Cana Vineyards Wins The 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup

On March 24th, Governor Glenn Youngkin announced Cana Vineyards & Winery as the winner of the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup for its 2019 Unité Reserve, a Petit Verdot-heavy red blend. Owners Lisa & Bryce Petty and winemaker Melanie Natoli accepted the Cup at a packed gala, held at Richmond’s Main Street Station. This year’s Governor’s Cup was the first time the Gala was open to the public.

Melanie made history as the first woman to ever receive the Governor’s Cup. The competition also set a record with three women winemakers – Melanie, Maggie Malick of Maggie Malick Wine Caves, and Rachel Stinson Vrooman of Stinson Vineyards – behind four of the competition’s 12 top-scoring wines, which will form the Governor’s Case.

The remaining Case wines, representing Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, and the Shenandoah Valley, were also revealed. Albemarle Ciderworks won Best in Show for its 2019 Virginia Hewes Crab cider. 127 gold medal winners were announced earlier in the month.

The 2022 Virginia’s Governor’s Case

  1. Cana Vineyards & Winery 2019 Unité Reserve (Cup Winner)
  2. 50 West Vineyards 2019 Ashby Gap
  3. Barboursville Vineyards 2020 Vermentino Reserve
  4. Cana Vineyards & Winery 2019 LeMariage
  5. Maggie Malick Wine Caves 2020 Albariño
  6. Michael Shaps Wineworks 2019 Chardonnay
  7. Pollak Vineyards 2017 Meritage
  8. Rockbridge Vineyard 2018 V d’Or
  9. Shenandoah Vineyards 2019 Reserve
  10. Stinson Vineyards 2017 Meritage
  11. Trump Winery 2015 Brut Reserve
  12. Wisdom Oak Winery 2019 Nineteen

The Governor’s Cup is Virginia’s premiere wine competition, featuring wines that are entirely grown and made in the state. Competition Director and Master of Wine Jay Youmans changed the format and strengthened judging standards in 2012, turning the Cup into a world-class competition. Cases of these top-scoring wines are sent to wine critics around the world, promoting the Virginia wine industry to a national and international audience.

Jay and his team of judges blind tasted over 600 entries, their highest number ever. This year’s competition was marked by two trends; the rising quality of Virginia wine as a whole, and the diversity of wines the state is capable of producing.

Competition judge and wine writer Frank Morgan said of this year’s competition, “In the ten years I’ve served as a judge for the Virginia Governor’s Cup, the quality of wines was higher across the range of varieties. I was especially impressed with the Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Petit Verdot and especially the red Bordeaux-style red blends.”

Annette Boyd, Director of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, also noted how this year’s scores were buoyed by Virginia’s overall improving quality as well as a pair of especially strong vintages. The majority of wines came from 2017 and 2019, harvests winemaker Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards called “Excellent to Outstanding” due to fruit that was almost universally praised as ripe and well balanced.

This year’s scores back up their observations. On a 100 point scale, those scoring 85-89 points earn silver and 90 or more are awarded gold. The strength of this year’s Cup submissions were such that all but a handful won at least silver.

This year’s competition both reaffirmed the Cup’s love of French grapes amongst its top wines, while demonstrating how Virginia is increasingly looking beyond Bordeaux for inspiration.

Bordeaux-style red blends made up over half the Case, alongside a Chardonnay and Chardonnay-based sparkling. Rounding out the case is a dessert wine, Vermentino, and the Case’s first Albariño.

Yet Virginia is still a young wine region, experimenting with new varieties to find those that work best in our terroir. A number of these gold medal winners showcase how Virginia’s exploration of new grapes and styles of winemaking made this year’s gold medal wines its most diverse set ever, taking cues from both California and Europe but forging a style that is distinctly Virginia.

Judges awarded the Cup’s first gold to a Tempranillo (Spain) from Maggie Malick Wine Caves and the first gold in over a decade to a Syrah (southern France) from Beliveau Farm Winery. Albariño (Spain) and Nebbiolo (Italy) were well represented despite relatively small plantings in the state. Petit Manseng and Petit Verdot, lesser-known French varieties winegrowers praise for their suitability in Virginia’s climate, also made strong showings.

Dry and off-dry wines made with hybrid grapes (a crossing of American and Mediterranean vines) also had their best-ever showing. Beliveau Farm also won for its 2017 Soul Singer Chambourcin, and both Grace Estate Winery and Old House Vineyards were recognized for their Vidals. While hybrids have traditionally lacked mass market appeal, climate change is forcing vineyards to reevaluate what they should plant and these under-appreciated varieties are amongst those leading the way.

