Virginia Rieslings vs the World

Virginia’s diverse climate allows it to produce nearly every grape imaginable. The state is fortunate to not only have a number of French and Italian varietals, but also vines from Germany, Spain, Portugal, and elsewhere.

That aside, saying Virginia isn’t known for Riesling would be a major understatement. Riesling’s home is Germany, although it’s also found in the New York Finger Lakes, Oregon, California’s Central Coast, and certain parts of Australia.

Riesling requires cool growing conditions, so it loves high elevation or warm spots in areas otherwise known for colder weather. That limits the places in Virginia where Riesling is truly suitable. Most of Virginia’s 25 acres of Riesling is found in the Shenandoah and Roanoke Valleys, although a tiny number of vineyards east the Blue Ridge such as Linden and Grey Ghost also have it.

To understand why Virginia has so little of this varietal, I approached Luke Trainum, winemaker of Hazy Mountain Vineyards & Winery. Their Riesling is planted in their second vineyard, a steep hill in the southern Shenandoah Valley. He explained (and I’m only slightly paraphrasing):

“Riesling east of the Blue Ridge struggles, mostly due to humidity. It grows well for us in the valley so long as we are not facing a year of excess moisture or oppressive humidity. As a varietal it is quite prone to botrytis so keeping the canopy clean with plenty of airflow is paramount.

As a vine it is not especially needy, but it does require the steps of the growing season to be well timed and executed properly. As for production, they tend to throw smaller, lightweight clusters that reduce the yield as far as tons per acre goes but really draws out potent aromatics and a concentration of flavor. In the vineyard you can tell you are in the Riesling block just by the smell standing in the middle of it.

Overall, it is enjoyable to grow and very exciting to work with in the winery. Even though it does not throw us the largest crops, what it does give us is a tremendous depth of flavor and aromatics.”

Since there is so little Virginia Riesling, I picked three places – Hazy Mountain, Linden Vineyards, and Rockbridge Vineyards (southern Shenandoah Valley) – and put them against wines from the Finger Lakes and Germany.

I tried to only sample dry Rieslings to make everything as comparable as possible, although the Rockbridge was off-dry.

The contestants:

  1. (Germany, Mosel) 2020 Dr. Heidemanns-Bergweiler ($19.99, Total Wine)
  2. (Virginia) 2018 Linden Vineyards ($25 at the winery)
  3. (Finger Lakes) 2019 Forge Cellars Classique ($17.95 at local wine shops)
  4. (Germany, Pfalz) 2019 Pfeffingen Dry Riesling ($17.95 – $21.95)
  5. (Finger Lakes) 2017 District Winery Riesling ($23 at the winery)
  6. (Virginia, Shenandoah Valley) 2015 Rockbridge White Riesling ($21, sold out at the winery)
  7. (Germany, Pfalz) 2020 Gerd Anselmann Riesling (Dry) ($19.99, Total Wine)
  8. (Finger Lakes) 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank “Eugenia” ($32, Wine Searcher)
  9. (Virginia, Shenandoah Valley) 2019 Hazy Mountain Vineyards Riesling ($27 at the winery)

    I did this event with a group of friends, with all bottles bagged up. I allowed people to split votes between two bottles.

Flight 1 / Round 1:

  • Wine 1: 2020 Dr. Heidemanns-Bergweiler (Germany, 2 full votes)
  • Wine 2: 2018 Linden Vineyards (Virgina, 2 full votes, 2 x ½ votes, Winner)
  • Wine 3: 2019 Forge Cellars Classique (FLX, 1 full vote, 2 x ½ votes)

Fun round! The votes were well spread. Bottle #2 (Linden) was the favorite but not by a huge margin.

We found the German Dr. H. to be very Pinot Grigio-like, which threw us off. Lighter color, tropical notes (especially peach). Notes of lime on the palate. A very drinkable wine.

The Linden 2018 was a pale gold. Our participants noted aromas ranging from lemon-y, petrol, to minerality. Granny Smith on the palate. This wine also had more body. Winemaker Jim Law called this “A pretty, light bodied, playfully styled Riesling.” I thought this was a very nice wine in a vintage that was incredibly wet and difficult.

