Virginia Cabernet Francs vs The World

If you ask Virginia winemakers their favorite grape to work with, most of them would pick Cabernet Franc. At 645 acres it’s by far the most planted grape in the state. Versatile and hardy, it’s fair to say that Cab Franc is the King of Grapes in Virginia.

This is very different than how Cab Franc is used in France, where except for parts of the Loire Valley it’s usually a supporting player in red blends. Just under 10% of Bordeaux’s red grapes are Cabernet Franc, and only rarely does it dominate a wine.

But in Virginia, Cabernet Franc is often the main star. It’s not just Virginia winegrowers that love it; all along the East Coast Cab Franc is found as a single varietal wine, and large plantings are found around the world.

Cabernet Franc’s popularity along the East Coast comes down to two main factors: dependability and versatility.

In the vineyard Cabernet Franc is cold-hardy but possesses looser clusters, allowing them to also perform well in humid conditions. The grape’s shorter growing season makes it a good choice in cooler climates.

Cab Franc is also especially expressive of terroir. A bottle produced from a warmer region will showcase brighter fruit-flavors, while cooler climate ones retain good acidity. Picked young it tends to exhibit strong bell pepper qualities (often seen as a fault), but certain vegetal characteristics are often present regardless.

This grape also has range in the cellar. Cab Franc can be made into everything from light, easy drinking wines to bolder reds, as well as take the lead in many local red blends.

I gathered a group of friends to do a comparative tasting of wines from three regions; the New York Finger Lakes, France’s Loire Valley, and Virginia. Each of these regional flights was sampled at random; we didn’t know what region we were tasting at any particular time. The favorites of each round went to a second ‘finalist’ round.

The main purpose of this event was to do a side-by-side comparison for our own wine education. While we picked some favorites, I don’t pretend the results proves anything; we could easily have selected a different ‘favorite’ on a different day or with different food pairings.

That said, I’m not the least surprised at the ‘winner’ of the event.

New York (all made near Keuka Lake, Finger Lakes Wine Region)

If “Riesling” is the first grape that comes to mind when thinking of the Finger Lakes – you’re right! But you might not realize Cabernet Franc is not only the most-planted red grape, it’s the 3rd most popular variety overall in this area.

By coincidence, all of these particular bottles came from Keuka Lake wineries, although that’s not necessarily where 100% of the fruit came from.

1. 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery: “Dr Frank” is the granddaddy of Finger Lakes wine, and one of the most famous on the east coast. 100% Cab Franc, 18 months aging in French Oak (20% new).

2. 2018 Domaine LeSeurre Winery Barrel Select. I’m not familiar with this one, other than its tasting room is right next to Weis and they have a French winemaker. 100% CF from several Finger Lakes vineyards, 22 months in French Oak.

3. 2018 Heron Hill Winery: Herron Hill has one of the larger tasting rooms on Keuka Lake. Jordan Harris is the current winemaker but came after this one was made. 16 months French Oak.

France (all from Touraine, Loire Valley)

While Cabernet Franc is planted along both banks of the Bordeaux, most singe-varietal bottles of Cab Franc are found in the Touraine appellation of the Loire Valley, specifically its sub-appellations of Bourgueil, Chinon and St-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil.

Loire wines are made in a variety of styles and has been described as one of French wine’s ‘best value’ wine regions. I’m not familiar with any of these producers so few details are listed, although I did recently learn most of the Cab Francs from here are made in stainless steel.

4. 2020 Charles Joguet (Chinon). 100% Cabernet Franc, made in stainless steel.

5. 2020 Cuvee des Mailloches, Domaine des Mailloches (Bourgueil): 100% Cabernet Franc, made in stainless steel.

6. 2018 Agnes Sorel (St. Nicolas de Bourgueil). 100% Cabernet Franc. Fun fact – ‘Sorel’ was one the official mistress of King Charles VII.

Virginia (Central VA, Loudoun County, and Shenandoah Valley)

Not sure what more I can add to Virginia Cab Francs than I haven’t already mentioned. I will say these particular wineries are some of my favorite producers of any varietal in the state, and all came from the especially good 2019 vintage.

7. 2019 Madison County Early Mountain: EMV produces several Cabernet Francs; I believe Madison County is their largest planting of Cab Franc. I believe this had a dash of Petit Manseng.

8. 2019 Dutchman’s Creek Vineyard Walsh Family Wine: 80% Cab Franc, 20% Petit Verdot. Made 100% in oak.

9. 2019 Bluestone Vineyards: Part of winemaker Lee Hartman’s ‘Vineyard Site Series’. 100% Cab Franc made with free run juice and whole-clustered pressed from a combination of Cabernet Franc and Petit Manseng skins. Aged 2 years in French oak, 40% of which was new.

This was also our only Shenandoah Valley wine. The Shenandoah Valley has a strong claim as Virginia’s premium wine growing region, as it has higher elevation (which helps its fruit retain acidity), limestone soils, and the lowest rainfall in the state.

