Virginia Viognier Blind Tasting Showdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Contenders:

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

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

Flight #1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flight #2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flight #3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finalist Round

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

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

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

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

Wine 3: Horton: 1 vote

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

Wine 11: DuCard (no votes)

So – what did we learn?

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

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

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

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

Next up: Virginia vs France.

Albariño Tasting at Maggie Malick Wine Caves

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

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

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

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

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

Albariño at Maggie Malick Wine Caves

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

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

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

Flight 1:

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

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

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

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

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

The comparisons and contrasts of these wines really makes you question how much the final outcome can be attributed to either the terroir or the winemaker. The fruit for the Ingleside and ‘regular’ Maggie Albariño both came from Ingleside Vineyards, and both were made in steel. They shared some of the same tasting descriptors, yet both were very distinctive.

Ripeness was a quality shared by both of Maggie’s Albariño, although their tasting profiles were very distinct. Both were made in steel, although they also used different commercial yeasts and came from different vineyards.

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

Flight 2:

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

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

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

Flight 3:

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

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

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

Flight 4:

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

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

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

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

Flight 5:

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

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

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

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

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

Flight 6:

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

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

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

What did we learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Chardonnay Blind Tasting Showdown

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

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

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

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

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

The wines:

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

Flight #1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Votes:

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

Flight #2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Votes:

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

Flight #3:

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

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

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

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

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

Votes:

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

Finalist Round:

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

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

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

Votes

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

Overall Favorite: 2019 Walsh Family Wine

Not the main question – did the best wine win?

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

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

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

Next up: Viognier.

Virginia Rieslings vs the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The contestants:

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

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

Flight 1 / Round 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flight 2 / Round 1:

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

This was my favorite round!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flight 3 / Round 1:

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

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

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

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

Final Round:

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

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

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

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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

Virginia Petit Verdot Blind Tasting Showdown Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round 1/Bracket 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round 1/Bracket 2:

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

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

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

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

Round 1/Bracket 3:

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

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

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

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

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

Round 2/Final:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virginia Petit Verdot Blind Tasting Showdown: The 2017 Vintage

“The brown bag doesn’t lie” is one of my favorite quotes. Virginia does Petit Verdot exceptionally well and it’s one of my favorite varietals not just in the state, but in the world.

Some friends and I tried 6 different Petit Verdots in a blind tasting, with two ‘bonus PVs’ from Italy and New York to top off the night. The NY one was good (and the Italian bottle may have been slightly off) but based on this small sample size felt Virginia is clearly the leader in this varietal.

Petit Verdot is a Bordeaux grape but only used there for blending, giving red blends color and tannin. The name translates as ‘little green one’ because it rarely ripens well in this region. Full varietal Petit Verdot wines are a rarity in France, with this grape comprising around 2% of Bordeaux’s red grapes.

But Virginia’s warmer climate allows the fruit to ripen while maintaining its acidity, and its thick skin and loose clusters makes it well suited to our weather. As of 2019 (the date of the last detailed Virginia grape report), there were nearly 300 acres of Petit Verdot in the state, making it Virginia’s 3rd most planted varietal (after Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, and a touch ahead of Merlot).

I picked 2017 for two reasons. Most importantly, I find high-acid, high-tannin wine need time in the bottle. Virginia wineries seldom have the luxury of having enough wine in stock to wait until they are ready. Fortunately, 2017 was something of a bumper crop and I’d been stocking up on this vintage in particular.

The 2017 vintage was also one of the best in recent decades. This year was Virginia’s 4th hottest summer since 1895 and had limited rainfall. It also had cool nights, so growers enjoyed the best of both worlds.

We had a good array from of producers from around the state, including several of my all-time favorite Petit Verdot makers.

  1. Maggie Malick 2017 Petit Verdot (Loudoun Valley)
  2. The Barns 2017 Petit Verdot (growing site unknown)
  3. Glen Manor 2017 Petit Verdot (Front Royal)
  4. Hark 2017 Petit Verdot (Monticello AVA)
  5. The Wine Reserve at Waterford 2017 Petit Verdot (Northern Virginia)
  6. DuCard 2017 Petit Verdot (Eltan, near the middle of Shenandoah Park)

Round 1 / Bracket 1

  • Maggie Malick (Wine #1) 2 Votes
  • The Barns (Wine #2) 4 votes, Winner

The Maggie Malick was probably the lightest PV of the evening. Herbs and eucalyptus on the nose. Some red fruit notes. Soft initially but had a bitter back-end.

