Virginia Petit Manseng Blind Tasting Showdown

Few grapes have captured the imagination of Virginia winegrowers as much as Petit Manseng (PM) has. In 2011 there were only 68 acres were planted in the state. 10 years later that number ballooned to 179 acres, making it one of the fastest-growing varieties in Virginia (matched only by Petit Verdot).

While 179 acres may not seem a lot, put this number in perspective. Given there is only around 1,600 acres of Petit Manseng planted worldwide Virginia’s contribution means it possesses over 10% of the world’s total plantings of this variety.

In its home region of Jurançon (SW France) PM is usually made into a dessert wine or blended with its genetic relative Gros Manseng. Few 100% PMs are found outside France.

Virginia initially used PM primarily for dessert wines but over time used it for 100% varietal dry or off-dry table wines (and increasingly, in white blends as well). It shouldn’t be a surprise that Horton Vineyards’ 2016 Petit Manseng was the first white wine to ever win the Governor’s Cup wine competition.

Petit Manseng’s popularity is largely due to its suitability for Virginia’s humid weather. PM’s loose clusters facilitate good airflow, improving its ability to fight rot and benefit from pesticide sprays. It also has thick skin, making it more weather and insect resistant.

But as one owner told me years ago, “Winegrowers love Petit Manseng. Winemakers hate it.” That statement is far less true today than it was back then because winemakers have learned to deal with its high acidity and sugar levels. But left on its own PM wants to focuses on these qualities and winemakers must fight to dial them back.

PM’s smaller berries means this variety tends to be low yielding, so bottle prices can be high. But smaller berries also give it a greater degree of juice-to-skin contact, resulting in high-intensity wines. Petit Manseng wines typically have strong tropical or apricot flavors and lots of texture.

Some friends and I decided to do a blind Petit Manseng comparison. 8 wines came from Virginia and a bottle from Italy finished out the assortment. We tried to find more non-Virginia Petit Mansengs but they are so rare my local wine stores couldn’t order one. All bottles were bagged randomly.

I will say that if I did this all over again, I would probably add more food and space the tastings out, because I think those factors impacted our palates; especially in judging the amount of residual sugar (RS).

The roster:

1. 2019 Glen Manor Vineyards (Dry) (14.3% ABV, stainless steel): I feel Glen Manor needs no introduction. I purchased this bottle a few years ago but somehow never got around to drinking it. In 2019 they made two styles; a ‘regular’ and a ‘dry’ version. But even the dry version was so fruity it was easy to think it had a decent amount of sugar.

2. 2019 Michael Shaps (95% PM/5% Roussanne, 75% new oak/25% neutral, .2% RS, 14.7% ABV): Shaps is another winemaker that needs no introduction. This particular bottle is a two-time Gold Medal winner in the Virginia Governor’s Cup.

3. 2021 Paradise Springs Winery (Fermented in a concrete egg; 14.8% ABV): Winemaker Rob Cox made this wine using fruit from William’s Gap. In terms of winemaking it was fermented in a concrete egg, which softens the acidity. No RS listed.

4. 2020 “Plutôt” Joy Ting Wine (12.8% ABV, 9 months sur lie, neutral oak): Joy Ting runs the Winemaker’s Research Exchange and as benefiting a researcher, her wines tend to push boundaries of winemaking styles. Aged on its lees for almost a year, this wine was made in a low-intervention manner and in a dry style.

5. 2021 Pearmund Cellars: Double Gold at the 2020 San Francesco Chronical Wine Competition. Pearmund (and its sister winery Effingham) have a great track record for PMs. If this hadn’t been part of my event, I would have used my 2019 PM instead.

6. 2020 50 West Winery (14.2% ABV): I’m not especially familiar with how this winery makes their PM so I don’t have a lot to add.

7. 2019 Bluestone Vineyards (13.9 ABV, 10 months sur lie, 30% French oak): Part of the 2021 Governor’s Case. I finished one bottle in late 2022 and was really impressed with it. Sadly it appears I didn’t store this bottle properly, so its almond-driven qualities weren’t present.

8. 2021 Three Creeks Winery (13.5% ABV, stainless steel, .75% RS). Located outside Leesburg; Ashton Lough is the winemaker. I had an earlier vintage of this PM and loved it; this vintage may have been even better. I later learned this was ‘Best in Class’ in the 2022 American Wine Society competition.

9. 2020 Casale del Giglio (13.5% ABV, 5-6 months sur lie, barrel aged): I don’t have many details about this 100% Petit Manseng from Italy. Grown around 50 km south of Rome in the Lazio wine region, which is known for its white wines. According to its website, this varietal is a newer planting that shows promise.

Just for kicks, we also added in a 2016 Horton Petit Manseng (winner of the 2019 Virginia’s Governors Cup) and a French Gros Manseng at the end of the event. The Horton wine aged beautifully, while the Gros Manseng was very bright and fun.

I don’t pretend this event proves anything beyond how on this night, with this group of people, we picked a few favorite wines. Virginia has lots of great PMs that could easily have been included. Even a different selection of light bites or slower pacing may have produced different favorites.

Round 1 / Flight 1

  • Bottle #1: 2019 Glen Manor Vineyards (11 points)
  • Bottle #2: 2019 Michael Shap (14.5 points)
  • Bottle #3: 2021 Paradise Springs Winery (15.5 points; Round Winner)

This was a great round – even if we got the levels of sweetness consistently wrong. 3 points went to 1st ranked choice; 2 points to the 2nd ranked choice, and 1 point to the last ranked choice per attendee.

Although two of the three bottles were made in a dry style (Shaps had .2 RS), many of us were fooled into thinking they had at least some residual sugar in them. Over and over, their brightness and alcohol levels fooled our tastebuds. This became a problem throughout the event.

Bottle #1: 2019 Glen Manor. My first sniff gave me so many tropical notes it reminded me of a sauternes. That was way off – this wine was definitely dry, but it was so aromatic and tropical that my tasting notes were skewed.

The notes from the group were largely in sync. We definitely got descriptors of stone fruit, with different participants throwing in notes of minerality, pineapple and coconut. Also had a white pepper finish.

Bottle #2: 2019 Michael Shaps: The nose was initially musty, which threw us off; was this our Italian wine? But before long it was gone and replaced with an apricot nose, maybe apricot with butter.

It was ‘round’ on the palate, and our tasting descriptors included notes of apricot on the palate and a tart finish. There was some debate if this had some oak on it (turns out it did). We also found notes of stone fruit and thought it had some RS (it turns out this was one of the few times we were right about RS).

Bottle #3: 2021 Paradise Springs: A ‘classic Virginia Petit Manseng’ according to several guests. The nose was very light initially but the apricot soon came out. We found fruity qualities although it was hard to discern a particular one. The only drawback I found is it was somewhat one-dimensional.