Round 1 / Flight 1

  • Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery; 19 points (Round Winner)
  • Bottle #2: 2018 Domaine LeSeurre Winery; 14 points
  • Bottle #3: 2018 Heron Hill Winery; 9 points

As the flights were selected randomly, my group had no idea we were sampling the Finger Lakes wines. Our initial guess was this was actually the French flight; only at the end did we learn otherwise.

When we voted, our #1 pick received 3 points, #2 pick received 2 points, and last pick got 1 point.

First off, we noticed the character of the wines changed quickly in the glass. We didn’t aerate these bottles especially long but I was truly shocked by how many stages these wines went through.

On the nose I was really taken by the ‘funkiness’ we had on the nose for most of them (to different degrees). It was a quality I usually associate with French wines, which is why I was confused. Fortunately, that funky nose usually dissipated.

Perhaps more surprisingly was how the fruit characteristics on the palate also changed. If we spent an hour with a single glass, it would have changed several times. Whatever fruitiness we found at the start of the tasting tended to be quickly gone.

Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery: This was probably the most varietally-correct (to our palates) Cab Franc of the flight, which garnered it a lot of votes. The nose was initially herbal but very pleasant. Softer fruit cherry notes.

Bottle #2: 2018 Domaine LeSeurre Winery. This seemed to have a bit of Brett on it, although not to the point it was faulted. The strong ‘barnyard’ quality got better but never completely left it. Earthy palate.

The nose was a killer here; few of us really enjoyed the nose although several enjoyed the flavor; we just wished the nose was as good as the palate.

Bottle #3: 2018 Heron Hill Winery. Lots of fruit on the palate; someone mentioned it had a ‘jolly rancher’ quality. Beautiful ruby color. But the fruit notes on the palate quickly dissipated and the wine became more herbaceous.

Someone noted that of this trio, this was the wine that most needed a food pairing the most.

In assessing the flight I noticed my guests were divided between two camps; the ‘approachable/balanced’ camp, and the ‘Old World’ earthy/funky camp.

There is no right or wrong answer here. People gravitate towards certain styles, and it so happened the first camp outnumbered the second camp in this group. But I did notice this trend continued over the event.

  • Participant #1: Voted # 1 / #3 / #2. The nose was a real turn-off for #2. Thought #1 was ‘classy’
  • Participant #2: Voted #1 / #2 / #3. Thought #1 was easy drinking & balanced.
  • Participant #3: Voted #1 / #3 / #2. Thought #1 was a ‘classic Cab Franc’. Loved the color of #3 but thought it was bland by comparison.
  • Participant #4: Voted #1 / #2 / #3. Went for the balance and overall approachability #1
  • Participant #5: Voted #2 / #1 / #3. Loved the flavors of #2; lots of cherry and earthy. She kept insisting #2 was the best wine of the night based on her ‘Old World’ preferences (which made the reveal quite surprising).
  • Participant #6: Voted #1 / #2 / #3. Thought #1 was well balanced; didn’t like the nose of #2 but liked the flavor.
  • Participant #7: Voted #2 / #1 / #3. Enjoyed the funky/earthy qualities of this wine and long finish. Thought #1 was approachable. Also thought #2 was the best wine of the night.

Round 1 / Flight 2

  • Bottle #4: 2020 Charles Joguet; 8 points
  • Bottle #5: 2020 Bourgueil Cuvee des Mailloches, Domaine des Mailloches; 14 points
  • Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel St. Nicolas de Bourgueil; 20 points (Round Winner)

This round continued the trend of our wines changing a lot in the glass. #6/Agnes Sorel especially benefited from this change.

Bottle #4: 2020 Charles Joguet (Chinon). Had a ‘grape jelly’ quality on the palate, with a hint of sweetness. Some mentioned a ‘Concord’ type nose. Peppery, cherry notes with a medium finish. Notes of eucalyptus were also mentioned.

Bottle #5: 2020 Cuvee des Mailloches, Domaine des Mailloches (Bourgueil). Lightest color of the flight (and maybe the event). Dark cherry notes and maybe plum on the palate, notes of plum on the nose.

Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel (St. Nicolas de Bourgueil). Musty/funky nose. Lots of mushroom on the palate. This changed a lot in the glass, all for the better. It was ‘funky’, but it was a ‘good funk’.

Wine #6/Agnes Sorel wasn’t popular initially but over 20 minutes almost the entire table came around to not just enjoying it but declaring it the favorite of the round.

  • Participant #1: #6 / #4 / #5
  • Participant #2: #6 / #5 / #4. Enjoyed #6 in all of its phases.
  • Participant #3: #6 / #5 / #4. Thought #6 was her favorite by far; opened up beautifully.
  • Participant #4: Voted #5 / #6 / #4
  • Participant #5: Voted #6 / #5 / #4. “Appalled’ by this at first but it blossomed over time.
  • Participant #6: #6 / #5 / #4. Liked the funkiness of #6 but didn’t think it was overpowering.
  • Participant #7: #6 / #5 / #4. Was a fan of the #6’s earthy funky notes and color. Thought #5 was herbaceous. Thought #4 needed food while #6 was good immediately.

