The Virginia Sauvignon Blanc Showdown

Sauvignon Blanc is probably my favorite white wine. Given it’s the 8th most planted wine grape in the world (and 3rd most planted white), it’s not just me either.

It’s also a grape that shows stylistic differences depending on where it’s grown. New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs are probably the easiest to guess, since the grassy aroma just jumps out of the grass. California SBs may be found oaked (thank Robert Mondavi for that). French SBs are more full bodied, especially if they have a dash of Semillon. Sancerre wines are possibly my favorite white wines of all.

But what about Virginia? Where does Jefferson’s birthplace fall in this roster?

Overall, my observation is Virginia Sauvignon Blancs tend towards Old World style, but honestly I’ve never tested that hypothesis. And if every winery makes them slightly differently, which one will be my favorite? So I gathered some friends and did some experimenting. You know, for science!

We picked nine separate Sauvignon Blancs from around the state, almost all from the 2019 vintage – one which Luca Paschina of Barboursville called it an “excellent-outstanding”.  By doing this as a vintage-specific tasting, I figured we’d be able to make this comparison as fair as possible.

  1. 2019 Doukénie Winery (Northern Virginia)
  2. 2019 Glen Manor (Shenandoah)
  3. 2019 King Family (Charlottesville)
  4. 2016 Linden Avenius (Northern Virginia)
  5. 2019 Linden Hardscrabble (also 12% Semillon) (Northern Virginia)
  6. 2019 Maggie Malick (Northern Virginia)
  7. 2019 Michael Shaps
  8. 2019 Stinson (Charlottesville)
  9. 2019 Walsh Family Wine Bethany Ridge (Northern Virginia)
The competitors (and several judges)

The challenge was to identify our favorite Sauv Blanc of the night. To do that, we blind-tasted all nine wines over three flights, with a separate flight at the end of the winners of each round.

Flight 1:

  • Wine 1 (Michael Shaps 2019 SB): Grassy notes on the nose but on the palate everything seemed up front. A few didn’t like this one initially but it more than grew on us as it opened up. Slight citrus notes. 5 votes
  • Wine 2 (Linden Hardscrabble 2019 SB): More weight, rounder, orange peel on the nose (PS – this was my favorite of the night, and arguably the toughest challenge of the entire evening). We felt this would have been scored better if we paired it with food. We went back and forth between liking this one or #1 better. 3 votes.
  • Wine 3 (King Family 2019 SB): Some grassy notes but not quite New Zealand-style grassiness. Some detected orange zest, other said it had an almost-sweet quality to it. Rounder. Maybe some buttercream notes, caused by oak? Zero votes.

Flight 2:

  • Wine 4 (Doukénie 2019 SB): Hits the mid palate but it died off. Big nose; started with a ‘creamed corn’ aroma although that dissipated over time. We liked it more as it opened up but still zero votes.
  • Wine 5 (Stinson 2019 SB): Classic grassy nose. Some detected some sweetness on the nose as well as pink grapefruit on the nose and palate. Very refreshing and indicative of what you want a Sauv Blanc to be. 6 votes.
  • Wine 6 (Linden 2016 Avenius): Lighter nose. Zingy, pleasant, Lime and light butter on the palate. Hot note; maybe higher alcohol? Some tartness came out later in the tasting. 2 votes.

Flight 3

  • Wine 7 (Maggie Malick 2019 SB): Grassy, traditional ‘Sauv Blanc’ nose. Lighter on the palate, didn’t need food. Sipper wine. Very pleasant all around. 7 votes
  • Wine 8 (Glen Manor 2019 SB): Cat pee on the nose (believe it or not, this is actually a positive aroma descriptor for higher quality SBs). Higher acid, bold. We later said we felt this needed time to open up, but we didn’t give it a tremendous amount of time. Zero votes.
  • Wine 9 (Walsh Family Wine 2019 SB): Grassy/boxwood notes. Passion fruit on the palate. We felt this was food wine that seemed indicative of classic Virginia Sauvignon Blancs. 1 vote.

