Virginia Petit Verdot Blind Tasting Showdown: The 2017 Vintage

“The brown bag doesn’t lie” is one of my favorite quotes. Virginia does Petit Verdot exceptionally well and it’s one of my favorite varietals not just in the state, but in the world.

Some friends and I tried 6 different Petit Verdots in a blind tasting, with two ‘bonus PVs’ from Italy and New York to top off the night. The NY one was good (and the Italian bottle may have been slightly off) but based on this small sample size felt Virginia is clearly the leader in this varietal.

Petit Verdot is a Bordeaux grape but only used there for blending, giving red blends color and tannin. The name translates as ‘little green one’ because it rarely ripens well in this region. Full varietal Petit Verdot wines are a rarity in France, with this grape comprising around 2% of Bordeaux’s red grapes.

But Virginia’s warmer climate allows the fruit to ripen while maintaining its acidity, and its thick skin and loose clusters makes it well suited to our weather. As of 2019 (the date of the last detailed Virginia grape report), there were nearly 300 acres of Petit Verdot in the state, making it Virginia’s 3rd most planted varietal (after Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, and a touch ahead of Merlot).

I picked 2017 for two reasons. Most importantly, I find high-acid, high-tannin wine need time in the bottle. Virginia wineries seldom have the luxury of having enough wine in stock to wait until they are ready. Fortunately, 2017 was something of a bumper crop and I’d been stocking up on this vintage in particular.

The 2017 vintage was also one of the best in recent decades. This year was Virginia’s 4th hottest summer since 1895 and had limited rainfall. It also had cool nights, so growers enjoyed the best of both worlds.

We had a good array from of producers from around the state, including several of my all-time favorite Petit Verdot makers.

  1. Maggie Malick 2017 Petit Verdot (Loudoun Valley)
  2. The Barns 2017 Petit Verdot (growing site unknown)
  3. Glen Manor 2017 Petit Verdot (Front Royal)
  4. Hark 2017 Petit Verdot (Monticello AVA)
  5. The Wine Reserve at Waterford 2017 Petit Verdot (Northern Virginia)
  6. DuCard 2017 Petit Verdot (Eltan, near the middle of Shenandoah Park)

Round 1 / Bracket 1

  • Maggie Malick (Wine #1) 2 Votes
  • The Barns (Wine #2) 4 votes, Winner

The Maggie Malick was probably the lightest PV of the evening. Herbs and eucalyptus on the nose. Some red fruit notes. Soft initially but had a bitter back-end.

The Barns was almost stereotypical “Virginia PV”. It hadn’t been open for very long so we found this bottle to be rather one-dimensional (it opened up during our next tasting). Graphite on the palate. It also surprised us with a loooong finish. Not complex but very drinkable.

Round 1 / Bracket 2

  • Glen Manor (Wine #3), 1 vote and three half votes, Wildcard to next bracket
  • Hark (Wine #4) 2 votes and three half votes, Winner

This was our toughest round, and we went back and forth on our favorite. We were so torn I allowed people to split their votes. Eventually the Hark won by a tiny margin, but we loved the Glen Manor so much we gave it a wildcard to the next bracket.

The Glen Manor was very smooth and easy drinking. It had bright acidity and light pepper notes. Gravel and black fruit on the palate.

The Hark was more tannic but still smooth. Herbal notes on the nose and body to back it up. Some of us detected tart cherry. Complex but still approachable. Less acidic than the Glen Manor.

The deciding factor here was food. We hadn’t broken out the BBQ yet, but we did have cheese plate that offered lots of small bites. That’s when someone discovered how awesome the Hark was when paired with a bite of sautéed Andouille chicken sausage.

It was hard to argue with the logic of “Yes!! But the sausage!!!!”, which was probably the best single food & wine pairing I’ve had all year. Sausage + Hark PV = not just winning this bracket, but winning in life.

Round 1 / Bracket 3

  • The Wine Reserve (Wine #5)
  • DuCard (Wine #6) 6 votes, Winner

The Wine Reserve got stuck in a tough bracket. It did have a great nose, which one guest described as “Smells like Christmas”. Red fruit and some tartness on the palate. I did think it was a little harsh.