Round 1 / Flight 3

  • Bottle #7: 2019 Madison County Early Mountain; 8 points
  • Bottle #8: 2019 Dutchman’s Creek Vineyard Walsh Family; 16 points
  • Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards; 18 points (Round Winner)

This round was obviously Virginia; all the wines were more tannic than anything we’d had so far. I was also surprised how none of them especially changed in the glass, at least anywhere close to the changes we saw earlier.

This was (perhaps not surprisingly) our favorite round, and soon became a close contest between #8 (Walsh) and #9 (Bluestone).

Bottle #7: 2019 Madison County Early Mountain. Notes of dates & prunes on the nose and palate. We felt this was made in a lighter style.

Bottle #8: 2019 Dutchman’s Creek Vineyard Walsh Family Wine. Coco powder on the nose; dark fruit on the palate.

Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards. The nose was initially funky but that blew off fast. Notes of sour plum and/or sour cherry on the palate. Had ‘bite’.

This wine was the most ‘different’ of anything we’d had in the entire event. I suspect this caused us to gravitate towards it, although not all of us necessarily selected it as our top choice solely because of its uniqueness.

  • Participant #1: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Liked all of them, but thought #9 was the most unique.
  • Participant #2: Voted #8 / #7 / #9. Thought #8 had the best nose; thought #9 was too overpowering.
  • Participant #3: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Liked #9 because it was like a ‘slap in the face’ (but a good way!). But #8 was lovely.
  • Participant #4: Voted #8 / #9 / #7. Gravitated towards the fruit qualities of #8 but appreciated how different #9 was.
  • Participant #5: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Thought #9 started fresh, with strawberry notes at first then oak. Detected some dried fruit in #8.
  • Participant #6: Voted #9 / #8 / #7.
  • Participant #7: Voted #9 / #8 / #7. Thought #9 was ‘the most interesting.’

Round 2: Finalists

  • Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery; 17 points
  • Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel St. Nicolas de Bourgueil; 8 points
  • Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards; 17 points (Event Winner based on most 1st place votes as favorite)

The top-scoring wines from the Finger Lakes, Chinon, and Virginia flights were now before us. Many of the previous descriptors still applied, so I didn’t take additional detailed notes.

My tasting group were divided between two camps; those who wanted a wine that was ‘easy drinking & balanced’, and those who wanted something which was ‘interesting.’

Bluestone/#9 absolutely stood out and had done so over the entire evening. Its complexity and uniqueness earned it a lot of love.

Dr. Frank/#1 was the choice of those who might want something easier drinking, especially on its own. I suspect that if we had the two wines with a full dinner, we would have gone with #9.

Although in terms of points it was a tie, I selected the 2019 Bluestone as the overall winner because it had the most 1st place votes.

Bottle #1: 2019 Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery. Good balance of fruit and earthiness.

Bottle #6: 2018 Agnes Sorel St. Nicolas de Bourgueil. Still too much funk but it had improved.

Bottle #9: 2019 Bluestone Vineyards. By this time, #9 was becoming funkier to me but that wasn’t true for all of the guests.

  • Participant #1: Voted #9 / #1 / #6
  • Participant #2: Voted #1 / #6 / #9
  • Participant #3: Voted #9 / #1 / #6
  • Participant #4: Voted #9 / #1 / #6
  • Participant #5: Voted #1 / #9 / #6 (but cast a protest vote for #2)
  • Participant #6: Voted #1 / #9 / #6
  • Participant #7: Voted #9 / #1 / #6 (but cast a protest vote for #2)

Lessons Learned

This event brought together many lessons-learned from other events. I think the biggest one is when choosing a favorite, my attendees tend to divide into two camps; the “Typicity” camp, or the “It Stands Out” camp.

‘Typicity’ is a wine term used to describe “the degree to which a wine reflects its varietal origins and thus demonstrates the signature characteristics of the grape from which it was produced.”

Don’t get me wrong; many qualities went into the final determination of a favorite. But in a crowded field of good wines, the wine that is perceived as tasting ‘the way this variety is supposed to taste’ tends to be their favorite.

The “It Stands Out” camp tends to vote for wines that are ‘interesting’. For them, wines that are too ‘typical’ are boring (and lower scoring). But a wine that is a different (in a good way) gets their attention.

Fred Reno of the Fine Wine Confidential podcast explained it like this. “I think the industry challenge … is to make interesting wine. And if you make interesting wine over a period of time, you might have a shot at great wine.”