According to winemaker Rob Cox, “This particular PM was aged entirely in concrete egg which we intended to blend with our stainless PM and just make one wine. However we enjoyed it on its own enough so we decided to bottle it separately to see how it would be received by customers.”

  • Allison: #3 / #1 / #2. Thought #3 was the most ‘classic’ example of a Virginia PM, but appreciated the drinkability of #1.
  • Alex: #2 / #3 / #1. Gravitated towards #2 because of its depth and brioche qualities but appreciated the creaminess of #3.
  • Elvia: #2 / #1 / #3
  • Frank: #3 / #2 / #1.
  • Matt: #1 / #2 / #3
  • Stacy: #3 / #1 / #2.
  • Vicky: Wines #2 and #3 were tied, followed by wine #1. Was convinced that #1 had more RS in it than it actually did, which was a common mistake for all of us.

Round 1 / Flight 2

In retrospect I wish we paused longer after the previous round to let our palates reset. The acidity we just encountered seem to throw us off because some of these wines – especially the first one of the lineup – seemed watered down by comparison.

I sampled some of these same bottles later and disagreed with some of our initial assessments, but nevertheless I shall report what we found at the time of the tasting.

  • Bottle #4: 2020 “Plutôt” Joy Ting Wine (10 points)
  • Bottle #5: 2021 Pearmund Cellars (15 points)
  • Bottle #6: 2020 50 West (17 points; Round Winner)

Bottle #4: 2020 “Plutôt” Joy Ting Wine. White flowers and pineapple on the nose, rounder on the palate. White pepper on the finish. Various descriptors of the palate were thrown out, including citrus undertones and some minerality. Several of us thought it was especially floral, and we guessed it was likely made entirely in steel.

This wine seemed flabby by comparison to the PMs we just tried, although when I sampled it later than night after my taste buds reset I disagreed with that assessment.

Bottle #5: 2021 Pearmund Cellars. This wine had the lightest color of maybe anything we sampled this day. We speculated this might have had some oak on it.

It was fruity – maybe the most fruit forward of the nine we tried – but a different kind of fruit from what we already sampled; maybe more strawberry notes? Others mentioned peach or stone fruit (especially on the nose).

Bottle #6: 2020 50 West Winery. Very dark color. I found it had an almost nutty quality to it. Notes of caramel and almond were thrown out there. Stone fruit was there, although I didn’t think fruit was its most prominent quality. It was also one of the heavier PMs so far.

  • Allison: #6 / #5 / #4. Thought #6 was the most complex of the lineup.
  • Alex: #4 / #6 / #5. Enjoyed the brioche on #4 the most.
  • Elvia: #6 / #5 / #4
  • Frank: #5 / #6 / #4. Felt #5 was full but balanced, while #6 had the most body.
  • Matt: #6 / #5 / #4. I especially liked the body of #6; that carried my vote.
  • Stacy: #6 / #5 / #4
  • Vicky: #5 / #4 / #6. Especially enjoyed the fruit-forward nature of #5

Round 1 / Flight 3

  • Bottle #7: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards
  • Bottle #8: 2021 Three Creeks Winery (Round Winner)
  • Bottle #9: 2020 Casale del Griglio (Wild Card to next round)

We paused for food between flights 2 and 3, and I think that helped reset our taste buds. This flight quickly became a contest of bottles #8 and #9, which were two of the favorites of the day. While wine #9 was the ‘round winner’, I gave wine #8 a wild card to the next round.

Bottle #7: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards. I was really looking forward to sampling this one, which I sampled only a few months earlier. My last bottle had an apricot/nutty flavor that didn’t remind me of a ‘traditional’ Petit Manseng but nevertheless was excellent.

But it appears I didn’t store my second bottle correctly because none of those qualities came out today.

This bottle had an overpowering vegetal quality to it, with the only exception being some caramel notes. Many noted it smelled of wet cabbage. Not sure what happened to it, but we ended up putting it aside.

Bottle #8: 2021 Three Creeks Winery (round winner). There was a slight musty quality initially but was soon replaced by a light whiff of pineapple.

There was a lot of discussion on the nose; some said it had a bit of cooked cabbage but others liked it a lot. We largely agreed it was very refreshing; a smooth summer sipper with some citrus at the end. Nice complexity as well.

Notes of citrus zest, fresh cut grass, and pepper were thrown out by the audience.

Bottle #9: 2020 Casale del Giglio. Heavier on palate and we guessed it was off dry. But given our track record so far it could easily have been made in a dry style

I was impressed by its overall balance with a good amount of complexity; oak and acid with a little tartness at the end. Different fruit qualities were apparent, with notes including peach/apricot, stone fruit, and minerality thrown out.

  • Allison: #8 / #9
  • Alex: #8 / #8
  • Elvia: #8 / #9
  • Frank: Tie between #8 and #9
  • Matt: #9 / #8
  • Stacy: #9 / #8
  • Vicky: #8 / #9

Finalist Round

Bottles #3 (Paradise Springs), #6 (50 West), and #8 (Three Creeks) were the winners of their respective flights. But we loved #9 (Casale del Giglio) so much I gave it a wild card to advance as well.

No tasting notes this time; we sampled and got straight to sampling & voting. Every attendee voted for their 1st / 2nd / 3rd / 4th ranked choices; 4 points for 1st choice and down to 1 point for 4th choice.

After some deliberation, the winner of the night were:

  • Overall favorite: Wine #8 / 2021 Petit Manseng from Three Creeks Winery (24 points)
  • 2nd favorite: Wine #3 / Paradise Springs (17 points)
  • 3rd favorite: Wine #6 / 50 West (15 points)
  • 4th favorite: Wine #9 / Casale del Giglio (14 points)

Ashton Lough explained via email, “I love Petit Manseng, it is one of my favorite grapes with which to work. It makes beautiful dessert wine and table wine. PM and I became friends immediately upon meeting during the harvest of 2012. I like to call Petit Manseng, “Sauvignon Blanc with junk in the trunk”.

It grows better in VA than either Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, and I think it makes a more delicious wine than both.

The 2021 PM fermented in a stainless tank for a couple months, then I racked it, fined it and filtered it. It has 7.5g/L or 0.75% RS and EtOH of just under 14%. If the wine turns out dry or off-dry I am equally happy, I don’t force it either way. Sometimes I like to let the wine decide where it wants to go.”

I later was told this was the Best in Varietal Class at the American Wine Society 2022 wine competition.

  • Allison: #6 / #8 / #9 / #3
  • Alex: #8 / #6 / #3 / #9
  • Elvia: #8 / #9 / #6 / #3
  • Frank: #8 / #3 / #9 / #6
  • Matt: #8 / #3 / #9 / #6
  • Stacy: #3 / #6 / #9 / #8
  • Vicky: #8 / #3 / #9 / #6

Lessons Learned

I do these blind tastings for fun, but it’s impossible not to draw conclusions from every event. I think the most important take-away for this particular event is our favorites says more about the ‘judges’ than it does about the wines.