The Barns was almost stereotypical “Virginia PV”. It hadn’t been open for very long so we found this bottle to be rather one-dimensional (it opened up during our next tasting). Graphite on the palate. It also surprised us with a loooong finish. Not complex but very drinkable.

Round 1 / Bracket 2

  • Glen Manor (Wine #3), 1 vote and three half votes, Wildcard to next bracket
  • Hark (Wine #4) 2 votes and three half votes, Winner

This was our toughest round, and we went back and forth on our favorite. We were so torn I allowed people to split their votes. Eventually the Hark won by a tiny margin, but we loved the Glen Manor so much we gave it a wildcard to the next bracket.

The Glen Manor was very smooth and easy drinking. It had bright acidity and light pepper notes. Gravel and black fruit on the palate.

The Hark was more tannic but still smooth. Herbal notes on the nose and body to back it up. Some of us detected tart cherry. Complex but still approachable. Less acidic than the Glen Manor.

The deciding factor here was food. We hadn’t broken out the BBQ yet, but we did have cheese plate that offered lots of small bites. That’s when someone discovered how awesome the Hark was when paired with a bite of sautéed Andouille chicken sausage.

It was hard to argue with the logic of “Yes!! But the sausage!!!!”, which was probably the best single food & wine pairing I’ve had all year. Sausage + Hark PV = not just winning this bracket, but winning in life.

Round 1 / Bracket 3

  • The Wine Reserve (Wine #5)
  • DuCard (Wine #6) 6 votes, Winner

The Wine Reserve got stuck in a tough bracket. It did have a great nose, which one guest described as “Smells like Christmas”. Red fruit and some tartness on the palate. I did think it was a little harsh.

The DuCard had this wonderfully deep, pronounced fruitiness. Berry and plumb on the nose. Soft and easy drinking.

It was DuCard all the way here.

We stopped the tasting to indulge in some BBQ before continuing to the next bracket.

Round 2 / Bracket 1

  • The Barns (Wine #2) One half vote
  • Glen Manor (Wine #3) 5 votes and one half vote; Winner

Words were getting difficult here, but I’ll try.

The Barns had improved with some aeration. I was starting to sense the tannins and the nose had a whiff of graphite.

But that Glen Manor? That had such a great mouthfeel. We went with Glen Manor.

Round 2 / Bracket 2

  • Hark (Wine #4) 2 votes and one half vote
  • DuCard (Wine #6) 3 votes and one half vote, Winner

Another tough round. We detected some spiciness on the Hark. Most importantly, some extra bites allowed us to conclude it was the best food wine of the evening.

The DuCard by comparison was less acidic, and I was getting a cooked fruit quality on the palate. Smooth.

If we had more sausage we may have given Hark the win, but since we were trying to judge these on their own the DuCard took this round.

Round 3 / Final

  • Glen Manor (Wine #3) One vote
  • DuCard (Wine #6) 5 votes, Winner

Put simply, we loved both wines. Both were similar in that they were easy drinking yet complex. I could have picked either one, but in the end we gave the DuCard the win for best of the evening.

I’d hate to say that this event ‘proves’ anything. Even if we repeated the same wines with the same people, we could easily have gotten different results. But overall, I’m still not surprised these two made it to the top.

Linden December 2021 Fireside Chat w/Jim Law

For years Linden Vineyards hosted special library wine tastings in November and December, where they dug deep into the cellar and brought out wines that dated back as far back as the late 1980s. COVID forced them to change things up, so instead they had a series of special “Fireside Chat” events. These included a tasting & discussion with owner/vintner Jim Law who poured an assortment of library wines, plus a few barrel samples and ‘mentor wines’ wines that served as inspirations to his own winemaking.

If Jim hadn’t become a winemaker I could see him as a teacher. He seems to enjoy the opportunity to impart his knowledge of wine and winegrowing to his guests. I suspect he keeps the price-point of his library wine lower than it could be so a larger number of people can enjoy them.

