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Two thousand and twelve is a year of celebrations for Virginia, USA.

For one thing it is the 150th anniversary of major battles and campaigns of the Civil War and for another it is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Maybe of less historic significance but whilst on the subject of anniversaries 2012 also sees the 75th anniversary of the Williamsburg Inn in Colonial Williamsburg – the only hotel in North America where Queen Elizabeth II has stayed twice!

But Virginia is much older. Way back in 1606, at the time when there was rivalry between the powers of the day to establish colonies in the New World, some wealthy London businessmen petitioned King James 1 for a charter granting them the right to establish a colony there.

Jamestown settlement ships

A year later in 1607 104 men set sail from England undertaking a voyage that would take them across the ocean and up a river (James River) and into Chesapeake Bay where they established a settlement. The men of the Virginia Company had set out in the hope of finding wealth, partly no doubt, by exploiting the Algonquinan Indians who lived around the bay. The Indians, however, were not friendly and so to defend themselves the settlers built a fort, naming their community Jamestown.

Unfortunately they established their community on swampy land rife with malaria bearing mosquitoes; the slow moving river already tainted by bacteria became even more foul as the men threw rubbish and sewage into it. Starvation and disease took hold of the community and by the end of the first year only 34 of them were alive. However, lured by the prospect of a new life, over the next 13 years they were followed by some 6000 people, but conditions were hard and of that 6000 only 1300 were to survive.

Battles with the Algonquinans continued over the next few years but slowly the tide turned in favour of the English.

Tobacco had been grown successfully by the Algonquinans but it was too strong a flavour for the English palette. However, a milder variety from the West Indies was planted and flourished to such an extent that it rapidly became a successful cash crop bringing wealth and new settlers to Virginia.

Blenheim Vineyards (credit: Aaron-Farrington)

Grapes

However, there was another crop growing in Virginia, but those early settlers did not fully realise its potential. Admittedly they were not particularly nice grapes – but vines were grew happily in the Virginia climate.

The story of Virginia wine dates back some 240 years before the Civil War. One of the requirements for early Jamestown male settlers was to plant and tend at least 10 grape vines. It was a somewhat haphazard arrangement by all accounts. But Thomas Jefferson seems to have taken it pretty seriously , for he began cultivating European vines at Monticello, and has been called America’s ‘first distinguished viticulturist’.

Even so, Virginia was not exactly noted for its wine production. However, about 40 years ago things began to change with a vengeance.

Virginia’s state beverage is milk. Maybe today it should be wine. Throughout this very lovely state from the celebrated Blue Ridge Mountains to Chesapeake Bay there are more than 200 wineries: wineries nestling in glorious scenery with breath taking views, some closer to quaint towns others to famous historic sites.

Vineyard

Virginia wines are rapidly becoming recognised as wines that can hold their own with award-winning wines from the rest of the world: Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Chardonnay, Petit Manseng and Bordeaux-style and the native Norton grape – take your pick.

Running through the nine regions of Virginia are 23 wine trails, along with numerous wine festivals taking place throughout the year to say nothing of food festivals ranging from strawberries, to seafood to peaches, watermelon and peanuts. Peanuts? Yes, peanuts, they have been one of Virginia’s major crops ever since Colonial times. And if you have ever wondered went into Brunswick Stew, well you can sample it every October at the Brunswick Festival at Alberta in Brunswick County.

For a list of wine and food festivals, wine trails and information on visiting Virginia visit www.Virginia.org

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