Friday, July 29, 2011

A Glimpse Into Virginia Wines: Viognier to Cabernet Franc

"Good wine is a necessity of life for me."
--Thomas Jefferson

One of the reasons I attended the Wine Blogger's Conference this year was to get the opportunity to taste the wines of Virginia, which is the 5th largest wine producing state. Who would have thought they produced so much wine? I previously tasted a couple of Virginia wines so I desired a chance to delve much deeper, to sample a broader spectrum of what they produce.  With approximately 190 wineries, spread out over 6 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), the Virginia wine industry is a serious business. 

Attempts at growing vines in Virginia began about 400 years ago with the settlers of Jamestown, though their modern wine industry started more during the 1970s. The history of Virginia wine is fascinating, and Thomas Jefferson is a significant figure in that history. Though Jefferson's efforts at growing vinifera yielded few positive results, he would be immensely proud of the current situation of the Virginia wine industry.  Based on my experiences at the conference, how do I feel the wines of Virginia measure up?  

Unfortunately, I was only able to catch a glimpse of the nature of Virginia wines, sufficient for a basic impression but insufficient for a more substantial and accurate assessment.  I ended up tasting only about 30 Virginia wines, though there were roughly 100+ wines available. A significant reason for this discrepancy was the sweltering heat at the Monticello tasting, which I spoke about this past Monday. There were about 64 wines at the Monticello event and I tasted only two whites. I really wish I had a better opportunity to taste all of those Virginia wines, as I know I missed out on some potential winners.  I am sure most of the bloggers had similar problems, being unable to taste a significant portion of Virginia wines, under proper tasting conditions.

"Wine from long habit has become an indispensable for my health."
--Thomas Jefferson

The three main grapes of Virginia appear to be Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot, though plenty of other grapes are cultivated as well, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Vermentino, Muscat, Vidal Blanc, Petit Manseng, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Tannat, Syrah, Pinot Noir, and more.  Many of the red blends seem to be Cabernet Franc based, and I was very pleased that none of the Cabernet Francs I tasted possessed those green/vegetal flavors that I dislike. I was told that such wines do exist, yet I did not ecnounter any. Alcohol levels generally ranged from 12%-14%, which I like. Stylistically, the wines were closer to Old World than New, though I believe they may possess their own identity. 

Quality wise, I found a number of good and very good wines, though none which stood out as exceptional. There were wines I disliked, as I would expect to find in any wine region. But I found enough good wines that it provided motivation for me to desire to explore the region in more depth, to better understand their wine industry. As one example, as I am a big fan of South African Pinotage, I really want to try Virginia Pinotage, but did not get to try any at the conference.  Maybe a future Taste Camp will be held in Virginia, and I'll get a chance to try 200+ Virginia wines.

Let me highlight some of the Virginia wines I tasted and enjoyed.

"I have lived temperately....I double the doctor's recommendation of a glass and a half of wine each day and even treble it with a friend."
--Thomas Jefferson

At the initial Meet the Sponsors event, two Virginia wineries poured some of their wines and I partook of what was offered.

The Boxwood Winery is one of the newer Virginia wineries, operating a seventeen-acre sustainable dry farm and producing three Bordeaux style wines, 2 reds and 1 rosé.  Unfortunately they were not pouring the rosé at this event.  At full operation, they do not plan to produce more than 5000 cases, so will remain a small, boutique winery. The 2009 Topiary ($25) was created to reflect a Saint Emilion style and is a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. A dark red color, nose of black fruit and a bold, tannic taste. It was a balanced wine, with delicious tastes of black raspberry, plum and black cherry. The 2009 Boxwood ($25) is more reflective of a Medoc style with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Verdot. It seemed a bit more tannic that the Topiary, with a similar flavor profile except for more prominent plum and the addition of some blueberry flavors.  For the price, both wines would be good choices for a Bordeaux style wine.

From new to old, the Barboursville Vineyards were founded in 1976, making it one of the first wineries in the modern resurgence of the Virginia wine industry.  It was a very risky endeavor at that time, yet they took a chance and succeeded at growing vinifera grapes. Their current winemaker is Luca Paschina from Piemonte, Italy. Their 2009 Viognier Reserve ($22), which sees no oak, was pleasant, a crisp wine with bright fruit and floral notes. The 2008 Cabernet Franc Reserve ($23) also appealed to me, a more elegant wine with prominent red fruit flavors and mild spice notes.  The 2006 Octagon ($40) is a Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot.  It is a bold wine, with strong black fruit flavors, underlying vanilla and spice, and hints of licorice. It had nice complexity, a good balance, and a lengthy, satisfying finish. The 2007 Nebbiolo Reserve ($32) was an interesting wine, made in a Barbaresco tradition. Though very light red in color, it was a big, tannic wine with tastes of black cherry and black raspberry, as well as some herbal notes. Though I enjoyed it, I probably would not buy it at this price.