The DuCard had this wonderfully deep, pronounced fruitiness. Berry and plumb on the nose. Soft and easy drinking.

It was DuCard all the way here.

We stopped the tasting to indulge in some BBQ before continuing to the next bracket.

Round 2 / Bracket 1

  • The Barns (Wine #2) One half vote
  • Glen Manor (Wine #3) 5 votes and one half vote; Winner

Words were getting difficult here, but I’ll try.

The Barns had improved with some aeration. I was starting to sense the tannins and the nose had a whiff of graphite.

But that Glen Manor? That had such a great mouthfeel. We went with Glen Manor.

Round 2 / Bracket 2

  • Hark (Wine #4) 2 votes and one half vote
  • DuCard (Wine #6) 3 votes and one half vote, Winner

Another tough round. We detected some spiciness on the Hark. Most importantly, some extra bites allowed us to conclude it was the best food wine of the evening.

The DuCard by comparison was less acidic, and I was getting a cooked fruit quality on the palate. Smooth.

If we had more sausage we may have given Hark the win, but since we were trying to judge these on their own the DuCard took this round.

Round 3 / Final

  • Glen Manor (Wine #3) One vote
  • DuCard (Wine #6) 5 votes, Winner

Put simply, we loved both wines. Both were similar in that they were easy drinking yet complex. I could have picked either one, but in the end we gave the DuCard the win for best of the evening.

I’d hate to say that this event ‘proves’ anything. Even if we repeated the same wines with the same people, we could easily have gotten different results. But overall, I’m still not surprised these two made it to the top.

Cana Vineyards Wins The 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup

On March 24th, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced Cana Vineyards & Winery as the winner of the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup for its 2019 Unité Reserve, a Petit Verdot-heavy red blend. Owners Lisa & Bryce Petty and winemaker Melanie Natoli accepted the Cup at a packed gala, held at Richmond’s Main Street Station. This year’s Governor’s Cup was the first time the Gala was open to the public.

Melanie made history as the first woman to ever receive the Governor’s Cup. The competition also set a record with three women winemakers – Melanie, Maggie Malick of Maggie Malick Wine Caves, and Rachel Stinson Vrooman of Stinson Vineyards – behind four of the competition’s 12 top-scoring wines, which will form the Governor’s Case.

The remaining Case wines, representing Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, and the Shenandoah Valley, were also revealed. Albemarle Ciderworks won Best in Show for its 2019 Virginia Hewes Crab cider. 127 gold medal winners were announced earlier in the month.

The 2022 Virginia’s Governor’s Case

  1. Cana Vineyards & Winery 2019 Unité Reserve (Cup Winner)
  2. 50 West Vineyards 2019 Ashby Gap
  3. Barboursville Vineyards 2020 Vermentino Reserve
  4. Cana Vineyards & Winery 2019 LeMariage
  5. Maggie Malick Wine Caves 2020 Albariño
  6. Michael Shaps Wineworks 2019 Chardonnay
  7. Pollak Vineyards 2017 Meritage
  8. Rockbridge Vineyard 2018 V d’Or
  9. Shenandoah Vineyards 2019 Reserve
  10. Stinson Vineyards 2017 Meritage
  11. Trump Winery 2015 Brut Reserve
  12. Wisdom Oak Winery 2019 Nineteen

The Governor’s Cup is Virginia’s premiere wine competition, featuring wines that are entirely grown and made in the state. Competition Director and Master of Wine Jay Youmans changed the format and strengthened judging standards in 2012, turning the Cup into a world-class competition. Cases of these top-scoring wines are sent to wine critics around the world, promoting the Virginia wine industry to a national and international audience.

Jay and his team of judges blind tasted over 600 entries, their highest number ever. This year’s competition was marked by two trends; the rising quality of Virginia wine as a whole, and the diversity of wines the state is capable of producing.

Competition judge and wine writer Frank Morgan said of this year’s competition, “In the ten years I’ve served as a judge for the Virginia Governor’s Cup, the quality of wines was higher across the range of varieties. I was especially impressed with the Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot and especially the red Bordeaux-style red blends.”

