Despite the variety of terrain in West Virginia, its wines share at least two qualities. They’re produced by small, family-owned wineries, and vintners use fruits harvested in isolated microclimates — fed by fresh air and clear streams and located far from sources of heavy industrial pollution.
West Virginia’s winery regions are generally divided into thirds — the low hills of the valley of the Ohio River in the west, the highlands of the Allegheny Mountains in the south (the northern Alleghenies are too cool to support grape growing), and the valleys of the Potomac River and its branches in the east. The Allegheny Mountains in the north exceed 4,000 feet in elevation and are too cold to produce viable harvests, though wine growing has been attempted in its valley areas.
The soils of the Mountain State are also changeful, varying from moderate in the west, where the geology is largely clay and shale, to acidic in the central mountains, where sandstone and coal strata occur, to basic in the eastern valleys, where thick layers shale and excellent drainage create conditions similar to those in some of Europe’s most productive wine regions.
Hill-country wineries benefit in particular from greatly relieved terrain where good air circulation is generally plentiful. The moderating temperatures of the Kanawha and Ohio rivers in western West Virginia have also helped create some of the best growing regions in the eastern U.S. In fact, West Virginia was the second most productive wine growing state through the late 1800s when a blight anihilated the industry.
Though often considered a southern state, the West Virginia uplands are generally too cool to produce southern varieties of grape (though cold-climate varieties and hybrid French grapes perform extremely well). The most successful plantings are Rieslings. Many producers and distributors also specialize in fruit and dessert wines derived from native mountain fruits, shoots, and berries.
As wineries continue to develop in West Virginia, the connoisseur might expect to see more of its history play out in winery tours.
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