards is known for its stunning Blue Ridge Mountain views and class-act wines. The vineyards sidle up to a horse farm, and a polo-loving crowd prevails, particularly when a match is on the weekend's agenda alongside wine-tasting (a heady combination guaranteed to conjure a European vibe). King Family's small-production, premium wines have gotten kudos from many a major wine magazine. The Michael Chaps Monticello Viognier, which pairs well with dishes such as seafood risotto, gets particularly big props.
Veritas Winery, Afton, Virginia
About 26 miles west of Charlottesville, where the Blue Ridge Mountains begin their subtle ascent skyward, lies this veritable family-run winery. Veritas Winery is known for its Petit Verdot, Merlot and dessert wines. Owners Andrew and Patricia Hodson and their daughter, son-in-law and various other assorted family members are happy to give vineyard tours. And on a perfect summer day, there's no better perch than the vineyard's sun-soaked porch to indulge in a refreshing glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
One of the grand dames of the Virginia grape-growing industry, Barboursville Vineyards is steeped in history as the home of former 19th-century governor James Barbour. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison once lived nearby in little mansions with some minor name recognition -- Monticello and Montpelier -- and the lads used to pop by Barbour's on their ways to visit each other. Founded in 1977, Barboursville Vineyards is one of the oldest in the state. The scene is reminiscent of a Tuscan farmhouse, and you'll sample wines by an open fireplace during the winter months or toss back the tipple under the cover of a vine-draped loggia come summer. There are usually 15 wines to sample, and you can stroll from counter to counter, wending your way from whites and reds to dessert wines. Then stroll off any tipsiness by exploring the historic ruins of the Barbour mansion, a short walk from the tasting room.
Prince Michel Vineyard and Winery, Leon, Virginia
Hit this winery for an entertaining layover on your way from Washington, D.C., to Skyline Drive, the scenic route through Shenandoah National Park. It's not about appearances at Prince Michel Vineyards and Winery -- the winery and tasting rooms actually resemble a glorified truck stop more than a grape-growing domain. And while the wines won't blow you away, for pure fun in unpretentious surrounds, the Prince is a surefire crowd pleaser. There's a mini wine museum where you can digest a brief history of wine-making in Virginia before heading into a room full of vats for a self-guided tour. Your reward? Free tasting, bien s��r. And if the complimentary samples only whet your appetite for more, you can shell out a few bucks for the chance to sample all 14 of Prince Michel's offerings.