Joined by soil and climate, a portion of Fluvanna County has been added to the official Monticello grape-growing region and has pulled in two county vineyards and wineries along with it.
The Monticello American Viticultural Area is expanding its 1,320 square miles with 166 square miles of Fluvanna County. That includes the Cunningham Creek Winery at Middle Fork Farm, near Palmyra, and Thistle Gate Vineyard, near Scottsville.
The area, known as an AVA, includes most of Albemarle County and portions of Nelson, Orange and Greene counties. It’s one of the oldest wine-making regions in the state and in the nation, and it is now home to 35 vineyards and wineries.
“The Monticello AVA has had a reputation for excellence and we’re excited to be included in that,” said Bruce Deal, owner of Cunningham Creek Winery. “The AVA is all about the grapes, not the wine. The climate and the soils give the grapes grown in each AVA certain characteristics. It’s what the French call ‘terroir.’”
With inclusion into the AVA, Thistle Gate and Cunningham Creek can seek to join combined publicity efforts through the Jeffersonian Wine Grape Growers Society and the Monticello Wine Trail.
The society supported the petition to expand the AVA, as did many local winemakers. Among those who signed the petition were Gabriele Rausse, owner of Gabriele Rausse Winery, and Kirsty Harmon, winemaker and general manager of Blenheim Vineyards.
The Monticello region was the first official Virginia AVA, set up in 1984 by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the U.S. Department of Treasury. The bureau officially approved the expansion on Dec. 14, and it takes effect Jan. 14.
The bureau designates viticultural areas to allow winemakers and drinkers a way to associate quality, reputation and other characteristics of wines made from regional grapes.
Many countries use viticulture areas in winemaking. The districts often become indicators of quality, such as France’s Bordeaux, Spain’s Rioja and California’s Napa Valley.
Wine labels are regulated to give drinkers a clue as to the possible qualities of the grapes and the wine.
Wine made from grapes grown in the U.S. can have “United States” on its label. Wine made from Virginia grapes can have “Virginia” printed on the bottle, as well. Wine made from grapes grown in a county also may have the county on the bottle, as well.
To have Monticello on the label, a wine must have at least 85 percent of its content from grapes grown in the region.
“If you buy grapes from the AVA and make the wine in California, you can still put Monticello on the label because it’s where the grapes were grown,” Deal said. “A winemaker has a lot of options when creating a wine, but the AVA is about the grapes.”
One does not simply change an AVA, however. George Cushnie, of Thistle Gate, and Deal sought support of the wine grape growers’ society and the assistance of John Thompson, a former Fluvanna County Cooperative Extension agent, to build the case for inclusion.
The admission petition was submitted in March 2015. To change the boundaries, the petitioners had to show that the additional land shared climate, soils and historical relevance.
The petition notes the importance of Thomas Jefferson to the creation of Fluvanna County and the navigation of the Rivanna River; points out that the name Monticello is commonly used in the county for business names, subdivisions and lakes; and notes the county’s growing season is very similar to the AVA.
“The soils in Fluvanna County consist of the Nason, Manteo, Tatum and Louisburg types, which are also the main soil types found in Albemarle County, which forms the heart of the existing AVA, and Orange County, which forms the northeast portion of the existing AVA,” the federal regulators ruled.
The bureau noted that Nason and Manteo soils are well-suited to viticulture, “given that they are silty loams characterized by moderate levels of nutritious organic content and good drainage conditions.”
Bureau review officials also noted that the climate of the addition was like that of the original AVA. Gaps in the Blue Ridge Mountains “allow ‘rivers of cold air’ to flow through corridors that converge east of the Monticello AVA and the new expansion area.”
“As a result, temperatures in the Monticello AVA and the proposed expansion area are 4 to 5 degrees warmer than the climate in the surrounding areas outside the Monticello AVA,” the bureau found. “This warmer weather allows for a longer growing season and protection from frosts, which can be fatal to ripening grapes. This warmer weather was an important factor in establishing the Monticello AVA, and is a point of similarity that the proposed expansion area shares with the existing AVA, in contrast to surrounding areas.”
Deal said he and Cushnie are excited about joining the AVA.
“Our object, as always, is to keep making good wine, but we’re excited about the great opportunity it gives our winery and the county in general,” he said. “We’re proud to be part of the Monticello AVA.”