By Christopher Matthews
Somewhere, Thomas Jefferson is smiling.
The Founding Father, third US President and first oenophile-in-chief tried mightily to establish European (vinifera) grape varieties in his gardens and vineyards around Monticello, but encountered only failure, for reasons he mainly could not see in the early 19th century, like the American root louse (Phylloxera), and the many East Coast mildews and fungal diseases.Fast forward to last week, when the Wine Media Guild (WMG) held a “Wines of Virginia” tasting and lunch at Il Gattopardo in Manhattan. Not only is the leap from 19th century failure to today’s thriving Virginia wine scene breathtaking, but also the strides made in the last three decades in the Commonwealth, which has transformed into a world class wine region, attracting some of the best wine talent from around the globe. Jefferson would have been stunned by the excellence; I certainly was.
Over the years, I’ve tasted some impressive Virginia wines, not least from Barboursville Vineyards, which is an East Coast gem in the portfolio of the Italian Zonin Family Estates group. DC-based wine writer Dave McIntyre and others from the Capital region have also long sung the praises of Virginia wines, and have consistently urged colleagues to visit the region’s wineries (which now number 276!). But this in no way prepared me for last week’s jaw-dropping WMG tasting, sponsored by WMG member Pat Savoie and curated by Master of Wine Jay Youmans, Managing Director of the Capital Wine School. The quality of the selection was, to a wine, outstanding; the diversity — and combinations — of grape varieties surprising and compelling; and the Virginia wine sector continues to grow and to evolve in exciting ways, with information sharing among wineries and winemakers as the coin of the realm.
As it happens, Barboursville’s winemaker and general manager since the early 1990s, Luca Paschina, also attended our tasting. From his perspective, he said that one can make a “good wine” in Virginia in two out of 10 vintages. But if winemakers can embrace and take advantage of Virginia’s inherent climate variability — which has twice the rainfall of Bordeaux on average, and is warmer to boot — then they can make “excellent to outstanding wine” in eight years out of ten. Pretty good odds…for those with the talent and skill (and resources).
And Luca’s great skill showed from the very start: his Barboursville 2017 Vermentino Reserve ($23), my first wine of the day, was a knockout, sporting a floral, orange blossom nose, bright acidity and pretty orchard fruit. Not too many great Vermentino wines are found outside of Italy, but this is certainly one.
Virginia has had a Viognier thing going way back, and the Linden Vineyards 2017 Boisseau Viognier ($36) shows that it hasn’t been a bad idea: A ripe, floral and stone fruit nose leads into bright, plummy and stone fruit palate, with a gorgeous, slightly almondine finish.
Experimentation with grape varieties is an ongoing hallmark among Virginia wineries, according to Youmans. This was underlined by four white wines (from four different producers) made from the relatively obscure southwestern French grape Petit Manseng. Not unlike Chenin Blanc, which can produce a wide range of styles depending on the weather conditions in a given vintage, Petit Manseng offers great flexibility in Virginia’s highly variable climate. Sure enough, the four wines (covering three different vintages) differed stylistically, but for my palate, I preferred the Williamsburg Winery 2018 Petit Manseng ($22), a zesty, peppery wine with nice body and focused orchard fruit.
For the reds, Youmans divided them into two groups: single variety wines, and Meritage-style blends (with a few local twists).
While Cab Franc is a common red vinifera grape on the East Coast (not least in the Hudson Valley, where I reside), and often made into a varietal wine, Petit Verdot and Tannat (another grape from southwest France!) are not. Virginia clearly does all three well, with interesting results.
Among the Petit Verdot wines, I really liked the Paradise Springs Vineyards 2016 Petit Verdot ($38), and earthy beauty, with coffee roast aroma and deep, blackberry fruit. Bordeaux would be impressed.
The Cab Franc wines also showed well, too, especially the Veritas Vineyard 2017 Cabernet Franc Reserve ($27), a classic example with clean herbal and berry aromas, bright briar fruit on the palate and a long, mineral finish.
Make no mistake, however: the red blends were the knockouts in this tasting. These Bordeaux-ish blends have their own Virginia character, somehow (oversimplifying, of course) falling between upper-tier California Meritage and Grand Cru Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon takes a subsidiary (or no) role in these blends (compared with California), while Petit Verdot takes on a bigger role (compared with both California and Bordeaux). Tannat joins some of the blends as well.
Perhaps my overall favorite red blend was the King Family Vineyards 2014 Meritage ($35; Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec), a deep ruby wine with ripe briar and raspberry fruit, nice energy, medium body, perfect balance and a clean, long finish. A pretty wine that works well at the table — a Thanksgiving wine!
At a higher price point, the Early Mountain Vineyards 2017 Eluvium ($55; Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon) was impressive: a high-tone, floral nose with blueberry aromas that playback on the palate, a good spine of acidity and medium body, with a nice tannic bite on the finish.
If Virginia has a cult wine, then it is Barboursville Vineyards 2010 Octagon ($100-140; Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot). With earthy black fruit and herbal/menthol aromas, Octagon exhibits deep black fruit on the palate, brimming with energy and beautiful structure from start to finish. Simply stunning, with many miles to go yet. While not many folks would pay three figures for a Virginia wine, the indisputable quality of this one actually makes it a relative bargain when compared with California cult wines or Classified Bordeaux.
So, a fascinating snapshot of the Virginia wine scene, one that continues to evolve and is clearly dynamic. With a shortage of local grapes, and growing demand for the wines, it is a (still) expanding universe in terms of acreage, where proper site selection is key. Much of this growth is now farther afield from the “home market” of the District of Columbia, focused particularly up and down the Shenandoah Valley and hills. Grape experimentation continues, with varieties such as Pinot Gris, Fiano, Albariño, Corvina, even Pinotage (!) being planted. In the cellars, wineries are turning out increased production of sparkling wines, capitalizing on that growing consumer trend, and trying out “Pet-Nats” and Orange wines, too, according to Youmans.
Tom would be proud.