I recently returned from the Virginia Wine Summit in Richmond, and yep, I am pretty excited about the wine. It’s not just local, it’s really good. The Summit is a well organized event promoting Virginia, its wines, and its wine regions. For the event, I was asked to participate on a panel discussion about “Dark Horse” grape varieties. The opportunity was exciting because it deals with one of the most important issues in the American wine industry today: the necessity to move beyond mainstream grape varieties and plant what is appropriate for the climate as opposed to what grapes sell best in the market place.
The day before the summit, all panelists went and toured the Virginia wine country in the Monticello area, outside of Charlottesville. We met with a number of winemakers, visited wineries and had the opportunity to taste a wide range of Virginia wines. I went into the Summit already impressed with the current state of Virginia wine. However, by the end of the summit, not only was I impressed, but I left with a sense of what Virginia is and what could happen to wine all over America.
Virginia is making some of the most exciting wine in the United States, and some of the best come from grape varieties that are outside the mainstream. The Virginia wine industry succeeds on local consumption of its wines and that has supported the experimentation in the vineyards and the cellars. The key now is that we all get rid of our preconceived notions of where good American wine can come from, and embrace diversity in the grape varieties we purchase.
On the first day, we started out in Richmond and drove west to Charlottesville. We went straight to the Carter Mountain Vineyard which is adjacent to the Monticello estate. There we met Michael Shaps, who makes wine in both Virginia and Burgundy, and he walked us through the Cabernet Franc vineyard as we tasted barrel samples from the site. The vineyard was as scenic as any I have seen in Europe or out west.
From there we went to the Trump winery (formerly Kluge), which is the largest vineyard holding in the state at 200 some acres. Yes, it is owned by the Donald Trump himself. Once there we met a group of ten producers who showed us their wines. This tasting really blew my mind. The first person I saw when we walked in the room is the amazingly gracious and engaging Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Ciders. She was pouring her ciders, made from heirloom apples grown on her property up in Duggspur, Virginia. Her Ciders are some of the most complex and food friendly I have ever had, and I could say that they are the best ciders made in the USA. Some of the highlights of the tasting were the Ankida Ridge Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (which were sensational, and were the last thing I thought I was going to be raving about on a trip to Virginia), the Delaplane Syrah and Bodeaux Blend Left Bank. There were many others, but those really stood out that afternoon. After lunch we tried a selection of the Trump sparkling wines, which were pretty classic. Their 2008 Blanc de Blancs really stood out: ripe pear, lemon, almond, lemon verbena on the nose, and a rounded, dry palate.
The day included a marathon tasting of Michael Shaps wines, from Burgundy and Virginia, at his winery. Then we had dinner at Barboursville winery, with Luca Paschina, who has been the winemaker at the winery for over 20 years. Barboursville has always been a favorite of mine, so I needed no convincing about the wines quality. What stood out to me was the 2002 Nebbiolo that was poured with the first course (Barbousville has a great little restaurant as well). It was earthy, with dried plum and cherry aromas, and deep notes of porcini, leather, and cocoa. It was certainly the best domestic Nebbiolo I have had in a long time, all parts were in perfect equilibrium and it still could have aged for years in the cellar.
For the main course, we had a side by side tasting of the Octagon 2010 and the Octagon 200 2010. Octagon is their top wine and is a Red Blend which in most vintages is Merlot dominant with Cabernet Franc and a touch of Petit Verdot. Here at The Fearrington House we have a vertical of the wine going from 2004 to 2007, which is a favorite of mine and particularly a favorite to get guests to try. The Octagon 200, had 25% Nebbiolo in the blend, and Luca was anxious to get everyone’s opinion on the difference between the two wines. Although both wines were great, the 200 seemed to be everyone’s favorite.
The next day started off with a blind tasting of wines lead by Ray Isle, Wine Editor at Food & Wine Magazine, Andy Chabot from Blackberry Farm, Jennifer Knowles from Plume in DC, and Jay Youmans MW of the Capital Wine School. The wines were all Bordeaux blends, with four coming from Virginia and the others from more classic wine making regions. There were about 300 people in the audience, most in the wine trade or enthusiasts. The majority, myself included, were scratching our heads trying to figure out the wines. Some were very characteristic from where they were from, Napa Merlot, Right Bank Bordeaux, even South African Cabernet Sauvignon, but in the mix of eight wines of equal quality the lines became blurred, and the game of blind tasting became more difficult. Everyone, even the panel, was surprised when the wines were revealed. Virginia was either a favorite or stood up to the rest in almost all cases around the room.
As for the panel discussion that I participated in, the focus was less on how Virginia compares to other wines, but how it differs. For the panel I joined three very talented wine professionals Dave McIntyre of the Washington Post, Linda Murphy co-author of American Wine with Jancis Robinson, and Joe Campanale who is the Beverage-Director and Co-Owner of the Epicurean group in NYC. Lawrence Camp from Breaux Vineyards in Virginia did a great job controlling the flow of conversation and content as moderator.
Since the theme of the panel was “Dark Horse Varieties,” the conversation went towards the economics, marketability, and rationale behind experimenting with non-mainstream varieties. We tasted the Chrysallis Albarino which showed very well. It was a bit more fruit forward than what we expect from Rias Baixas in Spain, but a convincing example non-the-less. After that we tried the Michael Shaps Petit-Manseng which garnered a lot of attention from panelists and everyone in the audience. P-M is originally from the Southwest of France and is most popularly known in the region of Jurançon, where, along with Gros Manseng, it makes fantastic dry and sweet wines. Shaps’ was a balance, very full-bodied white wine, with a lot of acidity to balance the richness.
For the reds we had the Fabbioli Cellars Tannat and the Ducard Vineyards Petit Verdot. With these, the Fabbioli was a favorite. Tannat, like Petit Manseng, also originates in the Southwestern part of France. It is most famous from the region of Madiran, where its thick skins have made famous wines for centuries. It is also the national grape of Uruguay. Fabbioli’s is more approachable than most Madiran, with ripe fruit balanced by Tannat’s signature gamey wildness. This wine, which I had tried a few weeks before as well, was one that was drinking well now, but had another ten to fifteen years left before its prime. The Petit Verdot, was good, but next to the Tannat it did not show as much vibrancy, however for those of you who like full-bodied fruit driven wines the Ducard is perfect.
Beyond the wines themselves, the core of our conversation was whether Virginia should go all in on non-mainstream varieties. I think we all agreed that indeed it should. The key is marketing the wines for what they are, high-quality, well-made wines, from grapes that grow well in the Virginia climate and soils. Because after all its the quality of the wine that matters more than the grape that the wine is made from.
Lunch was after the panel, and Ray Isle from Food & Wine gave the head-line speech. He elequently brought forth many of those same sentiments. After pointing out the 65% of the wine consumed by Americans is from California, he made a plea for everyone to start exploring different American wine regions. Although great wine has not always been made all over the country, we are getting to a point where more wines are reaching a high caliber, and we need to support the regions doing great work. We are fortunate that we live in a time where we have so many options to choose from. We can drink wine from Greece, Georgia (the country), and Armenia, the possibilities are endless. However, it is important to remember that great wine is made nearby, too. In the case of Virginia, not only is it local, but it is world-class wine, and I am excited to be one of its proponents.