Starting June 1st, fifteen participating Loudoun County wineries are celebrating Pride Month with a special month-long wine trail. Passport holders for “Pride in the Vines” who obtain ten different stamps will be eligible to win a prize drawing which includes private wine tastings, bottles of wine, gear, tickets to events, and tours of the vineyards and wineries.
Pride Month has its roots in the Stonewall riots, which started on June 28, 1969. Coincidentally, Pride in the Vines celebrates a movement that was galvanized at a drinking establishment.
Located in New York’s Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn was one of the few local bars that catered to an openly gay clientele despite state laws which made it risky for them to show affection in public. The Stonewall was run by the Mafia, who saw gay bars as a good business opportunity. Police raids against such establishments were common but corrupt officers would typically tip the managers off in advance, allowing business to continue with limited interruptions.
This time was different. Not only was the raid unannounced (possibly due to the police not getting sufficient kickbacks), the patrol wagon responsible for picking up arrested patrons took longer than usual to respond. The gathering crowd became increasingly agitated as they watched the police manhandle those they detained, including those arrested for violating the state’s gender-appropriate clothing statute.
The final trigger was a scuffle between a lesbian woman who was roughly escorted to the awaiting wagon. She fought back, calling on the crowd for support.
The resulting riots (Stonewall veterans prefer the term ‘uprising’) continued for several days. It was a turning point in the gay rights movement, leading to the formation of several new LGBT advocacy groups. The first gay pride parades were held on the 1st anniversary of the riots.
Bottom left: Sydney and Bridgette Smith, Williams Gap and Greenhill wineries
Bottom right: Brian Pace and Chris Sexton, Maggie Malick Wine Caves
How Loudoun’s First Pride Wine Trail Started
The idea behind Pride in the Vines in Loudoun County blossomed with Two Twisted Posts Winery, which has hosted gay pride events since opening in 2014. For the family that owns it, namely Krista Cato, her partner Lynda Dattilo and fellow owners and parents, Theresa and Brad Robertson, the topic is a personal one.
“We wanted to create a safe space for people to gather regardless of their orientation or race,” explained Krista. “From Day 1, we hung a Pride flag. It wasn’t always a smooth journey and we received some hate.
My family decided to host an event to celebrate National Coming Out Day (October 11). We thought about celebrating Pride, but Pride is already a big event in D.C. and we didn’t want to overlap with another important celebration.
We advertised it in a local paper, and they came back to us and asked, ‘Do you really want to publish this?’ And we replied; ‘yes we do!’
So we posted the ad and put out flyers in local businesses. We found a lot of them were afraid to post them out of fear of creating animosity with their customers. But a few did.
Simple things like getting a food truck was difficult. The first two canceled but eventually we found one that would support us.
When the day came, Two Twisted Posts had over 200 people come out from all walks of life. Since it was so well received, we couldn’t imagine not continuing annually.”
More Wineries Involved Than Ever Before
Over time, more wineries joined Two Twisted Posts in celebrating gay pride events. In 2019, Bob and Teri Riggs of nearby Forever Farm Vineyard noticed the Pride flag and asked what they could do to get involved. They were soon joined by Williams Gap Vineyard.
The issue hit home for Bob and Teri, whose son is gay. Teri explained, “My participation is to get families involved. We’re all in it together.”
This trio of wineries hosted an informal Pride trail for several years. But as the world around them became more accepting, the idea of a larger wine trail took shape.
“One of the things we’re learning in this journey is there are other people out there who hear them and see them,” said Bridgette Smith, tasting room manager at Williams Gap Vineyard. “So when I brought it up at the Loudoun Wineries and Winegrowers Association (LWWA) I was surprised how many wineries wanted to participate. I think there are more people out there who are willing to speak out loud to support their neighbors than we realize.”
Krista added, “The support is like 300 times more than when we opened. In the beginning, I don’t remember seeing a Pride flag anywhere. When we started hosting events for National Coming Out Day, we were so focused on the event, we didn’t reach out to anybody.
With the partnership of Forever Farm Vineyard, Williams Gap Vineyard and now so many others, it’s safe to say this year’s Pride in the Vines Wine trail is indicative of the changes that have happened in Loudoun.”
If you haven’t visited Cheesetique, you’re missing out. While a second location is in Shirlington the OG store is located in Del Ray, part of a row of cute of mom-and-pop restaurants and boutique stores.
One of my favorite evening events are their wine and cheese pairings, which have been on pause since COVID. But while avidly waiting for their return I saw Cheesetique post an event that might be better – the chance to try a flight of Opus One wines.
If you like to drink fancy red wine but never heard of Opus One…you might be living under a rock. For many years an Opus One wine held the record as the most expensive California wine ever sold. Even new releases go for almost $400 a bottle.
So when owner Jill Erber kicked off the event by describing Opus One as “One of the world’s most iconic wines” she wasn’t joking.
While often described as Cabernets Sauvignons, in truth they are left-bank style Bordeaux blends, often using all five noble red grapes. Cab Sauv comprises around 76-86% of the wine, depending on the vintage.
I went in expecting a wine tasting (and some bite-sized snacks). What I didn’t know is that I was getting a full history lesson, as told by one of their brand ambassadors, Emmanuel Padilla.
A Brief History of Opus One
The story of Opus One is really the story of two of the wine industry’s greatest marketers and innovators; Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
Both came from famous wine families. Robert was the first person to open a winery in California since prohibition and went on to become known as the ‘father of California wine’. Baron came from the family that owned Château Mouton Rothschild, the only estate to be accepted as a “First Growth” Bordeaux winery after the initial Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855.
But their legacies were cemented by their ability to bring wine to the masses. In an era where it was customary for vineyards to sell to middlemen, both realized they could increase their profitability and control quality by bottling their own wine and selling it directly to the public.
Both also pioneered the use of lower-cost wine brands in conjunction with their premium ones, so people could have a taste of Napa or Bordeaux without breaking the bank. “Luxury should not be unapproachable,” explained Emmanuel.
It was the 1976 “Judgment of Paris” that brought these men together. This event saw a pair of Napa wines take top honors in a blind tasting (beating one of Baron’s own wines), heralding the ‘arrival’ of Napa in the wine world. Baron realized California was a huge business opportunity, so in 1979 he partnered with Robert with the goal of creating an ultra-premium brand.