Even when made as a dry wine, PM is so acidic and fruity that we frequently mistook certain bottles as having some RS. Those who don’t like RS were often too quick to dismiss a wine because of its perceived (but absent) sweetness. With the bottle hidden behind the bag, even popular wines such as Glen Manor’s ‘dry’ PM didn’t get the attention they otherwise deserved.

I asked Ashton about this, so he gave a far more sophisticated rationale than I ever could.

“Balance between acidity and sweetness, or the illusion of sweetness, is the key. The palate confusion is normal and understandable between dry and off-dry PM. The normal detection level of sugar is 0.5% or 5g/L RS some people are more or less sensitive. But there are ways to create sweetness without RS.

There are ways to encourage glycerol production from yeast. Elevated glycerol levels and alcohol content can make a difference in the illusion of sweetness. This brings the wine into balance without adding sugar on the back end. Take a sip of Vodka for instance, seems sweet, but only Ethanol and water are in it.”

I also think PM needs food, more-so than other white wines. We had liberal amounts of bread, cheese, and other snacks but these wines cried out for something spicier. I think the lack of the right food affected our palates more than we realized.

Lastly, I think we needed more time between rounds than I normally provide. The higher levels of acidity fatigued our palates faster than I anticipated, so the wines of the second round were duller than they really were.

Despite all this, I think the 2021 PM from Three Creeks was outstanding. If anybody else samples one, let me know what you thought!

Champagne vs Virginia: Blind Blanc de Noir Sparkling Tasting

Sparkling wine is one of the fasted-growing segments in the beverage industry, and Virginia is no different.

10 years ago only a handful of wineries offered bubbly. But the growing popularity of relatively easy-to-make pét-nats and availability of businesses (such as the Virginia Sparkling Company) that produce Méthode Champenoise sparkling for smaller customers has given wineries of all sizes the ability to sell sparkling in-house.

Most of Virginia’s sparklings are blends or Blanc de Blancs; only a minority are Blanc de Noirs (red grapes made into sparkling wine). To the best of my knowledge only Trump Winery, Ankida Ridge, and CrossKeys produce a pinot noir-based Blanc de Noir, although others use cabernet franc, norton, and even a tannat (from Horton).

I’d previously did an entire lineup of Blanc de Blancs, so this time we compared Blanc de Noirs with wines from CrossKeys, Keswick, and Trump.

I admit I had some trepidation over a France vs Virginia comparison of Blanc de Noirs. Nearly all of France’s Blanc de Noirs come from Champagne; no matter how much I may love Virginia wine, this is a tough act to beat.

But this was done in the name of science, so I figured we’d give it a go anyway.

The contestants:

  1. Eric Rodez Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru (Ambonnay, Champagne; $63 on wine searcher)
  2. 2019 Crosskeys Blanc de Noir (Shenandoah Valley; ~$40 when it was in stock)
  3. 2016 Trump Blanc de Noir (Charlottesville; $55 at the winery)
  4. Mailly Grand Cru Blanc de Noir (Champagne; $60 at Total Wine)
  5. Keswick Vineyards Amélie (Charlottesville; $39 at the winery)
  6. Albert Lebrun Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut (Marne Valley, Champagne; $38 on wine searcher)

We randomly paired the Virginia and French wines and bagged them in pairs. Bottles that won their flight advanced to the next round.

As always; this event was the product of THIS night with THIS group. On another day, we may have had different favorites.

Round 1 / Flight #1:

  • Wine 1: Eric Rodez Blanc De Noirs Grand Cru: 5 votes (winner)
  • Wine 2: 2019 CrossKeys Blanc de Noir: 1 vote

Eric Rodez comes from Ambonnay, one of 17 villages in Champagne authorized to label their sparkling as ‘Grand Cru’. I don’t know much more about them, other than any wine from champagne automatically has a serious rep to uphold.

CrossKeys is located in the ‘upper’ (southern) Shenandoah Valley. It’s made with pinot, which is grown specifically for sparkling production. This particular wine won “Best in Show” at the 2022 Atlantic Seaboard Wine competition.

PS – if you haven’t tried Shenandoah sparklings you should; the region’s cool climate makes it a good place for higher-acid wines, so sparkling are a good match.

Comparing the color and aromas of the two, the Grand Cru had more of a yellow hue with a funkier nose, while the CrossKeys was lighter with some light brioche.

On the palate the Eric Rodez had more complexity and we found it to be especially well balanced. The CrossKeys was easier drinking; lots of lemon notes. Someone mentioned a tad of vanilla, although it wasn’t from any barrel aging.

Votes:

  1. Alex: #1; liked the depth
  2. Lieven: #1; well balanced and overall drinkability
  3. Lindsay: #2; felt it was easier drinking
  4. Matt: #1, based on the greater complexity
  5. Sarah: #1 enjoyed the brioche notes and the yeastiness
  6. Stephanie: #1; noted the flavor carried through from the beginning to the end

Round 1 / Flight #2:

  • Wine #3: 2016 Trump Blanc de Noir: 5 votes (winner)
  • Wine #4: Mailly Grand Cru Blanc de Noir: 1 vote

Trump Winery’s sparkling shouldn’t need any introduction, as it makes some of the most famous sparklings in the state. You might even argue that its predecessor Patricia Kluge paved the way for local sparkling production in Virginia as she brought in Claude Thibaut (now one of the state’s premiere sparkling producers) as her winemaker.

The Mailley is another of Champagne’s Grand Cru villages. I couldn’t say much about it but hey…champagne!

The coloration of both were extremely close, but the noses were different. The Trump wine had yellow apple on the nose and was a little bready. It also took time to open up, although it never displayed any strong fruit notes.

The Mailly was smoky, and oddly enough seemed to get even smokier as it opened up. It was the drier of the two, although that’s not to say the Trump didn’t seem dry. It initially had a very displeasing cardboard note to it but that dissipated after about 10 minutes. It also had some tartness on the back end.

We felt the bubbles on both dissipated faster than we would have liked.

Votes:

  1. Alex: #3; felt it was more drinkable
  2. Lindsay: #4; once the funk came off, thought it was more complex
  3. Lieven: #3; based on the balance and drinkability.
  4. Matt: #3; I had a tough time choosing between the two and I probably couldn’t give you an exact reason why, but I just liked #3 better
  5. Sarah: #3; also felt it was more drinkable
  6. Stephanie: #3

Round 1 / Flight #3:

  • Keswick Vineyards Amélie: 3 votes (tie)
  • Albert Lebrun Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut: 3 votes (tie)

Keswick’s sparkling is made with cabernet franc, which is arguably the most versatile red grape in Virginia (as well as its most planted). It’s also available for purchase now (and I think it would make a great Thanksgiving wine).