This diversity isn’t limited to grapes; sparkling wine, cider, and mead all set new medal records in the Cup.

Six sparklings took gold. The nationwide popularity of sparkling wines has seen local bubbly sales surge, with a number of Virginia wineries now offering everything from casual pétnats to serious méthode champenoise-style wines.

Ciders and meads were also well represented, earning 23 gold medals between them. These beverages reflect the changing demographics in Virginia’s beverage market as new drinkers shift to lighter offerings. Nearly 1/3rd of new ‘wineries’ in Virginia are actually cideries or meaderies. The Cup’s ciders were reviewed by a separate set of judges.

Many of this year’s gold medal winners are still available at their respective wineries. Wine lovers can download the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup® Gold Medal Wine Trail app at Virginiawine.Org. The App allows users to plan their trips around wineries that earned gold at the Governor’s Cup, enter raffles for prizes, and view discounts.

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Virginia Governor’s Cup Wrap Up

A compilation of all Gold Medal and Governors Case winners in the Virginia Governor’s Cup, 2012-2022.

Blends are listed when the composition is known.

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Mixing It Up With Locally Crafted Vermouth

Saying Virginia is known for its craft beverages is an understatement. The state hosts almost 300 wineries, over 200 breweries, roughly 40 distilleries, at least 30 cideries, and nearly a dozen meaderies. But did you know we make our own vermouth as well?

If there was ever a beverage that’s misunderstood, it’s vermouth. It’s not quite a wine, but not quite a spirit either. Most people think of it as a cocktail mixer (think Negronis and Martinis) or aperitif, but vermouth can be enjoyed on its own.

Even defining vermouth is becoming difficult as American producers become more creative in their choice of botanicals. Virginia vermouths are equally diverse.

So What’s A Vermouth?

Put simply, vermouth is an aromatized (flavored with spices, herbs, or other florals) fortified wine. It likely started as a medicinal tonic, as the beverage’s botanical qualities made the medicine go down more easily. The alchemists who made the first vermouths must have realized they were on to something, so a trend began.

Modern vermouth includes a wine base, bittering agent, spirit for fortification, and a sweetener. While traditionally made with wormwood (vermouth is actually the French pronunciation of the word wermut, the German name for this herb), the term vermouth is increasingly applied to any aromatized wine. However, purists would argue that without wormwood, it may be an aromatized wine but it’s not a vermouth.

Vermouth’s popularity is in large part due to its versatility. It provides cocktails an array of flavor profiles without requiring the bartender to add more ingredients. When you narrow it down, there are three major types of vermouth; sweet (red), dry (white), and blanc.

Sweet vermouths are usually paired with richer drinks like bourbon or rum and are a component of Manhattans and Negronis. Dry vermouth goes with lighter spirits. Blanc vermouths are typically a half-way point between the red and white versions, and may be sipped straight.

Virginia Vermouths Gaining Traction

Only a handful of vermouths are made in Virginia, usually by local winemakers. This small scale production means local ingredients play a prominent role, giving mixologists something new and exciting to play with. Virginia vermouth-makers can also boast that these are craft products, with a quality and complexity that allows them to be enjoyed on their own or used in a cocktail.

Kelly Allen and Andrew Napier of Artemisia Farm and Vineyard are amongst this small group of vermouth-makers. Kelly explained, “We want to capture Virginia’s terroir as an abstract essence.” While Artemisia’s current focus is their CSA farm, making bitters, sparkling, and vermouth is a growing project. Members of their Paetreon even receive a small sample of what’s to come.

Vermouth wasn’t one of the products in Rosemont Vineyards & Winery‘s original business plan, but Justin Rose loved the idea of making something new.

“It was really our distributor’s idea. We had some white wine we hadn’t used. But our distributor asked us to make one so we jumped at the idea. We’ve partnered with Capitoline, which has the expertise on the botanicals we should use and how.

Ours is a little different. We use birch bark instead of wormwood as a bittering agent. Traditionally the botanicals are infused into the wine, but we use the botanicals in the brandy first then blend it. We also use local honey instead of sugar as a sweetener, which gives it a nice aromatic profile. So we’ve tried to keep it regional and local.

It’s something that we’re ramping up from a fun little side project to something that now has turned into a bigger project. We’ve used it on the rocks as an aperitif, or occasionally as a gin and tonic.”