Lindsey Fern, Wine Director at the Inn at Little Washington, mentioned something similar. In a podcast with “The Vine Guy” Lindey explained how she sampled a wine that was ‘too perfect’. “Tannin levels perfect, acid level was perfect, the fruit is nice, it had a nice nose”, but “it had no soul”. I bet this Bluestone would be the kind of wine that would ‘speak to her’.

I’d also go so far as to say that wine drinkers who are avowed ‘Old World’ wine lovers tended to vote for the ‘typicity’ camp, although not always.

It’s not a coincidence that the two finalist of this event; the 2019 Dr Frank and the 2019 Bluestone, were the extreme examples of these two styles of wine.

The Dr. Frank wine was described from the get-go as “What a Cab Franc is supposed to taste like.” If you were a member of Team Typicity, this was your favorite.

Meanwhile, the Bluestone wine was easily the “most different” wine of the night. I’m not saying it was ‘the best’; that term is too subjective in a lineup of excellent wines. But it was very well-made wine that was memorable. If you were a member of Team “It Stands Out”, this was your wine.

This night, camp “It Stands Out” won.

Virgina Wine Punching Above its Weight in Major Competitions

If the Virginia wine industry is to grow, it needs to increase its brand recognition. One way to do that is for Virginia to showcase its wines at major wine competitions.

Wins at such competitions burnish their winery’s reputation, but it’s more than that. Honest critical feedback from judges (which isn’t a given in all events) help winemakers hone their craft. Good press also shine a light on the Virgina wine industry as a whole.

Tales about Virginia’s big wins isn’t a matter of local wineries boasting amongst themselves. When Wine Enthusiast reduced the number of wine regions it covers, it’s a tribute to local quality that Virginia coverage was retained (alongside California, New York, Oregon, and Washington State) even as the publication dropped other emerging regions including Maryland, Michigan, and Texas. This for a state that produces less than 0.3% of the nation’s wine production.

Some of these award-winning wines can be found at the Virginia Governor’s Cup or smaller regional events, but not always. Low inventory and financial costs usually force winemakers to be choosy, limiting their ability to participate at multiple venues. The former is especially important given most Virginia wineries make under 3,500 cases/year.

Even so, the prestige of participating in certain events sometimes makes the cost worth it. Ankida Ridge’s pinor noir received a huge boost after it became the first Virginia winery to be invited to the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). Chateau O’Brien helped raise tannat’s profile in Virginia after it became one of the few American attendees at the Concurso Internacional Tannat Al Mundo award, the premiere event for tannat wines.

Some of these wins are in varieties that Virginia is becoming closely identified with, such as cabernet franc or petit verdot. But most of these wins use traditional Bordeaux grapes, and several others trophies are for varieties that are rare even in Virginia.

This list is not meant to be all-inclusive but does list a fair number of national and international competitions Virginia wine has participated at during the most recent wine judging season. For brevity I only list wines that scored Best in Show, Best in Class, or Double Gold awarded since August 2022.

2022 American Wine Society Commercial Wine Competition

  • Granite Heights 2017 Cabernet Franc (Double Gold/Best in Class)
  • Three Creeks Winery 2021 Petit Manseng (Gold/Best in Class)
  • Doukénie Winery 2019 Petit Verdot (Double Gold)
  • Horton Vineyards Cotes d’Orange (Double Gold)

2022 Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association (ASWA)

  • CrossKeys 2019 Blanc de Noirs (Best in Show)

2022 International Eastern Wine Competition

  • Bluestone Vineyards 2019 Cabernet Franc (Double Gold)
  • Bluestone Vineyards 2017 Blue Ice (Double Gold)
  • CrossKeys Vineyards 2020 Joy White (Double Gold)
  • Pearmund Cellars 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon (Gold/Best in Class)

2022 International Women’s Wine Competition

  • Grey Ghost Vineyards 2019 Reserve Chardonnay (Best in Class)
  • Narmada Winery 2019 Cabernet Franc (Best in Class)

2022 TexSom

  • Pearmund Cellars 2021 South River Vineyard Petit Manseng (Best in Class)

2023 San Diego International

  • Muse Vineyards 2021 Roussanne (Best White in Show)

2023 San Francisco Chronical Wine Competition

  • Trump Vineyards 2016 Sparkling Reserve (Best in Class Brut)

2022 San Francisco International Wine Competition

  • Barboursville Vineyards 2021 Reserve Fiano (Best Italian White)
  • Bluestone Vineyards 2017 Blue Ice (Traminette) (Best In Class, Ice Wine)
  • Barboursville Vineyards 2021 Sauvignon Blanc (Double Gold)
  • Barrel Oak Vineyards 2021 Pinot Gris (Oregon fruit) (Double Gold)
  • Bluemont Vineyards 2021 Signature Petit Manseng (Double Gold)
  • Ingleside Vineyards 2019 Petit Verdot (Double Gold)
  • Jefferson Vineyards 2019 Jefferson’s Own Estate Reserve White Wine (Double Gold)
  • Maggie Malick Wine Caves 2020 Kaleidoscope (Double Gold)

A Guide to Chocolate and Wine Parings

If you write about wine long enough, it’s inevitable you’ll eventually write a Valentines-themed guide on chocolate and wine parings. Well, here’s mine!

