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TomHill

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AlbqJournalNorth: Virginia Wines

by TomHill » Thu Dec 21, 2006 5:17 pm

Taken from today's Albq Journal North edition:

Virginia Is For (Wine) Lovers

When you mention Virginia, wine is not the first thing that comes to mind. But one of the
first things that DOES come to mind is Thomas Jefferson. And when you mention Thomas Jefferson
to a wine lover, the wine connection to Virginia suddenly clicks.
In today's column, I'll try to scratch the surface of what's what in Virginia wines. This
article was prompted by my recent tasting of a case of select Virginia Viogniers and
a recent tournament in Richmond, with a few winery visits folded in.
The history of Virginia wine growing goes back to 1773, when Filippo Mazzei sailed from Liverno,
Italy with grape cuttings from France, Spain, and Italy. The 30 year old Jefferson, already
a lover of fine European wines, convinced him to stay in Virginia and plant his vines on his
property near Monticello.
Alas, a killer frost nipped the buds of the young vines, and with it Jefferson's dream, the
following Spring. And, if the Spring frost had not gotten them, the phylloxera bug would have
eventually brought their demise. The venture was doomed from the get-go.
The wine growing ventures for Virginia then entered a deep freeze for the next 190 years,
only to emerge in the early 1970's, roughly about the time that New Mexico's modern wine
industry was stirring from it's century-long slumber. Having followed this State's wine growth,
the parallels with the Virginia and New Mexico wine industries are uncanny.
In 1945, Philip Wagner published his book "A Wine-Grower's Guide", touting the use of French
hybrids for wine production in areas where Winter kill presents a problem for the tender Vinifera.
French hybrids are a man-made cross between Vinifera and cold-hardy America species. The hope,
never really realized, was that the quality of these wines would equal that of California and
European wines from Vinifera.
In the late '60's, there were scattered plantings of French hybrids in both Virginia and
New Mexico. The vines thrived, but the wines were not up to most connoisseur's highfalutin'
standards. Both nascent wine industries stagnated.
It would be remiss to overlook the most famous of Virginia's wine in this era. This was
Richard's Wild Irish Rose and Mother Vineyard Scuppernong, both made from that native American
variety. Wildly aromatic and sickeningly sweet, it was a sipping wine only your little old
Grandmother could love.
As in New Mexico, the Virginians realized that you COULD grow Vinifera, in properly chosen
sites, and with careful vineyard practices to mitigate the effects of cold winters. This was first
accomplished by de Treville Lawrence in The Plains, VA. Though some tension developed between
adherents of French hybrids vs. Vinifera, his success showed the way to a gradual rebirth of
Virginia winegrowing.
Last month, a Virginia friend, knowing my passion for Viognier wines, sent me a case of 2005
Virginia versions for my group to try. I had tried in the early '90's several Virginia Viogniers
of Horton Vineyards. Dennis Horton first planted the variety there in 1989. I was rather impressed
and felt they were as good as any then coming from California.
Tasting through this case of Viogniers, I was even more impressed. Some of them (like
Rappahannock, Keswick, Barboursville, Valhalla, and Th. Jefferson Cellars) were clearly world-class
Viogniers, as good as any produced outside of France's Condrieu.
When in Virginia two weeks ago, I was only able to visit two of the Central Virginia
wineries, Horton Cellars and Barboursville Vineyards, working through both of their tasting
room offerings. Plans to visit several Northern Virginia wineries fell through when I discovered