The Albert Lebrun was different from the other two champagnes in that it was made of pinot meunier, which is usually used in Champagne as a blending grape. While it wasn’t planned, I liked that a cabernet franc and a pinot meunier were paired against one another, as neither style of sparkling is easy to find.

Sadly I didn’t capture as many notes on this round as I wished. I can say that while they both had strong starts, both changed in the glass in even more enjoyable ways as we enjoyed them. The Keswick had a vanilla nose and a palate that changed from vanilla to maybe orange notes. Some also detected a sense of petrol.

The funniest tasting note was someone mentioned that ‘it tasted like a donut’ in that the front and end palates were very enjoyable, but there wasn’t so much in the middle. Those who follow Keswick’s winemaker might laugh at this, since ‘donut’ is one of his favorite tasting phrases.

No notes for the Albert Lebrun, which is sad because this was one of the favorite wines of the night.

I took the votes and…it was a tie! I thought about using my place as host to cast a tie-breaker, but truth was I loved both equally. So I gave Keswick a wildcard and both went to the final round.

Votes:

  1. Alex: #6; thought it was approachable, although he noted the shorter finish
  2. Lieven: #5. Thought #6 was a little rough, while #5 was better balanced.
  3. Lindsay: #5; no particular reason other than she just gravitated towards it. Thought #6 had lots of interesting things going on, though.
  4. Matt: Split vote; ½ point for each; loved both
  5. Sarah: #6. Thought the way #5 presented was ‘circular’ while also weightier, with lots of yellow apple and vanilla. #6 had more brioche-y notes.
  6. Stephanie: Split vote; ½ point for each

Round 2 / Finalist Round

Normally we would have the single ‘best in flight’ wines go to the finalist round, but we enjoyed the third flight so much that we added both to the finalist round.

We tasted them side-by-side and rated them most-to-least favorite.

  1. Alex: Keswick (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Trump (2 points), Eric Rodez (1 point)
  2. Lieven: Eric Rodez (4 points), Trump (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Albert Lebrun (1 point)
  3. Lindsay: Keswick (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Eric Rodez (2 points), Trump (1 point)
  4. Matt: Eric Rodez (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Trump (1 point)
  5. Sarah: Albert Lebrun (4 points), Eric Rodez (3 points), Trump (2 points), Keswick (1 point)
  6. Stephanie: Albert Lebrun (4 points), Eric Rodez (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Trump (1 point)
  • Wine #1: Eric Rodez: (17 points)
  • Wine #3: Trump Blanc de Noir (10 points) 
  • Wine #5: Keswick Vineyards Amélie (15 points)
  • Wine #6: Albert Lebrun Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut (18 points; finalist)

So a caveat; we liked ALL of these wines (admittedly I personally wasn’t a fan of #4, but that’s a personal preference). One thing I did find interesting is the favorite ones tended to be some of the less-costly ones. None of them were especially fruity, which is something that often separates Blanc de Noirs from Blanc de Blancs.

In retrospect I might have opened them sooner so these wines had time to open up (I felt the CrossKeys definitely improved the following day). Sadly, my tasting events have a time limit.

So were we surprised that Champagne won? Not at all. That said, it wasn’t a blowout either.

The price point of these Virginia wines were on the whole comparable to these mid-priced Champagnes, and 2 made it to the final round. Two of my group selected the Keswick sparkling as the overall favorite of the night.

As far as I’m concerned, that Virginia was able to hang tough with a comparison to Champagne is a win in itself.

France vs Virginia: The Bordeaux (blend) Heavyweights

A few months ago, I did a blind “Judgement of Virginia” tasting, modeled off the famous Judgment of Paris where California triumphed over France. 7 French wines were compared to 7 similar Virginia wines, all made between 2017 and 2021.

I knew our Virginia wines would do well, but to my surprise all 7 Virginia bottles beat their French counterparts. Granted I picked high-quality Virginia wineries, but even I was shocked at the blowout.

After examining the contest I realized something; Virginia went into this comparison with an advantage since its wines can be enjoyed young, while wines from Bordeaux require time to age. So, I came up with a new idea – to compare older Virginia Bordeaux-style vintages against similar French wines in order to keep the matchup even.

I invited a panel of experts (OK – they were wino friends of mine…who happened to have a great deal of industry experience and/or above average palates) and we sampled 3 Virginia Bordeaux-style wines vs 3 actual Bordeaux wines, all made between 2012-2015. Everything was done blind.

While I call this a “Bordeaux blend comparison”, that term isn’t entirely fair despite the Virginia wines using 100% Bordeaux grapes.

Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot often play prominent roles in Virginia, but very secondary ones in France. Also, Bordeaux wines tend to favor either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot (often around 75% of its primary grape), while Virginia red blends tend to be more evenly distributed between multiple grapes. This means while the grapes may be the same, the composition of the blends could be very different.

The tasting was simple; compare two wines side by side and we’d select a favorite. While several attendees were wine judges, I elected to keep things simple and have everyone simply pick a single favorite of every flight. In the case of a tie, the host (me) decided between the two.

I bagged everything in pairs, so nobody (including myself) knew which pairs we were trying. All we knew is one wine was Virginia, and the other was Bordeaux. The specific pairings were selected in advance, based on the wine’s age and blend.

The wines:

France:

  1. 2012 Château Phélan Ségur: 50% Cabernet Sauvignon/ 50% Merlot (Left Bank, Saint-Estèphe) (wine searcher retail $62, with significant regional variation)
  2. 2014 Château Léoville-Poyferré: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon / 35% Merlot / 3% Cabernet Franc (Left bank Second Growth, Saint-Julien) (wine searcher retail $118, locally priced at $80)
  3. 2015 Château Gracia: 70% Merlot / 25% Cabernet Franc / 5% Cabernet Sauvignon (Right bank Grand Cru, Saint-Émilion) (wine searcher retail $111)

Virginia:

  1. 2012 Linden Hardscrabble: 56% Cabernet Sauvignon / 34% Merlot/ 9% Cabernet Franc / 1% Petit Verdot (selling at $75 in the winery)
  2. 2012 RdV Lost Mountain: 46% Cabernet Sauvignon / 40% Cabernet Franc / 14% Merlot (impossible to price due to scarcity; originally around $120 but recent vintages price at $220)
  3. 2014 Barboursville Octagon: 56% Merlot/ 23% Petit Verdot / 15% Cabernet Franc / 6% Cabernet Sauvignon (impossible to price to do scarcity; originally around $50 at the winery several years ago but likely retailing over $100 now).