Annette Boyd, Director of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, also noted how this year’s scores were buoyed by Virginia’s overall improving quality as well as a pair of especially strong vintages. The majority of wines came from 2017 and 2019, harvests winemaker Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards called “Excellent to Outstanding” due to fruit that was almost universally praised as ripe and well balanced.

This year’s scores back up their observations. On a 100 point scale, those scoring 85-89 points earn silver and 90 or more are awarded gold. The strength of this year’s Cup submissions were such that all but a handful won at least silver.

This year’s competition both reaffirmed the Cup’s love of French grapes amongst its top wines, while demonstrating how Virginia is increasingly looking beyond Bordeaux for inspiration.

Bordeaux-style red blends made up over half the Case, alongside a Chardonnay and Chardonnay-based sparkling. Rounding out the case is a dessert wine, Vermentino, and the Case’s first Albariño.

Yet Virginia is still a young wine region, experimenting with new varieties to find those that work best in our terroir. A number of these gold medal winners showcase how Virginia’s exploration of new grapes and styles of winemaking made this year’s gold medal wines its most diverse set ever, taking cues from both California and Europe but forging a style that is distinctly Virginia.

Judges awarded the Cup’s first gold to a Tempranillo (Spain) from Maggie Malick Wine Caves and the first gold in over a decade to a Syrah (southern France) from Beliveau Farm Winery. Albariño (Spain) and Nebbiolo (Italy) were well represented despite relatively small plantings in the state. Petit Manseng and Petit Verdot, lesser-known French varieties winegrowers praise for their suitability in Virginia’s climate, also made strong showings.

Dry and off-dry wines made with hybrid grapes (a crossing of American and Mediterranean vines) also had their best-ever showing. Beliveau Farm also won for its 2017 Soul Singer Chambourcin, and both Grace Estate Winery and Old House Vineyards were recognized for their Vidals. While hybrids have traditionally lacked mass market appeal, climate change is forcing vineyards to reevaluate what they should plant and these under-appreciated varieties are amongst those leading the way.

This diversity isn’t limited to grapes; sparkling wine, cider, and mead all set new medal records in the Cup.

Six sparklings took gold. The nationwide popularity of sparkling wines has seen local bubbly sales surge, with a number of Virginia wineries now offering everything from casual pétnats to serious méthode champenoise-style wines.

Ciders and meads were also well represented, earning 23 gold medals between them. These beverages reflect the changing demographics in Virginia’s beverage market as new drinkers shift to lighter offerings. Nearly 1/3rd of new ‘wineries’ in Virginia are actually cideries or meaderies. The Cup’s ciders were reviewed by a separate set of judges.

Many of this year’s gold medal winners are still available at their respective wineries. Wine lovers can download the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup® Gold Medal Wine Trail app at Virginiawine.Org. The App allows users to plan their trips around wineries that earned gold at the Governor’s Cup, enter raffles for prizes, and view discounts.

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Virginia Governor’s Cup Wrap Up

A compilation of all Gold Medal and Governors Case winners in the Virginia Governor’s Cup, 2012-2022.

Blends are listed when the composition is known.

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Mixing It Up With Locally Crafted Vermouth

Saying Virginia is known for its craft beverages is an understatement. The state hosts almost 300 wineries, over 200 breweries, roughly 40 distilleries, at least 30 cideries, and nearly a dozen meaderies. But did you know we make our own vermouth as well?

If there was ever a beverage that’s misunderstood, it’s vermouth. It’s not quite a wine, but not quite a spirit either. Most people think of it as a cocktail mixer (think Negronis and Martinis) or aperitif, but vermouth can be enjoyed on its own.

Even defining vermouth is becoming difficult as American producers become more creative in their choice of botanicals. Virginia vermouths are equally diverse.

So What’s A Vermouth?

Put simply, vermouth is an aromatized (flavored with spices, herbs, or other florals) fortified wine. It likely started as a medicinal tonic, as the beverage’s botanical qualities made the medicine go down more easily. The alchemists who made the first vermouths must have realized they were on to something, so a trend began.