they were closed on Mondays.
Horton is an interesting operation. In addition to all the traditional Rhone varieties, he
has planted an oddball collection of Rkatsiteli, Petit Manseng, Graciano, Touriga Nacional,
Tinta Cao, Tannat, and Nebbiolo.
I far preferred the whites to the reds, the latter being a bit too terroir-driven for my tastes.
However, their Vintage Port 2000 was a first-rate example.
And one cannot ignore the Horton Norton (I love the way that name just trips off your tongue).
This is a native American variety that was returned to its Virginia origins from Missouri, where
it is also known as Cynthiana. It's probably the best wine in the USA made from a native species.
Barboursville Vineyard is one of Virginia's oldest wineries. It is owned by the Zonin family,
producer of a large range of Italian wines. The winemaker, Luca Paschina, a Piedmontese, clearly
knows his business. The Chardonnays and Viognier were first rate whites. The reds, though also
terroir-driven, have that austerity on the palate that typifies many Italian wines and cries
out for food to accompany them.
So....what is my take on Virginia wines, delivered in the classic Los Alamos tradition of speaking
as an expert, even when you know little on the subject at hand??
It's a far-from-ideal area to be a wine grower. Winter kill and spring frosts still are a
problem. Worse yet, the hurricane season coincides with the Fall harvest, making an occasional
rain-inundating vintage a disaster. If ever there was a place for reverse osmosis being used as
a must concentrator, Virginia would be it.
The white wines strike me as absolutely first-rate, particularly the Viogniers. I was quite
taken by the Chardonnays I tried, particularly for their minerality, their restrained use of new
oak, and their crisp/clean/elegant character. Other whites struck me as somewhat thin and dilute
(hurricane affected?).
The reds struck me as a bit more problematic. Virginia seems to have hitched its wagon to the
Bordeaux variety bandwagon; varieties I admit to having little fondness for. Many of the reds
displayed a strong earthy/dusty, terroir-driven character. A little bit of terroir is a good
thing and makes a wine distinctive. Too much of a good thing, however, can be...well..too much.
There is a strong Italian connection to Virginia wines that I think offer much potential.
The few examples I tasted struck me as rather Italianate in character, again terroir-driven.
I would like to sample more of their Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Lagreins.
And how does the Virginia wine industry stand alongside New Mexico's?? Still strikingly
similar I would say. The market in both for French hybrids seems to be withering on the vine...
a tough sell despite skillful winemaking. The Virginia industry, being on the Eastern seaboard,
seems to have much more access to capital than New Mexico's. Thus you see more palatial,
Napa Valley-glitzy types of operations.
And both have a fair share of smalltime, undercapitalized winemakers pursuing their vision
with a passion of making the best wine they can with the grapes they have to work with. Both have
far to go, I think, in finding the ideal wine growing sites and the varieties that work best there.
Though there are a number of sizable Virginia wine operations, I don't think any have achieved
the success on the national scale that New Mexico's Gruet Winery has with their sparkling wine.
Like much of New Mexico, Virginia wines struggle to achieve more than a local or regional market.
Alas, there are no Virginia wines available here in New Mexico. But should your travels take
you to DC or Virginia, it's well worth taking a few days to winery-hop. The countryside is
absolutely beautiful (in a way far different than New Mexico's), the wines surprisingly good,
and the people just as friendly as ours.