The Forge Cellars was a pale gold with slate, lemon, and petrol on the nose. Super high acid. Very round on the palate.

Overall I think we gravitated towards the drinkability of the Linden.

Flight 2 / Round 1:

  • Wine 4: 2019 Pfeffingen Dry Riesling (Germany, zero votes)
  • Wine 5: 2019 District Winery Riesling (FLX, 4 votes, winner)
  • Wine 6: 2015 Rockbridge White Riesling (Virginia, 3 votes)

This was my favorite round!

The Pfeffingen had a really light color. Flint on the nose, lemon or lemongrass on the nose and palate. Some noted ginger on the nose as well.

The District Winery was described as “The type of Riesling I want to be recommended to me.” Long, zesty finish. We had all sorts of notes on the nose, including pear, apple, limestone, chalk, even rubber (petrol was not described). Lots and lots of lemon on the palate.

The Rockbridge was probably the most unique wine of the night – but in a good way. We noted it seemed to have a touch of noble rot, which was a quality that when it was loved, it was really loved. Nose had notes of honey and maybe wax, while the body was oily or waxy, with an almost ginger ale quality to it. The color was also exceptionally dark, with an almost orange hue.

I asked winemaker Shep Rouse for details, and he explained “I used icewine to sweeten it although the icewine grapes were frozen in a freezer. The Riesling is estate bottled and grown at 2,000 ft elevation. There was little noble rot in the constituents but the cryoconcentration of the juice for the icewine creates Botrytis-like character.”

From left to right; Pfeffingen, City Winery, and Rockbridge. Look at the color on the right glass!

Some who voted for Rockbridge said it was their favorite wine of the night – although noble rot characteristics gave it something of a ‘you can only enjoy one glass at a time’ quality to it.

Flight 3 / Round 1:

  • Wine 7: Gerd Anselmann Riesling (Dry) (Germany, zero votes)
  • Wine 8: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank “Eugenia” (FLX, 3 votes)
  • Wine 9: 2019 Hazy Mountain Vineyards Riesling (Virginia, 4 votes, winner)

The German Gerd was possibly our least favorite wine of the evening. Fruity nose but it seemed off balance. Acidity on the lower end.

The Dr. Konstantin Frank had various descriptions. On the nose we found petrol, tire, flint, slate. On the palate it was ripe fruit, maybe yellow apple. Higher acidity here too.

The Hazy Mountain was a lighter color, and I swear had some ‘funk’ on the nose. Honey on the palate, as well as apple and pear notes. But the funk was a feature not a flaw; it didn’t appear on the palate at all. I suspect if I had given it more time to breathe this aroma would have dissipated and the wine would have gotten even more votes.

Final Round:

  • Wine 2: 2018 Linden Vineyards (Virginia, 1 vote)
  • Wine 5: 2017 District Winery Riesling (FLX, 5 votes, winner)
  • Wine 9: 2019 Hazy Mountain Vineyards Riesling (Virginia, 1 vote)

I don’t have detailed tasting notes beyond what’s already written. The Linden was probably the easiest drinking of this set. The District Winery was very well balanced.

Winner? D.C.’s very own District Winery, which used Finger Lakes fruit.

Drinking these wines was fun. But equally fun was talking about them – and we had plenty to talk about.

Put simply, all of us were SHOCKED that two Virginia Rieslings made it to the final round. As much as we love Virginia wine, none of us had faith that our Rieslings would stand up to either Germany or the Finger Lakes. Yet here were at the final round, two Virginia wines on the table and none from Germany.

So what happened?

Our best guess is that the German wines we had were…put simply…probably not this country’s best examples. Germany exports lots of Riesling, so we were likely getting cheap wines meant for an American audience. I suspect Germany also focuses on off-dry Rieslings as opposed to drier versions, so that may have further skewed the ratings.

Even with that in mind, Finger Lakes didn’t kick-butt as I would have thought. Dr. Konstantin and Forge Cellars are world-famous Riesling producers, yet neither got through their first round (I admit, I did love that Forge).

