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Wanna Fight About Virginia?
By Michael Franz
Feb 6, 2018
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Some aficionados who can afford the world’s great wines think making wine in a place like Virginia is…well, sort of cute.  Possibly civilizing, also.  They figure the rise of vineyards in the Bible Belt might dampen the disapproval of dimwitted teetotalers, just as new tasting rooms in the Rust Belt might convert some beer swilling oafs into the refined realm of wine.  Once redeemed, the oafs could then perhaps be led from the vinous lowlands up to the heights of Burgundy and Napa and Bordeaux, where real wine is made. 

How do I respond to such attitudes?  In two different ways.  As a former construction worker from an immigrant family in Chicago, I respond with an upraised middle finger.  As a wine writer who’s been lucky to taste in Europe on more than 100 trips, plus another 25 in the Southern Hemisphere, I laugh at people who pride themselves on wine “expertise” that has gone so stale that they’re still clueless about the glories of Riesling from Michigan, or Roussanne from Texas, or Petit Verdot from Virginia.

Still, I probably shouldn’t react to condescension with condescension of my own, so I’ll lower that finger, propose a truce, and grant that truly excellent wine from such places is a pretty new phenomenon. 

I’ll also acknowledge that somebody who’s got the cash to buy Grand Cru Rieslings from Alsace cannot--in fairness--be expected to scan the horizon constantly in the hope that something delicious might pop up in Michigan. 

But with these concessions acknowledged, let me make a few observations:

--Some of the best and most interesting wines made in the USA these days are coming from beyond California, Oregon and Washington;

--More pointedly, other states are taking certain grape varieties to heights of excellence that they couldn’t likely achieve in the Big Three…and thus these other states aren’t merely making wines that are as good as their counterparts from Napa or Walla Walla, but some wines that are better;

--Additionally, this is not simply because vintners in less-than-famous states are picking second-rate varieties, avoiding competing with California, Oregon and Washington, and then trying to make something decent out of them.  Rather, states like New York and Michigan are taking a supremely noble variety like Riesling and making wines that are just flat better than almost any renditions from the Big Three.  Virginia is doing exactly the same thing with Cabernet Franc and Viognier, and now…at least arguably…even with Chardonnay;

--Finally, it would be a bad mistake to conclude that vintners in a state like Virginia who are working with grape varieties like Petit Verdot or Tannat are doing so to dodge competition.  It would be much more appropriate to suggest that they are demonstrating that their soils and climates can elevate second-rate cultivars to World Class stature…in precisely the same way that Argentina did with Malbec and Chile did with Carménère.

I’m well aware that these are some pretty strong statements.  I also know that many readers on Wine Review Online haven’t had chances to taste Virginia wines to know how much credence to lend to them.  So, if I may, let me ask a few questions on your behalf:

“Hey, Franz, do you really have enough experience to back up these claims?”  Yes, indeed I do, having just tasted roughly 150 of the state’s best wines as a final round judge for the Virginia Governor’s Cup wine awards on January 28, 29 and 30.  This was at least the seventh year in a row I’ve judged this competition (both my recollection and my calendar get foggy further back than that), and I also judged multiple times before and after the turn of the millennium.  So, I’ve been quite well positioned to observe the impressive rise in overall quality of Virginia wine, and also situated to witness a spread of excellence from a few early standouts (Viognier, Cabernet Franc and dessert wines) to a much broader set of wine categories.

