The Judgment of Virginia

The Judgement of Paris is probably the most famous wine competition in the history of American wine. In 1976 a panel of 11 judges blind tasted 10 chardonnays and 10 Bordeaux blends; half from California and half from France (Burgundy for whites and Bordeaux for reds). The winning red was from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (California) and the winning white was from Chateau Montelena (California).

Wine competitions are inherently subjective; those same wines tasted another day by the same judges could easily have produced different results. But at this event California reigned, and the resulting media attention helped pushed California to become the wine powerhouse it is today.

Some friends & I decided to do a similar comparison, but consisting of bottles from Virginia and France. In total the nine ‘judges’ enjoyed 7 pairings, including a sparkling, viognier, chardonnay, cabernet franc, and three red blends.

The Virginia wines included a Trump Winery 2017 Blanc de blanc, Greenhill 2019 Viognier, Linden 2017 Village (Chardonnay), Cave Ridge 2019 Cabernet Franc, Greenhill 2019 Philosophy (petit verdot-heavy red blend), Slater Run 2019 First Bridge (Bordeaux blend), and Afton Mountain 2017 Tradition (Bordeaux blend).

I should note these vintages and specific wineries represent (in my opinion at least) the upper tier of Virginia wine. All came from 2017 and 2019 vintages, which are two of the best years to bless Virginia vineyards in the past decade. On top of that we selected producers who are especially famous in their respective categories.

The French wines were roughly equal price points (or as close as I could make them). I’m not as familiar with the French bottles as I was with their Virginia ones, but we did our best for equal matchings.

It’s fair to note two things probably skewed the scores in favor of Virginia.

First, a fair number of bottles were younger vintages, which put the French reds at a disadvantage. Sadly, there simply isn’t an inventory of ‘old’ Virginia wine at my disposal, so we made-due with what we had. Bordeaux reds often need a good decade before reaching their prime, while Virginia bottles are approachable young.

Second, I should note that many of us have a ‘Virginia palate’ due to our long-time exploration of Virginia wine country. While this familiarity may have weighted my judge’s opinion in favor of the local team, it’s hard to quantify.

It was also interesting that our two participants that were part of the wine industry (and whose palates are considerably more experienced than the rest of us) did slightly skew slightly more in favor of France than the rest of us.

All tastings were done blind. While I specifically paired certain reds against one another based on their price points, we didn’t know which pairing was which when we enjoyed them.

Neither did we have a fancy scoring system; it was straight up opinion of which you enjoyed more. I did my best to capture their opinions as we went along.

The whites were served mildly chilled. I did my best to let the reds breathe, so they were opened for roughly 3-4 hours prior to sampling (but not fully decanted). Still, I wish we had aerated them more. We had light bites during the white portion, and transitioned to pizza as the reds came out.

Overall the event went smoothly. The worst part was when I received death glares from several participants when I interrupted a conversation regarding Gilmore Girls when trying to move us to the red wine portion of the event (they eventually forgave me…I think…)

The results:

Round 1: Sparklings

  • 2017 Trump Blanc de Blanc ($30): 7 votes (Virginia win)
  • NV Taittinger Brut ($48): 2 votes

To be honest, I saw this one coming.

Trump Winery’s sparkling program is one of the best in the United States. Its 2014 Blanc de Blanc and 2015 Blanc de Noir won Best in Class in the 2019 and 2020 San Francisco Wine Chronical wine competition for their respective categories. Their Brut Reserve was also part of the Virginia Governor’s Case in 2021 and 2022. Trump sparkling can go toe-to-toe with anything.

The bottle of Trump sparkling had a fair bit of brioche on the nose. Lighter color. Clean; more to the finish. Some noted it was a bit tart, even had a raw cookie dough quality to it. Someone mentioned notes of honey on the nose.

The Taittinger was more of a golden color, and tasted fuller, riper, with more pear. We noted notes of brioche but not as much as the Trump. Someone mentioned it had some funk (in a good way). Not as aromatic as the Trump; it’s finish “left me wanting more”.

