Incredibly, as it turns out, Thomas Jefferson's quixotic belief that Virginia could make great wine turned out to be correct. Virginia makes great wine. It also - like many other great wine making regions around the world - makes some terrible wine. Let's go for great, though.
We've been to most of what I'd call the great wineries of Virginia, but recently we chanced to stop in at Barboursville Vineyards, about twenty miles from Charlottesville, VA and Jefferson's famous home at Monticello. I must admit initial skepticism, having seen some of their lower end bottles on store shelves in the past. I was blown away.
Like many of its cousins, Barboursville Vineyards offers a beautiful country setting with a run up of winding roads through towns you've never heard of. We were personally greeted and shown the ropes as soon as we entered, which was welcome if for no other reason that this is an overwhelming, albeit still rustic place. The very reasonable $7.00 tasting fee is your ticket to most of their current vintages, of which we counted about twenty separate varietals and blends. With some of the greatest breadth of variety I've ever seen in a single winery, the very friendly folks at Barboursville will truly pour something for everyone. You'll find that most is decent to good as you move from counter to counter (about four bottles per tasting station).
The really good stuff
This winery really shines behind its closed doors, though. Their higher end tasting room, Library 1821, is a true temple to great Virginia wine that manages to simultaneously be both elegant and cozy. They've maintained an extensive library of past vintages of their signature red Bordeaux-style, Octagon, (and others) which is not available in the initial tasting. Chelsey Blevins, from their knowledgeable and friendly staff, spent good one-on-one time with us helping to assemble the perfect vertical tasting (i.e. tastes of multiple years of the same wine). Chelsey, it is worth noting, is also an up and coming wine maker at the nearby Cooper Vineyards. Our tasting lineup below rang in at about $60 with a snack, well worth the higher pour price.
- Octagon 2005 - Our favorite in the lineup, the delightful aged book nose (smell) of the 2005 opened up with raspberry notes and vanilla throughout, finishing with cranberry and vanilla on the swallow.
- Octagon 2008 - Our second favorite and by far the most interesting, the cloves in the 2008 reminded me of walking into my uncle's spice warehouse. It tasted like it smelled, with incredible hints of vanilla and tea.
- Octagon 2009 - Probably the most disappointing (yet still amazing), 2009 reminded us of walking into a new high end apartment building, but is certainly the winner for those who love hints of black fruit on their palate.
- Octagon 2010 - From what was an amazing wine growing year in Virginia, the nose on the 2010 was of chocolate and vanilla, a bit stronger so than either the '05 or '08. It was very "leggy" (wine flowing slowly down the side of the glass when swirled), with nice baking spice on the finish.
- Octagon 2012 - This guy will really benefit from a few more years in the bottle, but is still delicious today. It's got that chocolate and vanilla that we came to expect from the earlier vintages, but differentiated by a more pronounced soft leathery feel.
From the winemakers
"Named to celebrate the estate’s diverse connections with the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, symbolized in the central octagon drawing room in his design for Governor Barbour’s mansion...
"Our pre-eminent wine therefore is red, because its consistent core varietals, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, happened to outshine all others in the qualities of a wine of such stature, sooner than everything else, and at a time - the earliest 1990s - when we were motivated to craft a small blend to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the estate."
- Vertical tastings are your friend. Tasting different vintages of the same wine help you appreciate the impact of weather and changing climates in the delicate growing and winemaking process.
- Barboursville Vineyards is a winner on the growing list of great Virginia wineries, a "must visit", particularly if you're willing to pony up some extra dollars in the beautiful Library 1812.
- They've offer more variety than I've seen in most wineries, and have an extensive library of earlier vintages into which you can dig. We highly recommend the Octagon 2005 and 2008..
- The winemakers have had some success with things you wouldn't normally find in the Commonwealth; we walked away with a bottle of the 2007 Nebbiolo Reserve.