But the simplest answer is that when Virginia makes Riesling, it does it well. Out of the nine wines we blind-tasted, the three Virginia bottles easily landed in the top half. Some would have put the Rockbridge wine as the best of the evening. That’s a damn good showing for a region that is hardly known for this varietal.

So next time you’re debating picking of a Riesling – look for one from Virginia! The price points of Virginia Rieslings are very comparable to those of elsewhere, and I’d humbly say the quality was superior.

Virginia Petit Verdot Blind Tasting Showdown Part II

This was my second Petit Verdot showdown in a month, mostly by coincidence. Weather and COVID forced me to constantly change the date of the initial event, to the point that half my friends who bought bottles in anticipation of the first event couldn’t make it when it finally happened. So the only solution was to have a second one.

My previous Petit Verdot blind tasting was a 2017 vintage-only event, so I switch it up in order to avoid being repetitive. This time, I allowed Petit Verdots from any vintage, from any area around the world.

The upside to this was by a varietal tasting across vintages made me appreciate the strong variation our weather causes. I felt the tasting profile of the 2016-2017 PVs were noticeably ‘bigger’ but had a few years to mellow, while the 2018s were notably softer. The 2019 tended towards being ripe and young.

I didn’t realize this at first, but the 2018s were lower in alcohol and at least one was a blend. This seemed to work in their favor, since Petit Verdot on its own is so bold it cries out for a hearty meal, so the easy-drinking PVs showed very well in our event.

The addition of a pair of California Petit Verdots added an interesting dimension. I did a little bit of research and realized that there are only 800 acres of Petit Verdot in California (compared to around 23,000 acres of Cab Sauv).

Most I opened 2-3 hours before the event, although a few guest wines weren’t opened till we started. We sampled 3 wines at a time, plus a ‘winners’ round of the top 3.

  1. 2018 True Heritage (12% alcohol, VA. Also 25% Merlot)
  2. 2016 Turnbull (14.9% alcohol, NAPA
  3. 2016 Glen Manor (14.3% alcohol, VA)
  4. 2019 DuCard (13% alcohol, VA)
  5. 2018 Vint Hill (VA)
  6. 2017 Arterra (14.5% alcohol, VA)
  7. 2014 Linden (13.9% alcohol, VA. 88% PV, 8 Cab Sauv, 4 % Carménère)
  8. 2019 Bishop Hill (14%)
  9. 2017 Pearmund Reserve (13.5%)

Round 1/Bracket 1:

Veritas and Glen Manor have great reputations. The wine from True Heritage was made by Emily of Veritas, although using fruit from a farm near Keswick. Glen Manor needs no introduction; their 2017 Petit Verdot was one of my favorites from the previous event.

The bottle from California was easily identifiable. I suspect this would have showed better in a full Riedel glass with a full meal, but we had to do with smaller sampling glasses.

Wine 1: 2018 True Heritage: 4.5 votes (winner). Well balanced. Not a lot of any one particular note but it seemed to be a well-rounded crowd pleaser. I later saw that this was 25% Merlot, which made it considerably easier to drink as a stand-alone wine.

Wine 2: 2016 Turnbull: 1 vote. Strong alcoholic burn. It also had a sweet liquorish quality to it. The higher-than-expected level of alcohol was a turnoff for many of us, as our group has grown accustomed to Virginia PV. We didn’t do this wine any favors by not serving it with food or giving it a limited decanting time. I suspect either would have upped our opinion of this wine.

Wine 3: 2016 Glen Manor: 3.5 votes. It seemed closed at the time we tried it. It was likewise a crowd pleaser but didn’t seem as expressive as the True Heritage. I opened it over 2 hours before tasting, but it probably could have taken even more time to open up.

Our eight judges were all over the place and some had a hard time deciding a favorite, so I allowed half votes. But the softness of the True Heritage won the round.

Round 1/Bracket 2:

This was my favorite round. DuCard’s 2017 PV was the favorite of the previous event, although the youth of the 2019 showed. I was pretty certain I could identify Arterra’s wine based on the long finish, which many people commented on.

Wine 4: 2019 DuCard: 2 votes. Younger and very expressive wine. Ripe fruit on the nose, some fruit notes. Spice notes and higher alcohol on the palate. I thought the color was a lighter shade than the rest.