Opus One was the fruits of their labor, with the first vintage being produced in 1982.
The Difference Between Bordeaux and Napa
After our history lesson, Emmanuel discussed Opus One’s philosophy. This includes being able to drink your wine immediately, not wait years (sometimes decades) for the wine to settle down. “What are we known for in America?” Robert asked the audience. “Impatience!”
Emmanuel spoke about the scores they’ve earned from the fancy wine magazines but he didn’t dwell on them, comparing wine critics with music critics. After all, Led Zeppelin is one of the greatest rock bands of all time. But were they appreciated when they were touring? No!
He also went into detail about wine growing at Opus One and climate change as a whole. Opus One’s vines point true north to minimize the sun exposure, as they want a longer, cooler ripening season than a fast one that will cause their grapes to bake. Listening to this put me in wine-geek heaven.
Fire (and smoke taint) is another growing problem. While Opus One already harvested their grapes before the 2020 Napa fires broke out, they knew the reputation of a ‘smoke vintage’ could damage the brand. While Emmanuel loves their 2020 vintage, he wasn’t optimistic an Opus One flagship wine would be released from it.
It may seem all we did was listen to Emmanuel talk, in truth we were tasting wine the entire time. Four wines were poured over the course of the evening; three of their flagship “Opus One” wines and a wine from their second label, Overture. This being Cheesetique, of course we had small snacks to go with everything.
2012 Opus One. Expressive nose; rich but not overpowering. Lots of dark fruit with a touch of granite. Blend of 79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec.
2017 Opus One. Similar tasting notes but I thought with more complexity. Bottled sold at this particular event were in magnum, which (I didn’t know) increases their age-ability. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Merlot.
2019 Opus One. Initially I felt this was an obviously young wine but I quickly changed my mind. Complex but still with a nice fruit profile. Reminded me of what the 2012 would have tasted like in its youth. I later realized it had a similar blend; 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot, and 2% Malbec.
Opus One Overture (NV). More approachable. Rounder. From more ripe fruit. This wine could be aged but is really meant to be enjoyed sooner.
I was really lucky to make this event; it sold out in 2 hours but my name was called from the waiting list. For those who weren’t as lucky there will be another event this summer.
Not only will you have the chance to taste these wines, you’ll be able to buy bottles at a comparative discount (but of course still ridiculously high…because it’s Opus One).
All of my blind tastings have a theme. France vs Virginia. Virginia Tannats vs The World. Cabernet Franc Comparison; ect ect. But it’s almost always a ‘like vs like’ event, even if the regions involved are different.
This time I mixed things up. It was still ‘like with like’ because all were sparkling wines of some sort. Yet it was a departure from my normal blind tastings as these sparklings were about as different as I could possibly make them.
Of our 9 wines, 6 of the wines were traditional-method and 3 were pet-nats. More importantly, all 9 were made with different grapes. We had everything from Albariño to Voskehat.
I put the pet-nats in the same flight but otherwise all the wines were randomized. We had two flights of traditional method sparklings and a pet-nat flight at the end.
As always – this event was the product of this day, with this group. We could have repeated it the next day and come up with different results. After the 3rd round, we paused for some charcuterie, sushi, and oysters.
Bottle #1: Keush Origins, 60/40 blend of Voskehat and Khatouni (Winner)
Bottle #2: Gomes Vineyard, Albariño (tied for runner up)
Bottle #3: Horton Vineyards, Viognier (tied for runner up)
Excellent start to the event. Each of the three sparklings had something unique about them. Many of us gravitated to the Armenian Keush from the get-go, so this round was more of a contest for the #2 spot between the Virginia Horton Viognier and the California Albariño.
We couldn’t get over how different these three were. It wasn’t just the tasting profile but the finish and acidity.
We picked the Keush as the favorite mostly because it was the most complex of the trio and reminded us of a blanc de blanc in terms of the complexity and brioche notes.
Bottle #1: Keush Origins. The nose presented notes of brioche, which I think caused us to automatically gravitate towards it since it was familiar to sparkling lovers. I found grapefruit on the palate; others said green apple. As it opened up it also had notes of peach.
It may also have been the oldest of the trio (and the day) which contributed to its complexity. I felt it was also ‘big’, which was mostly a compliment but I could see that as being a distraction as well.
Fun fact – this wine came from one of the highest elevation vineyards (5740 feet) in the northern hemisphere!
Bottle #2: Gomes Vineyard. I thought it had a lemon nose, although I heard everything from grapefruit to orange zest. Definitely grapefruit on the palate, maybe citrus as well.
We were in LOVE with the nose of this one. But at the same time, the finish left us disappointed. There was just nothing on the back end. The bubbles also didn’t last very long, comparatively speaking.
I do have to point something out; when I paired this with oysters (which didn’t happen till much later in the day), this was arguably my favorite wine of the event. Those flavors just absolutely popped out with the right seafood.
Bottle #3: Horton Vineyards. Faint citrus nose. Very lemon-y and maybe some minerality.
This was our crowd-pleaser wine. While the Keush I thought was ‘too much’ for some and the Gomes had nothing on the back-end, I felt this was the easiest to drink through-and-through.
Lieven: 1/3/2. Loved the brioche and complexity. Loved the nose of #2 but it dropped off.
Lindsay: 1/2/3. Thought #1 was complex and was ‘never bored’ with it. #2 was very bright.
Round 1 / Flight 2
Bottle #4: Chestnut Oak, Petit Verdot (runner up)
Bottle #5: Stinston Vineyard, Mourvèdre (winner)
Bottle #6: Hansen-Lauer, Riesling (3rd place)
This was a really tough round to pick a favorite. If wines of the first round were different, this was REALLY different. What made it especially difficult is many of us had never tried these wines before, so we didn’t know what to expect.
There wasn’t any chart to rate ‘best’ here; it all came down to personal preference. Stinson came out as the favorite by a tiny hair, but a one-vote change could have resulted in a 3-way tie.