Chocolate and wine are delicious on their own but are a tough pair to match. But here are some tips on how to do it.

To read the full article, click here.

Virginia Petit Manseng Blind Tasting Showdown

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

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

In its home region of Jurançon (SW France) PM is usually made into a dessert wine or blended with its genetic relative Gros Manseng. French-made 100% PM table wines are rare.

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

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

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

One drawback to Petit Manseng is its smaller berries means this variety tends to be low yielding, so bottle prices can be high. That said, smaller berries give it a greater degree of juice-to-skin contact, so the flavors have lots of intensity. PMs typically have strong tropical or apricot flavors and lots of texture, and are known as ‘big’, flavorful wines.

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

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

The roster:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round 1 / Flight 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round 1 / Flight 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Round 1 / Flight 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finalist Round

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

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

After some deliberation, the winner of the night were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons Learned

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

Lesion #1: Perceived sweetness can fool you! Even when made as a dry wine, PM is so acidic and fruity that we frequently mistook certain bottles as having some RS. Those who don’t like RS were often too quick to dismiss a wine because of its perceived (but absent) sweetness. With the bottle hidden behind the bag, even popular wines such as Glen Manor’s ‘dry’ PM didn’t get the attention they otherwise deserved.

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

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

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

Lesion #2: PM is especially a food wine. I think PM needs food, more-so than other white wines. We had liberal amounts of bread, cheese, and other snacks but these wines cried out for something spicier. I think the lack of the right food affected our palates more than we realized.

Lesion #3: Let the taste buds reset. I think we needed more time between rounds than I normally provide. The higher levels of acidity fatigued our palates faster than I anticipated, so the wines of the second round were duller than they really were.

Lesion #4: People gravitate towards ‘varietally correct’. This lesson goes beyond this particular event. I constantly find people gravitating towards the wine that they feel represents ‘what it’s supposed to be’.

But what does that mean? What qualities does a Cab Franc ‘supposed’ to have? California Cabs are different than any other Cabs, but you’d be wrong to dismiss others just because they don’t taste like California (unfortunately many do). Chardonnay is a chameleon; many would insist that Burgundy is the ultimate expression of excellent Chardonnay, but that’s probably unfair.

In this case, my group gravitated towards whatever could be described as ‘classic’ and ‘dry’. If that’s your preference then go for it, but I hope people open up to other styles in the future.

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

Wine & Country Life: Linden Vineyards

My latest article on Linden Vineyards is now published – and it’s the cover story of the print version of Wine & Country Life!

Sometimes I feel like my social media can be nicknamed the ‘Jim Law Fanboy Club’ because Linden wines are featured so often. As a wine writer I try to cover multiple areas, and too much fanboying on one winery makes it tougher to cover everything else.

That said, it’s tough to overstate Jim’s influence on Virginia wine. He’s idolized by his fellow winemakers and his Hardscrabble Journal blog has a wealth of information on the growing season, pruning techniques, and ‘mentor wines’.

In our interview we covered everything from how he found the Virginia wine scene to his thoughts on hybrid grapes (not precluding more but hasn’t planted anything beyond Vidal), Linden’s test vineyard (fingers crossed we may see Fiano in the future), the ‘vine-soil relationship’ (drainage is essential so you need to plant on the right soil), and why he prefers ‘wine grower’ not ‘wine maker’.

Fortunately, there’s plenty here for non-wine geeks. Not many people know how his father’s chance sampling of a Chablis wine was the starting point for his love of wine, and how he strongly considered going to Oregon but instead chose a Shenandoah winery named Tri-Mountain because he loved the idea of exploring what was (and to an extent still is) virgin terroir.

To read the current issue (page 24)

Meet the New Owners: Barrel Oak, Fox Meadow, and Sunset Hills

It never ceases to amaze me how people are willing to pursue a dream in the wine industry. But Kavelle and Ken Bajaj of Barrel Oak Winery, Amanda and Whiticar Darvill of Fox Meadow Winery, and Chris and Katie Key of Sunset Hills Vineyard all took the plunge in 2022.

While no two stories of ‘why I bought a winery’ are the same, they often rhyme. For the Darvills and Keys, their first dates were at wine tastings. For the Kavelle Bajaj, it was her farm roots. For all of them, it’s a love of wine.

I’m really looking forward to how these new owners elevate Virginia wine.

Click the link below –

The 2022 Virginia Wine Year In Review

As 2022 closes Virginia has (by my count) 266 winery tasting rooms, 31 cideries, and 11 meaderies. It also has over 26 brands that sell their wine/cider/mead to the public but lack a physical tasting room.