For Flying Fox Vineyard, vermouth fits into the winery’s profile as a place for winemaker Emily Pelton to test her more experimental ideas. Their vermouth was inspired by Emily’s exploratory trip to Portugal where she noticed how many people were enjoying it as a drink as opposed to a mixer.

Co-owner George Hodson said that led to a focus on developing a more sippable drink, where the intensity was dialed back so not to be as sweet or bitter, but more in the middle. ”Local botanicals are the key,” George explained. “It was lots of trial and error; especially learning when we add these bittering agents.” Even the brandy is derived from their own grapes.

Flying Fox Vineyards, Sarah Hauser photo credit

Emily’s formula was a hit. While a large portion goes to the local bar scene, over half of their production is sold at the winery. George explained this format, “fundamentally flips the vermouth world. More people are getting used to sipping it on its own.”

Flying Fox makes four vermouths, each with its own seasonal flavor profile. While they make over 1000 bottles a year, they’ve continually ramped up production to meet growing demand.

Dr. Joy Ting is no stranger to experimentation. As the head enologist of the Winemaker’s Research Exchange, she works with winemakers from around the state to identify areas of practical research. She also makes a number of small-batch wines under her own eponymous label, and recently partnered with the Wool Factory to produce a vermouth for their restaurant, Broadcloth.

In explaining how she got into making vermouth, she exclaimed, “It’s a hidden gem! As a winemaker we often don’t get to try multiple things but with vermouth we get to play around with it.” Her vermouth uses brandy from a local distillery, made in a dryer style but with some sugar to offset the bitterness.

Broadcloth was a natural partner because of their bar program and focus on using local, seasonal Virginia ingredients. But her take as to why Virginia vermouth is taking off is due to how Virginia winemakers are by nature focused on small batch, craft creations where they can focus on the small details.

For more local vermouths, also try out Mt. Defiance Distillery in Middleburg, and look out for Walsh Family Wine which is coming out with their own.

Sweet Vines Make Fine Wines

For Black History Month I drew upon a very informative discussion on one of my favorite Facebook groups concerning how to make Virginia wineries more welcoming to Black patrons.

While this article is focused on winemaker Sadie Armstrong and her winery Sweet Vines Farm, it is more broadly about the limited number of Black wine professionals in the industry and some of the experienced faced by Black wine patrons that I wouldn’t have thought about until they voiced those incidents here.

Small Batch Wines Pushing Virginia’s Creative Boundaries

Virginia is ranked #7 in the nation in terms of number of wineries, with over 300 in the state. While this is an impressive figure, it actually undercounts the number of brands available to wine lovers. For those willing to try something more experimental, try one of the state’s small batch wines.

Defining a ‘small batch’ wine can be difficult, especially in a state where few wineries make more than 3,000 cases a year. Many of these operations are colloquially referred to as ‘side hustles’, although that encompasses only part of this trend. However, as a ballpark definition, I’d broadly define ‘small batch’ as smaller brands whose wines are designed to be stylistically ‘different’ in some way.

Being different is something of a hallmark in the Virginia wine scene. As a young wine region, many vintners are still experimenting to find the styles and grapes that work best. While they usually draw more inspiration from the Old World than California, the reality is that only by experimenting will they move the industry forward. These small batch wines are the wine industry’s proverbial front line.

It’s a broad category for sure. Some are made in tiny lots by owners who lack a production facility or tasting room so they make & market their wines wherever they can. Others are crafted by winemakers at established locations who use a private label to play with different techniques or use fruit from a different terroir.

Visit to Midland’s home at Mt. Airy, in the upper Shenandoah Valley

Established wineries are tapping into this trend as well, including Horton Vineyards’ “Gears and Lace” series and Gabriele Rausse Winery’s “Vino dal Bosco” lineup. Both feature wines that are labeled & marketed separately, usually featuring different blends or production methods. In discussing her Pinotage rosé and Tannat sparkling, Caitlin Horton stated, “This is my personality in a glass. Some people see the Steampunk-themed artwork and based on that alone say ‘That’s what I want.’”

All of these ventures have one thing in common; they are creative. Many use different styles of winemaking or natural yeast fermentation. A few use blends that are rarely seen elsewhere. The use of hardy grapes such as Petit Manseng or hybrids that grow well in Virginia are recurring themes. While some of these products are sold at the winery they are made, you are more likely to find these labels at local wine stores.

Odd Birds Make Great Wine

If there was ever a wine where necessity became the mother of invention, it’s Bluestone Vineyard’s “Odd Bird”. “2020 was a bad frost year, so we had less quantity and ripening was shortened by 1.5 months,” said winemaker Lee Hartman. Since weather precluded him from making a traditional Bordeaux-blend, Lee looked outside the box.

