Pioneers in Virginia Wine Since 1989
Wine lover and entrepreneur Dennis Horton began his winemaking venture with a small home vineyard in Madison County, Virginia in 1983. It did not take him long to realize that, although the Virginia summers were warm enough to ripen almost any grape variety, the humid conditions favored growing grapes with thicker skins and loose clusters. There began the search for varieties that would flourish in Virginia’s climate and had the capacity to produce some of the finest wines of the world.
Dennis' search concentrated on the warm growing regions of southern France, and before planting any additional grapes, we traveled to the Rhone valley in France. There he was struck by wines he felt had beautiful texture, grace, and finesse. In his research, one grape in particular seemed to keep coming up as perfect - Viognier. It was a grape of wonderful potential - it had a thick skin and loose clusters, perfect for the Virginia climate. And most importantly, it made some of the world's finest wines - those of the Condrieu and in particular Chateau Grillet.
A Maverick in the Making
In California Dennis learned of only a few producers working with and producing Viognier in limited quantities. However, new plantings were going in all over the state and enthusiasm was high. So the decision was made to plant Viognier, along with lesser amounts of Marsanne, Mourvedre, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and several other grape varieties like the native grape Norton, which enjoyed so much success in the 19th century in nearby Charlottesville. In the late 1800's, central Virginia was declared the "Capitol of the Eastern Wine Belt." Some of the Norton had survived prohibition in Dennis' home state of Missouri, and he was intrigued by the idea of reviving this historic grape with its incredibly rich, fruity flavor, soft tannins and inky color.
In 1989, Dennis and longtime business partner Joan Bieda acquired 55 acres for the beginning of Horton Vineyards. The task of establishing the vineyard was given to Dennis' wife Sharon, a nurse by trade, whose meticulous nature was reflected in the manicuring of the East Coast's most unique vineyard.
Utilizing the "open lyre" training system, which promotes ideal ripening, and drip irrigation for ideal soil moisture conditions, the vineyard was established with quality in mind. In 1991 the first small crop was harvested, and made into wine at Montdomaine Cellars, which Dennis leased for the next 5 years.
"I pulled up more vines than most people have planted"
With his wine aging in the cellars, it was a natural transition for Dennis to lease Montdomaine Cellars, and produce Chardonnay and Cabernet under that label, in addition to his own line of Rhone Varieties. The 1992 wines were very well received in national competitions and construction was begun on a new underground winery. Stunning stone underground cellars, views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and a wonderful vaulted ceiling tasting room are the highlights of this beautiful winery. 1993 saw the first crush at the new Horton Cellars and in 1994 additional acreage came into production with plantings of Bordeaux, Portuguese, South African, Georgian and Spanish varietals with Pinotage and Rkatsitelli.
The national success of these wines has demonstrated that if the right grapes are planted for the climate of Virginia the results can be stunning. In the future, Horton Vineyards will continue to explore new varietals and different techniques in the cellar to discover the best that Virginia viticulture can produce.