Bottle #4: Chestnut OakVineyard. We immediately noticed an orange tint to the color. On the palate there was a lot going on, which made it difficult to identify. Aromatic and flavorful.
Someone said the wine was ‘confused’ as to what it wanted to be, but ironically that wasn’t meant as a bad thing. It was just not what we’d expected from a sparkling.
Bottle #5: Stinson Vineyard. I found grapefruit on the nose and palate. Maybe a little yeasty? Others said they detected notes of white peach and lemon. Balanced. Some brioche notes.
I had lots of opinions on its complexity. Some felt it was well balanced but others felt there was just a lot going on, almost too much.
Bottle #6: Hansen-Lauer. One of the most acidic wines of the day. Mineral-y; someone mentioned it reminded him of a Greek wine. Some brioche notes came out eventually.
Not a lot going on for the nose, but overall a pleasant wine.
Christina: 5/4/6. Liked all of them, but for different reasons.
Lieven: 6/5/4/. Loved the acidity of #6, even if it wasn’t as complex. Thought #5 was good all-around, with depth and complexity.
Lindsay: 4/6/5. Felt food impacted the choices here.
Matt: 4/6/5. Tough choice. Could have gone for any of these. But since #4 was ‘big’ and different, that put it over the top for me.
Round 1 / Flight 3
Bottle #7: Early Mountain, Malvasia Bianca (runner up)
Bottle #8: Guide Wine, Chardonel and peaches (last place)
Bottle #9: Raza, Trajadura (winner)
This was our pet-nat round. If I had thought about it more carefully I would have done this round first…but it’s a blind tastings, so where’s the fun in that?
Granted, pet-nats are sparkling wines. But make no mistake – there’s a world of difference between a pet-nat and a traditional method sparkling. I wondered exactly how different this round would be from the earlier one, but there was no mistaking the difference.
Pet-nats are fun, easy drinking wines for when you just want bubbles. So putting them at the end of a round of ‘serious’ traditional method sparklings did them tasting notes a disservice. After we took a food break we revisited some of them and enjoyed them more just for what they were.
Bottle #7: Early Mountain Vineyard. Pale gold color. “Pithy” was mentioned. I thought it had a peach cider quality to it.
Bottle #8: Guide Wine. Bold gold color. I swore the nose reminded me of walking into an apple orchard. I thought I detected some faint hops.
Bottle #9: Raza. The cloudiest of the trio. Little bit of peach but more stone fruit. Had some grassy-ness to it initially. The bubbles also lasted the longest.
We seemed to gravitate towards it because it was the most like a méthode traditional sparkling.
Round 2 / Final
Bottle #1: Keush Origins, Voskehat and Khatouni blend (winner)
We took a food break after the 3rd round. The wines that didn’t go to the finalist round were finished off with a mix of sushi, oysters, stuffed clams, and charcuterie.
Our palates were getting fatigued at this point so no real tasting notes.
In the end, Wine #1/Keush was the winner of the day. We were enthralled with its complexity and brioche notes. It seems there’s just something about brioche that screams ‘sparkling wine’, so whenever we detected it, that became our favorite.
Wine #5/Stinson Mourvèdre was the runner-up. I asked winemaker Rachel Stinson Vrooman about it, and she explained that the decision to make it was completely based on necessity.
It’s from the 2020 vintage, which was the year they got heavily frosted. Mourvèdre survived since it’s a late-budding varietal so it was the only block they didn’t lose.
Even so, Rachel struggled on what to use it in. She loved the flavors, and the low ripeness made it a good candidate as a sparkling. It was such a hit they’ve been making it ever since.
Christina: 1/5/9. Loved the brioche notes of #1
Kyle: 1/5/9. Thought #1 was the most complex.
Lieven: 1/5/9. Liked the acidity and complexity of #1
It’s tough to write up a ‘lessons learned’ in an event that by default was always meant to be experimental. Most of these wines were brand new to us. I had no expectations what to expect, so there wasn’t really any benchmark meant to be reached.
But breaking it down, I’d say this event demonstrated two things.
First, there *really is* a huge diversity in sparklings. If you’ve never tried an Armenian wine, try it! Mourvèdre; seriously, who would have thought? Sparkling Petit Verdot? Get out of town!!!
Second, for as diverse a lineup we had, our palates seemed to gravitate towards the familiar. Wines that were stylistically similar to traditional method sparklings – especially ‘familiar’ blanc de blanc or blanc de noir nearly always won out over ‘non-traditional’. If it had brioche, it went to the top of the list of favorites.
These factors worked against the pet-nat round. In retrospect I really should have done pet-nats totally separately, but was curious how they stood up in a comparison. Sadly they didn’t – but it’s not their fault.
On their own I think we would have enjoyed them more, but coming off a round that included some excellent traditional method wines we seemed more down on them than they deserved.
If you’re looking for the boldest wine in Virginia, drink Tannat. This densely purple wine is behind some of the state’s biggest reds, as well as a popular addition in blends looking for extra color and body.
Tannat found a home in Virginia in 1998 at Chrysalis Vineyard. It’s since proven to be a good match for Virginia’s terroir and one of the fastest-growing varieties over the past decade, with acreage going up from 32 acres in 2011 to 77 in 2021.
As international grapes go, it’s fairly rare and usually only found in warm-weather areas. While Tannat is closely associated with Uruguay and the Madiran region of Southwest France, it can also be found in Lodi, Paso Robles, and increasingly in Texas.
This grape’s name is a dead-give-away to its most famous qualities. In the Béarnese dialect spoken in Madiran, Tannat means “tanned,” referring to its deep color. But another explain may be its high tannin level; enough so the term ‘tannin’ likely became bastardized into ‘Tannat’.
Several factors contribute to its success in Virginia. Its grapes evacuate water well, allowing them to quickly recover from heavy rainfall. Another plus is Virginia’s hot summers naturally brings the grape’s high acidity down to more manageable levels. Its main deficiency is its vines aren’t winter hardy.
But its most distinguishing factor is its high levels of tannin, a trait caused by having 5 seeds instead of the traditional 2 or 3. Tannat is also strong in antioxidants, although few doctors would call it a health drink (personally…I think they should).