“Hey, Franz, do you have some sort of vested interest in promoting Virginia wine?”  Funny you should ask.  The answer is that I did, temporarily at one point, but no longer.  The short story is that an editor at University of Virginia Press signed me to a contract to write a book tentatively entitled, Virginia’s Vines, back when I was writing for The Washington Post around the year 2000.  I conducted interviews and tastings at about 35 wineries, learned a lot, and had a terrific time irresponsibly ripping around the beautiful backroads of wine country in an Acura Integra Type-R.  However, I came to the conclusion that more than half of the state’s winery proprietors were actually glorified hobbyists, and that the wines were simply too inconsistent to merit the expenditure of time required to complete the book.  So I returned the advance money and pulled the plug.  In retrospect, the project wasn’t misbegotten…just premature.  I’m now too busy to resume it, but Virginia’s wine industry has come so far--so fast--that the time is now right.  Somebody should write that book.  The wines definitely merit the effort, and their continuing rise will boost the profile of whoever authors the book.  And by the way, I don’t live in Virginia, but rather in the Maryland suburbs of D.C.

"So, Franz, what factors explain why the wines have gotten so much better?"  The combination of changes is a bit complicated, and it isn’t easy to sort out their relative importance, but here are some key factors:  First, increasing vine age is certainly helping produce better wines (though young vines have occasionally produced some strikingly good wines).  Second, a more highly developed sense of which varieties can succeed in different soils and in the state’s generally challenging climate (e.g., spring frosts, torrid summers, hurricanes during harvest, and occasionally brutal winter cold that can kill vines outright).  Third, greatly increased viticultural and winemaking skills in relation to the Virginia’s particular conditions and notably different fruit harvested from vintage to vintage.  There are two distinct components to this last factor:  One is sheer experience, as it takes numerous vintage cycles to figure out how to deal with challenges that only materialize sporadically.  The other is sheer talent:  Now that Virginia has a “critical mass” of serious wineries and an established capability to make world-class wine, it is possible to hire viticulturalists, winemakers and consultants who couldn’t have been lured to the state in years past.

"Okay, Franz, but everything can’t be sweetness and light…what is the prime problem that continues to shadow Virginia’s wine industry?"  The answer is, clearly, the relatively high prices that must be asked for the state’s wines.  Why do the wines tend to be as costly as they are?  The most important reason is that almost all producers are only small or medium in size, compared to their West Coast counterparts.  Consequently, they simply don’t enjoy the “economies of scale” that an economist would emphasize when considering production costs.  Additionally, Virginia is a generally humid place during the growing season, with plenty of late afternoon rainstorms too, and this requires lots of labor-intensive efforts to ward off fungal problems.  Are Virginia wines priced above what they are worth?  Generally, my answer would be no…but that’s really not the issue.  Rather, the problem is that they’re expensive enough that many consumers who aren’t yet convinced of their quality won’t try them in the first place.

"So, Franz, what are the most exciting wine categories, and what’s so good about them?"  Reds are still somewhat stronger overall, but whites are gaining ground.  Leading the way among whites is Viognier, which seems perfectly suited to many growing sites in Virginia.  The grapes achieve full aromatic expressiveness at lower levels of ripeness (i.e., sugar concentration) than in California, so they can be very appealing without showing alcoholic heat, which is exactly what happens out West when the grapes are fermented fully to make dry wines.  Chardonnay has come a long way recently, seemingly because winemakers have learned to go easy on oak to respect the medium weight of the wines.  The best bottles are now quite nuanced and interesting, without all the gummy richness that still afflicts many California Chards even when oaked in a more restrained way.  Virginia’s Chardonnays are actually closer to Burgundy than, say, Sonoma’s Russian River, though in all candor they still lack the minerality that makes white Burgundy so special.  Additionally, Petit Manseng can be downright thrilling, especially when skillfully wrought as a dry wine.  With mandarin and pineapple fruit notes and accents of nuts and wild honey, these can seem quite opulent in aromatic terms and initial flavor impressions, but can finish dry without seeming awkward…which is quite unusual in dry renditions of fully aromatic varieties (like, say, Gewurztraminer).  Finally, wines made from Albariño can be very convincing in Virginia…and I just wish that more of them were available.

