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Vines & Vittles: Yes, West Virginia, there is good vinifera wine made here

By John Brown

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I am a locavore. I love to eat locally grown produce and meat that has been raised on nearby farms. I also love wines produced in our state, and I am constantly on the prowl for good Mountain State sippers. And there are a number of them being produced among the 20 state wineries scattered throughout these here hills.

So why don't we see more of the European varietals like cabernet, chardonnay and pinot noir being grown in West Virginia? There are practical reasons that are explained below, but one state winemaker is proving that it can be done.

Vitis vinifera is the official classification of grapes native to Europe and the Middle East, and it produces the world's greatest wines. In addition to the famous vinifera grapes such as the ones mentioned above, there are literally thousands of other varietals in the classification.

There are two other classifications of wine grapes produced in the United States: Vitis labrusca, a native American vine producing grapes such as Concord and Catawba; and French-American hybrids such as seyval blanc, vidal blanc and chambourcin.

Labrusca can make decent but distinctly flavored wines, while French-American hybrids (which are French vines grafted onto American rootstock) can produce wines closer in quality to vinifera.

So, in the quality hierarchy, vinifera grapes produce the best wines followed by French-American hybrids and then labrusca varietals.

Why, then, don't more West Virginia winemakers produce vinifera grapes if these make superior wines?

Well, the fact is that labrusca and French-American hybrids are considerably more hardy and prolific than vinifera. They are also less susceptible than vinifera to mold, diseases and the sometimes harsh realities of West Virginia weather. That's why you see state wineries growing mostly labrusca and French-American hybrids.

While there is no question that vinifera is extremely difficult to grow in West Virginia, it is not impossible. One winery in particular has been successful at it for years.

A few weeks back, I wrote about several eating establishments and purveyors of fine wine in Canaan Valley and the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia. Domiciled in that same region is the only West Virginia winery growing and making a significant amount of its production from vinifera.

Charles Whitehill, the owner and winemaker at Potomac Highland Winery in Keyser, has proven that it is possible to produce good wine from vinifera. His cabernet, pinot noir, Riesling and chardonnay vines, planted on his Fried Meat Ridge Vineyard, somehow survive the harsh winters and hot summers of the eastern West Virginia mountains. And the results, as far as I am concerned, are well worth the effort. Here are some worth searching for:

2009 Potomac Highland Meritage ($14): This medium-bodied blend of 68 percent cabernet sauvignon, 17 percent cabernet franc and 15 percent merlot is full of sweet black cherry flavors with just a touch of vanilla from the light oak aging. Try it with marinated and grilled sirloin.

2011 Potomac Highland Riesling ($12): Slightly sweet green apple flavors highlight this refreshing, exceptionally balanced wine. Great as a porch sipper or as an accompaniment to brunch foods like omelets and quiche.

2011 Potomac Highland Chardonnay ($12): This wine has a creamy mouth feel with hints of ripe pear, anise and nutmeg spice. Lightly oaked, it finishes dry and would be excellent to pair with smoked West Virginia trout.

You can look for Potomac Highland wines around the state or call 304-788-3066 for shipment. You can also visit their website at www.phwinery.com.

For more on the art and craft of wine, visit John Brown's Vines & Vittles blog at thegazz.com.


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