To say that I’m a huge Tannat fan is an understatement. I sampled three Tannat flights with each focused on a theme; a ‘younger’ Virginia flight, an older Virginia flight, and a trio of non-Virginia wines.
I’d like to say it was for science, but mostly it was personal curiosity how the ‘home team’ would perform. My Virginia inventory included Chateau O’Brien’s 2012 Tannat Limited Reserve (the only American wine to medal in Uruguay’s 2019 Tannat Al Mundo competition) and Maggie Malick’s 2017 Tannat (Best of Class in the 2021 San Francisco Chronical Wine Competition). I added a few high-profile Tannats from elsewhere as well, including highly regarded bottles from France and Uruguay.
I do admit one mistake in conducting my science experiment. I accidentally put the 2017 Maggie Malick in the flight of older Virginia Tannats, and the 2015 Horton went into what was supposed to be the 2017 vintage-only flight. Hey, mistakes happen when you’re blindly putting bottles into bags!
As always, a caveat – this event was the product of this day with this group of people with these particular bottles. I don’t pretend my one event proves the superiority of any one producer.
The first flight was my favorite, which made me feel a bit of a traitor since I love VA Tannats. But trust me – it was a flight of champions.
Uruguay is famous for Tannat and Batovi is one of their most famous producers. The 2016 Broken Earth won Best in Class at the 2020 San Francisco Chronical Wine Competition. While I’m not familiar with French Tannats, I picked up a $50 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes which scored 95 points from Wine Enthusiast.
This round ended n a tie between #2 (Bouscasse) and #3 (Broken Earth). Since both were so loved, I eventually gave both a pass to the finalist round.
Bottle #1: 2016 Batovi Tannat T1. Blueberry or chocolate on the nose and notes of stewed fruit. The finish was full of plumb and earthy notes. Several participants noted it was ‘gritty’, which in this context wasn’t a favorable description.
Bottle #2: 2015 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes. Tapenade on the nose, grippy tannin. Much was discussed concerning the disconnect between the fruit and tannin; the tannin stayed with you long after the fruit dissipated, leaving you wanting more. But damn, that tannin was still pretty nice and it was smoother than expected.
Bottle #3: 2016 Broken Earth Vineyard. Lots of floral notes were mentioned; fig, jam, red cherry. Liquorish finish. This wine had a fuller body than the others; grippy tannins but not as much as #2.
Perhaps the best description for this wine was it reminded you of a high-alcohol Cabernet (notable as it was from California). “My steak wine” was another descriptor.
Favorites (from most to least)
Participant #1: 3/2/1
Participant #2: 3/2/1
Participant #3: 2/3/1
Participant #4: 2/3/1
Participant #5: 3/2/1
Participant #6: 2/3/1
Round 1 / Flight 2
Bottle #4: 2017 Maggie Malick Wine Caves
Bottle #5: 2012 Hiddencroft
Bottle #6: 2012 Chateau O’Brien (Round Winner)
This round was very different from the previous one. The way the nose positively burst from the glasses made the first-round wines relatively muted by comparison. I mistook this round as the ‘young’ Virginia round, because I figured only young wines would be so expressive.
Bottle #4: 2017 Maggie Malick Wine Caves. Although this wine was only 13% (one of the lower alcohol wines of this event) it had a hot note that I associate with higher-alcohol wines. Red velvet cake or coco powder on the nose. Notes of red fruit, plumb, or candied plumb were mentioned.
Bottle #5: 2012 Hiddencroft. I didn’t find this wine as expressive on the palate as the others did, although others had notes of black cherry or blackberry. Green pepper on the nose and palate, good acidity.
Bottle #6: 2012 Chateau O’Brien. Smooth; stewed fruit and green pepper on the palate, smokey. It had an almost barnyard-y quality on the palate, which in this case was a positive attribute.
“Tobacco tannin” was the note that most people agreed with. Someone mentioned it had an almost candied cherry note to it on the palate, as well as good fruit but remained well balanced.
Participant #1: 5/6/4
Participant #2: 6/5/4
Participant #3: 6/4/4
Participant #4: 6/4/5
Participant #5: 6/5/4
Participant #6: 5/6/4
Round 1 / Flight 3
Bottle #7: 2017 Walsh Family Wine
Bottle #8: 2017 Arterra Wines (Round Winner)
Bottle #9: 2015 Horton Barrel Select
We all noted the wines of this round had lots of barnyard notes on the nose. You could have fooled me into thinking these vintages were older.
Bottle #7: 2017 Walsh Family Wine. Notes were getting difficult at this point. Not fruit driven like the others we tried.
Bottle #8: 2017 Arterra Wines. Tart palate. Blueberry, cherry, even blackberry notes. Someone noted it has some pyrazines and ripe fruit on the nose. Grippy tannin. That said, the fruit was ‘bright’.
Bottle #9: 2015 Horton Barrel Select. This was all about earthy notes. Fig, earthy, dates, even meat. Some funk and both red and black fruit on the palate. Tart, but not as tart as #8.
Participant #1: 8/9/7: Thought #8 was the most approachable.
Participant #2: 8/9/7. Another vote for ‘fun’ over ‘cerebral’
Participant #3: 8/9/7. Thought #8 was ‘fun’ while #9 was ‘serious’
Participant #4: 8/9/7
Participant #5: 9/8/7
Participant #6: 9/8/7. Liked the ‘weird nose’. Continued to insist #9 (Horton) was the best of the day because it was the most fun to drink.
Wine #2 / 2015 Chateau Bouscasse Vieilles Vignes (France) – Favorite of the day
Wine #3 / 2016 Broken Earth Vineyard (Paso Robles, California): #3 of the day
Wine #6 / 2012 Chateau O’Brien – #2 of the day; favorite Virginia
Wine #8 / 2017 Arterra: #4 of the day
Participant #1: 2 / 8 / 3 / 6
Participant #2: 2 / 6 / 3 / 8. Madiran had the nose but not the palate. California had the finish.
Participant #3: 2 / 3 / 6 / 8
Participant #4: 2 / 6 / 8 / 3
Participant #5: 6 / 2 / 8 / 3
Participant #6: 2 and 3 were tied / 6 / 8 (with a protest vote for #9, Horton).