We did three flights of wines, each with four samples. Three were from Linden, plus a ‘mentor wine’. Jim explained that if you want to make great wine, you need to sample great wines from elsewhere. To nobody’s surprise he chose a Meursault (Chardonnay) and a Vouvray Demi-Sec, but his Bordeaux pick was enlightening.

Most Bordeauxs I’ve tried to be heavily dominated by Merlot or Cabernet (70-90%), despite their fame as blends. While Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, or Malbec may be there, they tend to be a tiny fraction of the whole. But his choice of a 2016 Branaire-Ducru (from St. Julien) was only 64% Cabernet Sauvignon, 27% Merlot and dashes of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. This blend more closely emulates Jim’s winemaking, as his newer vintages rarely see a single grape exceed 60% of the whole.

As we started our first flight Jim took questions, ranging from how he got into winemaking (a dinner with his parents), to the 2021 vintage (looks like it will be good, despite late rain), to the future of Linden (hopes his daughter and son-in-law will take over eventually).

My favorite discussion involved his test vineyard. Climate change is very real, and he fully recognizes the vagrancy of Virginia’s weather won’t allow him to continue farming like he’s done in the past. While many wine drinkers tend to overly focus on Bordeaux grapes, he’s willing to embrace any grape that makes good wine.

He didn’t give a full roster of the grapes planted there but he did mention he has a row of Fiano he’s very happy with. In the future he’d love to try some of the new crosses and hybrids coming out of Europe, including Marselan (a cross between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon).

As for the Linden whites, we had the Meursault, followed by a 2019 Village, 2013 Hardscrabble, and a barrel sample of the 2021 Hardscrabble. Stylistically the Meursault was different but I could see why Jim chose it.

The 2019 Village was still new and wasn’t yet integrated. Jim said it probably won’t be ready till next year. The 2021 barrel sample was almost like tasting raw cider.

My favorite by far was the 2013 Hardscrabble. This Chardonnay had great depth and color. I’m learning I’m really enjoying older Chardonnays, and this was definitely age-worthy.

For the reds we had Hardscrabbles from 2010, 2017, and 2020, plus the Bordeaux. 2017 was an outstanding year and it’s markedly improved from last year when I tried it. 2020 was of course young but interesting. 2010 was really enjoyable; it had more secondary characteristics but there was still fruit there. I was tempted to buy one at only $75 but showed restraint.

We finished with the dessert wines. If you like the Late Harvest get them – it seems like it’s getting harder and harder to make them.

Viginia Sparkling Wines vs The World

If you want to improve your palate, the only way to do so is to sample more wine. To help me in this quest I invited a group of friends over so we could blind taste sparkling wines from around the world.

I’m a believer in the adage “the brown bag doesn’t lie”. It’s easy to go into a tasting with pre-conceived notions, so to make things fair we bagged all the wines – even going so far to tape the necks of the bottles up. Fortunately, we had a good spread to choose from.

  1. Afton Mountain Vineyard 2017 Bollicine (Monticello, Virginia)
  2. Paul Launois NV Composition #3 Grand Cru (Champagne, France)
  3. Trump Winery 2014 Blanc de Blanc (Monticello, Virginia)
  4. Mirabella Satèn (Franciacorta DOCG, Italy)
  5. Thibaut-Janisson NV Extra Brut (Virginia)
  6. Argyle 2017 Sparking Brute (Willamette Valley, Oregon)

The strong Virginia representation was no coincidence. Not only am I a fan of drinking local, Virginia is making outstanding sparkling wines.

Patricia Kluge of Kluge Estate (now Trump Winery) started the trend for high-end Virginia sparklings by inviting French winemaker Claude Thibaut to Virginia as a consultant, leading to the release of their first Blanc de Chardonnay in 2007. Today, Claude is half of the Thibaut-Janisson partnership which is one of the best-known sparkling wines in the state.

I was thrilled to have a Thibault-Janisson in the lineup, but the other Virginia contenders were also very strong. Trump Winery is a two-time winner of the San Fransisco Wine Chronicle’s “Sparkling Sweepstakes”, perhaps North America’s most prestigious wine competition. When I saw their 2019-winner 2014 Blanc de Blanc I was fast to grab it.

I discovered Afton Mountain’s sparkling this year at a Virginia wine media event that featured multiple sparklings and it was my favorite of the day. Obviously, I was excited when someone offered to bring it this evening.