11 new wineries (plus 2 tasting rooms from existing wineries) opened in 2022, a number on par with annual growth in the Virginia wine industry. An additional 5 wine brands opened for direct sales or can be found at a partner location (notably Walsh Family Wine, which hosts ‘Bar Takeovers’ for small brands that lack a tasting room).

6 wineries (Castle Gruen, Dry Creek, Five Oaks Vineyard, Hunt’s Vineyard, Thatch and Whitebarrel) closed, will close, or rebranded in 2022.

2022 also saw a number of major wineries being sold, with new owners at Barrel Oak, Capstone, Sunset Hills/50 West, and Fox Meadow. These come in the wake of the sale of Three Fox Vineyards and 8 Chains North, which changed hands in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

2022’s Major Trends and Events

1. Growing representation in local winemaking: Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards made history in 2022 by becoming the state’s 2nd female Virginia Governors Cup winner (and its 1st under the Cup’s post-2011 rigorous judging system). Maggie Malick and Rachel Stinson Vrooman also had wines selected for the 2022 Governor’s Case.

Not to let be outdone by its neighbor, Maryland winemaker Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown joined Melanie by winning both the Maryland Governors Cup and Comptroller Cup, her state’s two highest wine awards in 2022.

These women are part of a cohort of female head winemakers and assistant winemakers who are gaining major name-recognition. All told, around 15% of all head winemakers in Virginia are female.

Representation by Black–owned wine brands also grew this year. Fifty Leven and Shockoe Wine joined the small but growing group of local Black-owned wine brands, which also includes Delaplane Cellars, Preston Ridge, Sweet Vines Farm, and Vintner’s Cellar of Yorktown.

2. Climate change: Jim Law called 2022 ‘climate change on steroids’. While climate change is hardly a new topic, this year included a number of high-intensity weather events which punctuated the extent of this trend. At worst, the type of dramatic weather fluctuations seen this year portent what Virginia’s ‘new normal’ may become.

For much of Virginia, 2022 see-sawed between hot, sunny days and short but intense summer storms, bookended by frost warnings in April and a hurricane in late September. Winegrowers looking at the rainy weather forecast in July had good reason to be concerned.

Fortunately, mid-summer’s capricious weather gave way to far more favorable conditions in August to September, turning what could have been a tough vintage into a very favorable one for large parts of the state.

Some years – such as 2017 and 2019 – are fondly looked back as strong vintages, while others like 2011 and 2018 are ones most winemakers would prefer to not dwell on.

But the answer regarding the 2022 growing season might be summarized as ‘it depends’, all depending on a vineyard’s specific microclimate.

3. Labor Shortages: Many wineries had significant challenges in staffing. This had a number of impacts, both in the tasting room and the vineyard.

Those hopeful for a return to pre-COVID bar-side tastings were likely disappointed. While health concerns and consumer demand for take-away flights played a part in this decision, this pivot away from bar-side tasting is largely a product of limited staffing, which precludes many wineries from servicing a full bar of customers as they did in the past.

These shortages also impacted vineyard operations. Frequent rain resulted in a high-vigor growing season, so pruning was especially time-consuming. When hurricane Ian arrived, some vineyards struggled to bring in their fruit with the labor at their disposal.

Those with full time labor were able to endure these challenges more easily. Those who did not encountered delays in vineyard work or harvesting.

4. The Common Wealth Crush Company and “garagiste” winemaking: This November Ben and Tim Jordan announced their new custom winemaking facility, capable of producing up to 30,000 cases/year. This business is especially designed for smaller winemakers who lack their own facilities.

“Contract winemaking” already exists in Virginia, but that term is usually associated with business such as Michael Shaps Wineworks who do the entire winemaking process for their customer.

CWCC differs in that it allows winemakers to make their own wine. As Tim Jordan explained, “People do it at their employer’s wineries and sometimes they can get their friends to let them do it. But what almost always happens is that you grow out of it, or the winery facility grows its production and kicks you out. There’s not really a dedicated facility that allows a winemaker to start a brand, do the project, make the wine they want, the way they want, and be confident they’ll be able to stay there.”

This business model comes at a good time as the number of ‘small batch’ wines has dramatically increased over the past several years. Winemakers including Jake Bushing, Mattieu Finot, and Ben Jordan have long championed “garagiste” style wines, but they’ve been joined by Jocelyn Kuzelka and Megan Hereford of Daring Wine Company, Tim Jordan’s Star Party, Kent Arendt’s Boden Young, Rich Sullivan’s Guide Wine, and others.

CWCC also plan of having a tasting room at their Waynesboro facility to serve these brands, allowing customer to sample wines from Midland, Lightwell, and Star Party.

5. Small Batch Wines more popular than ever: “Garagiste” winemakers are a large part of this group, but this trend goes beyond independent operators.