Trump winemaker Jonathan Wheeler nailed this one.

  1. Brandon: Taittinger, based on how it was fuller (note; Brandon claimed he was more into reds than whites so this skewed his votes)
  2. Emily: Trump, based on how it was easier-drinking and she enjoyed the nose
  3. Lindsay: Taittinger, based on feeling Trump had too much brioche and she liked the fruit qualities of the Taittinger
  4. Matt: Trump
  5. Richard: Trump, based on it was more ‘traditional’
  6. Ryan: Trump
  7. Sarah: Trump
  8. Stacy: Trump
  9. Stephanie: Trump, liked the ‘entire experience’

Round 2: Viognier

  • 2019 Greenhill Viognier ($42): 6 votes (Virginia win) (this bottle was gifted)
  • JV Fleury Cotes Du Rhône Blanc ($25): 3 votes

Viognier was a comparison I really wanted since while this grape has fallen somewhat out of favor, it’s still in many ways one of Virginia’s signature grape varieties. I wanted to get a Condrieu but no local wine stores had one, so I made-due with a 100% Viognier from Côtes du Rhône. The Virginia bottle was gifted by Greenhill, as it is winemaker Ben Comstock’s favorite variety.

While our participants could usually tell which bottles were from Virginia and which were from France, I admit I got this one backwards. The color of the Greenhill was distinctly pink-ish, which is a quality I don’t recall seeing elsewhere in Virginia. It was floral with notes of honey but wasn’t overpowering. On the palate it had hints of lime up front, lime zest, ripe peach. Someone mentioned they felt it was creamy.

In other words, this was definitely not a ‘honeysuckle bomb’, like you often see in this variety elsewhere in Virginia (and why I thought it was from France).

The Rhône had a more white peach on the nose. Various descriptors for the palate came out, including honeysuckle and peach. It was also surprisingly bitter and had a ‘big’ palate.

Virginia won, but not by a huge margin. Several panelists waivered on giving their final scores. I think this could have gone either way but the nose on the Greenhill really made the difference for several voters.

  1. Brandon: Greenhill
  2. Emily: Greenhill; liked the nose
  3. Lindsay: Greenhill
  4. Matt: Greenhill
  5. Richard: France, because it was better balanced
  6. Ryan: Greenhill, for the nose
  7. Sarah: France, enjoyed the floral nose
  8. Stacy: France
  9. Stephanie: Greenhill; didn’t like the bitterness of the French wine

Round 3: Chardonnay

  • 2017 Linden Village ($32): 6 votes (Virginia win)
  • 2018 Patrick Javillier Bourgogne Cote d’Or Cuvee des Forgets ($38): 3 votes

This was another one I looked forward to. Linden draws its inspiration from Burgundy, so I insisted it be paired against a Burgundy with a similar price point.

While Virginia got more votes this round, this competition could have gone either way. Several were torn between the two, and only grudgingly made a decision. If I allowed ties, this would have had several.

The Linden had notes of pineapple, vanilla, white pepper, and yellow apple. We detected newer oak.

The Burgundy was brighter, with notes of lemon zest and lemon curd. It was a little herbal on the palate with notes parsley. On the palate some also noted pineapple notes. It was also higher acid than the Virginia chardonnay.

  1. Brandon: Linden
  2. Emily: France
  3. Lindsay: Linden, “because of the flavors”
  4. Matt: Linden
  5. Richard: France; liked the herbal qualities
  6. Ryan: Linden; liked the coconut notes
  7. Sarah: Linden, because it was richer. Noted it was “American, but elegant”
  8. Stacy: France
  9. Stephanie: France; liked how it was more drinkable

Round 4: Cabernet Franc

  • 2019 Cave Ridge Cabernet Franc: 7 votes (Virginia win)
  • 2019 Domaine Guion Bourgueil Rouge (Loire Valley): 2 votes (likely had brett)

Cabernet Franc is Virginia’s most planted grape variety. Not only is it the backbone of many red blends, a bottle is almost guaranteed to be found at every Virginia winery. The French wine came from the Loire Valley, cabernet franc’s spiritual home.

