Barboursville Vineyards: Traditional, High-Performing and Iconic

A trip to Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia feels to me like what a visit to Gaja in Piedmont, William Fevre in Chablis or López de Heredia in Rioja might: the chance to experience an especially iconic, historical, traditional and consistently high-performing estate in its respective region.

On the rare occasion someone does not like wine from one of these producers, that person likely still holds the winery in high regard. Though they might not always be the top-performing among their peers in terms of accolades in a given year, they remain among the most sought-after and satisfying, and they are continually growing their collection of honors that dwarfs the rest because few have done it better or for longer. Their average quality is higher and more consistent than many of the newer, hipper and more niche wineries that are less likely to make long-lasting names for themselves. They were here before you were born, and they will be going strong after you die kind of thing.

Gaja was established in 1859. Fevre one hundred years later in 1959. Heredia in 1878/9. In an unusual twist of wine history, the estate that is now Barboursville’s home was established before these European giants – 1821 – and still hosts the ruins of the estate’s original mansion that was designed by Thomas Jefferson. The Zonin family of Italian wine fame bought the property in 1976 with the goal of planting a vineyard on it, despite Jefferson’s persistent failed efforts in the 19th Century to do the same. Gianni Zonin led the effort, as he did with his family’s viticulture in Italy, in a career that would later be recognized in 2013 by Wine Enthusiast with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

The ruins at Barboursville Vineyards

Barboursville’s winemaker-turned general manager for the last quarter-century has been Italian native Luca Paschina. Luca and I first met at a dinner hosted by famous wine merchant Steven Spurrier at Veritas Vineyard, also in Virginia, maybe two years ago when we were seated next to one another.

We’ve stayed in touch, and earlier this year my wife and I visited him at Barboursville, staying at the property in the historic 1804 Inn and Cottages at Luca’s invitation.

We wandered the large and picturesque estate on foot, visited the historic ruins of the Jefferson-designed mansion, enjoyed a multi-course food and wine paired lunch at the estate’s exceptional Palladio restaurant and had several different wine tastings. If you want to spend a relaxing weekend at one winery, Barboursville has more than enough to keep you busy, allow you to relax, and fill your belly with wine and food.

Barboursville Vineyards

Barboursville makes a large variety of wine. The winery’s Italian heritage is grounded not just in the people behind the wine, but in many of the varieties they grow and produce at the estate as well: pinot grigio, vermentino, barbera, sangiovese and nebbiolo. These are in addition to chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

Additionally, Barboursville produces an Italian traditional sweet wine called Paxxito that is made by allowing young grapes to raisin on racks left in an open-air barn before being pressed, a method called Passito.

That is a lot of wines to produce and that requires a lot of vines. The estate itself is 900 acres, though not all of it is planted to vine. Nevertheless, the property is treated like the estate that it is, both from the historical perspective as well as the vinicultural one.

The estate’s history is preserved in the Inn, the Jefferson mansion and a on-premise museum, while spaces like the wine library (a tasting room featuring older vintages), Octagon barrel room and restaurant convey the estate’s history through educational displays and tours, long-standing traditions (numerous annual events, vertical tastings, restaurant dishes, etc.) and the continual use of methods in the fields and kitchen dating back to previous generations.

The Octagon Barrel Room at Barboursville Vineyards

This focus on history, tradition and well-known grape varieties might strike some as boring; you won’t find Barboursville being poured at the new wave of hipster somm wine bars that feature grower Champagne, skin contact, “natural wines” and grapes you’ve never heard of before. To a certain extent, this new movement, with its focus on organic and biodynamic and low-intervention, is a bit of a twisted story that has few, if any, parallels to Barboursville. It’s a bit refreshing.

The best way to make good wine is to start with the best grapes, and growing the best grapes is most often accomplished by people who have farmed the same land and vines for decades because it takes many years to hone one’s skills while learning the intricacies of the numerous variables that go into growing great grapes. If you don’t start off with great grapes, you’re required to intervene in the winery and in subsequent years in the vineyard to eventually make great wine.

It takes decades to hone the crafts of grape growing and winemaking because in a matter of twelve months, you get to do your job only once. Until you have a good five to ten vintages under your belt, if not more, it’s oftentimes like shooting in the dark, which lowers the chances of having great grapes to begin with. Applying minimal intervention to supbar grapes produces wine unlikely to dazzle. However, if you start with great grapes, you don’t have to do much to them to make great wine. The best chances of being able to play the odds from the very beginning: get to know your terroir. Do that and you don’t need to claim to be low intervention because you are going to be without even trying.