I use “small batch wines” as a catch-all term to cover a large group of different wine ventures, including everything from collaborations between different wineries, independent brands that lack a permanent home, to off-brand labels at established wineries.

One recent example is the ‘Sun Room’ collaboration between Corry Craighill of Septenary Vineyards and Nate Walsh, where each winemaker took a batch of Malvasia Bianca grapes but made a wine in their own style, yet sold as a 2-pack. Another is the Odd Bird series by Lee Hartman of Bluestone Vineyards.

The common denominator between these ventures is they tend to focus on the creative aspect of winemaking, often featuring unusual blends, uncommonly used winemaking styles, and/or unique branding.

Expect more of these type of off-brand ventures in the future, as winemakers look for ways to flex their creative muscles.

6. Vermouth gaining traction: Rosemont and Flying Fox have made vermouth for several years, but the field of local vermouth-makers expanded this year with the addition of botanical wines from Artemisia Farm, Walsh Family Wine, and Joy Ting.

While this beverage is usually thought of as a drink mixer for bartenders, local vermouth sales have largely been to customers who use it as a sipping drink. Many of these producers also focus on local ingredients, sometimes expanding beyond wormwood as a bittering agent.

Wineries, Brands & Tasting rooms that opened in 2022:

  1. Artemisia Farm & Vineyard (no tasting room, but found at NOVA farmers markets)
  2. Bluemont Station Farm Winery (Bluemont)
  3. Boden Young (no tasting room, but found at Walsh Family Wine)
  4. Burnbrae Vineyards (Lynchburg)
  5. Caihailian Vineyard (south of Afton)
  6. Chapelle Charlemagne Vineyards (new tasting room in Flint  Hill)
  7. Daring Wine Company (no tasting room)
  8. Droumavalla Farm (north of Leesburg)
  9. Everleigh Vineyards (Mineral)
  10. Kalero Vineyards (Hillsborough)
  11. Lake Front Winery (Buffalo Junction)
  12. Mount Fair Farm (Crozet)
  13. Nookesville Winery (no tasting room)
  14. October One Vineyard (new tasting room open in Leesburg)
  15. Star Party (no tasting room)
  16. The Barn at 678 (Barboursville)
  17. Wind Vineyard at Laurel Grove (Tappahannock)
  18. Woodbrook Farm Vineyard (Orange)

Upcoming Wineries expected to open in 2023

  1. Blevins Family Vineyard (Scottsburg)
  2. Crimson Lane Vineyards (Linden)
  3. Domaine Fortier Vineyard (Loudoun)
  4. Fallen Tree Vineyard (Crozet)
  5. Haunted Winery Vineyard (Amelia)
  6. Seven Lady Vineyards at Dover Hall  (west of Richmond)
  7. Silverdog Vineyards (Linden)
  8. Southwest Mountain Vineyards (Keswick)

Wineries that closed or closing in 2022:

  1. Castle Gruen
  2. Dry Creek
  3. Hunt’s Vineyard
  4. Thatch Vineyard (rebranded as part of Michael Shaps)
  5. Shenandoah Vineyards
  6. Whitebarrel

Champagne vs Virginia: Blind Blanc de Noir Sparkling Tasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

The contestants:

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

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

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

Round 1 / Flight #1:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Round 1 / Flight #2:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Round 1 / Flight #3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Round 2 / Finalist Round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

France vs Virginia: The Bordeaux (blend) Heavyweights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The wines:


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


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

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

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

Pairing #1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pairing #2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pairing #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katie: #5.

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

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

Finalist Round:

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

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

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

From most favorite to least favorite, the results were:

Alex: Wines 2/5/4

Dave: Wines 4/5/2

Matt: Wines 4/2/5

Katie: Wines 5/4/2

Kathy: Wines 5/4/2

Vanessa: Wines 4/2/5

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

2014 Octagon from Barboursville had 7 points

2012 Lost Mountain from RdV had 11 points:

2012 Château Phélan Ségur had 12 points (Finalist)


I’d say there were a few take-aways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2022 Loudoun Wine Awards Showcases Both Wine And Teamwork

The Loudoun Wine Awards hosted its 2022 event at the Lansdowne Resort and Spa on Friday, October 14th. Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards took home the Winemaker of the Year award, while the 2021 Albariño made by Scott Spelbring of Bluemont Vineyards won the Chairman’s Grand Award.

But the evening’s real winner was the Virginia wine industry as a whole. In a business that can be tough and competitive, Virginia wine stands out for its teamwork.

This sense of community was evident throughout the event. While guests enjoyed a 3-course dinner and extensive tasting of Loudoun County wines, they seemed just as eager to rub-shoulders and take selfies with owners, winemakers, and fellow Virginia wine lovers.

Multiple winners including Melanie and 2022 Winegrower of the Year Michael Newland made a point to recognize their coworkers and mentors, with both thanking Doug Fabbioli of Fabbioli Cellars for giving them their start in the industry.