The other sparklings I wasn’t as familiar with, but having bottles from Italy, France, and Oregon made this blind tasting especially interesting. Extra props to the guest who offered to bring a Grand Cru champagne.

We didn’t do the reveal until the winner was announced.

Round 1 / Bracket 1:

  • Wine #1 / Afton Mountain (1 votes)
  • Wine #2 / Paul Launois (5 votes)

The Afton was very bright and approachable. We sensed tart green apple notes. “Bright, effervescent” were mentioned.

The Paul Launois had a dough-y note to it. There was also more weight, and it had a longer finished. Very well balanced as well.

Don’t get me wrong – we enjoyed both. We thought the Afton was a very good crowd-pleaser, but the Grand Cru champagne won out.

Winner: Paul Launois

Round 1 / Bracket 2:

  • Wine #3 / Trump Blanc de Blanc (3 votes)
  • Wine #4 / Mirabella Satèn (3 votes)

The Trump Blanc de Blanc is something of a ‘cerebral’ sparkling. It was initially a bit musty but that blew off. It had a bready note on the palate, and some noticed a spice note at the end. We felt it needed a lot of swirling to get the best out of it.

The Mirabella was exceptionally bright – almost too much so. Green apple, lemon-lime, and honeysuckle notes were mentioned. High acid up front but not on the end. At least one person mentioned an almost milky note, with some brioche.

We were evenly divided on this round. At first nobody seemed to love either, although #3 improved as it opened up. Since it was tied and I was the host, my vote was the tiebreaker and we went with Trump Winery.

Winner: Trump Winery

Round 1 / Bracket 3:

  • Wine #5 / Thibaut-Janisson (6 votes)
  • Wine #6 / Argyle (0 votes)

There was a lot going on for the Thibault-Janisson, all of it great. It was easy drinking but complex. Well balanced. It had a brioche note in exactly the right proportion. Someone mentioned notes of spice cake or star anise. “Tastes like Christmas” was also mentioned. On top of all that, it had a wonderful golden color.

The Argyle was also very popular, and we commented on how unfair it seemed for this wine to be eliminated early. It was bright and easy drinking; perhaps an especially good wine for those starting to drink bubbles. Everything seemed well proportioned.

This was by far our most popular round, and we immediately viewed the Thibault-Janisson as the likely winner. That said, the Argyle was maybe our 2nd favorite of the evening. I gave the Argyle a wild card advance into the next round.

Winner: Thibault-Jannison (but the Argyle also advanced to the next bracket)

Round 2 / Bracket 1:

  • Wine #3 / Trump Winery
  • Wine #5 / Thibault-Janisson

We felt the Trump wine noticeably improved since we last tried it. One other guest and I started to go back and forth on a favorite; another guest refused to pick a favorite because she loved them both. But the Thibault-Janisson was just so good we gave it the win here.

Winner: Thibault-Janisson

Round 2 / Bracket 2:

  • Wine #2 / Paul Launois
  • Wine #6 / Argyle 2017 Sparkling Brute

No notes here; the winner was the Argyle by a large margin.

Winner: Argyle

Round 3: Winner’s Round

  • Wine #5 / Thibaut-Janisson
  • Wine #6 / Argyle

We basically predicted these two wines to be the final contenders as soon as we tasted them earlier in the evening. No new tasting notes here; we happily finished both bottles.

It may have been an informal competition, but all of the guests were definitely winners.

Favorite bottle of the night: Thibault-Janisson Extra Brut

The Jim Law & Friends Blind Tasting

This weekend I did a vertical blind tasting of several of the most famous Virginia wineries, plus a Bordeaux for comparison. It was one of the most enjoyable (and most expensive) tastings I’ve ever done. While Virginia wine is rarely famous outside the state, these three are among the few wineries that have name brand recognition with critics everywhere.

I could argue it was for the sake of education. Or for science. Or to test the price point of different wines. But in truth it was all about curiosity; what it’s like to taste some of the best wines in the state at once in a blind tasting.

Jim Law of Linden Vineyards is said to have a “kind of this Eastern philosophy of sit on the porch until I invite you in mentality”. Potential students must not only prove their seriousness in pursuing viticulture, but also promise to contribute to the Virginia wine industry for at least two years after their apprenticeship. Perhaps his two greatest students were Jeff White of Glen Manor and Rutger de Vink of RdV.