Bluestone Vineyard’s “Odd Bird” wine

His solution was to whole cluster press the fruit. Although 93% of the wine came from red Bordeaux grapes, this process allowed Lee to leave the red pigments behind. The result is a fat but balanced white wine, with a citrusy nose and notes of orange and nectarine on the palate.

Working within the scope of their size and budget forced Guide Wine and Quartzwood Farm down a similar path. The final result showed what they lack in quantity they made up for in creativity.

Guide Wine’s “Field Blend” is made with Petit Manseng and Viognier that were picked and fermented together. According to winemaker Rich Sullivan, “My thought was to do something a little different. I chose those two grapes specifically because Viognier is softer and would complement the Petit Manseng by softening the edge of its acid”.

Guide Wine from Ben Seldins

For Ben Sedlins and Sarah Searle of Quartzwood, making wine in a sustainable way is an important component of their business. Sarah explained, “We’ve been long nagged by a sense that Virginia wine shouldn’t only be growing finicky European grapes that might not be suited for many sites nor our climate, and that there are likely some beautiful ferments to be created by stepping outside a narrow conception of what is ‘typical’ or ‘serious.’”

Currently Quartzwood makes three wines; a Noriet pét-nat, a Vidal-heavy pét-nat, and a soon to be released semi-carbonic Tannat. While they don’t use the phrase ‘natural wine’ (which is hard enough to define) to describe their creations, the use of hybrid grapes and limited intervention is in line with that concept. Both Quartzwood and Guide Wine are sold at Walsh Family Wine.

Side Hustles Arriving At Center Stage

Nearly a half-dozen Virginia winemakers have side hustles to various degrees, but Ben Jordan is perhaps Virginia’s king of side hustles. In addition to being head winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards he’s part of two smaller ventures, Lightwell Survey and his family-operated Midland Wine. Both brands emphasize limited intervention and unusual blends, including a Riesling/Petit Manseng named “Riesl-ing”, a Cabernet Franc/Blaufränkisch combo called “Cabernet Frankisch”, and a Cabernet Franc spiced with Petit Manseng named “The Weird Ones are Wolves.” The blends (and names) get weirder from there.

Both brands have received critical acclaim, but Ben isn’t the only winemaker whose side hustles are getting noticed. Wine Advocate recently rated the 2017 “F8” from Hark winemaker Jake Busching’s Jake Busching Wines as one of their favorites in a recent review of Virginia.

One of my favorite wines in Virginia!

The list goes on. King Family’s Matthieu Finot makes wine for Turk Mountain Vineyard and his own Domaine Finot, which includes a Malbec made using carbonic maceration. Enologist Dr. Joy Ting has her eponymous label Joy Ting Wine, where she experiments with whole-cluster fermentation. Maya Hood White, associate winemaker at Early Mountain, makes a Petit Manseng-based appassimento-style wine named R.A.H. More brands are likely to follow as winemakers flex their creative freedom.

But it’s not just about creative freedom – it’s about collaboration. Jake is a big fan of working with his fellow winemakers and winegrowers. He’s also made a few one-off wines, including a Cabernet Franc/Petit Manseng blend named Orphan #3. In explaining the idea behind Orphan, Jake stated, “It speaks to the idea that we always have a barrel of something sitting around. The goal of a collaboration is to experiment”.

Sweet Vines Farm Winery

A few weeks ago I had the chance to meet Seidah Armstrong, winemaker and owner of Sweet Vines Farm. Sweet Vines hadn’t opened yet, but Seidah was kind enough to let me visit on a Friday before their first big weekend so we could chat before things got crazy.

Family history is important here and it influences many aspects of her business. Seidah loves to tell the story of how she is a 3rd generation winemaker, going back to her maternal great-grandmother and maternal great-great grandmother. Seidah planted Muscadine in tribute to these women, both of whom made wine using this grape.

Although Seidah’s background is in the field of education, she caught the wine-bug in 2009 and started making wine on her own. But a few years ago this hobby turned into a calling, so she and her husband started searching for property to pursue winemaking full-time.

“I didn’t find this place – it found me” Seidah explained while we toured the farm. The main building is a former residence she and her family turned into a tasting room. Outside you’ll find a gigantic chess board and fire pit ready for visitors. We spent a lot of time chatting at the Ancestors Garden. Saying the farm is warm and adorable is an understatement.