Winners Round:

By this time we had some bites of food so maybe our palates had changed. We enjoyed all 3 of them, but the real showdown was between wines 5 and 7 (Stinson and Maggie). It was a very tight vote but in the end – and by a hair – we declared Wine #5 to be our favorite, and after the unveiling discovered it was Stinson 2019 SB.

  • Wine 1: Michael Shaps 2019 SB: Light on the palate, lemon lime, very pleasant. 1 vote.
  • Wine 5: Stinson 2019 SB: We felt this was a classic expression of what a Sauv Blanc should be, especially on the nose. Maybe there was some oak notes? Fruit-sweet but nice complexity. 4 votes
  • Wine 7 Maggie Malick 2019 SB: Lighter, jucier. Lower acid. Lemon lime but not punch in the face. 3 votes.

I did some research after the fact and learned it was NOT made in oak, but rather made in a combination of steel and concrete egg. Otherwise our tasting notes seemed to be right on.

I have to make an admission up front; I really though Linden and Glen Manor would have done better here. These two have a reputation as some of the best wines – especially Sauvignon Blancs – on the east coast. In fact, I deliberately put them in separate flights so they wouldn’t compete against one another. And to everyone’s surprise…none made it to the second round. That was truly a shocker to us.

I also do have to admit one small mistake here. I….accidentally used the 2016 Linden Avenius vs the 2019. It wasn’t until we unveiled them all did I realize it. But honestly, I don’t think it would have made a difference (I still popped open a 2019 Avenius….for scientific testing…). But after pouring it with the group, I still think the winners would have stayed the same, because they were THAT GOOD.

One thing I learned is that although this was all Virginia, and nearly all the same vintage, all the Sauv Blancs were markedly different. Several trended towards a more ‘traditional’ approach and many had fair to strong grassy nose, but you could tell the differences in all of them. This was a major departure from a very similar Malbec event, where all the Malbecs trended towards stronger similarities despite different countries and years.

After some deliberation, I recognized something else. This tasting was entirely the product of this group and this particular time, hence doesn’t necessarily prove or disprove anything at all. If anything, that’s the real lesson of the night. Any wine can be your favorite wine in the right circumstances. I’m certain had we done another round the better wines would likely have made it to the top tier, but the winner – even a big name like Linden or Glen Manor – is never a guarantee.

Looking at how we did this competition, had we done these in a separate order, done them more spaced apart, or done them with food pairings, I’m pretty sure we would have gotten at least slightly different results (I remain adamant the Hardscrabble would have killed it with a creamy dish to the side). I also found it curious that the top-scoring wines were all stylistically similar to one another; the most traditionally ‘Sauv-Blanc-y” of the bunch.

All that said, I want to give lots of kudos to Rachel Stinson Vrooman of Stinson Vineyards and Maggie Malick of Maggie Malick Wine Caves for having the #1 and #2 wines of the evening. We loved them the best, which says a lot given they were next to some truly world-class wines.

Virginia Malbecs vs the World

Malbec is a grape that’s grown worldwide but seldom bottled alone. Cahors is its spiritual home but it’s since been adopted by Argentina, one of the few places that bottles 100% Malbec wines. Even Bordeaux considers it something of a stepchild, the least planted grape out of the 5 noble Bordeaux reds.

Out of 3000 planted acres of grapes, Virginia grows only 17 acres of Malbec – in the entire state. Saying its rare in Virginia is an understatement.

The reason for this rarity is simple – it generally does poorly in Virginia’s humidity, struggling to ripen in most years. In all my travels I’ve only seen 7-8 places in Virginia & Maryland which are either willing to put in the extra work to grow large plantings of Malbec, or possess the ‘Goldilocks’ combination of terroir it needs to express itself. More than a handful of wineries have since ripped out its Malbec vines or were forced to replant due to frost damage.

Still, the opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison of Malbec poised an interesting dilemma. Are there any defining characteristics for Virginia Malbec? How will it compare to France and Argentina?