Modern vermouth includes a wine base, bittering agent, spirit for fortification, and a sweetener. While traditionally made with wormwood (vermouth is actually the French pronunciation of the word wermut, the German name for this herb), the term vermouth is increasingly applied to any aromatized wine. However, purists would argue that without wormwood, it may be an aromatized wine but it’s not a vermouth.

Vermouth’s popularity is in large part due to its versatility. It provides cocktails an array of flavor profiles without requiring the bartender to add more ingredients. When you narrow it down, there are three major types of vermouth; sweet (red), dry (white), and blanc.

Sweet vermouths are usually paired with richer drinks like bourbon or rum and are a component of Manhattans and Negronis. Dry vermouth goes with lighter spirits. Blanc vermouths are typically a half-way point between the red and white versions, and may be sipped straight.

Virginia Vermouths Gaining Traction

Only a handful of vermouths are made in Virginia, usually by local winemakers. This small scale production means local ingredients play a prominent role, giving mixologists something new and exciting to play with. Virginia vermouth-makers can also boast that these are craft products, with a quality and complexity that allows them to be enjoyed on their own or used in a cocktail.

Kelly Allen and Andrew Napier of Artemisia Farm and Vineyard are amongst this small group of vermouth-makers. Kelly explained, “We want to capture Virginia’s terroir as an abstract essence.” While Artemisia’s current focus is their CSA farm, making bitters, sparkling, and vermouth is a growing project. Members of their Paetreon even receive a small sample of what’s to come.

Vermouth wasn’t one of the products in Rosemont Vineyards & Winery‘s original business plan, but Justin Rose loved the idea of making something new.

“It was really our distributor’s idea. We had some white wine we hadn’t used. But our distributor asked us to make one so we jumped at the idea. We’ve partnered with Capitoline, which has the expertise on the botanicals we should use and how.

Ours is a little different. We use birch bark instead of wormwood as a bittering agent. Traditionally the botanicals are infused into the wine, but we use the botanicals in the brandy first then blend it. We also use local honey instead of sugar as a sweetener, which gives it a nice aromatic profile. So we’ve tried to keep it regional and local.

It’s something that we’re ramping up from a fun little side project to something that now has turned into a bigger project. We’ve used it on the rocks as an aperitif, or occasionally as a gin and tonic.”

For Flying Fox Vineyard, vermouth fits into the winery’s profile as a place for winemaker Emily Pelton to test her more experimental ideas. Their vermouth was inspired by Emily’s exploratory trip to Portugal where she noticed how many people were enjoying it as a drink as opposed to a mixer.

Co-owner George Hodson said that led to a focus on developing a more sippable drink, where the intensity was dialed back so not to be as sweet or bitter, but more in the middle. ”Local botanicals are the key,” George explained. “It was lots of trial and error; especially learning when we add these bittering agents.” Even the brandy is derived from their own grapes.

Flying Fox Vineyards, Sarah Hauser photo credit

Emily’s formula was a hit. While a large portion goes to the local bar scene, over half of their production is sold at the winery. George explained this format, “fundamentally flips the vermouth world. More people are getting used to sipping it on its own.”

Flying Fox makes four vermouths, each with its own seasonal flavor profile. While they make over 1000 bottles a year, they’ve continually ramped up production to meet growing demand.

Dr. Joy Ting is no stranger to experimentation. As the head enologist of the Winemaker’s Research Exchange, she works with winemakers from around the state to identify areas of practical research. She also makes a number of small-batch wines under her own eponymous label, and recently partnered with the Wool Factory to produce a vermouth for their restaurant, Broadcloth.

In explaining how she got into making vermouth, she exclaimed, “It’s a hidden gem! As a winemaker we often don’t get to try multiple things but with vermouth we get to play around with it.” Her vermouth uses brandy from a local distillery, made in a dryer style but with some sugar to offset the bitterness.

Broadcloth was a natural partner because of their bar program and focus on using local, seasonal Virginia ingredients. But her take as to why Virginia vermouth is taking off is due to how Virginia winemakers are by nature focused on small batch, craft creations where they can focus on the small details.

For more local vermouths, also try out Mt. Defiance Distillery in Middleburg, and look out for Walsh Family Wine which is coming out with their own.