Sweet Vines sources grapes from the former Oakcrest winery, but they have 1 acre planted here with 3 more on the way. In keeping with family tradition, these vines include plantings of Muscadine, her ‘ancestor’ grape. But not all of Seidah’s wine will come from grapes; Sweet Vines also has several fruit-based wines.

Part of Sweet Vine’s story is how Seidah is breaking new ground in the Virginia wine industry; out of the state’s 300 or so establishments she is one of the very few people of color to own a vineyard-winery, and is likely Virginia’s only Black, female winemaker. It’s an important story to tell given the black community is vastly underrepresented in the overall American wine industry.

At the same time, Seidah’s background is irrelevant to her winemaking. The two of us tasted through her lineup and the wine is worth your time. So whether you want to toast to Seidah making history or you just want to kick back and enjoy a tasty beverage, you should definitely visit.

Sweet Vine wines that we tried:

  • “Pearolicious”: A pear wine that while dry had a “fruit sweet” quality to it. Probably my favorite of the day.
  • “Summer Evening”: Strawberry-lavender wine. Heavy on lavender, grown on the property.
  • Chardonnay: California fruit; had a nutty quality to the flavor.
  • “Typo”: Dessert wine with lots of notes of cinnamon. It was 15% alcohol but doesn’t seem like it at all.
  • “Ancestor”: Sweet-flavored Muscadine wine.

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.

Glen Manor Vineyards Winemaker Tour

There are many good wineries in Virginia. There are a few great ones. But if Virginia had a “Premier Grand Cru” or “First Growth” category, that’s where you’d find Glen Manor.

Owner/winemaker Jeff White didn’t plan on becoming a winemaker, or even growing grapes. His vineyard is actually his family farm which goes back 4 generations. But a summer working with viticulturist Tony Wolf gave him an appreciation of Virginia wine, and that lead to an internship with Jim Law. The rest is history.

Glen Manor has one of the prettiest vineyard views anywhere in Virginia. Its 17 acres of vines tops out at 1400 feet, right below the northern entrance of Shenandoah Park’s Skyline Drive. I’d always wanted to visit the vineyard and this November finally had my chance when a friend invited me on a members-only tour.

The vineyard is so steep that Jeff’s insurance won’t permit him to allow visitors there, so I had to rent a 4 x 4 vehicle to traverse the slope and sign a waiver as a condition of doing the tour. Well trust me – the view was worth it.

While doing our wine tasting Jeff talked at length about the vineyard and his family history, even pointing to a tree that he once climbed as a kid. Since he’s nearly always in the vineyard or cellar (often working at night) visitors including myself rarely have the chance to meet him one-on-one. But that’s ok – his wife Kelly is an amazing hostess, although I admit I miss the focaccia bread she’d leave on the counter, pre-COVID.

On the topic of legacy, Jeff mentioned how his niece Ashleigh White had recently gotten into the winemaking (and winegrowing) business. She’s still young and has the travel bug, so her path in life isn’t set. But one can hope there will be a 5th generation on the farm.

The vineyard’s westward orientation makes it a ‘hot’ site, which guides his farming practices. Jeff picks his fruit at night using headlamps, along with a vineyard team/family unit that emigrated here from Mexico. The story of how Jeff assisted the Morales family emigrate to the US and José’s own life story is amazing, but that’s probably a discussion for another time.

Jeff explained “I would say this was a pretty typical vintage in very untypical climatic times”. The reds seem to be pointed towards finesse rather than power, while the whites and future rosé show a lot of promise. Of course, that’s all in the future and blending trials haven’t started. At this point the whites seemed more like raw apple cider than wine.

My companion and I sat outside for a special library flight which focused on their Hodder Hill (Cabernet-dominant red blend), St. Ruth (usually Merlot-dominant), and Petit Manseng.

One of the Petit Mansengs was a tad too sweet for me, but their Petit Mansengs have otherwise been consistently stellar.

Don’t ask me to pick a favorite red; that question is too hard, and I didn’t take detailed notes regardless. Glen Manor’s reds have a very distinctive earthiness to them that I love. I made sure to get their 2017 St. Ruth.

After that it was time to return home. Hopefully in another year I’ll be a member and do this tour again.

Shenandoah Valley Wine Trail Celebrates Its 3rd Shenandoah Cup

Thank you to the Shenandoah Wine Trail for the invite to this event! It was great to see so many faces I hadn’t seen in a long time.

It’s hardly a secret that the Shenandoah Valley is my favorite wine trail in Virginia. Heck, it’s one of my favorite places in Virginia, even without the wine.

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