The Diversity of Sparkling Wine Blind Tasting

All of my blind tastings have a theme. France vs Virginia. Virginia Tannats vs The World. Cabernet Franc Comparison; ect ect. But it’s almost always a ‘like vs like’ event, even if the regions involved are different.

This time I mixed things up. It was still ‘like with like’ because all were sparkling wines of some sort. Yet it was a departure from my normal blind tastings as these sparklings were about as different as I could possibly make them.

Of our 9 wines, 6 of the wines were traditional-method and 3 were pet-nats. More importantly, all 9 were made with different grapes. We had everything from Albariño to Voskehat.

The Contenders:

  1. Keush Origins, 60% Voskehat / 40% Khatouni, Armenia (traditional method)
  2. Gomes Vineyard, Albariño, California (traditional method)
  3. Horton Vineyards Suil, Viognier, Virginia (traditional method)
  4. Chestnut Oak Vineyard, Sparkling Petit Verdot, Virginia (traditional method)
  5. Stinson Vineyard’s “Farmer’s Rest”, Mourvèdre, Virginia (traditional method)
  6. Hansen-Lauer, Riesling, Germany (Sekt, traditional method)
  7. Early Mountain Vineyard, Malvasia Bianca, Virginia (Pet-Nat)
  8. Guide Wine Chardonel and Peaches, Virginia (Pet-Nat)
  9. Raza, Trajadura, Portugal (Pet-Nat)

What we didn’t have were Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. That was intentional; I wanted to do ‘non-traditional’ wines, and the ones we brought fit the bill.

Obviously, I had help. I had hoped Rich Sullivan of Guide Wines would join us but he couldn’t make it. On the other hand, I had The Sparkle-ist Champagne Club, TheVAWineGirl, Cheers and Chews, and Kyle and Chris Zimmerman of QuaffwithKyle. They were happy to heed the call to help me compare these wines.

I put the pet-nats in the same flight but otherwise all the wines were randomized. We had two flights of traditional method sparklings and a pet-nat flight at the end.

As always – this event was the product of this day, with this group. We could have repeated it the next day and come up with different results. After the 3rd round, we paused for some charcuterie, sushi, and oysters.

We all voted favorite/next favorite/last favorite. 1st choice got 3 points, 2nd choice got 2 points, 3rd choice got 1 point.

Round 1 / Flight 1

  • Bottle #1: Keush Origins, 60/40 blend of Voskehat and Khatouni (Winner)
  • Bottle #2: Gomes Vineyard, Albariño (tied for runner up)
  • Bottle #3: Horton Vineyards, Viognier (tied for runner up)

Excellent start to the event. Each of the three sparklings had something unique about them. Many of us gravitated to the Armenian Keush from the get-go, so this round was more of a contest for the #2 spot between the Virginia Horton Viognier and the California Albariño.

We couldn’t get over how different these three were. It wasn’t just the tasting profile but the finish and acidity.

We picked the Keush as the favorite mostly because it was the most complex of the trio and reminded us of a blanc de blanc in terms of the complexity and brioche notes.

Bottle #1: Keush Origins. The nose presented notes of brioche, which I think caused us to automatically gravitate towards it since it was familiar to sparkling lovers. I found grapefruit on the palate; others said green apple. As it opened up it also had notes of peach.

It may also have been the oldest of the trio (and the day) which contributed to its complexity. I felt it was also ‘big’, which was mostly a compliment but I could see that as being a distraction as well.

Fun fact – this wine came from one of the highest elevation vineyards (5740 feet) in the northern hemisphere!

Bottle #2: Gomes Vineyard. I thought it had a lemon nose, although I heard everything from grapefruit to orange zest. Definitely grapefruit on the palate, maybe citrus as well.

We were in LOVE with the nose of this one. But at the same time, the finish left us disappointed. There was just nothing on the back end. The bubbles also didn’t last very long, comparatively speaking.

I do have to point something out; when I paired this with oysters (which didn’t happen till much later in the day), this was arguably my favorite wine of the event. Those flavors just absolutely popped out with the right seafood.

Bottle #3: Horton Vineyards. Faint citrus nose. Very lemon-y and maybe some minerality.

This was our crowd-pleaser wine. While the Keush I thought was ‘too much’ for some and the Gomes had nothing on the back-end, I felt this was the easiest to drink through-and-through.


  • Christina: 1/2/3
  • Kyle: 1/3/2
  • Lieven: 1/3/2. Loved the brioche and complexity. Loved the nose of #2 but it dropped off.
  • Lindsay: 1/2/3. Thought #1 was complex and was ‘never bored’ with it. #2 was very bright.
  • Matt: 1/2/3
  • Stephanie: 1/3/2

Round 1 / Flight 2

  • Bottle #4: Chestnut Oak, Petit Verdot (runner up)
  • Bottle #5: Stinston Vineyard, Mourvèdre (winner)
  • Bottle #6: Hansen-Lauer, Riesling (3rd place)

This was a really tough round to pick a favorite. If wines of the first round were different, this was REALLY different. What made it especially difficult is many of us had never tried these wines before, so we didn’t know what to expect.

There wasn’t any chart to rate ‘best’ here; it all came down to personal preference. Stinson came out as the favorite by a tiny hair, but a one-vote change could have resulted in a 3-way tie.

