The Judgment of Virginia

The Judgement of Paris is probably the most famous wine competition in the history of American wine. In 1976 a panel of 11 judges blind tasted 10 chardonnays and 10 Bordeaux blends; half from California and half from France (Burgundy for whites and Bordeaux for reds). The winning red was from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (California) and the winning white was from Chateau Montelena (California).

Wine competitions are inherently subjective; those same wines tasted another day by the same judges could easily have produced different results. But at this event California reigned, and the resulting media attention helped pushed California to become the wine powerhouse it is today.

Some friends & I decided to do a similar comparison, but consisting of bottles from Virginia and France. In total the nine ‘judges’ enjoyed 7 pairings, including a sparkling, viognier, chardonnay, cabernet franc, and three red blends.

The Virginia wines included a Trump Winery 2017 Blanc de blanc, Greenhill 2019 Viognier, Linden 2017 Village (Chardonnay), Cave Ridge 2019 Cabernet Franc, Greenhill 2019 Philosophy (petit verdot-heavy red blend), Slater Run 2019 First Bridge (Bordeaux blend), and Afton Mountain 2017 Tradition (Bordeaux blend).

I should note these vintages and specific wineries represent (in my opinion at least) the upper tier of Virginia wine. All came from 2017 and 2019 vintages, which are two of the best years to bless Virginia vineyards in the past decade. On top of that we selected producers who are especially famous in their respective categories.

The French wines were roughly equal price points (or as close as I could make them). I’m not as familiar with the French bottles as I was with their Virginia ones, but we did our best for equal matchings.

It’s fair to note two things probably skewed the scores in favor of Virginia.

First, a fair number of bottles were young vintages, which put the French reds at a disadvantage. Sadly, there simply isn’t an inventory of ‘old’ Virginia wine at my disposal, so we made-due with what we had. Bordeaux reds need a good decade before reaching their prime, while Virginia bottles are approachable young.

Second, I should note that many of us have a ‘Virginia palate’ due to our long-time exploration of Virginia wine country. While this familiarity may have weighted my judge’s opinion in favor of the local team, it’s hard to quantify.

It was also interesting that our two participants that were part of the wine industry (and whose palates are considerably more experienced than the rest of us) did slightly skew slightly more in favor of France than the rest of us.

All tastings were done blind. While I specifically paired certain reds against one another based on their price points, we didn’t know which pairing was which when we enjoyed them.

Neither did we have a fancy scoring system; it was straight up opinion of which you enjoyed more. I did my best to capture their opinions as we went along.

The whites were served mildly chilled. I did my best to let the reds breathe, so they were opened for roughly 3-4 hours prior to sampling (but not fully decanted). Still, I wish we had aerated them more. We had light bites during the white portion, and transitioned to pizza as the reds came out.

Overall the event went smoothly. The worst part was when I received death glares from several participants when I interrupted a conversation regarding Gilmore Girls when trying to move us to the red wine portion of the event (they eventually forgave me…I think…)

The results:

Round 1: Sparklings

  • 2017 Trump Blanc de Blanc ($30): 7 votes (Virginia win)
  • NV Taittinger Brut ($48): 2 votes

To be honest, I saw this one coming.

Trump Winery’s sparkling program is one of the best in the United States. Its 2014 Blanc de Blanc and 2015 Blanc de Noir won Best in Class in the 2019 and 2020 San Francisco Wine Chronical wine competition for their respective categories. Their Brut Reserve was also part of the Virginia Governor’s Case in 2021 and 2022. Trump sparkling can go toe-to-toe with anything.

The bottle of Trump sparkling had a fair bit of brioche on the nose. Lighter color. Clean; more to the finish. Some noted it was a bit tart, even had a raw cookie dough quality to it. Someone mentioned notes of honey on the nose.

The Taittinger was more of a golden color, and tasted fuller, riper, with more pear. We noted notes of brioche but not as much as the Trump. Someone mentioned it had some funk (in a good way). Not as aromatic as the Trump; it’s finish “left me wanting more”.

Trump winemaker Jonathan Wheeler nailed this one.

  1. Brandon: Taittinger, based on how it was fuller (note; Brandon claimed he was more into reds than whites so this skewed his votes)
  2. Emily: Trump, based on how it was easier-drinking and she enjoyed the nose
  3. Lindsay: Taittinger, based on feeling Trump had too much brioche and she liked the fruit qualities of the Taittinger
  4. Matt: Trump
  5. Richard: Trump, based on it was more ‘traditional’
  6. Ryan: Trump
  7. Sarah: Trump
  8. Stacy: Trump
  9. Stephanie: Trump, liked the ‘entire experience’

Round 2: Viognier

  • 2019 Greenhill Viognier ($42): 6 votes (Virginia win) (this bottle was gifted)
  • JV Fleury Cotes Du Rhône Blanc ($25): 3 votes

Viognier was a comparison I really wanted since while this grape has fallen somewhat out of favor, it’s still in many ways one of Virginia’s signature grape varieties. I wanted to get a Condrieu but no local wine stores had one, so I made-due with a 100% Viognier from Côtes du Rhône. The Virginia bottle was gifted by Greenhill, as it is winemaker Ben Comstock’s favorite variety.

