Virginia’s wineries are concentrated in two areas: one near Charlottesville, the other within an hour’s drive of Dulles Airport. Linking them is an über-American landscape of gentle hills, picket fences, and white shingled houses. There are well-appointed inns and B&B’s at every turn and far more historical markers than vineyards. A trip here doesn’t seem like a wine tour so much as a visit to Colonial Williamsburg.
Until recently, I’d felt that same dissonance about Virginian wine. The state had been trading on the grape-growing reputation of noted wine lover Thomas Jefferson for 200 years without producing anything worthy of mention. Then a single bottle convinced me that Virginia was ready for consideration. And a single meal verified that it should be on the must-visit list of any adventurous wine traveler.
Both happened at the same place, Barboursville Vineyards, just outside Charlottesville and about a two-hour drive south of the Lincoln Memorial. The wine was Barboursville’s 1999 Nebbiolo, made from a fiercely difficult grape that I’d always assumed could be grown with success only in small, well-delineated pockets of Italy’s Piedmont region. When Luca Paschina, the winemaker, brought a bottle to the table during my first lunch at Barboursville’s Palladio Restaurant last year, I snickered. Nebbiolo from Virginia?That would be the punch line to a cruel joke.
But Paschina is from Alba, the center of the world’s tiny supply of great Nebbiolo—Barolo is a few miles in one direction, Barbaresco a few miles in another—and it turns out that he’s the Nebbiolo version of the Horse Whisperer, capable of gaining utter obedience from recalcitrant vineyard land. Barboursville was founded in 1976 by Italy’s winery-owning Zonin family, but when Paschina came aboard, in 1991, it was producing wines from too many unsuitable varieties. Paschina watched, learned, and revamped the entire process. The result is Virginia’s best red wine—that deep, dusty, slightly tangy Nebbiolo—and a Cabernet Franc that isn’t far behind.
In Palladio, Barboursville has a restaurant that rivals the renowned Inn at Little Washington, an hour up the road. The menu is nominally Italian, but chef Melissa Close, formerly of San Francisco’s Rose Pistola, has as sure a hand with soft-shell crabs as she has with spinach gnocchi. My first lunch there and a subsequent one several months later were revelations.
Barboursville is the highlight of Virginia’s wine scene, but it’s hardly the only worthy destination. Several small wineries near Dulles are hot on its heels. Foremost is Linden Vineyards, which makes a graceful Chardonnay from the estate’s Hardscrabble vineyard. Shocking as it might seem, I actually prefer Jim Law’s 1999 Chardonnay from Hardscrabble to just about any California Chardonnay I’ve had in the past five years. What’s more, it costs $24. Nearly the entire 830-case production is sold out of the wood-beamed tasting room off the winery, which is reason enough to visit. The problem lies in finding the place. I drove through and around a tangle of country roads for a half-hour before realizing I’d been right around the corner from it most of the time. My only consolation was that Jefferson might have spent hours wandering the same roads, probably looking for wine.
The landscape in Central Otago, between Queenstown and Cromwell along the Karawau River on New Zealand’s South Island, resembles no other viticultural region in the world. Mountains are snow-covered, and during winter, roads often are, too: the area suffers through 85 to 107 days of frost annually. By October, though, the valleys have turned green and fertile. Vast herds of sheep dominate the stony hillsides.
Until about a decade ago, the local wine industry had little to advertise it beyond the preponderance of sheep and one piece of trivia: it’s the southernmost grape-growing area on earth. The wines were typically unripe and disconcertingly herbal. Facilities were rudimentary. Since then, vineyard plantings have increased by over 500 percent, concentrated in the slightly warmer area around Gibbston, and up-to-date viticultural practices are now the norm. But the real backstory here is climate change, which nudged up average temperatures just enough to make a noticeable difference. Today, the best of the region’s wines are ripe and fruity but with a noted austerity that marks them as being worthy of interest.
The reason this matters is Pinot Noir, that decidedly finicky grape. Only about two truly great growing areas for Pinot Noir exist in all the world (I give full points to Burgundy and a half measure each to Oregon and the Sonoma Coast), but Central Otago shows signs of evolving into a third. That potential seemed enough to warrant a visit.
I wasn’t there long before I realized that the region’s man-made beauty was almost as spectacular as its natural wonders. The Peregrine winery, for example, is designed to look like the wing of the eponymous falcon and could pass for a Christo installation. It functions as the social center of the area, hosting catered weddings, corporate outings, and other group events. Concerts are held under its translucent roof each February and March. And there are a half-dozen other wineries that are similarly striking.
Central Otago wasn’t much of a tourist destination before the wine boom, so many of the area’s restaurants are tied to the emerging wineries. I found the food to be particularly wine-friendly, a sure sign of a destination coming of age. At Amisfield’s nouveau rustique winery and bistro on Lake Hayes, Jeff Sinnott’s nuanced Pinot Noirs are paired with dishes like wild rabbit stew and risotto of chorizo and chicken, which are served at a purposefully leisurely pace all day. But save a dinner for Inspire, Queenstown’s best restaurant, at the 10-room boutique hotel, the Spire. The tasting menu can range from Asian to European and back again in a single dish, such as the oregano-scented chicken with green-tea noodles, lemongrass, and tomato essence.
There’s no restaurant at Felton Road and few amenities beyond a handsome tasting room. Visitors are welcome only on weekday afternoons, and must book appointments well in advance. Still, a visit to Central Otago wouldn’t be complete without tasting Blair Walter’s single-block Pinots. To my palate, they rank among New Zealand’s best wines and can compete with the top New World Pinots made anywhere. I once spent weeks tracking down a bottle of Walter’s small-production Block 3 Pinot, to no avail. When I arrived at Felton Road, I finally understood why I couldn’t find it back home: the wine is all still there. Everyone who visits the winery gets a glass.
Bruce Schoenfeld is Travel + Leisure’s wine and spirits editor.