You may or may not know, but October is Virginia Wine Month. Virginia has quickly grown to rival even California produced wines in the US and is becoming well known on the international market as well. Wine production in Virginia started in 1619, and was fostered by Thomas Jefferson’s quest to produce wines rivaling those come from France. Unfortunately his only wine accomplishment was the spread of the Phylloxera virus, a virus that kills grapevines around their 5th year of life. Because of Mr. Jefferson and Phylloxera most vines grown around the world are grafted onto american root stock, and that is the only way they will grow. But I digress.
In 2009, Virginia proved it could compete with the likes of Bordeaux and Napa in what has become known as “the judgement of Washington,” a play on the Judgment of Paris portrayed in the movie Bottle Shock. A group of 6 wine professionals from varying backgrounds go together and blind-tasted 12 reds and 12 whites. The first red knocked all of their socks off earning and average score of 90 pts (out of 100) and being touted for its cocoa notes, beautiful structure. This wine was the 2006 Barboursville Octagon, a red Bordeaux-style blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot from the 5th oldest Virginia vineyard. Ultimately this wine came in second to a monster red blend from Napa valley, but it still proved our point: Virginia wines are more than just an expensive frivolity.
That being said, I had the opportunity to taste a few lovely examples of Virginia wine this month at my friend Elinor’s wine shop, In Vino Veritas, in the heart of Virginia wine country. She shared 3 whites and 3 reds, including the two state grapes: Viognier and Cabernet Franc. The first wine we tasted was White Hall Vineyards 2015 Chardonnay. This wine was aged in Neutral Oak and grown on site. It had a really interesting nose of bananas and hints of butter, which was surprising considering the minimal oak influence. It tasted a bit like a bananas foster, with hints of toast and nice apple flavors as well and just a hint of creaminess on the palate.
Chardonnay is one of the most variable grape varietals. On its own, chardonnay has very little flavor, so the soil and wine-making methods truly define what you see in the glass. The winemakers I talk to either love or hate the grape for this very reason. It can showcase a winemaker’s skill, or expose his or her inexperience very easily. Lately in Virginia I’ve been seeing more interesting wood type and wine-making styles being used with Chardonnay. Barboursville recently blended chardonnay aged in new Austrian barrels with Chardonnay aged in used French barrels for a luxe creation with hints of coconut. I loved it so much I served it at my wedding.
The next wine that Elinor chose to pour was the Jefferson Vineyards 2016 Viognier. As I have mentioned Viognier is one of the two Virginia state grapes, and it does particularly well here. I’m not sure what it is about our heavily clay based soils, but they tend to bring out a strong pineapple and white flowers scent on nose, which balances with a clean minerality on the palate. This beauty also had a hint of fresh orange citrus on the mid palate and really great acidity from the hot summers last year. The one thing I often find and dislike about Virginia Viognier is they can get pretty fatty on the mouth, and they feel kind of flabby, or in other words, the sweet fruit qualities aren’t backed by enough acid to keep the wine interesting through the experience. This wine however did not fall victim to this, and finished well.
The final white wine of the evening was the Stinson Vineyard 2016 Sugar Hollow White. This wine is an off-dry production of Vidal Blanc, with notes of honeysuckle and fresh peaches on the nose. It was one of those wines that smelled so good, I wanted to turn into a perfume, but also managed to be dry and refreshing on the palate. It was juicy on the palate, specifically fresh peach juice but balanced the acid with the sweet, so don’t think american Riesling sweet, It would be great with spicy food or a strong cheese.
After the whites, we moved on to a beautiful 2016 red blend from Lovingston Winery called Rotunda Red from the Josie’s Knell property. This wine was a blend of Merlot and Pinotage and had a gamey nose with hints of fresh, crushed strawberry. On the palate it had a surprising savory quality mixed with rich red fruits and only the slightest hint of vegetation so prominent with Pinotage. If you’re unfamiliar with Pinotage, it is a hybrid of two grapes, hermitage and Pinot Noir, and is primarily grown in South Africa.
Next, we tasted the 2015 Jefferson Vineyard Cabernet Franc. Cabernet Franc tends to have lush, stewed red fruit notes with hints of cedar and a peppery finish. This wine was very true to its grape characteristics. The nose and palate were dense with dark fruits like plums and blackberries, despite its lighter color, and on the finish it has a distinctly purple flavor. If you’ve ever had “grape” Kool-Aid you know exactly what I mean. There was absolutely no vegetable quality with this wine, which was a pleasant surprise, as it can be a defining quality of Cabernet Franc, especially from Virginia, but this wine certainly saw the benefit of its older vines.
The last wine of the evening was a 2013 Meritage from a vineyard I had never heard of before, Rockbridge Vineyard. This property was founded by one of the Grandfathers of the Virginia wine Community; Shepherd Rouse. Meritage is a declination for red and white Bordeaux style wines, that does not infringe on the Bordeaux classification. This wine is a blend of 73% Cabernet Sauvignon 27% Cabernet Franc. It did carry a bit of green leaves mixed in with the rich fruit on the nose. It was also quite green on the palate, but there were also prominent flavors of plums and caramelization. At first sip, I was less than impressed by this wine, which the distributor rep was touting at amazing, then I tried it with a bite of an Onion Cheese Ball. On my second taste, I felt as if the fruit in the wine had sucker punched me in the mouth, and all of the green qualities completely fell away. There were baking spices, cedar, earth, and rich candied fruit flavors are laid upon lingering and well-structured tannins. Just goes to show, wine and food really are the best of friends.
Elinor arranged a fantastic line-up for us. This tasting truly represented the best of the Monticello Ava and was a fantastic expression of Virginia soil and creativity. If you’re looking for fantastic wines from a “new” region I would recommend Virginia every time. If you’re looking for the next new wine country to visit Charlottesville offers not only fantastic wineries breweries and distilleries but also a small town feel with tons of History and a vibrant art community.
If you’re interested in the history of Virginia wine check out Beyond Jefferson’s Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia
Have you tried Virginia wines before? If so, where you at home or did you come to our lovely state to try them in person? What did you think do they stand up to Napa and France like the Judgment of Washington claims or do you think they fall short? I love to hear your opinion below or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!