Let me say up front that this was not a fair competition because we felt the French wine was flawed with brett (aka brettanomyces, a yeast which can spoil the wine). At this point there was nothing we could do but continue on. Even so I feel the Virginia bottle was exceptionally good, and not everyone was turned off by the brett.

  1. Brandon: Cave Ridge
  2. Emily: Cave Ridge, because of the aroma
  3. Lindsay: Cave Ridge
  4. Matt: Cave Ridge
  5. Richard: Cave Ridge; hit ‘all the marks’
  6. Ryan: Cave Ridge; felt it was cleaner
  7. Sarah: Cave Ridge; liked the creamy body, balance, and complexity
  8. Stacy: France; felt the Virginia bottle was too bright and liked the funk on the French wine
  9. Stephanie: Cave Ridge; “overall just enjoyable”

Round 5: Bordeaux blends

  • 2019 Greenhill Philosophy ($62, 46% petit verdot, 32% merlot, and 22% cabernet franc): 8 votes (Virginia win) (This bottle was gifted)
  • 2019 Chateau Quinault l’Enclos ($60, 74% merlot, 14% cabernet sauvignon and 12% cabernet franc): 1 votes

Greenhill gifted this bottle (along with a viognier) to me when they learned I was doing this event. This bottle won the San Francisco Wine Chronical for Best in Class in the Petit Verdot blend category, so it was something of a ringer.

The blends were quite different, with the Bordeaux bottle being merlot dominant while the Virginia bottle was heavy on petit verdot. While this arguably made this comparison not quite an apples-to-apples comparison, I think it’s fair considering their respective blends are based on what varieties grows best in their respective areas.

The Bordeaux was highly rated and not exactly cheap. You’d think it would have been a close contest. Yet this was one of the most lopsided rounds of the night.

My favorite quote of the night was ‘I could write a sonnet’ regarding the bottle from Greenhill. It had high marks nearly across the board for its flavor profile, nose, and overall approachability. This blend had notes of lavender, plumb, vanilla, cherry, and vanilla bean. It was just amazing in every way.

The Bordeaux was surprisingly high alcohol (14%!). Notes of under ripe plumb. More acidic, earthy, and tannic. It was also closed; not surprising given it was a 2019 vintage (Bordeauxs need time).

  1. Brandon: Greenhill
  2. Emily: Greenhill, ‘based on the aroma’
  3. Lindsay: Greenhill; ‘just so much going on’
  4. Matt: Greenhill
  5. Richard: Greenhill, ‘but France in 5 years’
  6. Ryan: Greenhill
  7. Sarah: Greenhill
  8. Stacy: France; felt the Virginia wine was too acidic and liked the notes of blueberry on the French bottle.
  9. Stephanie: Greenhill, ‘because it was softer and more drinkable’

Round 6: Bordeaux Blends:

  • 2018 Chateau Grand Corbin Manuel (St Emilion, Bordeaux; 75% merlot, 20% cabernet Franc, 5% cabernet sauvignon): 1 vote (likely cooked)
  • 2019 Slater Run First Bridge (38% cabernet franc, 32% merlot, 20% cabernet sauvignon, 10% petit verdot): 8 votes (Virginia win)

This was another unfair comparison because the French wine was ‘cooked’, likely due to poor storage. Oh well; the show must go on.

The French wine wasn’t especially remarkable. More tannic, but at least drinkable. Almost nobody had positive things to say, so I could only imagine that this would have showed better if we had a non-flawed wine.

The Slater Run bottle had notes of green pepper and cherry on the nose. The nose was ‘bright’, while on the body it was riper and more balanced.