No tasting notes this time; we sorted the top-4 wines in order of how much we favored them.
Our preferences strongly correlated to the wine’s overall approachability, and I suspect age did a lot to improve that approachability. We did pause for light bites before this round, but for the most part these wines were sampled without a supporting dish that catered to them.
Much to my surprise, France won. I say this because I’d not heard good things concerning the quality of French Tannats found in local wine stores, as (allegedly) Madiran’s best tend not to be exported. But this bottle proves that’s wrong; it was truly outstanding.
After our winning Wine Enthusiast 95-point wine, if you go by critical acclaim then the best scoring or most award-winning wines typically did the best. Not sure if it’s a coincidence or not, but the older the wine was the more we liked it (a 2012 vintage came in runner up, then a 2016 vintage was 3rd, then our 2017 vintage came in 4th).
O’Brien has long been a personal favorite and it was the favorite Virginia wine of the day (#2 overall). This wine’s claim to fame is it was the only American Tannat to medal in a major Tannat event in Uruguay, and I see why. Holding for a full decade took a lot of willpower.
The Broken Earth from California lived up to being a “Best in Show” wine at the 2020 San Fransisco Wine Chronical wine competition, clocking in #3 for the evening.
I wasn’t surprised at all that Arterra made it into the final round. It was also the youngest wine in the final lineup (#4 overall).
It’s tough to make observations of a region based on one wine, so I’ll forgo that for another event. But I did walk away with a greater appreciation of Madiran. If you hear someone say “Madiran doesn’t ship their best wines” they’re wrong. This Chateau Bouscasse was almost universally decreed our favorite of the day.
The biggest surprise was the Maggie wine didn’t show as well as I thought it would. I’d tried it before and it was far smoother at the time, so I can’t give a good explanation as to why it came off so ‘hot’ this time. It demonstrated to me how great wines don’t necessarily show well all the time.
But my most important observation is how the older wines nearly aways showed better than their younger compatriots. Granted 2017 was an outstanding year for Virginia reds and 6 years of age is fairly decent maturity. But even then, a 2017 vintage next to something older made it easy to tell the difference.
The older it was the more drinkable it was. The more drinkable, the higher we tended to score it. Age matters for Tannat.
If you ask Virginia winemakers their favorite grape to work with, most of them would pick Cabernet Franc. At 645 acres it’s by far the most planted grape in the state. Versatile and hardy, it’s fair to say that Cab Franc is the King of Grapes in Virginia.
This is very different than how Cab Franc is used in France, where except for parts of the Loire Valley it’s usually a supporting player in red blends. Just under 10% of Bordeaux’s red grapes are Cabernet Franc, and only rarely does it dominate a wine.
But in Virginia, Cabernet Franc is often the main star. It’s not just Virginia winegrowers that love it; all along the East Coast Cab Franc is found as a single varietal wine, and large plantings are found around the world.
Cabernet Franc’s popularity along the East Coast comes down to two main factors: dependability and versatility.
In the vineyard Cabernet Franc is cold-hardy but possesses looser clusters, allowing them to also perform well in humid conditions. The grape’s shorter growing season makes it a good choice in cooler climates.
Cab Franc is also especially expressive of terroir. A bottle produced from a warmer region will showcase brighter fruit-flavors, while cooler climate ones retain good acidity. Picked young it tends to exhibit strong bell pepper qualities (often seen as a fault), but certain vegetal characteristics are often present regardless.
This grape also has range in the cellar. Cab Franc can be made into everything from light, easy drinking wines to bolder reds, as well as take the lead in many local red blends.
I gathered a group of friends to do a comparative tasting of wines from three regions; the New York Finger Lakes, France’s Loire Valley, and Virginia. Each of these regional flights was sampled at random; we didn’t know what region we were tasting at any particular time. The favorites of each round went to a second ‘finalist’ round.
The main purpose of this event was to do a side-by-side comparison for our own wine education. While we picked some favorites, I don’t pretend the results proves anything; we could easily have selected a different ‘favorite’ on a different day or with different food pairings.
That said, I’m not the least surprised at the ‘winner’ of the event.
New York (all made near Keuka Lake, Finger Lakes Wine Region)
If “Riesling” is the first grape that comes to mind when thinking of the Finger Lakes – you’re right! But you might not realize Cabernet Franc is not only the most-planted red grape, it’s the 3rd most popular variety overall in this area.
By coincidence, all of these particular bottles came from Keuka Lake wineries, although that’s not necessarily where 100% of the fruit came from.
1. 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery: “Dr Frank” is the granddaddy of Finger Lakes wine, and one of the most famous on the east coast. 100% Cab Franc, 18 months aging in French Oak (20% new).
2. 2018 Domaine LeSeurre Winery Barrel Select. I’m not familiar with this one, other than its tasting room is right next to Weis and they have a French winemaker. 100% CF from several Finger Lakes vineyards, 22 months in French Oak.
3. 2018 Heron Hill Winery: Herron Hill has one of the larger tasting rooms on Keuka Lake. Jordan Harris is the current winemaker but came after this one was made. 16 months French Oak.
France (all from Touraine, Loire Valley)
While Cabernet Franc is planted along both banks of the Bordeaux, most singe-varietal bottles of Cab Franc are found in the Touraine appellation of the Loire Valley, specifically its sub-appellations of Bourgueil, Chinon and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil.
Loire wines are made in a variety of styles and has been described as one of French wine’s ‘best value’ wine regions. I’m not familiar with any of these producers so few details are listed, although I did recently learn most of the Cab Francs from here are made in stainless steel.
4. 2020 Charles Joguet (Chinon). 100% Cabernet Franc, made in stainless steel.
5. 2020 Cuvee des Mailloches, Domaine des Mailloches (Bourgueil): 100% Cabernet Franc, made in stainless steel.
6. 2018 Agnes Sorel (St. Nicolas de Bourgueil). 100% Cabernet Franc. Fun fact – ‘Sorel’ was one the official mistress of King Charles VII.
Virginia (Central VA, Loudoun County, and Shenandoah Valley)
Not sure what more I can add to Virginia Cab Francs than I haven’t already mentioned. I will say these particular wineries are some of my favorite producers of any varietal in the state, and all came from the especially good 2019 vintage.