Bottle #4: Chestnut Oak Vineyard. We immediately noticed an orange tint to the color. On the palate there was a lot going on, which made it difficult to identify. Aromatic and flavorful.

Someone said the wine was ‘confused’ as to what it wanted to be, but ironically that wasn’t meant as a bad thing. It was just not what we’d expected from a sparkling.

Bottle #5: Stinson Vineyard. I found grapefruit on the nose and palate. Maybe a little yeasty? Others said they detected notes of white peach and lemon. Balanced. Some brioche notes.

I had lots of opinions on its complexity. Some felt it was well balanced but others felt there was just a lot going on, almost too much.

Bottle #6: Hansen-Lauer. One of the most acidic wines of the day. Mineral-y; someone mentioned it reminded him of a Greek wine. Some brioche notes came out eventually.

Not a lot going on for the nose, but overall a pleasant wine.


  • Christina: 5/4/6. Liked all of them, but for different reasons.
  • Kyle: 5/6/4
  • Lieven: 6/5/4/. Loved the acidity of #6, even if it wasn’t as complex. Thought #5 was good all-around, with depth and complexity.
  • Lindsay: 4/6/5. Felt food impacted the choices here.
  • Matt: 4/6/5. Tough choice. Could have gone for any of these. But since #4 was ‘big’ and different, that put it over the top for me.
  • Stephanie: 5/6/4

Round 1 / Flight 3

  • Bottle #7: Early Mountain, Malvasia Bianca (runner up)
  • Bottle #8: Guide Wine, Chardonel and peaches (last place)
  • Bottle #9: Raza, Trajadura (winner)

This was our pet-nat round. If I had thought about it more carefully I would have done this round first…but it’s a blind tastings, so where’s the fun in that?

Granted, pet-nats are sparkling wines. But make no mistake – there’s a world of difference between a pet-nat and a traditional method sparkling. I wondered exactly how different this round would be from the earlier one, but there was no mistaking the difference.

Pet-nats are fun, easy drinking wines for when you just want bubbles. So putting them at the end of a round of ‘serious’ traditional method sparklings did them tasting notes a disservice. After we took a food break we revisited some of them and enjoyed them more just for what they were.

Bottle #7: Early Mountain Vineyard. Pale gold color. “Pithy” was mentioned. I thought it had a peach cider quality to it.

Bottle #8: Guide Wine. Bold gold color. I swore the nose reminded me of walking into an apple orchard. I thought I detected some faint hops.

Bottle #9: Raza. The cloudiest of the trio. Little bit of peach but more stone fruit. Had some grassy-ness to it initially. The bubbles also lasted the longest.

We seemed to gravitate towards it because it was the most like a méthode traditional sparkling.

  • Christina: 9/7/8
  • Kyle: 9/7/8
  • Lieven: 9/7/8
  • Lindsay: 7/9/8
  • Matt: 9/7/8
  • Stephanie: 9/7/8

Round 2 / Final

  • Bottle #1: Keush Origins, Voskehat and Khatouni blend (winner)
  • Bottle #5: Stinston Vineyard, Mourvèdre (runner up)
  • Bottle #9: Raza, Trajadura (3rd place)

We took a food break after the 3rd round. The wines that didn’t go to the finalist round were finished off with a mix of sushi, oysters, stuffed clams, and charcuterie.

Our palates were getting fatigued at this point so no real tasting notes.

In the end, Wine #1/Keush was the winner of the day. We were enthralled with its complexity and brioche notes. It seems there’s just something about brioche that screams ‘sparkling wine’, so whenever we detected it, that became our favorite.

Wine #5/Stinson Mourvèdre was the runner-up. I asked winemaker Rachel Stinson Vrooman about it, and she explained that the decision to make it was completely based on necessity.

It’s from the 2020 vintage, which was the year they got heavily frosted. Mourvèdre survived since it’s a late-budding varietal so it was the only block they didn’t lose.

Even so, Rachel struggled on what to use it in. She loved the flavors, and the low ripeness made it a good candidate as a sparkling. It was such a hit they’ve been making it ever since.

  • Christina: 1/5/9. Loved the brioche notes of #1
  • Kyle: 1/5/9. Thought #1 was the most complex.
  • Lieven: 1/5/9. Liked the acidity and complexity of #1
  • Lindsay: 5/1/9
  • Matt: 5/1/9
  • Stephanie: 1/5/9

Lessons learned:

It’s tough to write up a ‘lessons learned’ in an event that by default was always meant to be experimental. Most of these wines were brand new to us. I had no expectations what to expect, so there wasn’t really any benchmark meant to be reached.

But breaking it down, I’d say this event demonstrated two things.

First, there *really is* a huge diversity in sparklings. If you’ve never tried an Armenian wine, try it! Mourvèdre; seriously, who would have thought? Sparkling Petit Verdot? Get out of town!!!

Second, for as diverse a lineup we had, our palates seemed to gravitate towards the familiar. Wines that were stylistically similar to traditional method sparklings – especially ‘familiar’ blanc de blanc or blanc de noir nearly always won out over ‘non-traditional’. If it had brioche, it went to the top of the list of favorites.

These factors worked against the pet-nat round. In retrospect I really should have done pet-nats totally separately, but was curious how they stood up in a comparison. Sadly they didn’t – but it’s not their fault.

On their own I think we would have enjoyed them more, but coming off a round that included some excellent traditional method wines we seemed more down on them than they deserved.

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.

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!