To answer this question, some friends and I tasted 9 wines from three different regions, including Mendoza (Argentina), Cahors (France), and Virginia (mostly central VA but also one from Fauquier).

The contenders:

  1. Argentina (Mendoza) 2017 El Enemigo
  2. Argentina (Mendoza) 2017 Mascota
  3. Argentina (Mendoza) 2019 Phebus
  4. France (Cahors) 2015 Chateau de Mercuès
  5. France (Cahors) 2016 La Caminade
  6. France (Cahors) 2018 Clos La Coutale
  7. Virginia 2015 DelFosse
  8. Virginia 2016 Arterra
  9. Virginia 2016 Horton
  10. Bonus: California 2016 Schweiger

The tasting was done completely blind. We did 3 flights, with each flight consisting of a wine from each region. We conducted a “Finalist’s Round” of the winners from each of the three flights.

First off, nearly all of these wines were nearly the same jet-ink color. A few were slightly lighter than others (possibly because some had some other grapes blended in), but any differences were going to have to be determined by nose and palate.

Flight #1

  • 2015 DelFosse ($26): Earth floor on the nose. Tobacco notes yet fruity. Overall not especially complex but still a well-received wine. (2.5 votes)
  • 2017 El Enemigo ($22): Earthy notes and some funk on the nose. Lighter bodied than the previous one but still strong tannin. Some fruit notes on the palate. Favorite of the 1st flight. (3.5 votes)
  • 2015 Chateau de Mercuès ($28): Blended with Merlot. Raspberry notes but also some bitterness. I picked this up at Total Wine and while it had good reviews it wasn’t well received here. (1 vote)

Flight #2

  • 2016 Arterra ($35?): Spicy and bright. Arterra makes their wines via natural yeast fermentation, which I’ve found is a love-it-or-hate-it quality. I enjoyed it but not the winner of this round. (2.5 votes)
  • 2019 Phebus ($16): This was the youngest wine of the night – and it showed. Despite that, we seemed to really enjoy the fruitiness. A bit tart and minerally as well. Overall it was on point, and twice in a row Argentina takes the win for favorite of the flight. (4 votes)
  • 2018 Clos La Coutale ($18): One of my participants gave it the weirdest tasting note descriptor of the night; “mash potatoes”. Another said notes of herb garden and tart on the palate. I thought it had a ‘weird’ nose and fruit notes. Not a winner for us. (1 vote)

Flight #3

  • 2016 “Cy” La Caminade ($22): I picked this up at a local wine store based on their recommendation. Different participants provided different descriptors, ranging from bell pepper, blackberry, and/or leather on the nose. One participant noted a bit of sourness. Not my favorite but got outvoted! (3 votes)
  • 2017 Mascota Vineyards ($15): One of the most widespread commercial producers in Argentina. Tobacco nose, black cherry palate. (1.5 votes)
  • 2016 Horton ($30): Bright, fruity. My favorite of the night! Words were hard for me by then, but I crowdsourced the tasting notes “Earthy nose and cranberry notes on the palate”. Sadly, this was Horton’s last vintage of this grape. (2.5 votes)

Finalist Round

  • Argentina 2017 El Enemigo: Funky nose. Words were hard by this point so no tasting descriptors. 4 votes
  • Argentina 2019 Phebus: Musty. 3 votes
  • Cahors 2019 La Caminade: Slight must, some fruit, brighter than others. Zero votes.

For our bonus round, we tried the Napa 2016 Schweiger. Very ripe! It was a totally different wine than the rest- and not just because we were lit up by then.

Overall, I’d say our tasting notes were all over the place. I knew this would be a challenging grape for Virginia to compare, but I still think it did well. Notably, Virginia Malbecs were voted in the middle of each flight, while Argentina was consistently #1 and France ended up last.

My personal favorite was Horton but I did like the Phebus as well. I suspect younger, more fruit-driven wines appealed to the crowd I was with so that may have impacted the results.

The winner!