I called this event “Jim Law & Friends” because it includes wines from all three. Even today they maintain strong ties, providing advice on weather and growing conditions. I’ve also heard stories of how Jim hosts a recurring wine dinner with these friends to taste the great wines of the world (no I haven’t been invited and I’m a little cross about that).

Some friends and I had some 2015s available and felt it was a good vintage to do a comparison. The numbers correspond to the bag number; everything was done blind. The Bordeaux was added for comparison.

We tasted these wines over the course of almost 3 hours, which allowed us to follow their evolution as they opened up. Each winemaker had strong connections to the other, but the Virginia wines were still very distinct. While these wines also trend ‘Old World’ style, the Bordeaux was definitely the outlier.

  • 2015 Lost Mountain $150 (RdV, 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Cab Franc, 3% Merlot). This wine had a distinct black pepper note that persisted over the course of the evening.
  • 2015 Hardscrabble $65 (Linden, 46% Cabernet Sauvignon/35% Merlot/19% Cab Franc). The lightest and smoothest of the evening, likely because it was the least Cab-heavy. Some earth and fruit notes in equal proportion.
  • 2015 Chateau Giscours $75 (Margaux, 3rd Growth Bordeaux, 70% Cabernet Sauvignon 25% Merlot, 5% Cab Franc). The mustiness of this wine was very noticeable when we first opened it up. It started as one of our least favorites, but as time passed and it opened up we liked it more and more, perhaps surpassing some of the others.
  • 2015 Hodder Hill $50 (Glen Manor, 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot). Slight must on the nose, and an earthy undertone.

Which leads us to the big question – which was our favorite?

Well…there’s no easy answer to this one. I tasted with 3 friends, and we were all over the map in terms of favorite. I took three polls at 30 minute intervals until we unveiled them. I assigned a ‘point’ for each vote.

  • Trevor: Trevor was the most consistent. He voted for wine #4 (Hodder Hill) all three times. So Glen Manor 3 points.
  • Matt: I was torn between wines 2 & 3 (Linden and the Bordeaux). I actually disliked the pepperiness of wine #1. While I liked wine #4, it wasn’t quite as smooth as the other two. My first vote was for wine #2, then #3, then back to #2. Linden 2 points and Bordeaux 1 point.
  • Ryan: Ryan felt the wines hadn’t opened up sufficiently to vote in the first round. Overall he seemed to favor wines #1 and #3 the most. He felt there was a lot of potential for the Bordeaux, but it needed more time than what we had for it to reach its full potential. But he did vote for wine #1 once and split his vote between wines #1 and #3 in his last vote. RdV 1.5 points, Bordeaux .5 point.
  • Dan: Dan was all about wine #2. He picked a favorite early on and stuck with it, although he did like the others. He stopped drinking early on but he did vote for wine #2 twice. Linden 2 points.

So the tally was this: Linden 4 points, Glen Manor 3 points, RdV 1.5 points, Bordeaux 1.5 points.

On paper you might say that Linden was the favorite. But perhaps a better question is this: When was each wine a favorite. Because time made a huge difference.

I suspect had we let these wines breathe for several hours in advance, our scores would have been very different. On the second and third votes I was torn between Linden and the Chateau Giscours, and only narrowly chose Linden on the 3rd. Ryan likewise felt that the Bordeaux was peaking late, while the Linden peaked much earlier. Perhaps being the most ‘blended’ helped its scores?

It’s also important to admit that given an extra hour or two, I’m fairly certain I would have favored the Bordeaux. While I didn’t enjoy the black pepper notes of the RdV, that is simply a stylistic preference of my own that in no way implies I didn’t like it or it wasn’t an excellent wine.

So does this mean Linden was the ‘best’ wine of the night? Absolutely not! Given a few extra visitors the final scores would almost certainly been different.

But hey – if anyone wants to break out their fancy wine, I’d happily help you drink it!