Wine 5: 2018 Vint Hill: 2 votes. Smooth. Little spicy but not overwhelming. Also a lighter shade than the rest. I personally voted for bolder, in-your-face wines but the guests who prefer easier drinking wines liked this a lot.

Wine 6: 2017 Arterra: 4 votes (winner). This wine seemed all about the finish. Oddly enough, it didn’t seem to have as much going on in the front of the palate, at least during this initial tasting. I later learned this was one of our higher alcohol level (14.5%) wines, although that surprised me since it wore the alcohol level very well. The Arterra improved the most with decanting.

Round 1/Bracket 3:

This event was a bit lopsided since I believe the 2017 Pearmund had cork taint, a problem that occurs roughly 2% (maybe more?) of all bottles. The Linden was very easy drinking and showed as a younger wine than it really was, which is a huge tribute to Jim Law’s winemaking.

I enjoyed the 2019 Bishop’s Hill. This wine’s California heritage (but made in Illinois) was easy to spot but didn’t come off as the alcohol-bomb the California Turnbull wine was. The only thing holding this back is its youth. This Petit Verdot earned Best in Class (up to $39.99) and double gold at the 2021 San Fransisco Chronical Wine competition, so it was a great addition here.

Wine 7: 2014 Linden: 6 votes (winner). Easy drinking, bright fruit, slightly acidic. We thought it was a higher alcohol wine but actually not. I later discovered it was 88% Petit Verdot fruit, with 8% Cabernet Sauvignon and 4% Carménère, which added to its drinkability.

Wine 8: 2019 Bishop Hill: 2 votes. This bottle seemed to conform the most to the ‘book definition’ of what a PV should be like. Blueberry nose. Ripe fruit. Although it was only a tad higher in alcohol than its Virginia counterparts, for some reason it seemed more obvious about it than I anticipated.

Wine 9: 2017 Pearmund: 0 votes (corked). I’m convinced there was a fault somehow. Very musty and funky. It was earthy but in a bad way. We were all surprised to learn it was a Pearmund wine, since a number of us have visited Pearmund and tried this very same wine and enjoyed it.

Round 2/Final:

We stopped for a food break before resuming. I think the Linden wine lost some ‘ooomph’ by this time, while the Arterra was gaining steam. Maybe there’s a sweet spot in how long wine should aerate, but we did the best with what we had.

The True Heritage continued to be the favorite for those seeking a smooth, easy drinking wine. The Arterra gained in popularity not just because it was ‘good’, but compared to the others it was ‘different’. Being interesting to drink made it a winner for this event.

Wine 1: 2018 True Heritage: 2.5 votes. Our notes were all over the place. Several noted it was very tart and improved. I thought it actually lost something from an earlier round. Others felt it was very consistent, well balanced, and drinkable.

Wine 6: 2017 Arterra: 4.5 votes (winner). Earthy, notes of black fruit. Smoother than the other two. Someone detected mocha on the nose and felt it was well balanced. It was one of the highest alcohol level wines of the evening, but unlike the California wines the alcohol level wasn’t as prominent.

Wine 7: 2014 Linden: 1 vote. This had become a tad milder from the previous round. Full mouthfeel. One of us kept insisting it was a higher alcohol level wine but that was proven wrong.

I’m not the least bit surprised that Arterra won. Winemaker Jason Murray has a very impressive track record with bold reds (his Tannats are some of my favorite in the state) but this Petit Verdot really blew everyone away.

I think part of that was its uniqueness, which I believe is from the use of natural yeast (Arterra’s trademark). It was high in alcohol but didn’t seem that way; smooth yet racy. It just stood out for a lot of reasons that I can’t put my finger on. Not surprisingly, their 2017 Crooked Run won a similar event.

I asked winemaker Jason Murray for some details, and he explained the perception of a lower degree of alcohol was due to a combination of Virginia’s weather (hot, humid), good site selection, and his viticultural practices (especially late picking and lower yields).

The use of native yeast also brings out more vivid fruit flavors. It also creates a different form of molecular alcohol, which may be why our palates perceived it differently.