Although he loved many disciplines, it’s hard to separate Thomas Jefferson from his attachment to wine. He found his daily glass—more like a few glasses— “indispensable” to his health.
He was among the first and best at categorizing wines by their style (sweet, dry, acid, and silky) and an expert at selecting wines for the occasion. I have no doubt he’d be an excellent sommelier for your romantic meal today, if only he weren’t dead.
Valentine’s Day really took off as a holiday after Jefferson’s time. But here are seven Valentine’s Day-worthy wines Jefferson fell for, all accessible today. Some are sweet; others pair well with special food. Jefferson would buy the really good stuff when he was feeling flush, but increasingly looked for bargain wines as he sank into debt. So here are wines for all budgets.
Champagne. A classic choice for lovers throughout history. Jefferson visited the region of Champagne in 1788 and fell for a wine grown on land now owned by the house of Bollinger. Ever the iconoclast, Jefferson preferred still Champagne to the bubbly stuff. He thought it was a better deal. Nobody’s perfect.
You can drink your Bollinger Champagne with strawberries (Jefferson grew them!), or oysters (he could down 50 at a time!) Or with anything really.
Viognier. Jefferson discovered this sweet, floral grape in France and found it to be “justly celebrated.” Although Jefferson could never get his vineyard to reliably produce any wine, today Viognier is Virginia’s signature white grape. It's delicious on its own or in a blend (it provides aromatic notes to Barboursville's new Nascent white ).
Don't worry. Even if you forget to buy flowers, just open a Viognier and inhale the aroma of peach blossoms. You’ll be fine.
Nebbiolo Jefferson discovered Nebbiolo in Italy and found the grape to be “superlative,” both sweet and brisk. Barboursville Vineyards makes a great Nebbiolo near the ruins of a home built by James Barbour based on a design by Jefferson.
On Valentine’s Day, you might try a mighty Italian Barolo, made from the grape: rich, ruby-colored, with chocolate aromas.
Sauternes Lush, tropical, and sweet. Jefferson couldn’t get enough of it. Like a Harry Potter love charm, Sauternes will make whoever drinks it fall head over heels with you.
Pinot noir Elegant, expressive, hinting of berries. Are you talking about your lover or your Burgundy? Jefferson “rambled through the vineyards” of Burgundy, as he put it in a letter, and drew a map noting his favorite vineyards planted in Pinot Noir. Pictured is Domaine Parent, made by the descendants of Etienne Parent, who guided Jefferson through the vineyards. Jefferson loved Chambertin, Clos de Vougeout, and Volnay, and might have tried Domaine Romanee-Conti. Please invite me over if you’re opening any of these.
Riesling A good German Riesling balances just a little acidity with the right amount of sugar. Does that remind you of your significant other? (In a good way.) Then pour a dry Riesling with something a little spicy, like a curry. Schloss Johannisberg was Jefferson’s favorite.
Chianti After years of splurging on these big ticket wines, Jefferson was feeling pinched in his retirement years. He looked for what he called “elegant every day wines.” “Light and high flavored” Italian reds like Montepulciano became “a necessary of life with me,” he wrote. Jefferson was an early importer of the then little-known Chianti. Lost to history is whether it arrived in a straw basket, suitable for placing a candle in it.
Serve up a juicy Chianti with a Valentine’s Day dish featuring Italian red sauce. If you feel like splurging even with your bargain wines, look for a Chianti Classico made by Mazzei, the descendants of the Jefferson friend who helped him plant grapes at Monticello.
Enjoy! As decadent as your Valentine’s Day may be, don’t think of these seven wines as the seven deadly sins. “My measure is a perfectly sober one of 3 or 4 glasses at dinner,” Jefferson wrote.
He lived to be 83.
And if you’re drinking alone this Valentine’s Day?
For more on how I tracked down Jefferson’s obsession with wine in person, see Rambles through the Vineyards. Thanks to wine historians James Gabler and John Hailman as well for their excellent sleuthing work on Jeffersonian wines.