Tannat Night at Maggie Malick Wine Caves: 2021 Edition

In late July we conducted our second Tannat Night, hosted by Mark and Maggie Malick. It was a different crowd from last year but nevertheless included around a dozen experienced wine professionals to ‘talk Tannat’, including winemakers or other representatives from Barrel Oak Winery, Bluemont Vineyard, Delaplane Cellars, Fabbioli Cellars, Effingham Manor, and our host Maggie Malick Wine Caves.

This time we had a wider assortment of Virginia wine, especially in terms of vintage year. The outstanding 2017 vintage was especially well represented. We had several 2017s at our last event but often felt they were on the younger side. 17 months made a difference in smoothing these tannins out.

Our Tannat crew

For those unfamiliar with the variety, Tannat is a high tannin & acid grape originally from the Madiran region of France. While Madiran is its spiritual home Tannat is now better known as the national grape of Uruguay. Small plantings also exist in California, Argentina and Australia.

But Tannat is a good fit for Virginia’s terroir as our hotter summers makes us suitable for high acid wines, as the heat reduces their acidity to more manageable levels. While it currently constitutes just over 2% of Virginia’s vinifera plantings, over the past decade local growers have doubled their acreage from around 20 acres in 2009 to almost 50 in 2019. Its main drawback is its vines are susceptible to cold damage, an occasional problem given Virginia’s variable winters.

Mark pruning his Tannat vines, guarded by the flag of Uruguay

Tannat can definitely fill the ‘big red’ category for Virginia that Cabernet Sauvignon holds for California. It’s inky and big and will blow you away. Mark Malick calls it a ‘go big or go home’ wine. A number of Virginia wineries use it as a blending grape to give their reds color and structure. Many of these – especially in Charlottesville and Northern Virginia – also produce single-varietal bottles.

In deciding the lineup I did my best to compare a Virginia wine vs. another example in every round, although we eventually ran out of non-Virginia wines for 1-1 comparisons. I also started us off with several of our best wines, on the assumption that over time tasting would become…more difficult.

Having a loud, opinionated crowd made it a fun night – although sometimes we seemed to forget to talk about the wine right in front of us. To top it all off Mark made us cassoulet, which we enjoyed after the 4th round. All tasting descriptors listed here are what was I was able to glean from different participants, as well as my own notes.

Mark and his cassoulet

Round 1

2017 Maggie Malick (Virginia): This wine won the 2021 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (SFCWC) for best Tannat in class, beating three other double gold winners. “Rich” was our immediate byword. Its American oak was noticeable on the nose. This wine had lots of structure, with obvious cherry and raspberry notes and a lingering finish. We felt this was one of the best of the night (more than a few would say it was the best).

2017 Kerrville Hills (Texas): This also won double gold at the 2021 SFCWC, and was graciously gifted to us by Kerrville for this tasting event. The crowd immediately detected a lighter nose than what we were expecting. Participants voiced different perceptions of its tannin level, ranging from lighter to heavier tannin structure. It was fruit forward, although not as much as some of our following wines. We noted an interesting contrast in that it was darker in color but had a lighter mouthfeel. “Sharp” tannin structure. Everyone really enjoyed this bottle.

Round 2

2018 Effingham (Virginia): The night’s third double gold winner at the 2021 SFCWC competition (right below the Kerrville wine). These three double golds couldn’t be more different. The Effingham was a softer, less intense Tannat, representative of Virginia’s rainy 2018 season. 14 months in Virginia oak. Some detected a “warm-sweet” note to it. All around we enjoyed it.

2017 Pizzorno (Uruguay): Our first Uruguay Tannat of the evening. “Funky” was the key adjective. This wine had some weight to it. Some participants detected a little brett (aka Brettanomyces yeast) but not the ‘bad’ kind of brett that winemakers guard against. All around, I think people didn’t love but it but we still generally liked it.

Round 3

2014 Maggie Malick (Virginia): Our 2nd best in class/double gold of the evening, this time from the 2017 San Francisco International Wine Competition. This wine spent 2-3 years in barrel. Coco on the finish. Subtle oak, grippier tannins. Another hit from Maggie.

2010 Barrel Oak (Virginia): One of our oldest vintages of the evening. This was a lower acid, higher alcohol wine that ‘tastes great…for an 11 year old wine’. Considering its vintage it still aged well; the fruit may have been on the decline but we felt it had some fruit notes left. Doug Fabbioli commented this wine disproves comments from those critics who claimed the 2010 vintage wouldn’t stand the test of time.