Each of these came from well-regarded producers on both sides of the Atlantic. Even the experienced group tasting with me sometimes had difficulty identifying which was Bordeaux and which was Virginia. Of the 6 of us tasting 6 wines, I think we were accurate under 70% of the time.

As always, a caveat: this competition was the result of this day, with this group of people. It by no means indicates the wines that were selected as round favorites were superior to the other, or the wines that didn’t win their round weren’t loved. For this particular event, I’m convinced that at least 5 of the 6 wines we tried could have been selected as the ‘winner’ with a different food pairing; they were that good.

Pairing #1:

Wine #1 (2015 Château Gracia): 70% Merlot / 25% Cabernet Franc / 5% Cabernet Sauvignon (Saint-Émilion): 3 Votes

Wine #2 (2014 Barboursville Octagon): 56% Merlot/ 23% Petit Verdot / 15% Cabernet Franc / 6% Cabernet Sauvignon: 3 Votes (3 votes, round winner)

This round was evenly matched. I asked Dave McIntyre to pick a favorite and he didn’t want to give an answer; both of these were so equally well loved.

That feeling was shared amongst the group. To nobody’s surprise we were tied 3/3 (note to self – I need to have an odd number of tasters in the future). Not only that, but I think half of us (including me) got the Virginia wine wrong.

Ultimately I picked #2 to go to the next round, although it could have gone either way.

Alex: #2. Thought #1 was Bordeaux, also mentioned it was approachable. Notes of black current, red cherry, and tobacco backed by a long finish. Yet #2 was even more approachable with lots of red fruit, cola and a nice brightness to it.

Dave: #2. Loved both; didn’t want to pick between the two. #1 had a more ‘candied’ fruitiness he thought was associated with Virginia, but had less oak integration and was less harmonious because it didn’t have a lot of tannin. #2 loved it, and made a note about the color.

Matt: #1. #1 had some primary fruit on the nose but it was fading. #2 had some funk; earthy nose.

Katie: #2. She thought #1 was Virginia; liked the wine although she didn’t think the tannins were well integrated.

Kathy: #1. #1 had grippy tannins and more prominent fruit. #2 she found the fruit harder to find, and maybe a little reductive.

Vanessa: #1. Good maturity; tannins were chalky. Lots of fullness on the finish. #2 was brighter, velvety tannins, good acidity.

Pairing #2:

Wine #3 (2012 Linden Hardscrabble): 56% Cab Sauv / 34% Merlot/ 9% Cab Franc / 1% PV ( 3 votes)

Wine #4 (2012 Château Phélan Ségur): 50% Cab Sauv/ 50% Merlot (Saint-Estèphe) (3 votes, round winner)

This was another even round. I favored #4 but not by a huge degree. Again, I was wrong on which was Virginia vs France since I thought I felt a lot more Cab Franc on #4, but was proven wrong (it had none).

With another 3/3 vote I was the tie-breaker here since I favored #4, so it went to the next round. Coincidentally it was my favorite of the night.

Alex: #3: Notes of smoke, tobacco, black cherry, vanilla, blackberry, and strawberries, with a long finish.

Dave: #4. Thought #3 was dense, dark fruit note, needed more time to develop. #4 had notes of clove, and maybe a cigar box note to it. Of the two, this was the one that was presenting better ‘now’.

Matt: #4. I found #3 to be lighter on the nose; some fruit but with an earthy palate. #4 had more pepper but very smooth tannins. I admittedly thought this was Virginia.

Katie: #3. Though #3 was elegant, and ‘couldn’t stop going back to it’. Also very floral. #4 had a herbatiousness to it, and thought it needed food.

Kathy: #3. Very “pretty” wine. Stewed strawberries but not overly jammy. #4 was had a meaty and spicy note.

Vanessa: #4. Thought #3 was lighter, good fruit quality, and less extraction. Overall it was ‘elegant’. #4 had more extraction and richness. She thought it had a brett note which gave it more complexity.

Pairing #3

Wine #5 (2012 RdV Lost Mountain): 46% Cab Sauv / 40% Cab Franc / 14% Merlot (5 Votes, round winner)

Wine #6 (2014 Château Léoville-Poyferré): 60% Cab Sauv / 35% Merlot / 3% Cab Franc (Saint-Julien) (1 Vote)

This round had a clear winner. #6 came off as too tannic; my mouth was positively dry after tasting it. But #5 was enjoyed all-around.

Alex: Split his votes between the two. #5 was more approachable, with lots of black pepper baking spice, cloves, and plumb on the palate. #6 had notes of dark chocolate, cherry and red fruit, but had a harsh nose.

Dave: #5. Dave said #5 had a pretty nose, was floral, and tasted notes of black currant and soft tannin. #6 had an off-putting nose and a very tannic finish.

Matt: #5. I found #5 to have some fruit on the nose but not the palate. Of the two, this was definitely the more drinkable right now. #6 was more of a food wine. Tannic finish, very dark and brooding overall. 

Katie: #5.

Kathy: #5 had notes of blackberry, plumb, maybe menthol. Wished the finish lasted longer. #6 had an interesting notes, burnt toffee character to it on the palate.

Vanessa: #5. Thought #5 was well put together, while #6 was disjointed.

Finalist Round:

Wine #2 (2014 Barboursville Octagon): 56% Merlot/ 23% Petit Verdot / 15% Cabernet Franc / 6% Cabernet Sauvignon

Wine #4 (2012 Château Phélan Ségur): 50% Cabernet Sauvignon/ 50% Merlot (Saint-Estèphe)

Wine #5 (2012 RdV Lost Mountain): 46% Cabernet Sauvignon / 40% Cabernet Franc / 14% Merlot

From most favorite to least favorite, the results were:

Alex: Wines 2/5/4

Dave: Wines 4/5/2

Matt: Wines 4/2/5

Katie: Wines 5/4/2

Kathy: Wines 5/4/2

Vanessa: Wines 4/2/5

The lowest vote earned 1 point. The runner-up had 2 points, and the favorite wine got 3 points.

2014 Octagon from Barboursville had 7 points

2012 Lost Mountain from RdV had 11 points:

2012 Château Phélan Ségur had 12 points (Finalist)

Results:

I’d say there were a few take-aways.

The biggest is I felt this event demonstrated Virginia has the ability to go toe-to-toe with Bordeaux. Of 3 pairings, Virginia tied its Bordeaux counterpart twice and once easily surpassed it. 2 Virginia wines made it to the FInalist round, and the 2012 RdV Lost Mountain was also the 2nd favorite wine of the evening.

I was pleased to see how incredibly close these parings were at multiple levels. Every wine deserved high scores, and I truly believe that on another day, most of them could have been picked as our finalist. Even identifying the Bordeaux of the mix was sometimes difficult.