  1. Brandon: Slater Run
  2. Emily: France
  3. Lindsay: Slater Run
  4. Matt: Slater Run
  5. Richard: Slater Run
  6. Ryan: Slater Run
  7. Sarah: Slater Run
  8. Stacy: Slater Run
  9. Stephanie: Slater Run

Round 7: Bordeaux blends

  • 2017 Afton Mountain Tradition ($45, 41% merlot, 37% petit verdot and 22% cabernet sauvignon): 5 votes (Virginia win)
  • 2015 Chateau Lalande-Borie (Saint-Julien) ($35, 45% cabernet sauvignon and 55% merlot): 4 votes

This was arguably my favorite pairing of the night. The two blends were very different but smelled and tasted almost identical. Although Virginia won by a tiny margin, this easily could have gone either way.

I personally loved the nose on the Afton Mountain, which had a savory quality to it with notes of blueberry. We were split on which was more vegetal, although that descriptor was used for both bottles. It did have more leather on the palate and was slightly more rounded.

The French wine had more notes of smoke and blueberry on the nose. On the palate it was arguably fruitier (dark fruit, that is), but also had notes of cedar.

  1. Brandon: Afton Mountain
  2. Emily: Saint-Julien
  3. Lindsay: Afton Mountain; felt it was more balanced
  4. Matt: Afton Mountain
  5. Richard: Saint-Julien
  6. Ryan: Afton Mountain
  7. Sarah: Saint-Julien
  8. Stacy: Saint-Julien
  9. Stephanie: Afton Mountain

So there you have it – it was a total sweep for Virginia!

Or…was it?

To be fair, two of the seven pairings I would disqualify because of faulted bottles (which is a shame; I had faith in that Cave Ridge Cabernet Franc).

Still, 5 good pairings with 9 participants seems statistically relevant. So…Virginia dominated…right???

Yes – but with some caveats.

First off, I’ve come to learn that Virginia wine is very approachable even when young, and this helped in this scenario. The Bordeaux may have killed it in another few years, but we had the vintages we had. Of course, this only applied to the reds; the Virginia team did score two wins with whites and another for a sparkling, so it’s not like age was decisive in every scenario.

Aeration also mattered. I will say that when I opened a 2019 Rosemont red blend against a comparable Bordeaux the next day…not that I didn’t love the Rosemont…that Bordeaux was OUTSTANDING. Might more aeration be helpful to the other reds? Well…maybe?

Second, the scores were often very evenly divided. Even those who voted for one could easily have voted the other way. The last pairing was so well matched nearly everyone was wavering on which was their favorite.

Third, for a future “Virginia Versus” to be statistically relevant, I do think we need more participants who never had Virginia wine. Having ‘familiar’ flavor profiles could easily have swayed a few local drinkers to the Virginia bottles, and with such tight margins it’s possible that made the difference.

But overall I still have to say – Virginia really impressed tonight. Even against comparable French wines, Virginia came on top.

Getting to Know Virginia’s Assistant Winemakers

My article on several of Virginia’s Assistant Winemakers is now published for the #OldTownCrier.

Link below:

When Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards was handed the 2022 Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition’s highest award, Doug Fabboli of Fabbioli Cellars was there to witness the event. Doug had a personal interest in watching Melanie ascend the stage; she was his Assistant Winemaker a decade earlier, one of a long roster of people he’s mentored in the Virginia wine industry.

Melanie’s journey demonstrates how today’s assistants are tomorrow’s leaders. Many also have their own projects which deserve attention.

Not only are these young winemakers introducing new ideas, their progression is changing the industry’s demographics. A number of today’s Head Winemakers such as Chelsey Blevins, Christopher Harris, and Corry Craighill got their start elsewhere in Virginia before moving to their present gigs.

Kent Arendt, Assistant Winemaker for Walsh Family Wine & maker of his private label Boden Young

What drew you to winemaking? “My last job was in data analysis. I was always interested in wine, but I didn’t think much about it until 10 years ago. But the more I enjoyed wine the more interested I became in the details; like how different wine is regionally, why it tastes so different, why different winemakers use different styles.

So in 2016 I decided to give it a try. I’m the kind of person who needs tangible results in his work. I interned in Washington State and worked a harvest at a big facility. When I came back, I realized that’s not the kind of place I want to work at. So I applied to an ad from Nate Walsh and was his first hire.”

Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “Winemaking is 90% organization and cleaning and 10% winemaking. But being an assistant varies depending on the winery. For us, the Head Winemaker becomes more and more hands-off in the cellar work as the business grows.

I do much of the day-to-day cellar work. Nate will have a list of things to do and I work through that list, whether it’s running the lab, checking sulfur and acidity levels, topping up barrels, maintenance of equipment, and getting ready for bottle. And cleaning, cleaning, cleaning.”

What parts of the business are you in charge of? “Anything that happens in the cellar is done by me or scheduled by me. I meet with Nate on almost a daily basis to talk about what’s going on in the cellar.

But the best part is the farming. A big part of what makes Virginia wine special is the farming.”

Do you have any side-projects of your own? “Nate creates an environment that is conducive for small projects. I make a wine named Boden Young. Boden translated roughly as “Soil” in German. Albariño is one of those varieties that I’ve enjoyed for a long time and I’m excited that it’s picked up in the past 5 years. I’ve made 43 cases of albariño and 38 of viognier.”

Katrina Buccella, Assistant Winemaker at Paradise Springs Winery

What drew you to winemaking? “I originally went to Virginia Tech to study veterinary medicine but fell in love with microbiology and food sciences. That led me to their fermentation course.

Five years ago I interned at Rocklands Farm Winery (in Maryland). I had the chance to do every step in the process from planting a vineyard, to harvesting grapes, to making wine, to sales. I’ve also worked in New Zealand and finished my UC Davis winemaking program.

I love the cyclical nature of winemaking. It spoke to something older, and winemaking is so much more soulful.” 

Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “I’m basically Rob’s (Rob Cox, Head winemaker at Paradise Springs) right hand. He makes the decisions in the cellar, but I’m in charge of the estate vineyard. It’s only one acre but it’s a well taken care of acre.

In the production facility I do the barrel maintenance, upkeep of the barrel room, punch down, racking, but most of all cleaning. I also do a lot of the laboratory tasks. It’s a small team so it’s all hands-on deck.”

What has been your career path to become a winemaker?: “I’ve heard of so many different ways to get into this business. But there’s no one way, you just have to be moved to take it. As long as you have the drive and ambition and a little science smarts you can go far.” 

Are there any specific parts of the winery you are in charge of?“Rob asked me if I had any project ideas and I suggested a pét-nat. So we’re planning on making 80 cases using seyval blanc. It will be a cool first for Paradise Springs. 

I’m hoping it will be more of a natural fermentation pétnat, but we haven’t made any final decisions. I’d like to be as intervention free as possible but I won’t know what will happen till I’m in the thick of it!”

Ashleigh White, Assistant Winemaker for Glen Manor Vineyards

What drew you to winemaking? “I was still in school for biology with a concentration in ecology when Jeff (owner/winemaker Jeff White of Glen Manor) opened the winery. After I graduated I was doing different internships but I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Jeff offered me a position in the tasting room in 2014, and the next year I moved to a full time job in the vineyard and then in the cellar.

Being a winemaker blended different parts of my degree; being outside in nature as well as growing into the winemaking. I also got to work in different cellars around the world which was exciting.”

Describe your role of an Assistant Winemaker: “Jeff makes the decisions and trajectory for what will come for the year and I work alongside him learning things like making picking decisions in the vineyard. I’m kinda his shadow, learning his approach to processing the fruit and monitoring the fermentation.”

What has been your career path to become a winemaker?: “I would say do multiple internships; you gather knowledge from different winemakers. I learned you can do the same job 5 different ways and none are wrong but you learn to pick and choose what works for you best.

I’ve worked in New Zealand, Australia, British Columbia, and California. I miss the traveling, I miss learning. But the experience is always worth it. I’d like to keep traveling but I now feel like I need to stay put.”

Are there any specific parts of the winery you are in charge of? “It really depends; every week is a bit different. I’m in charge of managing our Instagram account, and this year I was in charge of blending trials for our 2021 red blends. I’ve also been leading our research into future varietals, like warmer climate reds.