This is Barboursville’s approach. Same people farming the same land for decades allows them to grow best-in-class grapes, and because they have that, it’s relatively easy to make best-in-class wine: follow the basic, traditional winemaking methods that have stood the test of time. No flash, all substance. That’s Barboursville.

I’ll give you an example of the Barboursville way. Over a year ago, my wife and I attended the release lunch of Barboursville’s Allegrante Rosé. Barboursville hadn’t made a rosé in years because Luca hadn’t been able to produce one he thought was good enough to sell. He tried different varieties from different blocks at different pick dates over the course of many years, but it wasn’t until the 2017 vintage that he found the right combination of grape from a certain area of the estate picked at a certain phase in the grape’s life. It had nothing to do with methods or some farming certification or a decision to go low sulfur, it was all about the viniculture and experience. Luca beamed over this wine as he poured it for people at that lunch, and rightfully so. It remains one of the best and most memorable rosés I’ve had.

A tasting of Barboursville Vineyards’ Octagon Blend

This long view is epitomized by Barboursville’s most prestigious and prized wine, the Octagon, a reference to the “estate’s diverse connections with the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, symbolized in the central octagon drawing room in his design for Governor Barbour’s mansion.” The first vintage was produced to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the estate in the early 1990s.

Barboursville’s Octagon was the first wine to prove that Virginia could make an exceptional red Bordeaux-styled blend that could hold up to the test of time and get better with age, and it probably remains the industry standard for this profile. More specifically, Octagon is a Pomerol-styled wine consisting primarily of cabernet franc and merlot grown in clay soils and climates similar to Pomerol, and sees similar patterns of sugar ripening. Naturally inclined to improve with age, Octagon demands at least a decade of cellaring, if not two, to be at its best. We were able to try the 1999, 2004, 2007, 2014 and 2015 Octagons.

The 1999 showed all the signs of tertiary development, featuring semi-sweet maraschino cherry, loads of baking spice, sandalwood, tobacco, spearmint, cedar, cocoa and toasted nuts, all built into a gorgeous structure that balanced tannin and acid extraordinarily well.

The 2004 shown noticeably younger with a more reticent nose and sturdier tannin. The nose showed brambly fruit and a strong dose of sandalwood oak. The palate was full bodied with significant tannin that was nicely polished by the robust acid. Flavor-wise, the minerality was stronger than the 1999, with tobacco, graphite and wet potting soil leading the way. The fruit is still primary with red berries and blood orange. This has another 10 years to complete its development, at least.

By comparison an infant, the 2007 showed the most promise for the future. More gamey on the nose than either of its predecessors, it also wafted smoked pork fat, raspberry, strawberry, cherry and sweet huckleberry. Full bodied on the palate, it balanced sweet tannin with candied acid beautifully. It offered a pretty floral quality by way of rose and violet to go with plum, strawberry and cranberry. The oak shown through with sandalwood, and as it took on air it developed maraschino cherry and a tasty herbaceous quality.

The 2014 offered a complete nose with a lot that requires aging to unpack. Another five-plus years will do this wonders. The structure of the palate and mouthfeel are just beautiful. It suggests that this vintage is going to be more about the profile of the wine than its components, which portents a great future. It offers elegant amounts of fruit, earth, spice and shine as the tannin slowly builds with time: blueberry, blue raspberry, moist soil and underbrush, plain yogurt, dark tanned leather and tobacco leaf.

Finally, the 2015. Given its youth, it was no surprise to find more pronounced oak on the nose while the fruit and earth aromas were darker. Like the 2014, this needs at least five years for the nose to start unwinding. The palate is denser than the 2014, as the nose would suggest. The acid is a bit tart and the tannin a bit bitter, and the overall structure is grander. This is a wine that really shouldn’t be opened until at least 2030.

Cabernet franc is not only of central importance to Octagon, but to Virginia state-wide. If there were an official red grape of the state, cabernet franc would (or at least in my opinion should) be it. We were able to taste through a vertical of the 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 Reserve Cabernet Franc, which was an illuminating experience.