Round 4

2017 Effingham (Virginia): This wine left everyone impressed, and was a group favorite alongside the 2017 Maggie Tannat. Notes of coco, bramble fruit, raspberry and leather. Well balanced and spicy.

2016 Domaine Du Moulie (Madiran, France). This was a very different wine than what we’ve had so far. No wood characteristics, lots of fruit. Tasting notes included mint & eucalyptuses on the palate, perhaps some spice. But overall, the tannins were muted – a trait we felt was due to Madiran’s growing conditions.

Round 5

2016 Jake Busching (Virginia): Good acid and fruit. Nicely balanced & good finish. Some described ‘sweet fruit’ notes up front. The oak was well integrated. It was a little vegetal but this is one of the few times I don’t think of that descriptor as a negative.

2013 Michael David “Inkblot” (Lodi, California): At 14.8% alcohol it was ‘hot’. Coco characteristics, dusty tannin. Overly ripe fruit. Our only California wine of the evening. We were surprised we didn’t like it more…maybe we all have too much of a Virginia palate?

Round 6

2017 Delaplane Cellars (Virginia): Gold medal in the Virginia Governor’s Cup. Made in new Hungarian oak. It was lingering and accessible. It was well received although I didn’t get a clear profile of the wine.

2020 Pizzorno (Uruguay): One of the more divisive wines of the night, as it was made using carbonic maceration. Bright fruit notes. Maggie noted it was meant to be served chilled, so what was in our glass may not have been its best representation. While few of us enjoyed it, we acknowledged that it shouldn’t be judged in the same way as our other wines as it was a different way of making Tannat.

Round 7

2009 Fabbioli Cellars (Virginia): Oldest vintage and richest nose of any bottle that evening. Fruit was on the decline but we could tell it was a good wine, the “Sofia Loren of wines” for that evening if you will. Herb and sweet liquorish on the nose.

2016 Garzon (Uruguay): Put it this way – it was good for $20. It was obviously not an ‘artisanal’ wine, but instead mass produced to satisfy a large audience. Doug had some funny analogies to describe his opinion of a mass produced yet satisfying wine.

Round 8

2017 Hiddencroft (Virginia): We felt this wine was fruit forward, with more prominent wood (at least compared to the others). It also seemed a younger wine, as the tannins seems ‘green’.

2017 Bluemont (Virginia): Made in neutral barrels. Maybe mild lavender on the nose. On the palate, comments varied from tobacco and chocolate nibs. Well balanced but young.

Round 9

2017 Walsh Family Wine (Virginia): Tasting notes were difficult by this point, which may not be fair to Walsh since I’ve had it before and always enjoyed it. Some detected heavier oak. It had intensity but not as much fruit as the others. “Dark” and “big’ were the key adjectives.

2019 Briedé Family Vineyards (Virginia): Sweet, bright, young. Those are the only tasting notes you get after you’ve tried 18 Tannats in an evening.

In summary – the two favorites were the 2017 Maggie and the 2017 Effingham, which shouldn’t be a surprise given what a strong year that was. After those two it seemed we enjoyed a broad grouping, including (in no particular order), the 2016 Texas Kerrville, 2014 Maggie, 2016 Jake Busching, 2017 Delaplane, and 2017 Bluemont.

Two of the best of the night!

What did I learn?

Most importantly, I think we demonstrated that Tannats from different states and countries had distinct stylistic differences. I’d go even further in saying the examples from Virginia were most diverse of the lineup, which shouldn’t be surprising given the different growing conditions in the state.

Some Virginia Tannats were more tannin & earth-driven, while others were richer & fruitier. By contrast, the examples from Uruguay and France were uniformly fruit forward. The major outlier was Texas, which was closer in style to Virginia than either Uruguay or France.

Sadly we only had one example (but an excellent one) from the Lone Star State. I believe Texas Tannats are worthy of more sampling…for the sake of science of course.   I fully acknowledge given how many of us have a “Virginia palate” we may be biased in choosing our favorites. That said, I do think the Virginia Tannats we enjoyed that evening were more complex and balanced than the Uruguay and French examples. As Virginia summers become even warmer, perhaps we’ll see even more of Tannat in the upcoming years.

Our Tannat lineup