We also did a bit of carbonic maceration for the first time, which was my idea. The color was really pretty. We did the blending trial for our rosé blind and we all ended up liking it. Jeff is open to trying new things.”

Virginia Viognier Blind Tasting Showdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Contenders:

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

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

Flight #1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flight #2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flight #3:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finalist Round

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

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

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

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

Wine 3: Horton: 1 vote

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

Wine 11: DuCard (no votes)

So – what did we learn?

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

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

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

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

Next up: Virginia vs France.

Albariño Tasting at Maggie Malick Wine Caves

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

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

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

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

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

Albariño at Maggie Malick Wine Caves

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

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

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

Flight 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All three were made in steel.

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

Flight 2:

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

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

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

Flight 3:

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

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

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

Flight 4:

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

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

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

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

Flight 5:

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

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

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

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

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

Flight 6:

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

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

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

What did we learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Mountain Vineyards Announces New Head Winemaker

Really happy how this turned out. I initially interviewed Maya Hood White for a separate article, but this time I got to go into more depth with her.

I’m sad to see Ben Jordan go, but couldn’t think of someone better to replace him.
#VAWine #winemaker #virginiawine #womeninwine #womenwinemaker #girlboss #earlymountainvineyard

Virginia’s Forgotten Winery: Belmont Vineyards

Virginia prides itself as the birthplace of American wine. The first chapter of Virginia’s viticultural history started in 1619 when settlers at Jamestown were instructed to plant grape vines. This story is usually followed by how Thomas Jefferson repeatedly tried but failed to make wine using vinifera (grapes from the Mediterranean region) at his estate in Monticello. But the narrative usually jumps from Jefferson to the 1970s when Barboursville Vineyards and others started making local wine for the first time since prohibition.

Not nearly as well known is the century between these benchmarks, including how in 1880 Virginia was the 5th largest wine producer in the United States. Norton, an American variety discovered in the early-1800s, was the state’s main grape. It was so popular a Norton from the Monticello Wine Company won gold at the Vienna World’s Fair in 1873 and silver in Paris in 1878. At the start of the 20th century Charlottesville was calling itself the “Capital of the Wine Belt in Virginia,” although vineyards dotted the entire state.

One of these vineyards was Belmont, located not far from the northern entrance to what is now Shenandoah National Park. Once reaching over 100 acres of vines, at its peak Belmont may have been the largest vineyard in the state.

Belmont wine label. Source: Dr. Carole Nash

Belmont was founded by Marcus Blakemore Buck (1816-1881), a member of a prominent Front Royal family. In 1847, Marcus purchased nearly 2,000 acres in the mountains just outside the city. Half he subsequently sold, but the remaining land he turned into his farm.

According to research by archeologist Dr. Carole Nash of James Madison University, by 1863 the business included 80 acres of vines and 10 acres of sugar cane, farmed by slaves. The end of slavery and destruction of the local rail network led Marcus to diversify his business, adding a distillery that sold whiskey to local pharmacies.

Belmont homestead. Source: Shenandoah National Park

In 1875, Marcus fell on hard times, resulting in the sale of Belmont to his cousin T. A. Ashby, who brought the farm back to prosperity. Virginia cartographer Jed Hotchkiss included Belmont in his 1884 science and business journal, saying, “The Belmont Vineyard, on the Blue Ridge near Front Royal, Warren co., Va., is … probably the largest vineyard in the state, as it has over 100 acres in grapes of various kinds.”

By the 1880s Belmont was producing as much as 20,000 gallons of sweet red wine, port, and dry red. It was also a nursery, selling vines to other vineyards. Newspapers referenced Ashby growing over a dozen grape varieties including Catawba, Concord, Delaware, and Norton.

Belmont wine bottle. Source: Shenandoah National Park

These wines were sold throughout the U.S. According to letters republished in the Front Royal Sentinel, “The reputation of the Belmont wines is attested to the fact that during the last year 6,000 gallons of them were shipped to Minnesota alone, besides large quantities to Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, and other states.”