While our participants could usually tell which bottles were from Virginia and which were from France, I admit I got this one backwards. The color of the Greenhill was distinctly pink-ish, which is a quality I don’t recall seeing elsewhere in Virginia. It was floral with notes of honey but wasn’t overpowering. On the palate it had hints of lime up front, lime zest, ripe peach. Someone mentioned they felt it was creamy.

In other words, this was definitely not a ‘honeysuckle bomb’, like you often see in this variety elsewhere in Virginia (and why I thought it was from France).

The Rhône had a more white peach on the nose. Various descriptors for the palate came out, including honeysuckle and peach. It was also surprisingly bitter and had a ‘big’ palate.

Virginia won, but not by a huge margin. Several panelists waivered on giving their final scores. I think this could have gone either way but the nose on the Greenhill really made the difference for several voters.

  1. Brandon: Greenhill
  2. Emily: Greenhill; liked the nose
  3. Lindsay: Greenhill
  4. Matt: Greenhill
  5. Richard: France, because it was better balanced
  6. Ryan: Greenhill, for the nose
  7. Sarah: France, enjoyed the floral nose
  8. Stacy: France
  9. Stephanie: Greenhill; didn’t like the bitterness of the French wine

Round 3: Chardonnay

  • 2017 Linden Village ($32): 6 votes (Virginia win)
  • 2018 Patrick Javillier Bourgogne Cote d’Or Cuvee des Forgets ($38): 3 votes

This was another one I looked forward to. Linden draws its inspiration from Burgundy, so I insisted it be paired against a Burgundy with a similar price point.

While Virginia got more votes this round, this competition could have gone either way. Several were torn between the two, and only grudgingly made a decision. If I allowed ties, this would have had several.

The Linden had notes of pineapple, vanilla, white pepper, and yellow apple. We detected newer oak.

The Burgundy was brighter, with notes of lemon zest and lemon curd. It was a little herbal on the palate with notes parsley. On the palate some also noted pineapple notes. It was also higher acid than the Virginia chardonnay.

  1. Brandon: Linden
  2. Emily: France
  3. Lindsay: Linden, “because of the flavors”
  4. Matt: Linden
  5. Richard: France; liked the herbal qualities
  6. Ryan: Linden; liked the coconut notes
  7. Sarah: Linden, because it was richer. Noted it was “American, but elegant”
  8. Stacy: France
  9. Stephanie: France; liked how it was more drinkable

Round 4: Cabernet Franc

  • 2019 Cave Ridge Cabernet Franc: 7 votes (Virginia win)
  • 2019 Domaine Guion Bourgueil Rouge (Loire Valley): 2 votes (likely had brett)

Cabernet Franc is Virginia’s most planted grape variety. Not only is it the backbone of many red blends, a bottle is almost guaranteed to be found at every Virginia winery. The French wine came from the Loire Valley, cabernet franc’s spiritual home.

Let me say up front that this was not a fair competition because we felt the French wine was flawed with brett (aka brettanomyces, a yeast which can spoil the wine). At this point there was nothing we could do but continue on. Even so I feel the Virginia bottle was exceptionally good, and not everyone was turned off by the brett.

  1. Brandon: Cave Ridge
  2. Emily: Cave Ridge, because of the aroma
  3. Lindsay: Cave Ridge
  4. Matt: Cave Ridge
  5. Richard: Cave Ridge; hit ‘all the marks’
  6. Ryan: Cave Ridge; felt it was cleaner
  7. Sarah: Cave Ridge; liked the creamy body, balance, and complexity
  8. Stacy: France; felt the Virginia bottle was too bright and liked the funk on the French wine
  9. Stephanie: Cave Ridge; “overall just enjoyable”

Round 5: Bordeaux blends

  • 2019 Greenhill Philosophy ($62, 46% petit verdot, 32% merlot, and 22% cabernet franc): 8 votes (Virginia win) (This bottle was gifted)
  • 2019 Chateau Quinault l’Enclos ($60, 74% merlot, 14% cabernet sauvignon and 12% cabernet franc): 1 votes

Greenhill gifted this bottle (along with a viognier) to me when they learned I was doing this event. This bottle won the San Francisco Wine Chronical for Best in Class in the Petit Verdot blend category, so it was something of a ringer.

The blends were quite different, with the Bordeaux bottle being merlot dominant while the Virginia bottle was heavy on petit verdot. While this arguably made this comparison not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, I think it’s fair considering their respective blends are based on what varieties grows best in their respective areas.

