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Feature: Zonin, Barboursville Virginia and Jefferson

Posted: Tuesday, 26 February 2013 17:52

Feature: Zonin, Barboursville Virginia and Jefferson

Feb 26: Casa Vinícola Zonin, the family wine company headquartered in Gambellara in the Veneto Region, has nine estates in nine regions of Italy but not much is known about the estate bought in 1976 by the visionary president, Gianni Zonin in Barboursville Virginia and showcased by John Salvi MW after his recent visit that was combined with a visit to the Estate of the late President Thomas Jefferson

The three names in the title are inseparable because to me as it was Zonin that sent me to their Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia, which is only a 30 minute drive, through beautiful horse country, from Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, once the US Ambassador to France and later the President.

Zonin in Italia

First Zonin! Founded in 1821, it is today perhaps the largest privately owned wine company in Italy. Cavaliere Gianni Zonin (incidentally, my friend Subhash Arora, President of Indian Wine Academy is also one!) is the President, assisted by his three sons Domenico, Francesco and Michele. Head office and the family mansion are at Gambellara in Veneto.  It owns 9 separate estates in 9 regions of Italy from north to south.  It is today very quality orientated. When they so very kindly invited my wife and myself to visit their Barboursville Vineyards in Virginia, USA, they first invited us to fly to Gambellara and lunch with The First Lady of Virginia, Maureen McDonnell, and delegates of the Virginia Tourism Corporation who sponsored the visit and who coined the longest running slogan in the USA “Virginia is for lovers”.

Zonin has done a great deal to advance the cause, popularity and quality of Italian wines. To take just one example, their internationally famed oenologist and agronomist, recently retired, Franco Giacosa was largely responsible for bringing Nero D’Avola into international recognition and fame, backed both morally and financially in his research by Zonin’s total belief both in him and his vision for the grape variety. 

Visit to Altemura in Puglia

After the Virginia trip, Zonin invited us to the grand opening and inauguration of their new cellars at Masseria Altemura, buried in the heart of Salento in Puglia. This was a great party that lasted two days starting with a detailed tasting of five Zonin wines, including delicious Fiano and Primitivo, in order to show us that these are not just southern Italian, blockbuster, super-alcoholic grape varieties capable only of power and massiveness, but also of purity of fruit, elegance, finesse, graciousness and ageing ability. This was held in the ancient Castle of Lecce, followed by a feast with singing and dancing of the haunting “Tarantella Pugliese”. The second day was spent at the Masseria visiting the new cellars, unveiling the plaque and consuming a gargantuan, gastronomic banquet accompanied by the finest of Zonin’s many wines. That evening we enjoyed a Press dinner in Lecce, with comments on the wines by their world-renowned consultant Denis Dubourdieu.

Earlier, Zonin had sent us to Barboursville, flying us first class thanks to the Virginia Tourism Corporation and Diane Béchamps, Vice President Marketing, who met us at Dulles airport, saw us into their luxury coach and accompanied us throughout the trip. Rita McClenny also looked after us kindly and efficiently and Jane Govoruhk looked after our hotel bill and our car rental. Gianni and Silvana Zonin had had the forethought to buy this very beautiful colonial estate, close to Charlottesville, in a run-down condition in 1976. 

Barboursville Estate in Virginia

First lived in by James Barbour, a former Governor of Virginia, the original mansion had burned down in 1884. Barboursville is both a flourishing vineyard and a luxury guest-house. The estate covers 450  hectares with 75 of them under vine and in production. It is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Sangiovese and Malvasia. It makes a fine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Sparkling Wine as well but its famous icon is “Octagon” a Bordeaux blend or what the Americans term “Meritage”.  This ages well with great grace and beauty.

The countryside is extremely beautiful, green and hilly providing superb vineyard slopes with a lot of fine clay soil. Zonin have renovated, restructured and modernised but scrupulously retained the structure and character of the original features including the burned mansion, which is a lively tourist attraction. The other great attraction is one of the finest restaurants in Virginia (Italian cuisine) – the Palladio restaurant, named after Andrea Palladio. The most important building is the “1804 Inn” that began life as a matched pair of adjacent Georgian villas, later joined by a common foyer and central stair. There are three period cottages comprising 6 suites for guests. 