Second would be that while price and quality often go hand-in-hand, that’s not 100% true. The favorite of the day was the least expensive wine of all (still not cheap at $60-ish, but still). Not surprisingly RdV came in second, but the ‘brown bag’ method definitely evens the playing field.

Lastly, if there’s a downside to this event is while this tasting showed to me Virginia’s potential, the reality is it’s nearly impossible for our average wine lover to enjoy this kind of comparison. Virginia wines are often sold young, and limited inventory means most ‘older’ vintages are almost impossible to find. Even long-time Virginia wine collectors might only have a few special bottles from the 2012 vintage (or earlier).

Also keep in mind that the Virginia wines I selected represent the ‘elite’ of what the state has to offer. Few Virginia wines can age for 10 years like these did, or are made with the exquisite craftmanship we found.

Next up – a comparison of mid-priced Virginia red blends, a Cabernet Franc day, another sparkling round, and Petit Manseng.

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 younger 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 often 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.

Virginia Viognier Blind Tasting Showdown

Viognier is one of the grapes that helped put Virginia wine on the map. Before petit manseng was cool, before petit verdot was appreciated as a stand-alone varietal, it was a 1993 viogner (pronounced VEE-on-yay) from Horton Vineyards that caused international wine critics to first take notice of Virginia.

Dennis Horton, one of the pioneers of the Virginia wine industry, brought this Rhône Valley varietal to Virginia in 1989. At the time viognier was essentially dying out. When Jancis Robinson wrote Vines, Grapes & Wine in 1985 she could only identify records for 80 acres planted in the entire world, most of it in viognier’s home of Condrieu.

According to Dennis’s granddaughter, Horton Vineyards winemaker Caitlin Horton, “My grandfather really didn’t like chardonnay. He wanted a heavier white that he could go with heavier food. While traveling in France he found viognier in the Rhône valley and fell in love with it. So he planted 14 acres off the bat – didn’t even do a test planting. People thought he was crazy.”

Of course, Dennis’s desire to find a varietal outside chardonnay was only one piece of the puzzle. Viognier fits Virginia’s terroir because it has thick skin and loose clusters; important factors to resist pests and mildew. His 1993 viognier became famous as one of the best wines the state ever produced, and the recognition it received was enough to encourage winegrowers around the Virginia to follow his lead.

This success and a desire to find an identity around which Virginia could focus its marketing efforts led the Virginia Wine Marketing Board to designate viognier as the state’s “signature grape” (but not “official state grape”, as sometimes reported) in 2011.

But as the quality of Virginia wine improved and newer varieties gained traction, viognier gradually faded in popularity. According to Virginia’s Commercial Wine Grape Reports, it went from a high of 340 acres in 2015 to 301 acres in 2021 even as plantings of other varieties grew significantly. Its special designation was quietly dropped around 2018 as marketers realized Virginia didn’t need a signature grape to rally around after all.

Viognier has other challenges. It’s a low acid grape, which means it’s often at risk of tasting flabby. Viognier is also low yielding and not as consistent in the vineyard as other grapes available to Virginia growers. Its heavier body, perfume nose, and somewhat oily nature are sometimes love-it-or-hate it qualities to consumers.

Regardless, a group of friends joined me to taste 12 viogniers from around the state in a blind tasting to see for ourselves what may have sparked the viognier trend.

The Contenders:

  1. 2016 Linden Vineyards. Winemaker and grower Jim Law. Fruit from Boisseau Vineyard, near Front Royal. Barrel fermented in neutral French Oak.
  2. 2020 The Winery at Bull Run Lilly’s Viognier. Winemaker Ashton Lough, fruit from Rappahannock County. Made mostly in steel but with 20% acacia barrels.
  3. 2020 Barrel Fermented Horton Vineyards. Winemaker Caitlin Horton, fruit from Orange County.
  4. 2019 Ingleside Vineyards. Winemaker Mark Misch, fruit from the Northern Neck AVA.
  5. 2020 King Family Vineyards. Winemaker Matthieu Finot, fruit from the Monticello AVA.
  6. 2020 Iron Will Winery. Winemaker Nate Walsh, fruit from Iron Will’s estate vineyard in Waterford.
  7. 2019 Jefferson Vineyards. Winemaker Chris Ritzcovan, fruit from the Monticello AVA.
  8. 2020 Rosemont Vineyards. Winemaker Justin Rose, fruit from Zephaniah Farm.
  9. 2020 Philip Carter Vineyards. I believe the winemaker was Tony McDonnell. Fruit from Fauquier County.
  10. 2017 Bluestone Vineyards. Winemaker Lee Hartman. I believe the fruit came from the Shenandoah Valley AVA.
  11. 2019 DuCard Vineyards. Winemaker Julien Durantie. Fruit from the east side of Shenandoah National Park near White Oak Canyon.
  12. 2020 Delaplane Cellars. Winemaker Rick Tagg. I believe the fruit was from Loudoun County.

A big thank you to Delaplane, DuCard, Horton, Philip Carter, and Rosemont who graciously provided the bottles for inclusion in this tasting. Other bottles were procured at the wineries or local shops and brought from the taster’s cellars.

Flight #1:

First off, I noticed fairly limited variation in the colors. This was true across multiple rounds.

Wine 1: 2016 Linden Vineyards. Our oldest vintage of the evening. We felt it had a perfume-y nose, with various descriptors of white peach, dried pineapple, and lime zest. We thought it would taste sweet based on the nose but it was a dry wine.

On the palate it was a tad bitter, with notes of lime, white blossom and cream.

Wine 2: 2020 Bull Run (Round Winner) (4 votes, 1 half vote). Great balance and good complexity; we knew this a contender as soon as we tasted it. Very floral aroma, with abundant notes of lemon zest and nectarine which hit you immediately.

On the palate we found it tasted of honeysuckle, nectarine, and petrichor (a scent associated with how it smells before it rains).

Wine 3: 2020 Horton Vineyards Barrel Select (2 votes, 1 half vote). Little herbal on the nose, heavier on the hay instead of viognier’s traditional honeysuckle. Also notes of chamomile and apricot.

On the palate we found strong notes of lemon juice, as well as apricot and orange zest. It was also a tad more acidic than its counterparts.

We liked this so much we later gave it a wild card to the finalist round.

Wine 4: 2019 Ingleside Vineyards. The funky nose was noticeable. It’s not a bad quality (after all, Bordeaux can have funk) but it stood out from the rest. You might say it had an almost fuel quality to it.

Flight #2:

Personally I thought this was the strongest round of the evening, although I’m biased since I loved the King Family as much as the Iron Will.

Wine 5: 2020 King Family Vineyards (half vote). Very complex nose, with peach, orange blossom, lemon tart, and a finish of grass at the end. On the palate we also detected grass, and it had a tannic yet creamy quality to it. It may have had some lees contact as well.