________________________________

During my visit, I tried a half dozen Maryland and Virginia cheeses. For artisinal cheeses,
Virginia enjoys a huge lead over New Mexico. More cows, less coyotes is probably their secret!!
"Breaking Away to Virginia & Maryland Wineries" by Elisabeth Frater is an excellent read
about these wines and an invaluable guide for wine touring. Highly recommended.

Some Corrections From Boyce

A couple modifications you might consider:
1) Va. wine actually dates back to "The Founding" in the 1600's. The colony struggled to survive
from 1607 - 1611, but by 1619, it was well on its way. The Va. Company (which controlled the
colony - it was a pvt investment group ... until the king canceled the company and took over
the colony) required each land owner to plant an acre of grapes for the production of wine.
To the best of my knowledge there is no record of wine production, but there is good reason
to suspect that wine production was attempted. There is record of a vineyard being planted in
the 1620's. (Arundel (sp?) I think was the name of the colonist.)

2) Jefferson attempted to grow grapes after Mazzei left, but on a less ambitious scale. He
observed that the imported vines died after 4 or 5 years (go figure!). He predicted that
native species would be the path for America's wine industry.
(I'm a Jefferson nut and concentrated my history studies in school on the colonial and
Federalist period.)

3) Wine production didn't slumber for 190 yrs. The Monticello Wine Company produced wines in the
1880's on a commercial scale and with good success. It was a Va. Norton that competed and
bested French wines in a competition in France in the 1880's, IIRC. It was the temperance
movement that killed the industry. (Va. enacted prohibition statewide before the movement went
national, the dolts!) I've seen bottles of the wine including intact corks and contents. I've
read accounts about the winery, but don't have production numbers.

This from the Wmsburg Winery site: "The Arundell family arrived in Virginia in the early 17th
century, and settled on the peninsula between the James and York rivers, at ?Buck Roe? in the
precinct of Elizabeth City (modern day Buckroe in Hampton, Va.) John Arundel inherited the
property from his father Peter, and leased-out two parcels of fifty acres for the purpose of
growing grapes.
One parcel was leased to one Elias La Guard ?Vignerone?. The second parcel was leased to
Mr. James Bonall ?Gentleman of London?, whose farm manager David Poole ?Vignerone of the country
of France?, actually lived on the property and we surmise, grew grapes. It is not known what
degree of success, if any, these gentlemen enjoyed with this early Viticultural endeavor."


The name of the winery you described as ?Th. Jefferson Cellars? is actually Jefferson Vineyards.
They use the ?Th.? to mimic Jefferson?s signature on the bottle....I guess it?s supposed to look
like it is a bottle from his cellar.
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Paul B.

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Re: AlbqJournalNorth: Virginia Wines

by Paul B. » Thu Dec 21, 2006 6:04 pm

And for a moment there, I thought that you wrote it yourself ... :D

A great read, and lots to digest. I tried a Virginian Cab at NiagaraCool and enjoyed it, though if it were me growing down there, of course I would favour the native son and grow Norton - hands down. I would also likely toss in a goodly number of rows of Villard Noir, which is a hybrid that's popular in southern France (it makes a heavy, plummy, near-neutral red - Willow Heights used to make a varietal in Ontario up to 1999).
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Re: AlbqJournalNorth: Virginia Wines

by David M. Bueker » Thu Dec 21, 2006 8:31 pm

I've followed the VA wine industry pretty closely since 1988, and while Horton and Barboursville were standard bearers back then, they have been supassed by wineries such as Linden, King Family (Michael Shaps) and Veritas (to name a few). Both Horton and Barboursville still make some very nice wine, but they suffer from doing too many things in my opinion.

Back in 2004, a tasting at Horton took over 2 hours due to the sheer breadth of wines available. Some were very good (the sparkling Viognier and Petit Manseng were very nice surprises), but others were blah. The Horton Norton, which was so good through the mid-90s was not in the top of their line up on the day I tasted.
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Re: AlbqJournalNorth: Virginia Wines

by James Roscoe » Thu Dec 21, 2006 8:41 pm

David makes an excellent point. Virginia wine has reached the point where Horton and Barboursville no longer carry the weight of the Virginia wine industry on their shoulders. There are plenty of extremely capable vitners doing some pretty nice things in the shadow of the Blue Ridge and beyond. I would tend to agree with the article that the whites outclass the reds (try Linden's Riesling!), but the reds will find there place when Virginia moves away from the California model and looks to its own paradigm. Right now some really good cab francs have been released from the central region and some good northern Italian varieties from the southern and southwestern part of the state. Barboursville does justice to nebbiolo for instance. In the end, the safe generalization is to stay with the whites. They are much more consistent.
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Re: AlbqJournalNorth: Virginia Wines

by Howie Hart » Thu Dec 21, 2006 10:27 pm

David M. Bueker wrote:I've followed the VA wine industry pretty closely since 1988, and while Horton and Barboursville were standard bearers back then, they have been supassed by wineries such as Linden, King Family (Michael Shaps) and Veritas (to name a few). Both Horton and Barboursville still make some very nice wine, but they suffer from doing too many things in my opinion....