7. 2019 Madison County Early Mountain: EMV produces several Cabernet Francs; I believe Madison County is their largest planting of Cab Franc. I believe this had a dash of Petit Manseng.
8. 2019 Dutchman’s Creek Vineyard Walsh Family Wine: 80% Cab Franc, 20% Petit Verdot. Made 100% in oak.
9. 2019 Bluestone Vineyards: Part of winemaker Lee Hartman’s ‘Vineyard Site Series’. 100% Cab Franc made with free run juice and whole-clustered pressed from a combination of Cabernet Franc and Petit Manseng skins. Aged 2 years in French oak, 40% of which was new.
This was also our only Shenandoah Valley wine. The Shenandoah Valley has a strong claim as Virginia’s premium wine growing region, as it has higher elevation (which helps its fruit retain acidity), limestone soils, and the lowest rainfall in the state.
Round 1 / Flight 1
Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery; 19 points (Round Winner)
As the flights were selected randomly, my group had no idea we were sampling the Finger Lakes wines. Our initial guess was this was actually the French flight; only at the end did we learn otherwise.
When we voted, our #1 pick received 3 points, #2 pick received 2 points, and last pick got 1 point.
First off, we noticed the character of the wines changed quickly in the glass. We didn’t aerate these bottles especially long but I was truly shocked by how many stages these wines went through.
On the nose I was really taken by the ‘funkiness’ we had on the nose for most of them (to different degrees). It was a quality I usually associate with French wines, which is why I was confused. Fortunately, that funky nose usually dissipated.
Perhaps more surprisingly was how the fruit characteristics on the palate also changed. If we spent an hour with a single glass, it would have changed several times. Whatever fruitiness we found at the start of the tasting tended to be quickly gone.
Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery: This was probably the most varietally-correct (to our palates) Cab Franc of the flight, which garnered it a lot of votes. The nose was initially herbal but very pleasant. Softer fruit cherry notes.
Bottle #2: 2018 Domaine LeSeurre Winery. This seemed to have a bit of Brett on it, although not to the point it was faulted. The strong ‘barnyard’ quality got better but never completely left it. Earthy palate.
The nose was a killer here; few of us really enjoyed the nose although several enjoyed the flavor; we just wished the nose was as good as the palate.
Bottle #3: 2018 Heron Hill Winery. Lots of fruit on the palate; someone mentioned it had a ‘jolly rancher’ quality. Beautiful ruby color. But the fruit notes on the palate quickly dissipated and the wine became more herbaceous.
Someone noted that of this trio, this was the wine that most needed a food pairing the most.
In assessing the flight I noticed my guests were divided between two camps; the ‘approachable/balanced’ camp, and the ‘Old World’ earthy/funky camp.
There is no right or wrong answer here. People gravitate towards certain styles, and it so happened the first camp outnumbered the second camp in this group. But I did notice this trend continued over the event.
Participant #1: Voted # 1 / #3 / #2. The nose was a real turn-off for #2. Thought #1 was ‘classy’
Participant #2: Voted #1 / #2 / #3. Thought #1 was easy drinking & balanced.
Participant #3: Voted #1 / #3 / #2. Thought #1 was a ‘classic Cab Franc’. Loved the color of #3 but thought it was bland by comparison.
Participant #4: Voted #1 / #2 / #3. Went for the balance and overall approachability #1
Participant #5: Voted #2 / #1 / #3. Loved the flavors of #2; lots of cherry and earthy. She kept insisting #2 was the best wine of the night based on her ‘Old World’ preferences (which made the reveal quite surprising).
Participant #6: Voted #1 / #2 / #3. Thought #1 was well balanced; didn’t like the nose of #2 but liked the flavor.
Participant #7: Voted #2 / #1 / #3. Enjoyed the funky/earthy qualities of this wine and long finish. Thought #1 was approachable. Also thought #2 was the best wine of the night.
Round 1 / Flight 2
Bottle #4: 2020 Charles Joguet; 8 points
Bottle #5: 2020 Bourgueil Cuvee des Mailloches, Domaine des Mailloches; 14 points
Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel St. Nicolas de Bourgueil; 20 points (Round Winner)
This round continued the trend of our wines changing a lot in the glass. #6/Agnes Sorel especially benefited from this change.
Bottle #4: 2020 Charles Joguet (Chinon). Had a ‘grape jelly’ quality on the palate, with a hint of sweetness. Some mentioned a ‘Concord’ type nose. Peppery, cherry notes with a medium finish. Notes of eucalyptus were also mentioned.
Bottle #5: 2020 Cuvee des Mailloches, Domaine des Mailloches (Bourgueil). Lightest color of the flight (and maybe the event). Dark cherry notes and maybe plum on the palate, notes of plum on the nose.
Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel (St. Nicolas de Bourgueil). Musty/funky nose. Lots of mushroom on the palate. This changed a lot in the glass, all for the better. It was ‘funky’, but it was a ‘good funk’.
Wine #6/Agnes Sorel wasn’t popular initially but over 20 minutes almost the entire table came around to not just enjoying it but declaring it the favorite of the round.
Participant #1: #6 / #4 / #5
Participant #2: #6 / #5 / #4. Enjoyed #6 in all of its phases.
Participant #3: #6 / #5 / #4. Thought #6 was her favorite by far; opened up beautifully.
Participant #4: Voted #5 / #6 / #4
Participant #5: Voted #6 / #5 / #4. “Appalled’ by this at first but it blossomed over time.
Participant #6: #6 / #5 / #4. Liked the funkiness of #6 but didn’t think it was overpowering.
Participant #7: #6 / #5 / #4. Was a fan of the #6’s earthy funky notes and color. Thought #5 was herbaceous. Thought #4 needed food while #6 was good immediately.
Round 1 / Flight 3
Bottle #7: 2019 Madison County Early Mountain; 8 points
Bottle #8: 2019 Dutchman’s Creek Vineyard Walsh Family; 16 points
This round was obviously Virginia; all the wines were more tannic than anything we’d had so far. I was also surprised how none of them especially changed in the glass, at least anywhere close to the changes we saw earlier.