The Bordeaux was highly rated and not exactly cheap. You’d think it would have been a close contest. Yet this was one of the most lopsided rounds of the night.

My favorite quote of the night was ‘I could write a sonnet’ regarding the bottle from Greenhill. It had high marks nearly across the board for its flavor profile, nose, and overall approachability. This blend had notes of lavender, plumb, vanilla, cherry, and vanilla bean. It was just amazing in every way.

The Bordeaux was surprisingly high alcohol (14%!). Notes of under ripe plumb. More acidic, earthy, and tannic. It was also closed; not surprising given it was a 2019 vintage (Bordeauxs need time).

  1. Brandon: Greenhill
  2. Emily: Greenhill, ‘based on the aroma’
  3. Lindsay: Greenhill; ‘just so much going on’
  4. Matt: Greenhill
  5. Richard: Greenhill, ‘but France in 5 years’
  6. Ryan: Greenhill
  7. Sarah: Greenhill
  8. Stacy: France; felt the Virginia wine was too acidic and liked the notes of blueberry on the French bottle.
  9. Stephanie: Greenhill, ‘because it was softer and more drinkable’

Round 6: Bordeaux Blends:

  • 2018 Chateau Grand Corbin Manuel (St Emilion, Bordeaux; 75% merlot, 20% cabernet Franc, 5% cabernet sauvignon): 1 vote (likely cooked)
  • 2019 Slater Run First Bridge (38% cabernet franc, 32% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon, 10% petit verdot): 8 votes (Virginia win)

This was another unfair comparison because the French wine was ‘cooked’, likely due to poor storage. Oh well; the show must go on.

The French wine wasn’t especially remarkable. More tannic, but at least drinkable. Almost nobody had positive things to say, so I could only imagine that this would have showed better if we had a non-flawed wine.

The Slater Run bottle had notes of green pepper and cherry on the nose. The nose was ‘bright’, while on the body it was riper and more balanced.

  1. Brandon: Slater Run
  2. Emily: France
  3. Lindsay: Slater Run
  4. Matt: Slater Run
  5. Richard: Slater Run
  6. Ryan: Slater Run
  7. Sarah: Slater Run
  8. Stacy: Slater Run
  9. Stephanie: Slater Run

Round 7: Bordeaux blends

  • 2017 Afton Mountain Tradition ($45, 41% merlot, 37% petit verdot and 22% cabernet sauvignon): 5 votes (Virginia win)
  • 2015 Chateau Lalande-Borie (Saint-Julien) ($35, 45% cabernet sauvignon and 55% merlot): 4 votes

This was arguably my favorite pairing of the night. The two blends were very different but smelled and tasted almost identical. Although Virginia won by a tiny margin, this easily could have gone either way.

I personally loved the nose on the Afton Mountain, which had a savory quality to it with notes of blueberry. We were split on which was more vegetal, although that descriptor was used for both bottles. It did have more leather on the palate and was slightly more rounded.

The French wine had more notes of smoke and blueberry on the nose. On the palate it was arguably fruitier (dark fruit, that is), but also had notes of cedar.

  1. Brandon: Afton Mountain
  2. Emily: Saint-Julien
  3. Lindsay: Afton Mountain; felt it was more balanced
  4. Matt: Afton Mountain
  5. Richard: Saint-Julien
  6. Ryan: Afton Mountain
  7. Sarah: Saint-Julien
  8. Stacy: Saint-Julien
  9. Stephanie: Afton Mountain

So there you have it – it was a total sweep for Virginia!

Or…was it?

To be fair, two of the seven pairings I would disqualify because of faulted bottles (which is a shame; I had faith in that Cave Ridge Cabernet Franc).

Still, 5 good pairings with 9 participants seems statistically relevant. So…Virginia dominated…right???

Yes – but with some caveats.

First off, I’ve come to learn that Virginia wine is very approachable even when young, and this helped in this scenario. The Bordeaux may have killed it in another few years, but we had the vintages we had. Of course, this only applied to the reds; the Virginia team did score two wins with whites and another for a sparkling, so it’s not like age was decisive in every scenario.

Aeration also mattered. I will say that when I opened a 2019 Rosemont red blend against a comparable Bordeaux the next day…not that I didn’t love the Rosemont…that Bordeaux was OUTSTANDING. Might more aeration be helpful to the other reds? Well…maybe?

Second, the scores were often very evenly divided. Even those who voted for one could easily have voted the other way. The last pairing was so well matched nearly everyone was wavering on which was their favorite.

Third, for a future “Virginia Versus” to be statistically relevant, I do think we need more participants who never had Virginia wine. Having ‘familiar’ flavor profiles could easily have swayed a few local drinkers to the Virginia bottles, and with such tight margins it’s possible that made the difference.

But overall I still have to say – Virginia really impressed tonight. Even against comparable French wines, Virginia came on top.

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