Virginian wine a link with history and politics

Politics, history and wine played together at a tasting from the American state of Virginia. For publication in the week starting Monday 2 May 2016.

The names Trump and Clinton along with a range of former American presidents featured at a presentation of wines from the American state of Virginia in London last week.

The first wine tasted was the 2009 Trump blanc de blanc. Eric Trump, the son of the man seeking the Republican nomination, is president of Trump Winery, located near Thomas Jefferson’s mansion known as Monticello, said to be the birthplace of American viticulture. Trump is the biggest winery in Virginia, with 200 acres (81 hectares) of vines.

Virginia is America’s fifth largest wine producer, behind California, Washington, New York and Oregon. As of late April it had 275 wineries on about 1,400 hectares of vine, putting it at about two thirds the size as the wine industry in the United Kingdom (about 2,000 hectares of vines).

Agriculture is Virginia’s main economic driver, which explained why the governor, Terry McAuliffe, and secretary of agriculture, Todd Haymore, were in London to promote the state’s wines. Discussion at the London dinner focused of viticulture and wine making, but inevitably conversation moved to the presidential primaries. McAuliffe is a Democrat and a former campaign manager for the Clintons.

The governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia is only allowed one four-year term in office, though they can seek election after four years out of office. The majority of states allow two or more terms. “By the time I leave office in two years,” McAuliffe said with a grin, “Virginia [wine] will be bigger than California.” He was joking because production in Virginia is tiny compared with California, which alone makes about 96 per cent of all America’s wine. If a country, California would be the world’s fourth largest wine producer.

The United States drank more wine than any other nation on the planet last year, according to figures from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. People consumed 4,100 million 750ml bottles, compared with France’s 3,600 million. Consumption per head is much higher in France because of its smaller population: 64.6 million against 324 million in the US.

It would be tempting to note similarities between the 2009 Trump sparkling chardonnay and the presidential aspirant. The former is sophisticated and has a fine bead. It is made using “méthode champenoise”, the traditional technique employed in Champagne where the second fermentation occurs in the bottle. Trump wines have been included in the list of top 10 American sparkling wines, and the 2009 is a worthy nominee.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has had the longest continuous governorship in the United States, since 1813. McAuliffe, born in 1957, said he serves Virginian wine every day at the governor’s residence and at all trade missions. This was his 16th trade mission in the 27 months he has been governor.

One of the most impressive wines served was the 2014 Barboursville chardonnay, made by Luca Paschina. A food friendly wine, it is kept in old barrels to avoid the excessive vanilla flavours that could arise from the use of new oak. Paschina came from Piemonte and is the general manager of Barboursville as well as winemaker.

The vineyard is named after James Barbour, a neighbour of Jefferson and a governor of Virginia from 1812-14 who also planted vineyards. Jefferson was America’s third president and vice president under John Adams, the second president after George Washington. Barbour was later a senator and secretary of war under John Quincy Adams, the sixth American president and son of the earlier President Adams (who served as America’s ambassador in London in the George Washington administration). It seems little has changed in the sense that the same names keep re-appearing in leadership competitions in the United States, with Hillary Clinton the wife of 42nd president Bill Clinton, whose middle name is Jefferson.

Gianni Zonin, heir to a family wine business in the Veneto region of Italy, bought the land that became Barboursville Wines and started planting vines in 1976. His family business started in 1821, the same year that Governor Barbour planted vines in Virginia. Barbour’s efforts were not successful, but Paschina said Zonin had created a superb estate in Barboursville that had “inspired hundreds to follow his example”.

Paschina has been winemaker since 1990. His 2012 Barboursville Octagon is an excellent wine. It is almost a 50:50 blend of merlot and petit verdot, with a touch of cabernet franc. Virginia gets high rainfall and Gianni Zonin intelligently planted varieties that can cope with lots of water, like merlot. Paschina said Octagon was made to “celebrate the estate’s diverse connections with the legacy of Thomas Jefferson”. The wine is named after the octagon drawing room that Jefferson designed for Governor Barbour’s mansion.

Other lovely wines were a brace of Boxwood reds. The current (2014) vintage of Topiary was tasted with the 2010 to see how the younger wine would tend to evolve. Both are blends of merlot and cabernet franc, with the latter about two thirds of the cepage. Winemaker Rachel Martin said Virginia had numerous meso-climates and the trick was finding the right grape for the right climate.

Regardless of the result of the American presidential election in November, we can be confident that Virginian wines will continue to be well represented at some of the best tables and restaurants in America.

Words: 903

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