A vertical of Barboursville Cabernet Franc

The 2007 had the most oak of the flight, which helped to plump up the sweet cherry, smoked tobacco and soft black and green peppercorns. The texture is soft and velvety with mild grainy tannin. It has notes of very pretty florals and smoke that go nicely with ripe cherry and plum. The finish brings in black tea leaf and a well-matched herbaceous finish.

The 2009 is quite bright with an especially spry nose that offers ample red berries, plum, and herbal aromas. The palate is very juicy with tannins that hit the mid-palate and flavors true to the variety: layered strawberry, cherry, plum, huckleberry and salmonberry that pair nicely with mild mintiness and tobacco leaf. It finishes with a sublime sweet leather note. This was the best of the flight for me.

The following year’s vintage, the 2010, was the first of the line up to show real youth. The nose’s intensity is only modest at this stage and demands extended decanting. Aromas are high-toned, sharp and slightly tart. The body is on the leaner side with sharp acid and dense, slightly bitter tannin that ample swirling started to turn sweet. Raspberry, cherry and cranberry are all prevalent while the earthy flavors have yet to emerge (they will eventually). This will need more cellaring to mature.

Opposite the youthful 2010 is the 2011, which smells quite mature for its age. The very pleasant fruit aromas are almost stewed, and go nicely with a big hit of tanned leather. The palate features sharp but integrated acid and advanced tannin integration, though it finishes with a slightly alcoholic bite. It has an almost menthol quality to the flavor profile that I like. Fruit comes by way of raspberry, cranberry and mountain strawberry. For a relatively terrible vintage, this is an impressive effort.

We finished with the 2012, which shows a bit of petrol on the nose that blows off with air, revealing sweet oak, leather and strawberry. It is ripe on the palate with bright acid that needs another few years to integrate. The tannin structure feels the most complete of the flight, which nicely frames bright red fruit and leads to a finish featuring clementine and leather.

I found a few themes in this flight that painted a picture for me of what Barboursville Reserve Cabernet Franc is likely to give year-in and year-out: a very pure medium-bodied wine with bright acid and a densely-packed tannin structure featuring loads of red fruit and tobacco/leather.

But after all these wines, as delicious as impressive as they were, I had a hankering for an Italian variety. How could I spend two days at the Italian family-owned Barboursville and not try an Italian variety made by the Italian winemaker?

Barboursville Vineyards 2010 Nebbiolo Reserve

On Luca’s recommendation, we ordered a bottle of the 2010 Nebbiolo Reserve from the Library. It quickly became my favorite Barboursville to date. 2010 was a warm vintage, which helps the wine show well at this stage. My handwritten notes cover two full pages of my notebook, more than twice that of any other wine I reviewed for this article. It is, to date, the best Mid-Atlantic wine I’ve had.

The warm vintage produced a densely layered wine whose velvety sensation envelops and caresses. It is brimming with tertiary development, which means it’s all about a singular and complex profile rather than individual components like tannins or flavors. The nose is like walking through a breezy pantry of spices and fruit preserves in open top jars. All sorts of black and purple fruits harmonize with mulling and baking spices, vanilla bean and cocoa powder. The acid has a sort of pomegranate-style tartness that helps the structure transition smoothly to classic nebbiolo steeped tea-style tannin. As the structure opens, it reveals cherry pits, clove, black currant, tobacco leaf, preserved bitter orange peel and pot purri.

We brought home a bottle of the Reserve Vermentino, which while I didn’t review, didn’t last long in the cellar, either. It’s a substantive and refreshing version of the variety, and one I’d happy drink many times over.

There are not a lot of wineries in the mid-Atlantic that have been at it for as long as Barboursville, nor are there many that have done it as diligently. Not all of their wines are as impressive as the ones I’ve written about here, and even among those included in this article there is a range of impressiveness.

Many bigger wineries that make expensive wines pay their bills by selling a ton of $15-20 wines that compete well at that price range, and then make the reserve stuff for fun and hope to sell it at a profit. This is why consumers are far more likely to find Barboursville’s entry-level bottles on shelfs than the reserves or Octagon. I haven’t talked to Barboursville about this, but I imagine this approach more or less holds true for them.

Barboursville offers a couple of highlights few other producers do, namely the consistency in quality, compelling history and a serious library program that allows customers access to older vintages. At the end of the day, though, where Barboursville adds real value to the mid-Atlantic wine industry, at least for me, is as a go-to high-quality producer that routinely turns out a couple of really special wines each year. They are the anti-fad winery, and that’s always in fashion.

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