In celebration of the third annual Regional Wine Week hosted by the good folks over at DrinkLocalWine.com, I have decided to revise a video blog I posted a few months ago titled, ‘Is that a Virginia Wine.” I’m doing this to present it in an easier to read blog post with visuals and to clarify “County” versus AVA (American Viticultural Areas) percentages. The video blog I posted focused on helping local consumers determine if their Virginia wine was indeed a Virginia grown wine or a Virginia wine "in name only." The post generated a lot of questions from local consumers who had long made the assumption that a Virginia wine had to be, well, a Virginia wine.
I say: "Make Mine 100% Homegrown Virginia Wine!"
If we’re celebrating Regional Wine Week as well as Virginia Wine Month, I want to make sure that consumers and Virginia wine lovers alike can quickly review a Virginia wine label and identify a home-grown wine. As a young up-and-coming wine industry we should take pride in the wines grown and produced right here in our backyard. The majority of the Commonwealth’s small local farm wineries have little reason to go outside the state to purchase fruit. The pictures presented in this post serve as examples. This is not meant to target any particular producer, because most producers who augment their production with out of state grapes also bottle 100% Virginia grown wines too.
TIP: Identify producers you can trust to deliver 100% VA wine
So, why would a Virginia producer use non-Virginia grapes in their wines? Two words for you, friends – “catastrophic conditions.” If you look at Virginia’s 2003 vintage which saw record rainfalls during harvest as well as the late spring frost of 2010, then you can see that a producer can lose a large percentage of their wine crop. In the end, a winery is a business and if a winery has lost a large percentage of their grape crop they may have to cross state lines to purchase fruit for their wines that year. Another reason not related to catastrophic conditions is profit, and is usually associated with a handful of Virginia’s mega-producers who can’t grow or buy enough local fruit to satisfy their staggering production totals. For the record, just because a Virginia wine is a Virginia wine "in name only" does not mean the wine is not delicious – many are. Additionally, you can typically find these wines at attractive prices since they generally serve as a producer’s lesser label and the cost of production is generally less expensive. The point here is not to single out these wines or frown upon them, but to ensure that consumers who want a Virginia grown wine are getting the very thing they desire and pay for.
Note "Virginia" right out front on the bottle
Looking at this nationally, any grape grown in the United States can pretty much be labeled as "American" wine. We’re looking at this at a state level and that’s where U.S. wine regulations come into play on the label. If a producer wishes to label a wine as a Virginia wine, then at least 75% of the grapes must come from Virginia. This means that the fruit source can be anywhere from within the state of Virginia – north, south, east or west. See the picture above and below for an example of what to look for on the wine label.
Note "Virginia" on the front of the bottle
If a producer wishes to use the name of the county, such as Orange County or Loudoun County on the label, then 85% of the grapes must come from that county. So as a consumer if you are interested in tasting Loudoun County, Rappahannock County, or Fauquier County wines this is your key. See the picture below for an example of what to look for on the wine label.
Note "Loudoun County" on the front of the bottle
Virginia has six AVA’s with another on the horizon in the Middleburg area. An AVA tells you that a wine-producing region has been recognized by the federal government as having a distinct terroir and producing wines reflective of those distinguishing features. If a producer wants to put the name of the AVA on the wine label then 85% of the grapes must come from that AVA. For example, if you want to sample wine from the wine-growing region that America’s first wine connoisseur, Thomas Jefferson, chose as the site to plant his vineyard, you will look for bottles with Monticello on the label – which represents the Monticello AVA in Charlottesville, Virginia. See the picture below for an example of what to look for on the wine label.
Note the AVA "Monticello" on the front of the bottles
If a producer uses more than 15% of grapes grown outside of Virginia, then the wine has to be labeled as “American,” “Red Table Wine,” or something along those lines. When looking at the label you will be hard pressed to find the word “Virginia” - outside of the producer’s address. While these wines “may” contain some local fruit, they are not 100% homegrown, and Virginia, a Virginia County, or a Virginia AVA cannot appear on the label (with the exception of Virginia in the address). See the picture below for an example of what to look for on the wine label. NOTE: Some producers have either the state, county or AVA in their name (e.g. Virginia Wine Works, Loudoun Valley, Rappahannock Cellars, etc.). Dismiss a producer’s name and address when looking for the items discussed in this post.
Note "American" not "Virginia" on the front the bottle
A gray area, at least for me, is that even if a wine is made from 75%-85% homegrown fruit, the door is still left open for a small amount of out-of-state fruit and the wine is still labeled as Virginia, a Virginia County, or a Virginia AVA. Typically, if Virginia is on the label the wine is 100% homegrown – no worries. There just isn’t any oversight that I’m aware of. Did you know? To put California on a wine label 100% of the grapes have to be grown in California. This makes sense to me for all states, young or mature in their respective wine industry, if the name of the state is to be put on the label. One of the best ways to ensure you are getting 100% Virginia grown wine in your glass is to get to know your local grape growers and producers. Fortunately, there are a lot of dedicated wine-growers in Virginia who share a passion and philosophy about this industry and take pride in growing and producing 100% Virginia wine. While young, Virginia is an emerging wine region recognized nationally and internationally for the quality of its wines. Some of the best wines crafted here in my humble opinion are 100% home-grown and reflective of our varying growing seasons and wine-growing sites.
POP QUIZ: Which is a Virginia home-grown wine and which is not?
Have a question about this post, friends? Feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, and as always, Happy Sipping! Stay tuned friends ...More to come!
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