Virginia Chardonnay Blind Tasting Showdown

I’ll start off by saying this: I love Chardonnay. I’m not alone, given it’s the 2nd most planted white grape in the world and 2nd most planted variety in Virginia.

People who say “Anything but Chardonnay” are probably referring to cheap, overly oaked versions from California. But Chardonnay is something of a chameleon, found in a variety of styles shaped by its growing condition and its winemaker’s preferences.

I’ve long thought Virginia does Chardonnay very well. Two of the most famous Chardonnay producers, Michael Shaps and Jim Law, seem to have an especially strong affinity for Old World-style Chardonnays. Michael Shaps makes authentic Burgundies from his Maison Shaps, and Jim Law refers to his Hardscrabble Chardonnay as his estate wine.

My blind tasting events has always had a great cross-section of participants, but this one had something of an “A-Team” of wine palates including Kathy Wiedemann of Vinous Musings (also one of the state’s best blind tasters and a Governor’s Cup judge), Paul Armstrong and Warren Richard of Virginia Wine Time, and Stephanie Vogtman, a consultant with extensive experience in the Virginia wine industry.

Having an A-Team of tasters required an equally impressive lineup of wines, many of which I accumulated specifically in anticipation of this event. The A-Team brought several more.

The wines:

  1. 2019 Chatham Church Creek (Steel). Grown in the Eastern Shore. Winemaker Jon Wehner.  This wine is also one the best seafood wine in Virginia (with all due respect to Barbourville’s Vermentino).
  2. 2018 Veritas Reserve. Grown in the Monticello AVA. Winemaker Emily Pelton. Brought in by Stephanie.
  3. 2017 Linden Hardscrabble. Grown not far from Front Royal at Linden’s estate Hardscrabble vineyard. Winegrower Jim Law. One of the most – arguably the most – famous Chardonnay growers in the state.
  4. 2019 Early Mountain Vineyards Madison County. Grown on I believe EMV’s estate vineyard. Winemakers Ben Jordan and Maya Hood White. This dynamic duo makes several vineyard-specific Chardonnays, but this was my favorite of the bunch I sampled. This EMV was brought by Kathy.
  5. 2019 Michael Shaps Wild Meadow Vineyard. Vineyard located in Loudoun. Winemaker Michael Shaps. This wine also won a place in the 2021 Governor’s Case, so I special ordered it for this event.
  6. 2019 Walsh North Gate Vineyard. Grown at the estate vineyard of Walsh Family Wine in Loudon County. Winemaker Nate Walsh. I don’t recall what drew me to this wine, but I’ve always enjoyed Nate’s wines so this was an easy choice.
  7. 2018 Two Twisted Post. I believe grown on their estate vineyard in Loudoun Valley. Winemaker Theresa Robertson. Brought by Paul and Warren.
  8. 2017 Pearmund Old Vine. Grown at their estate vineyard near Broad Run (which incidentally has some of the oldest Chardonnay vines in Virginia). I believe the winemaker at the time was Ashton Lough.
  9. 2019 Keswick: Grown at their estate vineyard in the Monticello AVA. Winemaker Stephen Barnard. I tried this a few years ago during a visit and as soon as I had this sweet ambrosia I knew this was going to be a participant at my event.

Flight #1:

  • Wine 1. 2019 Chatham (1st winner)
  • Wine 2. 2018 Veritas (3rd)
  • Wine 3. 2017 Linden Hardscrabble (2nd)

By coincidence, we started out the gate with what turned out to be one of our favorites of the day – the 2019 Chatham (Steel fermented). Most of us had sampled this wine before and were fairly certain of its identity, but we decided to wait till the end before we played ‘guess the bottle’.

The Chatham presented its distinct minerality. This was a soft, fresh “sipping wine”. Lemon or clementine zest on the palate.

Next up was Veritas. Although 2018 was a rough year I think Veritas made good adjustments for this vintage. While the oak was a bit pumped up, pairing it with food brought out those oak-profile characteristics in a good way.

The Linden Hardscrabble shouldn’t need any introduction, given Jim is one of the premiere Chardonnay-makers on the east coast. This was a higher-acid wine, which presented some pink fruit notes (grapefruit?) and even a trace of pineapple.