“I am a Loudoun made winemaker and I’m proud of that,” said Melanie during her acceptance speech. “I spoke from the heart to my tribe. I put on a dress because it was a special night, but I wore slippers on my tired harvest feet because I’m home with my people.” Earlier this year Melanie also won Virginia’s 2022 Governor’s Cup, becoming the 1st female winemaker to win the award in the past 20 years.

“This event really showed how communal and convivial Virginia wine is,” said Neal Wavra, owner of Field & Main Restaurant and the event’s Competition Director. “Not only did the awardees thank their teams and mentors, but the people who were thanked were in the room.”

Virginia Wine Increasingly Thinking Outside The Box

Bill Hatch, President of the Loudoun Wineries Association and owner/winemaker of Zephaniah Farm Vineyard, called Loudoun County “D.C.’s wine country”, based on the presence of over 40 tasting rooms just over an hour from the city.

Loudoun wineries entered 139 wines into the competition. 15 Gold medals were awarded to 8 Chains North, 868 Estate Vineyards, Bluemont Vineyard, Cana Vineyards & Winery of Middleburg, Carriage House Wineworks, Doukenie Winery, Maggie Malick Wine Caves, Three Creeks Winery and Williams Gap Vineyard. 112 wines also won Silver.

Loudoun County is nearly tied with Charlottesville in terms of acres of vines planted. While it’s long been associated with grapes traditionally grown in Bordeaux and Burgundy (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and others), relative newcomers Petit Manseng and Albariño are also finding a home in the area.

The rising quality of Virginia wine is largely due to two factors. On one hand, vineyards are increasingly dialing-in on grape varieties and clones that do well locally. On the other, there is a growing level of expertise in the Virginia winemaking community.

To Dominique Landragin, owner and founder of D.C.’s Cork & Fork and one of the wine judges, the evolution he’s seen in Virginia wine from 1993 when he left Prince Michel Vineyard & Winery to today is easily apparent.

“When I look back on the Gold medals earned by Virginia wines, they used to be 100% single varietal. But this time I see a lot of blends, especially Merlot and Petit Verdot. I thought there was an amazing improvement.

I was especially impressed by the Albariños. It takes the humidity very well. Petit Manseng also. I’ve seen a few promising Syrahs as well. The Cabernet Francs here don’t have the vegetal character we find in the Loire; it’s very exciting.

The industry is really coming together, the mom & pop wineries and the professionals. In the beginning there were no professionals. But now, Michael Shaps makes some great wine!”

Neal was also impressed by the growing variety of wines in the region. “A few years ago Albariño wasn’t even a category. Last year was the first time it was its own category, and this year it was the winner.”

Scott Spelbring of Bluemont Vineyard, who took home the trophy for his 2021 Albariño, also had high praise for this grape.

“Albariño is a prolific grower but not a great yielder. We usually get 2-3 tones an acre. It’s one of the first we pick, usually in early September. We’ve grown it since before I started in 2016, and I’ve made it every year.

It has great acidity, but we’re not afraid to experiment. This wine is mostly cold fermented in stainless steel, but we also add in 2 barrels that are fermented using native yeast.

I think a lot of consumers are aware of Albariño but it’s not well known on the east coast. But we’re starting to step outside the box of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Petit Manseng is a grape where sweet or dry, you never know what you’ll get. But Albariño is such a great wine out of the box, because we know what to expect.”

Loudoun Wine Awards Competition Results


Chairman’s Grand Award | 2021 Albariño from Bluemont Vineyards

Winemaker of the Year | Melanie Natoli, Winemaker, Cana Vineyards

Winegrower of the Year | Mike Newland, Vineyard Manager, Walsh Family Wine

Wine Ambassador of the Year | Nancy Deliso, Owner, 868 Vineyard

President’s Award | Aimee Henkel, Owner, Lost Creek Winery & Echelon Wine Bar


Best Albariño: 2021 Albariño, Bluemont Vineyard

Best Bordeaux Blend: 2019 Furnace Mountain Red, 8 Chains North

Best Chardonnay: 2020 Chardonnay, Cana Vineyards

Best Cabernet Franc: 2021 Cabernet Franc, Williams Gap Vineyard

Best Hybrid Red: 2018 Three Captains Red, Zephaniah Farm Vineyard

Best Hybrid White: 2020 Mandolin White, Doukenie Winery

Best Merlot: 2019 Russ Mountain Merlot, Walsh Family Wine

Best Petit Manseng: 2020 Petit Manseng, Williams Gap Vineyard

Best Petit Verdot: 2020 Petit Verdot, Carriage House Wineworks

Best Red Vinifera: 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon, October One Vineyard

Best Rosé: 2021 Rosé of Cabernet Franc, Sunset Hills Vineyard

Best Sauvignon Blanc: 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, 868 Vineyard

Best Viognier: 2020 Viognier, 868 Vineyards

This article can also be found on the Old Town Crier website.