Wine … the true old man’s milk and restorative cordial.”
--Thomas Jefferson

On Saturday, we got to visit two local vineyards and as part of Bus 1A, our first stop was at Ducard Vineyards, located at the eastern edge of the Shenadoah National Park. They have been growing grapes for a decade, first selling them off and eventually they decided to produce their own wine. They have seven acres of vineyards and try to be as green as possible. Owner Scott Elliff took us out into the vineyards, and explained about their viticultural philosophy and techniques. It is a very labor intensive process, and his passion was evident. 

Back at their tasting room, we went through six of their wines. Their 2010 Signature Viognier ($22) was nice, with tastes of peaches and citrus, accompanied by light floral notes and a nice acidity. The 2009 Vintner's Reserve Cabernet Franc ($24) was a light red color with bright red fruit tastes supported by a backbone of spice. An elegant wine, it also had some complexity and subtlety. The 2009 Petit Verdot ($30) is a big, lush wine but the tannins were well integrated. I also tasted much more red and black fruit, than the usual blueberry, with mild touch of spice. A lengthy, pleasing finish made me crave a big piece of beef with this wine.

"I think it is a great error to consider a heavy tax on wines as a tax on luxury. On the contrary, it is a tax on the health of our citizens."
--Thomas Jefferson

Our second stop was the Sweely Estate Winery, a newer winery which was established in 2004 and started planting vines in 2005.  They currently grow about 80% red grapes, all French varietals, and their winemaker, Frantz Ventre, is from Bordeaux.  They have a state of the art winery, which cost $6 million for the building alone. The winery equipment, which they purchased from France, had to have added at least a couple million on top of that. Their production costs are high and an average bottle of wine costs them $8-$10 to produce. They are not working to capacity yet, and really need to do so to make the winery profitable.

With a tasty buffet lunch, we tasted four of their wines, and my favorite was the 2007 Cabernet Franc ($21.95), a blend of 78% Cabernet Franc, 14% Malbec, 5% Petite Verdot & 3% Merlot. About 35% of the wine was aged in French oak. Like most of their wines, it initially had a restrained aroma that opened up over time.  It was a hearty, bold wine with strong black fruit and lots of spice, the type of wine screaming for a steak or a Pasta Bolognese.

"By making this wine vine known to the public, I have rendered my country as great a service as if I had enabled it to pay back the national debt."
--Thomas Jefferson

At our Saturday night, five-course dinner, we were served 12 wines from Virginia, three of the courses accompanied by three wines. I loved the first wine of the dinner, the NV Horton Vineyards Sparkling Viognier ($25), which was crisp, clean and dry with flavors of peach, citrus and white flowers. A very appealing sparkling wine which should please many people. There was then a flight of three Viogniers, and I preferred the 2010 Veritas Vineyards Viognier, which was well balanced, a medium-bodied wine with bright peach and orange flavors, as well as pleasant floral notes. The next flight of wines included two Rieslings but I best liked the 2010 Lovingston Vineyards Petit Manseng ($16.95), made from a very uncommon grape. With a touch of sweetness, balanced by a nice acidity, the wine evidenced tropical fruit flavors, including some pineapple. I can easily see how this wine would pair well with spicy dishes.  

We could in the United States make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”
--Thomas Jefferson

If I had to choose my favorite Virginia wine of the weekend, I would select the NV Horton Vineyards Sparkling Viognier.  It was delicious, had character, and was a bit unusual. The runner-up wine would be the Barboursville Vineyards 2008 Cabernet Franc Reserve.

If you get the opportunity, then I recommend you try some Virginia wines.  I will continue to seek our more of their wines to taste, and hopefully in the future can give a better assessment of the status of their wine industry. But for now, I see promise in their vines.


Jason Phelps said...

Our experiences were slightly different but as you say, there were circumstances. I think VA has plenty of room to grow and I hope they will.


Southern Wine Trails said...

You missed the Lovingston Pinotage? You have my condolences. I happened upon a bit of it, and must say - truly impressed with what they are doing with it. One of the wineries in VA that I haven't made it down to yet, but upon tasting that, I know I'll be buying some of it! It is not your typical south african pinotage.

VA Wine Diva said...

Richard - thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on VA wine in this way. I love our local wine industry and think they need this kind of honest feedback to continue to improve. Hopefully I'll make it to a Taste Camp one of these days so we can learn about a region together.

Todd - VT Wine Media said...

I second you on Veritas Viognier, that was my pick of the evening...
They make a swell Chardonnay/Cab Franc bubbly, and the 2010 Petit Manseng is delish as well.
Virginia is definitely worth the adventure...might be a good early spring destination escape from New England, before it gets too hot? ;)

Tamra Talmadge-Anderson said...

Thanks for your post Richard aka Bus 1 or were you bus 1a? Great to get your perspective on the various wines you tasted. Come back and visit for October Virginia Wine Month I'm sure you'd love the crisp fall weather.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks all for your comments.

Jason: Experiences and preferences will always differ, which is part of why wine is so fascinating.

Southern: Ah, I did miss it and I am sorry I did, especially as you tell me how good it was.

VA Wine Diva: Hope you can make it to a Taste Camp too, a great way to really experience lots of wines from a single region. And it is a fun group of people too.

Todd: I think early spring might be an excellent time to visit VA.

Tamra: I was on Bus 1A. Doubtful I will make it back in Oct. but next year is always a possibilty.