Each year about this time, I join a group of West Virginia wine lovers who are called upon to select the best wines produced by state wineries in seven different categories. This annual tasting gives me a pretty good indication and historical perspective on the quality of Mountain State wines since we've been judging the competition for about 15 years.
I'm happy to report that West Virginia-made wine has improved steadily over the past decade. I'm also happy to report that the number of wineries has increased from just a few to 17 in the past 10 years.
While many of these wines can be good to exceptional, West Virginia winemakers face very difficult growing conditions that force them to use vines that can limit their ability to make great wines.
There are many key elements to producing a good bottle of wine, including soil, climate, geography and winemaking competence. But the most essential component is the grape itself and the family of vines to which it belongs.
The world's most famous wine grapes, such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, Riesling, sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and thousands of others, belong to a class known as vitus vinifera. Two other classes of wine grapes are vitus labrusca (native American vine-producing grapes such as Concord and Catawba) and French-American hybrid grapes (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) produce wines significantly better than labrusca but not as fine as vinifera vines.
So, in the quality hierarchy, vinifera grapes produce, by a far measure, the best quality wines followed by French-American hybrids and then labrusca varietals. Labrusca and French-American hybrids, however, are considerably more hardy and prolific than vinifera. They are less susceptible than vinifera to mold, diseases and the sometimes harsh realities of West Virginia weather.
Vinifera vines are very delicate and require more moderate temperatures than we typically experience. Our summers are too hot and our winters are too cold to sustain and successfully grow vinifera in the state on a consistent basis.
It's really amazing, then, that wineries in Virginia - just across the Allegheny Mountains - can grow cabernet, chardonnay and even viognier (as well as other vinifera varieties) with relative ease while our climate limits our ability to be successful. And while it is certainly more difficult to grow vinifera in West Virginia, it is not impossible, and one winery in particular has been successful at it for years.
Charles Whitehill is the owner and winemaker at Potomac Highland Winery in Keyser and he goes to great lengths and takes great pains to ensure that his Riesling and chardonnay vines survive the harsh winters and hot summers of the eastern West Virginia mountains. But the results, as far as I am concerned, are well worth the effort.
I'm sure we will see more West Virginia wineries add vinifera to their stable of wines in the coming years. Still, I am really impressed with the overall quality of the wines being produced in our state and I hope you will try them. The wineries are also fun places to visit and usually have tasting facilities where you can sample the wines. However, because these wineries are relatively small operations, it is always a good practice to call ahead before visiting them.
Here is a listing of state wineries with contact information from the state Department of Agriculture Web site.
Cascarelli's Old Country Wine, Route 3, Box 55A, Salem, WV 26426; phone (304) 782-2768
Daniel Vineyards, 200 Twin Oaks Road, Crab Orchard, WV 25827; phone: (304) 252-9750
Fisher Ridge Winery, 325 McKinley Ave., Charleston, WV 25314; phone: (304) 345-2306