I will say this was one of my favorites of the day, although I was torn between this and the following wine.

Wine 6: 2020 Iron Will Winery (Round Winner) (5 votes, 2 half votes). Very pronounced nose with lots of great qualities; rose and almond were mention. On the palate we found it was orange-y, as well had notes of ripe nectarine and papaya. Others mentioned notes of lime and a creamy note.

Wine 7: 2019 Jefferson Vineyards (half vote). Softer nose, with an herbaceous, savory quality to it. Lemon and lime were also mentioned.

On the palate we found the fruit was pronounced; one taster mentioned it had an almost citrus or yogurt quality to it. There was also a tea quality on the finish, like drinking tea that had been out too long. This wine was a bit more divisive than others we tried, since some especially loved it as it opened up while others never fell for it.

Wine 8: 2020 Rosemont Vineyards. Slate or lemon grass on the nose; this was the only time slate was mentioned during this event. I wouldn’t have guessed this was even a viognier; maybe more like a sauvignon blanc?

Flight #3:

Wine 9: 2020 Philip Carter Vineyards. The lime on the nose was almost overwhelming here. White pepper or spice on the finish; white peach was mentioned. Lots of minerally as well.

Another viognier that didn’t strike us as viognier-y. In fact it had an almost albariño quality to it.

Wine 10: 2017 Bluestone Vineyards. Another one that was reminiscent of a sauv blanc. Herbal nose, like fresh grass after it’s been mowed. On the palate we had notes of quinice and under ripe peach. Tart as well, and maybe a little tannic?

Wine 11: 2019 DuCard Vineyards (Round Winner) (7 votes). One of the easiest drinking wines of the day. This was also the only time the group was unanimous in our voting.

Peach (blossom, fruit, or flower; take your pick) and gooseberry on the nose, also some orange peel. On the palate we find a hint of ginger and under ripe peach.

Wine 12: 2020 Delaplane Cellars. Very “pretty” nose; one of the nicest aromas of the evening, in fact. On the palate, it had a fairly short finish with notes of green apple and herbs.

Finalist Round

After a brief discussion on previous round favorites that weren’t selected as the round favorite, we decided to wildcard Horton Vineyards into the finalist round. I personally thought Wine #5/King Family was a sure-thing for a wild card advance, but I was outvoted.

The result ended up to be a tie! The bottle from Bull Run was an all-around classic example of what a Virginia viognier should be, honeysuckle and all. One of the best-balanced viogniers I’ve had in a long time.

If the Bull Run was a classic example of what viognier often is, then Iron Will was an example of what viognier could be. On the nose, white flower, vanilla, white fruit abound. It was creamy and had maybe a hint of lime on the palate. This was also the second time in a row that a wine made by Nate Walsh won one of my events (including chardonnay).

Wine 2: Bull Run: (Tied for winner of the day) (2 votes, 2 half votes)

Wine 3: Horton: 1 vote

Wine 6: Iron Will: (Tied for winner of the day) (2 votes, 2 half votes)

Wine 11: DuCard (no votes)

So – what did we learn?

In a nutshell, I think the biggest take-away was this: viognier has range.

I fully expected to find overwhelming honeysuckle every time, but that was actually only true of a few examples. I thought the barrel fermented versions were done especially well.

I was also surprised to find several viogniers were distinctly not very viognier-y. A few felt more like sauvignon blanc, or even albariño. While viognier is known for having a heavy quality to it, most were medium bodied. A few I’d say were even light bodied. The oily texture I was expecting wasn’t always there.

I’m not sure how to explain the variance. I’d have thought there would be more consistency but apparently there is more variation than I expected, beyond Virginia’s normal vintage-variation.

Next up: Virginia vs France.

Albariño Tasting at Maggie Malick Wine Caves

Albariño is arguably Spain’s signature white grape. Mainly found in the wine growing region of Rías Baixas and nearby Portuguese region of Vinho Verde (where it’s known as Alvarinho), Albariño produces a light, crisp wine, famous for its salinity and zestiness.

While Albariño isn’t well known in Virginia, be prepared to hear a lot more about it. While Virginia currently only has 34 bearing acres of Albariño, it’s proven so popular that in the last several years another 27 acres have been planted but haven’t yet reached maturity. This makes it the fastest growing grape variety in the state by percentage of growth.

Virginia’s Albariños have also been racking up awards. Maggie Malick’s 2020 steel-fermented Albariño earned double gold in the San Francisco Chronical wine competition, and later went on to place as one of Virginia’s top-12 wines in the 2022 Governor’s Cup competition. Ingleside Vineyards has also earned a number of Gold medals for their Albariños in different Governor’s Cup competitions.

During a tasting of Governor’s Cup wines, Master of Wine and competition Director Jay Youmans asked rhetorically, “Why aren’t more Virginia wineries growing Albariño? Grows great, people like it, huge upside.”

“Albariño is a premium grape for us”, explained Mark Malick, winegrower at Maggie Malick Wine Caves. “It’s a smaller berry, which means about 25% less yield in comparison to most other grapes. But the smaller berries means more intensity of flavor.”

Albariño at Maggie Malick Wine Caves

Mark Misch, former winemaker for Ingleside and current winegrower for Trump Winery, explained his view of Albariño’s appeal. “I think it’s a couple factors. Albariño is relatively new to the state so its newness makes it appealing. Not many people know what it should taste like either so we have a lot of wiggle room to make a “Virginia” style.”

To help discern if there is indeed a “Virginia style”, Mark and Maggie of Maggie Malick Wine Caves hosted an event where they shared 18 bottles of Albariño with a group of industry professionals, wine writers, and social media mavens. Most of these wines were from Virginia, but Maryland, Spain, Portugal, and Uruguay were also represented.

This group sampled 18 wines over six flights. To kick things off, we also had an excellent sparkling Albariño.

Flight 1:

1. 2020 Maggie Malick (grown in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, Northern Neck AVA): The grapes came from Ingleside but the wine was made by Maggie. Initially Maggie considered blending it with her own estate fruit, but ultimately decided she liked both wines on their own so she kept them separate.

The wine presented notes of ripe yellow peach, cantaloupe, and saline. Some participants described it as ‘classic’ in style, though still not quite an exact match for a Spanish wine. Clean finish, good depth.

During the judging of the 2022 Governor’s Cup, Jay Youmans described this wine as “ocean in a glass”. When wine blogger and Governor’s Cup wine judge Kathy Wiedemann first blind tasted it, she turned to Jay and said “One of those Albariños kicked-ass.”

2. 2020 Maggie Malick Reserva (grown and made in Loudoun, Virginia). While the fruit for this wine came from Maggie’s estate vineyard, the two couldn’t be more different despite being made by the same person. This was “Albariño on steroids”, explained Mark. Very fruit forward and intense. Notes of white peach and lime zest.