Belmont’s success was also in part due to good timing. France’s own wine industry was still recovering from the ravages of phylloxera, and the recent completion of the Transcontinental railroad hadn’t yet transformed the American economy. Virginia vineyards had unprecedented market access that allowed them to grow.

These good times couldn’t last forever. By 1900 the business had folded, likely a victim of competition from California wine, economic depression, and the state’s nascent prohibition movement.

Belmont’s remnants were lost to history until a Park Ranger discovered grape vines growing along Dicky Ridge, not far off Skyline Drive. The Park contacted Dr. Nash to investigate further.

Nash and her students explored the farm using advanced geospatial technology as well as old-fashioned fieldwork. Their discoveries included a pair of underground wine cellars, several farmsteads, a road system, and multiple stone walls that marked the vineyard’s boundaries.

LiDAR map of Belmont. Red dotted lines indicate Dicky Ridge Trail, while the yellow lines indicate Skyline Drive. Source: Shenandoah National Park

Her team was also able to trace the outline of several fields. Even over a century later, Belmont’s grapes can be found growing in the wild.

Potential explorers should be warned; this is not an easy hike and its remains are protected under law. The Park Service tore down the remaining buildings in the 1950s. Only stone walls, flattened land, a large pit, and the corner of a building are visible to the naked eye.

While Belmont Vineyards is long gone, it left a legacy that was taken up by future generations.

According to Shenandoah National Park Cultural Resource Program Manager Dr. Brinnen Carter, “I think Belmont showed you that Virginia can do industrial scale production of wine.” During its peak, Belmont produced the equivalent of 8,000 cases of wine a year. That number is even more impressive when Virgina’s population in 1880 was only 1/5th of what it is today.

While vinifera grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay make up over 80% of today’s Virginia vineyards, hybrid varieties such as Vidal Blanc and Traminette are widely used, primarily to produce sweet wines. And Marcus Buck would be proud to know that Norton is thriving in Virginia today, with over 100 acres planted.

Chrysalis Vineyards is by far the largest producer, but DuCard Vineyards and others are also making red wines with outstanding character using the Norton grape.

Hybrid and American grapes have an important place in the overall Virginia vineyard industry due to their hardiness, an important trait as climate change causes increasingly extreme weather patterns. Their ability to thrive without requiring the same degree of pesticides and anti-fungal spraying also makes them better suited for sustainable agriculture and organic winemaking.

To learn more about the history of Virginia wine, look up The Birthplace of American Wine: The Untold Story behind Virginia’s Vines – Virginia’s Travel Blog.

Women Take Top Honors in Maryland and Virginia

My latest article of the Old Town Crier is now published.

I had the opportunity to chat with the top-winning winemakers in both states; Melanie Natoli of Cana Vineyards and Lauren Zimmerman of Port of Leonardtown Winery. Both won their state’s most recent top-wine awards, with Melanie earning the Virginia Governor’s Cup in March and Lauren winning both the 2021 Maryland Governor’s Cup and 2022 Comptroller’s Cup.

For Virginia, it was the first time a female has ever been awarded the Virginia Governor’s Cup in the event’s 40-year history. For Maryland, it was Lauren’s second win of the Maryland Governor’s Cup.

One last fact-oid; only around 15% of Virginia winemakers and 20% of Maryland Winemakers are female.

https://oldtowncrier.com/2022/05/01/women-take-top-honors-in-maryland-and-virginia/

Virginia Chardonnay Blind Tasting Showdown

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

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

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

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

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

The wines:

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

Flight #1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Votes:

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

Flight #2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Votes:

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

Flight #3:

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

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

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

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

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

Votes:

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

Finalist Round:

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

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

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

Votes

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

Overall Favorite: 2019 Walsh Family Wine

Not the main question – did the best wine win?

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

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

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

Next up: Viognier.

Virginia Rieslings vs the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The contestants:

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

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

Flight 1 / Round 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flight 2 / Round 1:

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

This was my favorite round!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flight 3 / Round 1:

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

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

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

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

Final Round:

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

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

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

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

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

So what happened?

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

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

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

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