Ideal Year for Grapes Promises Impressive Local Vintages

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Grape harvesting at Grace Estate Vineyards in White Hall.

Monticello American Viticultural Area Named the ‘Wine Region of the Year’

Few areas in the world attract wine enthusiasts like our own backyard, which is home to more than 40 vineyards. Together they make up the Monticello American Viticultural Area, which was named the ‘Wine Region of the Year’ earlier this month by Wine Enthusiast, an international distinction beating winegrowing regions in France, Australia, and Italy. 

Combine that with a highly successful annual grape harvest. This year’s vintage is looks to be particularly notable, with lighter but higher-quality harvests at many area vineyards. 

The winemaking process can be broken down into five major stages: harvesting, crushing and pressing, fermentation, clarification, and then aging and bottling. The two most influential factors in growing the grapes are weather and climate, which help determine how quickly wine grapes grow, how much flavor and juiciness they have, and how well those grapes can be turned into wine. 

One of Charlottesville’s most popular vineyards is Crown Family Orchards, owned and operated by the Chiles family, which boasts seven major orchards within a 15-miles radius of Charlottesville. Two of the most recognized are Carter Mountain near Monticello and Chiles Peach Orchard in Greenwood. Henry Chiles, one of the America’s most prominent orchardists and still hands-on in the operation, was incredibly pleased with this year’s weather and the vintage it produced. 

 “Every year brings a new set of challenges when it comes to growing fruit,” said Chiles. “This year we were fortunate enough, along with most Virginia growers, to make it through frost season this spring with little to no injury to the fruit. Plenty of rain in late spring and early summer really invigorated the vines. As we got to mid-summer however, things really dried up, and remained dry throughout the harvest season.” 

Chiles said this year was ideal for growing wine grapes. Crown Orchards couldn’t have asked for a better season. Chiles predicted this year’s vintage will produce impressive wines, particularly the reds, across all Central Virginia 

“While it may be a few years before we get the opportunity to indulge in these fine wines,” Chiles went on to say, “I can assure you they’ll be worth the wait. Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot are the two reds that stand out the most from this vintage. As far as white wines are concerned, Sauvignon Blanc and Petit Manseng were excellent.” 

Grape harvesting at Grace Estate Vineyards in White Hall.

A variety of factors contributed to MAVA winning a reputation as one of the world’s most dynamic wine regions: 

 “There are a few really interesting things going on with Virginia wine,” said Fred Reno, owner of Charlottesville’s Thomas Jefferson Wine Company and one of the most sought-after wine consultants in Virginia. “The physiological ripeness of the grape, which is essentially the degree of red sugar that can be contained in a grape, is achieved very well in Virginia winemaking due to the climate conditions in the state year-round. Virginia wine also has the type of natural acidity that is similar to what you get in Europe. These factors allow for a diverse collection of wine varieties and the ability to produce many different types of wine. When you pair that with Virginia wine’s food friendliness and the social atmosphere of wineries, you achieve what we’ve gotten here in Charlottesville.”

Reno was recently recognized by the Virginia Wineries Association as the “Wine Person of the Year for 2023.” His travels as a wine consultant have taken him all over the country, and he maintains that Virginia wine has always been particularly special. 

“Throughout my years working as a wine consultant in California, I was working with all different types of wine along the West Coast,” Reno said. “Over those years, I was also starting to get exposed to Virginia wine and was floored by the caliber and the quality of what was being produced here. I started bringing bottles of Virginia wine to my colleagues in California and nobody could believe where it came from. Virginia has really established itself as a wine destination, particularly over the last few decades, all of which has culminated in this recent recognition from Wine Enthusiast that recognizes Charlottesville as a competitive winegrowing region.”

The practice of winemaking in Virginia dates back to 1609, when the earliest settlers of Jamestown planted vines in an attempt to produce a cash crop from the fresh, vital soils of the New World. Also in 1619, as a way for the British to move away from buying French wine, the first House of Burgesses passed a law that said that any male landowner who bought land in the country had to plant a minimum of ten vines. 

While these early attempts were usually unsuccessful, Thomas Jefferson, a self-proclaimed wine enthusiast—often calling it a necessity of life— first envisioned Virginia as a place to grow and make wine. Jefferson established himself as an eager wine consultant and buyer prior to his presidency and spent time building his wine knowledge when traveling in Europe. His attempts at growing were largely unsuccessful, but he foresaw Charlottesville’s potential as a wine producing area.

One aspect of wine-making that has been increasingly emphasized over the last several years is the importance of sustainable practices throughout the extensive process. Pesticides can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and alter soil health and biodiversity if performed without the proper sustainability measures. Many popular winegrowing regions across the world have moved towards more sustainable practices and are working to reduce their environmental impact, locals included.

Grace Estate Winery, one of Crozet’s most popular vineyards and just over a decade old, has made significant efforts to reduce the types and quantities of pesticides they use. Sustainability measures allow for healthier fruits, which results in a slower, smoother natural fermentation with minimal intervention and additions. 

Grape harvesting at Grace Estate Vineyards in White Hall.

One of Grace Estate’s top winegrowers, Robbie Corpora, said, “The more temperate weather conditions also allowed us to successfully improve our farming techniques and reduce our inputs into the farm. Grace Estate adds no yeast or other winemaking products to help fermentation so the wonderful quality this year made the work in the winery both a great pleasure and very easy.”

Grace Estate’s tasting room has just released their “Slope of Grace’’ Cabernet Franc and their 2022 “First Baron” Sauvignon Blanc wines for the public to try. Both of these varieties are predicted to be highly successful this season, but the wines won’t be released to the public outside the tasting room for a few more years. 

So, postpone your trip to taste wines in France and Italy and find your favorite among our nearly 50 local wineries. After all, for now, we’ve got the best. 

Grape harvesting at Grace Estate Vineyards in White Hall.

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