Putting these three winemakers in the same lineup was almost unfair, especially since the 2017 and 2019 Chardonnays are outstanding vintages. In retrospect I was a bit surprised that Linden didn’t rank higher but the A-Team was united; it was Chatham all the way. Veritas and Linden had a near-tie for 2nd place.

Votes:

  • Kathy: 1/3/2
  • Matt: 1/2/3
  • Paul: 1/3/2
  • Stephanie: 1/2/3
  • Warren: 1/3/2

Flight #2:

  • Wine 4: 2019 Early Mountain Vineyard Madison County (2nd)
  • Wine 5: 2019 Michal Shaps (3rd)
  • Wine 6: 2019 Walsh Family Wine (1st winner)

Let me start off by saying this was my favorite round! There wasn’t a single wine here I’d ever say no to.

The key term to describe Early Mountain Vineyard’s Madison County Chardonnay was ‘lush’. Fresh nose, long ripe apple finish. Notes of orange zest. We were it was a mix of neutral and newer American oak (it was actually neutral French and newer European oak). The wood was well integrated.

The Michael Shaps 2019 had a tropical nose (maybe a dash of Petit Manseng?) and it gave a big ‘pop’ of tropical fruit, like mango and pineapple. We felt this was definite a ‘food wine’.

The Walsh Family Wine had a softer nose with a whiff of flowers. I swear I got a bit of tannin here. Very diverse profile of tasting notes, to include some sweet orange. Creamy finish. We felt this would be great with creamy dishes or seafood. “Very Burgundian” was mentioned. Probably the most versatile wine of the lineup.

Walsh was easily our favorite, with EMV and Shaps vying for 2nd place.

Votes:

  • Kathy: 6/4/5
  • Matt: 6/4/5
  • Paul: 6/4/5
  • Stephanie: 6/4/5
  • Warren: 6/5/4

Flight #3:

  • Wine 7: 2018 Two Twisted Posts (2nd)
  • Wine 8: 2017 Pearmund Old Vine (3rd)
  • Wine 9: 2019 Keswick (1st winner)

Off the bat you could tell the first two wines were far darker than anything we’d had before, with an almost orange hue. This was the closest round in terms of favorites, since Two Twisted Posts and Keswick were especially appreciated.

The Two Twisted Posts had an almost hay color. Yellow flowers on the nose…maybe daisies? Yellow apple, lemon, citrus on the palate. Close #2 for this round.

The Pearmund was oakier than we preferred. There was an almost green quality to this bottle. Notes of celery or asparagus were mentioned.

The Keswick was well liked all around, ranked 1st or 2nd by all. Caramel, crème, apple on the plate. Flinty notes and wild flower on the nose. Someone mentioned a candied lemon quality here. It was also an especially high acid wine. Someone mentioned ginger on the back end.

Votes:

  • Kathy: 9/7/8
  • Matt: 9/7/8
  • Paul: 9/7/8
  • Stephanie: 7/9/8
  • Warren: 7/9/8

Finalist Round:

  • Wine #1: 2019 Chatham (2nd)
  • Wine #6: 2019 Walsh (1st winner)
  • Wine #9: 2019 Keswick (3rd)

No special tasting notes here. We took a break to eat, thinking maybe this might change our earlier tasting notes. But ultimately, our palates were still on the same path as they were before.

These were three clear winners, with the fresh minerality of the Chatham vying with the versatility of the Walsh. But for this round, Walsh won.

Votes

  • Kathy: 6/1/9
  • Matt: 1/6/9
  • Paul: 1/9/6
  • Stephanie: 6/1/9
  • Warren: 6/1/9

Overall Favorite: 2019 Walsh Family Wine

Not the main question – did the best wine win?

I think to ask this question misses the point. Any blind tasting is the product of that day, with that group, with that food. I could repeat the same wines days later and we easily could have gotten different results. And if we had tried pairing them with a different set of dishes, the final selections would have been more different still.

But I’m not at all surprised we picked Walsh. I think Nate is really under-rated, and this wine seemed to go with everything and satisfy every palate. I purposely tasted every wine on its own as well with a bite of food, and Walsh always stood out.

Not surprised either that Chatham or Keswick made it to the finals. Chatham was the ‘most different’, likely because of its minerality and lack of any oak (I’m really happy it went first). Keswick likewise was bright, fresh, and very quaffable. Interestingly enough, all were from the 2019 vintage, which was ripe yet young enough to retain their ‘fresh’ characteristics.

Next up: Viognier.

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