Virginia Wines Impress at Britain's Big Wine Fair

British wine expert Steven Spurrier, left, with winemaker Luca Paschina of Virginia's Barboursville Vineyards at the London International Wine Fair.
British wine expert Steven Spurrier, left, with winemaker Luca Paschina of Virginia's Barboursville Vineyards at the London International Wine Fair. (By Christopher Parker -- New Horizon Wines)
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

LONDON -- Lisa Abbott, a cork master at her English wine club (it's called the Wasters), took a sip of a Viognier from Virginia and declared with obvious surprise, "It's an absolute classic!

"I didn't know Virginia produced wine," she said, echoing a comment heard over and over at the recent London International Wine Fair.

True, Virginia wines barely existed in the 1980s, but today the state has more than 150 wineries. A dozen of those winemakers came to the London extravaganza, which drew 15,000 people from all over the world, as part of Virginia's efforts to step out on the world wine stage.

"That is really impressive," said Cristina Proietti, who works in sales for British wine seller Majestic, as she swirled a red, the Cuvee des Champs of White Hall Vineyards, in her glass. After several rounds of sipping, spitting and considering the wine from the Blue Ridge, she declared it "more approachable than a Bordeaux." (The French winemakers were a safe distance away.)

"It's well structured and not overtly New World," she said, in that Old World way. "I didn't have an image of a Virginia wine. It's quite new, but it's slightly traditional."

The United Kingdom is the world's biggest importer of wine. Well aware of the importance of cracking the multibillion-dollar market, Christopher Parker, a Reston resident who is marketing what he calls the "Virginia wine lifestyle," is setting his sights on his native country.

Originally from London, Parker says that many tourists, particularly the British, will go to Virginia to taste the local grape and see the state's historic sites and lovely landscape. For Europeans, he said, "it's a lot easier to fly to the East Coast than Napa Valley."

The British also have intrinsic interest in the former colonies, said Parker, whose company, New Horizon Wines, plans trips for wine-tasting tourists that also feature luxury local organic food, hiking and other outdoor activities, and stops in places such as Jamestown, Williamsburg and Charlottesville. "International recognition will bring national recognition," he said.

The annual London fair, held this year in the cavernous Excel center, is a way for thousands of winemakers to show off their best to buyers, tasters and wine industry writers. France, Spain and Italy commanded a huge presence, with large, fancy stands and thousands of offerings; Virginia had a relatively small space next to Uruguay. Bosnia, Romania and Bulgaria had booths, too.

"Nowadays, everyone is producing wines; I have heard even Texas!" said Juan Chavarri, a most agreeable man representing Spain's Rioja region. As he stood in front of a grand booth featuring hundreds of bottles of Rioja, Chavarri said countries like his, where winemaking has been going on for centuries, are well aware of the newcomers.

Fifty years ago, he said, New Zealand and Australia were busy with "sheep and meat," and now they are exporting good wines. "So if you tell me Virginia is producing wine, I believe you," he said.

But few had tasted it. Many didn't know where Virginia is. "Virginia is not on my radar," said J.C. Bekker, South African winemaker for the DGB group, which includes the much-visited Boschendal winery near Cape Town.

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