My wife and I were fortunate enough to be given the main suite at the Inn. Here there is a downstairs suite and three upstairs rooms. Our downstairs suite comprised a vast bedroom with a venerable four-poster bed, a bathroom, a dressing room, a sitting room and a private dining room. On the ground floor breakfast is served to all the guests on the property by three delightful ladies who give one a feast to start the day – bacon and eggs and sausages, hot apple pie, biscuits, cinnamon bread, baskets of fresh fruit, home-made preserves, cereals, juices and hot beverages.

The property is run, on charmingly despotic lines by Luca Paschina, a native of Piemonte. He is a benevolent despot loved by all, but rigid about order, discipline and punctuality. The result is close to perfection and today Barboursville Vineyards is carving a world-wide reputation in both quality and reliability. Powerful efforts to promote Virginia wines are being made by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, vigorously backed by the First Lady, who is passionate about wine, and her Governor husband Bob McDonnell.

Thomas Jefferson Connection

We had come for the Tour of Virginia Wineries, organised by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, and our group of 9 was known as the “European Journalists Group”. However, my wife and I had arranged to stay on for 3 more days to research the archives of the great Thomas Jefferson (1743-1827) Ambassador to France (1784-1789) and President of the United States (1801-1809).

He built the mansion of Monticello, which today is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the USA, full of history.  Adjoining it is a vast and superbly elegant building, the Jefferson Library, which houses the library and archives of this remarkable man who noted down absolutely everything, every day, down to the smallest detail.  Nothing escaped his observation and his subsequent notation. He was a truly great wine lover and many books, and even films have been made about his passion. He planted vines at Monticello several times, but they never survived to make wine. His knowledge was both deep and comprehensive. 

He travelled Europe and bought great quantities of wine both for himself and his President while he was the Ambassador. Bordeaux was among his favourites and here he bought extensively. So much so that recently there has been something of a scandal about some bottles allegedly discovered when the wall of an old house was knocked down in Paris. The bottles were engraved with his initials and sold in good faith by Michael Broadbent of Christie’s. Their authenticity has since been called into question.

I spent a day researching this in the archives but discovered nothing new. I have just one query, which might be worth following up. When ordering an Italian wine his instructions clearly stated “please use cement”. Cement!!! This is highly unusual. Michael Broadbent is convinced that he saw traces of what he is sure was undisputedly cement on the cork below the capsule of one of those Jefferson bottles. Could this possibly have any significance and is there a chance in a million that those bottles could be genuine?  No comment!

The archives are splendiferous and majestic. The building is of unparalleled elegance and the archives superbly organised and managed. Brilliantly computerised and maintained the records are quite amazingly voluminous. A religious silence is maintained throughout the building.  Life here is stately and every morning the staff assembles in an architecturally gracious, adjacent building for coffee and doughnuts made especially for them.  This is a moment of conviviality that we greatly enjoyed. Once you are registered and have a library card you are seated at a computer linked to the archives and can call up almost any documents you wish to peruse.  Those that are not computerised are brought to you in their paper form on request. Valuable documents are handled with care and with receipts. Staff are both helpful and knowledgeable and to them Jefferson is as near to God as maybe.

I wish particularly to thank both Susan Stein and Lisa Sites for all their help. I had a simply marvellous 3 days trawling through, and delving into, the great man’s life, particularly with regard to wine, but also with regard to the five children that he probably had with his slave Hannah! It was a truly remarkable experience, and as a bonus we continued to lodge at Barboursville and enjoy their boundless hospitality.

John Salvi, Master of Wine

Tags: Veneto, John Salvi MW, Barboursville Vineyards, Nero D’Avola, Puglia, Octagon, Palladio, Piemonte, Thomas Jefferson

       

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