This was (perhaps not surprisingly) our favorite round, and soon became a close contest between #8 (Walsh) and #9 (Bluestone).
Bottle #7: 2019 Madison County Early Mountain. Notes of dates & prunes on the nose and palate. We felt this was made in a lighter style.
Bottle #8: 2019 Dutchman’s Creek Vineyard Walsh Family Wine. Coco powder on the nose; dark fruit on the palate.
Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards. The nose was initially funky but that blew off fast. Notes of sour plum and/or sour cherry on the palate. Had ‘bite’.
This wine was the most ‘different’ of anything we’d had in the entire event. I suspect this caused us to gravitate towards it, although not all of us necessarily selected it as our top choice solely because of its uniqueness.
Participant #1: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Liked all of them, but thought #9 was the most unique.
Participant #2: Voted #8 / #7 / #9. Thought #8 had the best nose; thought #9 was too overpowering.
Participant #3: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Liked #9 because it was like a ‘slap in the face’ (but a good way!). But #8 was lovely.
Participant #4: Voted #8 / #9 / #7. Gravitated towards the fruit qualities of #8 but appreciated how different #9 was.
Participant #5: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Thought #9 started fresh, with strawberry notes at first then oak. Detected some dried fruit in #8.
Participant #6: Voted #9 / #8 / #7.
Participant #7: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Thought #9 was ‘the most interesting.’
Round 2: Finalists
Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery; 17 points
Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel St. Nicolas de Bourgueil; 8 points
Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards; 17 points (Event Winner based on most 1st place votes as favorite)
The top-scoring wines from the Finger Lakes, Chinon, and Virginia flights were now before us. Many of the previous descriptors still applied, so I didn’t take additional detailed notes.
My tasting group were divided between two camps; those who wanted a wine that was ‘easy drinking & balanced’, and those who wanted something which was ‘interesting.’
Bluestone/#9 absolutely stood out and had done so over the entire evening. Its complexity and uniqueness earned it a lot of love.
Dr. Frank/#1 was the choice of those who might want something easier drinking, especially on its own. I suspect that if we had the two wines with a full dinner, we would have gone with #9.
Although in terms of points it was a tie, I selected the 2019 Bluestone as the overall winner because it had the most 1st place votes.
Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. Good balance of fruit and earthiness.
Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel St. Nicolas de Bourgueil. Still too much funk but it had improved.
Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards. By this time, #9 was becoming funkier to me but that wasn’t true for all of the guests.
Participant #1: Voted #9 / #1 / #6
Participant #2: Voted #1 / #6 / #9
Participant #3: Voted #9 / #1 / #6
Participant #4: Voted #9 / #1 / #6
Participant #5: Voted #1 / #9 / #6 (but cast a protest vote for #2)
Participant #6: Voted #1 / #9 / #6
Participant #7: Voted #9 / #1 / #6 (but cast a protest vote for #2)
This event brought together many lessons-learned from other events. I think the biggest one is when choosing a favorite, my attendees tend to divide into two camps; the “Typicity” camp, or the “It Stands Out” camp.
‘Typicity’ is a wine term used to describe “the degree to which a wine reflects its varietal origins and thus demonstrates the signature characteristics of the grape from which it was produced.”
Don’t get me wrong; many qualities went into the final determination of a favorite. But in a crowded field of good wines, the wine that is perceived as tasting ‘the way this variety is supposed to taste’ tends to be their favorite.
The “It Stands Out” camp tends to vote for wines that are ‘interesting’. For them, wines that are too ‘typical’ are boring (and lower scoring). But a wine that is a different (in a good way) gets their attention.
Fred Reno of the Fine Wine Confidential podcast explained it like this. “I think the industry challenge … is to make interesting wine. And if you make interesting wine over a period of time, you might have a shot at great wine.”
Lindsey Fern, Wine Director at the Inn at Little Washington, mentioned something similar. In a podcast with “The Vine Guy”Lindey explained how she sampled a wine that was ‘too perfect’. “Tannin levels perfect, acid level was perfect, the fruit is nice, it had a nice nose”, but “it had no soul”. I bet this Bluestone would be the kind of wine that would ‘speak to her’.
I’d also go so far as to say that wine drinkers who are avowed ‘Old World’ wine lovers tended to vote for the ‘typicity’ camp, although not always.
It’s not a coincidence that the two finalist of this event; the 2019 Dr Frank and the 2019 Bluestone, were the extreme examples of these two styles of wine.
The Dr. Frank wine was described from the get-go as “What a Cab Franc is supposed to taste like.” If you were a member of Team Typicity, this was your favorite.
Meanwhile, the Bluestone wine was easily the “most different” wine of the night. I’m not saying it was ‘the best’; that term is too subjective in a lineup of excellent wines. But it was very well-made wine that was memorable. If you were a member of Team “It Stands Out”, this was your wine.
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. French-made 100% PM table wines are rare.
Virginia wineries initially used PM primarily for dessert wines but have since focused on 100% varietal dry or off dry table wines (and increasingly, use PM 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.
One drawback to Petit Manseng is its smaller berries means this variety tends to be low yielding, so bottle prices can be high. That said, smaller berries give it a greater degree of juice-to-skin contact, so the flavors have lots of intensity. PMs typically have strong tropical or apricot flavors and lots of texture, and are known as ‘big’, flavorful wines.
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).
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.
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
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)
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
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.
Lesion #1: Perceived sweetness can fool you! 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.”
Lesion #2: PM is especially a food wine. I 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.
Lesion #3: Let the taste buds reset. 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.
Lesion #4: People gravitate towards ‘varietally correct’. This lesson goes beyond this particular event. I constantly find people gravitating towards the wine that they feel represents ‘what it’s supposed to be’.
But what does that mean? What qualities does a Cab Franc ‘supposed’ to have? California Cabs are different than any other Cabs, but you’d be wrong to dismiss others just because they don’t taste like California (unfortunately many do). Chardonnay is a chameleon; many would insist that Burgundy is the ultimate expression of excellent Chardonnay, but that’s probably unfair.