3. 2020 Ingleside (grown and made in Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, Northern Neck AVA): Stylistically-speaking this was closer to Rías Baixas than to Virginia. The wine was aromatic, with notes of lime, saline and melon, but absent the stone fruit qualities the others had.

The comparisons and contrasts of these wines really makes you question how much the final outcome can be attributed to the terroir vs the winemaker. The fruit for both the Ingleside and ‘regular’ Maggie Albariño both came from Ingleside Vineyards, and they had similar tasting descriptors.

Ripeness was a quality shared by Maggie’s Reserva and ‘regular’ Maggie’s Albariño, although their tasting profiles were very distinct. They also used different commercial yeasts.

All three were made in steel.

The favorites of this round were fairly evenly split between the two Maggie wines, with some favoring the finesse of the regular Albariño but others loving the power of the Reserva.

Flight 2:

4. 2020 October One (grown and made in Loudoun, Virginia): According to owners Bob and Loree Rupy, this wine was made using whole cluster pressing. We found this process added more to the body. Many tasting notes were provided, ranging from yellow peach and stone fruit, all with a nice lemon zest. It had a slight amount of residual sugar, but was still a dry wine.

5. 2021 October One (grown and made in Loudoun, Virginia): This wine was also made using whole cluster pressing. The result was described as a “yellow peach explosion.” It was a little drier than the 2020, as well as more balanced and expressive. Overall, this bottle was the favorite of this round.

6. 2019 Bodegas Pazo de Villarei (grown and made in Salnes Valley, Rías Baixas, Spain): “Sancerre-like” was mentioned. The nose had some funk to it, almost like canned asparagus. It also went past ‘notes of saline’ to ‘full-on salty’. This started a trend of demonstrating how different the Spanish wines were from Virginia Albariños.

Flight 3:

7. 2021 Willowcroft Vineyards (grown and made in Loudoun, Virginia): Softer and approachable. White peach notes. Crisp and clean. We felt this would also be a very food-friendly wine. Overall the favorite of this round.

8. 2021 Cana Vineyards (grown and made in Greenstone Vineyards, Loudoun, Virginia): Not a lot of depth; in fact it was almost Sauv Blanc-y in body. We found grapefruit notes with some salinity. One of the lightest Albariños of the evening.

9. 2020 Val Do Sosego (grown and made in Rías Baixas, Spain): “Bite-y” was Mark’s favorite descriptor. This wine was more mineral driven, and went exceptionally well with the shrimp dish we were sampling.

Flight 4:

10. 2021 Wisdom Oak Vineyards (grown and made in Central Virginia, Monticello AVA): Apple on the nose. Some felt there was a smoky quality to it. Lime zest and stone fruit on the palate. It was also noticeably lower in acid than the others, which made it exceptionally quaffable.

11. 2021 Old Westminster Home Vineyard (grown and made in Maryland): Very aromatic, reminiscent of ‘cat pee’ in Sauvignon Blanc. This was one of the most different wines of the evening, as it was made using native yeast fermentation. Very flowery nose…fennel maybe? One mentioned it had an herbal quality to it, plus notes of lime.

Although wines made with native yeast are usually very obvious, this one didn’t taste like it. Even so, it didn’t come across like a ‘traditional’ Albariño.

12. 2020 Bagoa do Mino Rias Baixas (grown and made in Rías Baixas, Spain): This was our favorite Spanish wine of the night. Richer and more balanced than its counterparts. Softer & rounder was mentioned. Also very quaffable, with or without food.

Flight 5:

13. 2020 Blenheim Vineyards (grown and made in Central Virginia, Monticello AVA): In my opinion one of the top contenders of the night. It also had one of the prettier aromas of the evening, with lots of orange peel.

We had plenty of tasting notes for this wine. Most participants noted it was crisp and spicy. Some detected notes of lime, white peaches, maybe lemon. The wine had medium acidity and had a juicy quality to it.

14. 2020 Garzon Reserva Albariños (grown and made in Uruguay): This Uruguayan wine was another favorite of the evening, stylistically-speaking more in line with Virginia than with Spain.

Fruit forward. Notes of jasmine and white peach, with a ginger heat on the back end. This and the Blenheim were close contenders for round favorites.

15. 2019 Chrysalis Vineyards (grown and made in Loudoun, Virginia, Middleburg AVA): The ‘verde’ label on the bottle was an accurate descriptor, since this was definitely made in a lighter style. Light and very lively. There wasn’t a lot of finish but very good front end.

Flight 6:

16. 2020 Nordica Alvarinho (grown and made in Minho, Portugal): Another one that was ‘ocean in a glass.’ The salinity was very pronounced, with an almost sweet-note to it. Grape fruit on the palate. Very easy drinking.

17. 2021 Old Westminster Winery, Maryland (grown and made in Maryland): This was a late-add so very few notes. Flinty, mineral notes. Lemon oil quality to it.

18. 2020 Palacio de Fefinanes (grown and made in Rías Baixas, Spain): Apricot on the nose, honey finish. Someone said the nose was reminiscent of amaretto. Citrusy/lime quality, more mineral than saline. Several mentioned it was their favorite Spanish wine, although overall people seemed to favor the Nordica.

What did we learn?

Of the 12 Virginia or Maryland Albariños that were sampled, most tasted varietally correct but still diverged from their Spanish counterparts. Nearly all the Virginia wines trended towards notes of stone fruit, especially yellow or white peach. Most had more traditional lime-zest flavors. Several had notes of melon. Two had an almost Sauvignon Blanc quality to them.

The greatest difference between local Albariños and Spanish ones were the local examples were far more approachable. While Albariño’s traditional saline quality was often there in Virginia wines, it wasn’t to the same degree as the ones from Spain. A few were made in a fresher style where the salinity was entirely absent.

The Spanish and one Portuguese Albariños tended to have more bite to them. Most had a high saline quality to them, with one being full-on salty. Two were more mineral driven. Interestingly enough the Bagoa do Mino was our favorite, and noticeably easier-drinking than the others.

This Uruguayan wine was another favorite of the evening, more in line stylistically-speaking with Virginia than Spain. Although its tasting notes were distinct, it likewise had an easy-drinking, moderate saline quality to it.

Maybe our audience had acquired a “Virginia palate”, but the results were clear – the more approachable wines were more popular, and those disproportionally came from Virginia.

Picking a favorite for the evening was difficult, but a poll of the other participants revealed the top-5 choices usually included the 2020 Maggie Malick Albariño, 2021 October One, 2020 Blenheim, Uruguay’s 2020 Garzón, and Spain’s 2020 Bagoa do Mino. Honorable mentions went to the 2021 Wisdom Oak, 2020 Portuguese Nordica, and 2020 Maggie Malick Reserva.

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 flagship 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.

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.

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.