There’s a reason the grapes grow so well in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, an area bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountain to the east and Appalachian and Allegheny Plateaus to the west.
For one, the Valley gets about half as much rain as the rest of the state, which makes for higher acidity in the wines and allows many more varieties to thrive in the state’s oldest and largest American Viticulture Areas (AVAs). It’s also cooler and drier there, and the mountains help steer storms around the area, whether they are sliding in from the west or charging up the East Coast.
But those factors that protect the 2.4 million acres that extend into West Virginia and comprise the oldest and largest of Virginia’s AVAs also tend to keep it off a lot of consumers’ radar and keep it as “the best-kept secret in the world,” as one winery owner in the Shenandoah AVA described it in a story that published several years ago.
And it’s not only the shadows of the mountain peaks that tend to hide this wine region that produces some of the “state’s best wines,” as this Associated Press travel story from 2017 described it.
With more than 300 wineries annually raising the bar in terms of overall quality — many of those bunched in Loudon County on the fringes of the Washington D.C. and Baltimore metro areas and also around Charlottesville — and a well-funded wine industry that has promoted itself quite well through its highly regarded Governor’s Cup competitions and recently got to tout the distinction as Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year for 2023, there is plenty of competition for attention.
But it is a region certainly worthy of a visit, with its 22 members that are lined up on either side of I-81 and an easy drive from Skyline Drive, which says all you need to know about the scenery at these venues. Among the other tourist attractions are Shenandoah National Park, eight caverns including Luray and Natural Bridge, trails for those drawn to the outdoors and loads of restaurants and craft beverage producers for those who prefer a trip that’s a lot less strenuous.
One of those is Cave Ridge Vineyard in Mount. Jackson, about 90 miles northwest of Charlottesville, which Randy and Karen Phillips opened in 2005 after moving from the Midwest and settling on a property after his retirement. Their daughter Megan has since brought her skills into the operation as the general manager.
Phillips, with a background in agriculture and natural resources, said they were cognizant of the area’s limitations as a wine market when they purchased the last 25 years ago.
“A lot of people want to locate in northern Virginia and Charlottesville because that’s where the people are,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “But that has changed over time,” especially as fiberoptics is finding its way to even some of the most remote areas of the Valley.
In researching the state, he said the soils “in this part of the Valley are limestone clays, similar to what you’d find in some of the winegrowing areas of Europe. It also has one of the lowest rainfall areas east of the Mississippi River. So my whole focus was growing the best grapes I could, and I felt everything else would fall in place.”
The growing conditions aren’t the only asset; the average elevation in Phillips’ 27-acre vineyard is 1,300 feet, which all but eliminates the potential damage from late frosts.
Bottom line, the decision to plant there has turned out even better than he could have hoped, as the family has won awards in both the Governor’s Cup and the Shenandoah Cup competitions. In addition, Phillips has won the Gordon Murchie Lifetime Achievement Award, in part thanks to his involvement in creating the Shenandoah Valley Wine Growers Association and in co-founding the Virginia Winery Distribution Co.
The fifth Shenandoah Cup — a contest among the wineries located in the Valley — was handed out in November to Jump Mountain Vineyard, in Rockbridge Baths, for its Borderland red wine, a blend of Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
Here are the other top finishers:
2, Briedé Family Vineyards, 2020 Sparkling Winchester (sparkling wine made up of 100% Cayuga white)
tie, Rockbridge Vineyard & Brewery, 2019 V’dor (dessert wine made from 26% Vidal Blanc, 26% Traminette, 24% Vignoles and 24% Riesling)
tie, Bluestone Vineyard, 2021 Bridgewater Crimson (red blend of 50% Petit Verdot, 33% Merlot and 17% Cabernet Franc)
4-tie, Bluestone Vineyard, 2021 Merlot, red varietal
tie, Muse Vineyards, 2020 Petit Verdot, red varietal
Among the Shenandoah Valley wineries that earned at least a gold medal in the 2023 Governor’s Cup competition were Shenandoah Vineyards (the second-oldest winery in Virginia won for each of three vintages of Riesling it entered, plus for its Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc), Bluestone Vineyards (three, including for its Petit Verdot), Muse Vineyards (two), The Winery at Kindred Pointe (one) and Rockbridge (one).
Members of the wine trail meet monthly to discuss issues and plan events, which this year will feature the Shenandoah Valley Wine Festival at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley in Winchester, Virginia, on June 22. In addition, they will schedule festivities around the Shenandoah Cup selections later in the year.
Wines from the trail are sourced from both vinifera and hybrid grapes, as producers going back five decades have been experimenting with what grows best. While Chardonnay, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc are noted as some of the grape varieties that best express the spirit of the Shenandoah Valley AVA, hybrid varieties including Vidal Blanc, Chardonel, Chambourcin and Traminette have been proving their potential.
Shep Rouse and his wife Jane Millott-Rouse run Rockbridge Winery in Raphine, around 55 miles southwest of Charlottesville and a 45-minute drive from the Washington and Jefferson National Forests, another of the Shenandoah Valley’s top natural attractions. He said he picked his site in 1998 for two reasons: 1) excellent air drainage and exposure although a little high (1,920 to 2,000 ft) and, 2) close to 2 freeways (I-81 and I-64) for retail accessibility. While limited some by the elevation, his vineyard runs the gamut from Riesling, Chardonnay, Vidal and Traminette to Chambourcin and DeChaunac.
Rockbridge (named for the county it sits in) wines have won numerous medals over the years including Best in Show in the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association and Town Point competitions in addition to two appearances in the past four years in the Governor’s case (top 12) for its dessert wine called Vd’Or.
“We have a friendly and knowledgeable staff and a lovely rural location with a nice ‘homemade’ style,” Rouse said, noting that they also produce cider and beer to enhance their customer base.
Forty miles north, located a few miles off Route 81, is Bluestone Vineyard, its roots dating back to 2003 when Curt and Jackie Hartman began planting grapes on their property to make wine for their personal use. Five years later they were planting more vines, but this time with the idea of opening a winery, which took place in January 2011. Its current wine list includes all estate wines except for the Viognier.
Today, their son Lee is the general manager and head winemaker, and his brother RC is the operations manager. In addition to the winery, Lee and wife Erika recently opened Rootstock Wine Bar & Provisions in Harrisonburg, which will include in its portfolio a mix of Virginia-produced wines and ciders.
He made the same points as his colleagues, talking on the phone while standing on the property and looking at the rugged terrain of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains. “It is a region that defined itself well before human beings ever got here,” he said, emphasizing the insulating factors that enhance the quality of the grapes.
“In August when those grapes really want some a break from the hot sun of the day … in the Valley, we get that,” which helps retain their acidity. “Maybe our wines don’t get as big and massive or as high in alcohol as some other regions,” he said. “But we do end up with a really fresh style that I think lends itself to pairing with foods really well, and while we may not have the tannins, that acid does help with wine aging.”