On the red side, Cabernet Franc is especially impressive as a medium-bodied wine (fuller than Chinon but sleeker than Francs from California or South America) that gets fully ripe (not green or weedy) but succeeds based on complexity and savory undertones rather than overt fruitiness.  Cabernet Sauvignon can be very good too, especially for tasters who like Bordeaux better than big, ripe renditions from California.  Along this line, Bordeaux-style blends (sometimes labeled as Meritage) can be quite impressively complex without being pushy or overblown, making them very versatile with food.  Some of the very best blends go beyond the five main Bordeaux varieties by adding some Tannat, which provides additional muscle and structure.  Tannat is also rising star when crafted as a varietal wine, either at 100% or with a bit of some other variety blended in to tame it just a bit.  Indeed, Virginia is the only place in the world other than Uruguay or northern Argentina to unlock the great potential of this grape, which has long made wines from the appellation of Madiran in the southwest of France that are hard as nails (and usually most enjoyable when paired with wolverine and tasted after a shot of Novocain).

"Okay, Franz, can you get more specific about a good wine to start with when exploring Virginia wine?"  I sure can…and I’d point you toward Petit Verdot, which is also rocketing to world-class status, demonstrating Virginia’s ability to produce wines that are satisfyingly flavorful but still balanced and restrained.  I tasted some brilliant bottlings at the 2018 Governor’s Cup judging, but still don’t know the identity of the wines (which won’t be revealed until…you guessed it…the Governor has awarded the Cup).  However, I dug around in my basement last week and found five wines from the terrific 2014 vintage that earned Gold Medals in 2017, and the set was extremely impressive on account of showing clear stylistic continuity (derived from the state’s growing conditions) but also “individuation” from differing localities and winemaking techniques.  Here are reviews of the five wines:

King Family Vineyards (Monticello A.V.A.) Petit Verdot 2014 ($36):  A deeply pigmented, concentrated and powerful wine, with dark fruit tones and impressive flavor impact.  But that’s only half the story here:  Equally impressive is the integration of the wine’s fruit, oak, acidity and tannin, which results in a wine that seems complete and seamless even at this young age.  Power is derived more easily than poise from Petit Verdot, but this shows both, and the delicious result seems to derive roughly equally from great work in both the vineyard and winery.  94

Veritas Vineyard and Winery (Monticello) Petit Verdot “Paul Schaffer 6th Edition” 2014 ($40):  A quite complex and detailed wine, this shows both black and red fruit tones, with interesting oak backnotes of toast, spices and light smoke.  The plush core or ripe fruit is firmed by tannins that provide just enough grip to structure the wine without turning it astringent.  Delicious…and enduringly interesting to taste as the wine unfolds in one’s glass.  Includes 15% Merlot.  93

Ingleside Winery (Virginia) Petit Verdot 2014 ($40):  With good concentration and flavor intensity, this is an attention-grabber, but the tannic grip is gentle, and the wine shows real subtlety too.  Unusually, I found that the wine actually became deeper in flavor and darker in fruit tone with aeration, which is exactly the opposite of how most young reds behave…they tend to soften and lighten up.  The wood notes are very well tuned to the weight of the wine, and odds are that this has some years of positive development ahead of it.  Petit Verdot comprises the legal labeling minimum of 75% in this wine, along with 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc.  92+

Jefferson Vineyards (Virginia) Petit Verdot 2014 ($40):  Quite convincing, this Petit Verdot shows a compelling combination of open, dark-toned fruit, savory undertones recalling fresh meat and subtle spices, and soft texture from restrained wood and supple tannins.  Conservatively scored at:  91

Valley Road Vineyards (Monticello) Petit Verdot 2014 ($37):  This is among the most “polished” of the 2014 Virginia Petit Verdots I have tasted, but it isn’t “polished” to the point of being overly “domesticated.”  Straddling the line between medium- and full-bodied, it displays moderately deep color but good depth of flavor, with appropriately restrained oak lending just touches of spice and toast.  The tannins are noticeable but definitely not hard, making for a texture that is supple and suave.  90

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Questions or comments?  Or just wanna fight about Virginia?  Write to me at [email protected]