In this case, my group gravitated towards whatever could be described as ‘classic’ and ‘dry’. If that’s your preference then go for it, but I hope people open up to other styles in the future.
Despite all this, I think the 2021 PM from Three Creeks was outstanding. If anybody else samples one, let me know what you thought!
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 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.
Eric Rodez Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru (Ambonnay, Champagne; $63 on wine searcher)
2019 Crosskeys Blanc de Noir (Shenandoah Valley; ~$40 when it was in stock)
2016 Trump Blanc de Noir (Charlottesville; $55 at the winery)
Mailly Grand Cru Blanc de Noir (Champagne; $60 at Total Wine)
Keswick Vineyards Amélie (Charlottesville; $39 at the winery)
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.
Alex: #1; liked the depth
Lieven: #1; well balanced and overall drinkability
Lindsay: #2; felt it was easier drinking
Matt: #1, based on the greater complexity
Sarah: #1 enjoyed the brioche notes and the yeastiness
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.
Alex: #3; felt it was more drinkable
Lindsay: #4; once the funk came off, thought it was more complex
Lieven: #3; based on the balance and drinkability.
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
Sarah: #3; also felt it was more drinkable
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.
Alex: #6; thought it was approachable, although he noted the shorter finish
Lieven: #5. Thought #6 was a little rough, while #5 was better balanced.
Lindsay: #5; no particular reason other than she just gravitated towards it. Thought #6 had lots of interesting things going on, though.
Matt: Split vote; ½ point for each; loved both
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.
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.
Alex: Keswick (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Trump (2 points), Eric Rodez (1 point)
Lieven: Eric Rodez (4 points), Trump (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Albert Lebrun (1 point)
Lindsay: Keswick (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Eric Rodez (2 points), Trump (1 point)
Matt: Eric Rodez (4 points), Albert Lebrun (3 points), Keswick (2 points), Trump (1 point)
Sarah: Albert Lebrun (4 points), Eric Rodez (3 points), Trump (2 points), Keswick (1 point)
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.
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.
2012 Château Phélan Ségur: 50% Cabernet Sauvignon/ 50% Merlot (Left Bank, Saint-Estèphe) (wine searcher retail $62, with significant regional variation)
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)
2015 Château Gracia: 70% Merlot / 25% Cabernet Franc / 5% Cabernet Sauvignon (Right bank Grand Cru, Saint-Émilion) (wine searcher retail $111)
2012 Linden Hardscrabble: 56% Cabernet Sauvignon / 34% Merlot/ 9% Cabernet Franc / 1% Petit Verdot (selling at $75 in the winery)
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)
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.
Wine #1 (2015 Château Gracia): 70% Merlot / 25% Cabernet Franc / 5% Cabernet Sauvignon (Saint-Émilion): 3 Votes
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.
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.
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.
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.
Wine #2 (2014 Barboursville Octagon): 56% Merlot/ 23% Petit Verdot / 15% Cabernet Franc / 6% Cabernet Sauvignon
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)
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 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…)
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.
Brandon: Taittinger, based on how it was fuller (note; Brandon claimed he was more into reds than whites so this skewed his votes)
Emily: Trump, based on how it was easier-drinking and she enjoyed the nose
Lindsay: Taittinger, based on feeling Trump had too much brioche and she liked the fruit qualities of the Taittinger
Richard: Trump, based on it was more ‘traditional’
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.
Emily: Greenhill; liked the nose
Richard: France, because it was better balanced
Ryan: Greenhill, for the nose
Sarah: France, enjoyed the floral nose
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.
Lindsay: Linden, “because of the flavors”
Richard: France; liked the herbal qualities
Ryan: Linden; liked the coconut notes
Sarah: Linden, because it was richer. Noted it was “American, but elegant”
Stephanie: France; liked how it was more drinkable
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.
Brandon: Cave Ridge
Emily: Cave Ridge, because of the aroma
Lindsay: Cave Ridge
Matt: Cave Ridge
Richard: Cave Ridge; hit ‘all the marks’
Ryan: Cave Ridge; felt it was cleaner
Sarah: Cave Ridge; liked the creamy body, balance, and complexity
Stacy: France; felt the Virginia bottle was too bright and liked the funk on the French wine
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)
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).
Emily: Greenhill, ‘based on the aroma’
Lindsay: Greenhill; ‘just so much going on’
Richard: Greenhill, ‘but France in 5 years’
Stacy: France; felt the Virginia wine was too acidic and liked the notes of blueberry on the French bottle.
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.
Brandon: Slater Run
Lindsay: Slater Run
Matt: Slater Run
Richard: Slater Run
Ryan: Slater Run
Sarah: Slater Run
Stacy: Slater Run
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)
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.
Brandon: Afton Mountain
Lindsay: Afton Mountain; felt it was more balanced
Matt: Afton Mountain
Ryan: Afton Mountain
Stephanie: Afton Mountain
So there you have it – it was a total sweep for Virginia!
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.
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. The recognition it received – such as being the first (and to date, only) wine poured at the French Laundry – 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.
2016 Linden Vineyards. Winemaker and grower Jim Law. Fruit from Boisseau Vineyard, near Front Royal. Barrel fermented in neutral French Oak.
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.
2020 Barrel Fermented Horton Vineyards. Winemaker Caitlin Horton, fruit from Orange County.
2019 Ingleside Vineyards. Winemaker Mark Misch, fruit from the Northern Neck AVA.
2020 King Family Vineyards. Winemaker Matthieu Finot, fruit from the Monticello AVA.
2020 Iron Will Winery. Winemaker Nate Walsh, fruit from Iron Will’s estate vineyard in Waterford.
2019 Jefferson Vineyards. Winemaker Chris Ritzcovan, fruit from the Monticello AVA.
2020 Rosemont Vineyards. Winemaker Justin Rose, fruit from Zephaniah Farm.
2020 Philip Carter Vineyards. I believe the winemaker was Tony McDonnell. Fruit from Fauquier County.
2017 Bluestone Vineyards. Winemaker Lee Hartman. I believe the fruit came from the Shenandoah Valley AVA.
2019 DuCard Vineyards. Winemaker Julien Durantie. Fruit from the east side of Shenandoah National Park near White Oak Canyon.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.