Sometimes you need someone to get the ball rolling. 30 years ago in the Finger Lakes, Bully Hill and Dr. Frank were the only alternatives to the "Taylor" domination. Then, along came Glenora, Heron Hill, Hermann Wiemer, etc.... I don't think the newcomers have necessarily surpassed Dr. Frank, though.
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Re: AlbqJournalNorth: Virginia Wines

by Brian Gilp » Fri Dec 22, 2006 10:48 am

I think that future for red wine in virginia is actually pretty bright. Sure it started with all Merlot and Cab Sauv and all of it was planted on 3309 root stock. But with the efforts of Dennis and Luca and some others, there are now good examples of Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tannat, Touriga Nacional, Petit Verdot, and Cab Franc. Even the Cab Sauv is getting a new look with the early rippening clone 337 that seems to be better suited to the climate. Most of the new or replanting that is being done today is on either 101-14 or riparia rootstock that has lower vigor and seems to give better quality.

Virginia is still very new to all of this and as it gets a better understanding of what clones, rootstocks, and training methods work best the quality will continue to improve. I remember talking with Dennis a number of years ago about how many times he changed his trellising on his nebbiolo to manage the extreme vigor/productivity of the vine. These are the types of lessons that Virginia has only been learning in the last 20 or so years and why it will take time for quality reds to arrive but I believe they will arrive.

As for the whites, my belief is virginia got lucky with Viognier. I have never really liked the majority of virginia chardonnay but then I do not like chardonnay generally. The Riesling and SB present a constant challenge to keep from rotting. The viognier seems better suited to the climate and resists rot better than most other whites planted in the region (except Petit Manseng which has amazing rot resistance). I do not forsee that the lessons in rootstock, varieties and clones, training methods, etc. will make as much of a difference in the white wine grapes as it will with the reds and thus the future upside of the white wines (at least from the vineyard perspective) is probably less.
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Re: AlbqJournalNorth: Virginia Wines

by Bruce K » Fri Dec 22, 2006 11:36 am

Despite living just across the river from Virginia, I have, until now, been ignorant of the wines grown there. However, just the other night, a friend put on a tasting of Virginia wines as part of a holiday party. I was able to taste a white blend, a Chardonnay, a Viognier, a Norton and two Cab Francs. My overall impression was that, while they weren't all to my tastes, the quality was very high. And one of the wines -- a Barboursville Cab Franc (I think the vintage was 2004) -- was absolutely wonderful. Delightful bright fruit, lots of herbal things going on, little or no oak evident, decent balance, structure and acidity. While I suspect it might have seemed less stellar tasted next to a good Chinon, it was good enough that I would have liked to have been able to make the comparison.

Anyway, if I see this in the store next time I'm shopping for wine, I would definitely buy a few bottles.
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TomHill

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Thanks For All The Comments...

by TomHill » Fri Dec 22, 2006 12:49 pm

As I talked to people, Linden was the one name that kept coming up. Alas, was unable to find any of them and they're closed the Monday I wanted to visit.
The column was intended for my NewMexico audience and, so, was not as comprehensive as I'd I've liked for a larger audience. So I was hoping people more familar than me w/ the Virginia wine scene would comment.
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Re: Thanks For All The Comments...

by Clinton Macsherry » Fri Dec 22, 2006 2:47 pm

Tom--
Thanks very much for posting. FYI, somebody here (Florida Jim, maybe?) has sung the praises of whites from Crysalis, IIRC. Amen on the Horton Port. One question: though I've seen Virginia Sangiovese, Barbera, and Nebbiolo, where the heck did you find Lagrein? And how was it?
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VA Lagrein....

by TomHill » Mon Jan 01, 2007 9:38 pm

Sorry, Clinton...don't think that one exists. Just threw that in to see if anybody was reading!! Obviously, you were.
I had the Chrysalis Viognier and liked it quite a bit. Have also heard good things about the rest of their wines as well from several sources.
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Re: VA Lagrein....

by Alan Wolfe » Tue Jan 02, 2007 1:57 pm

I had occasion to visit Keswick Vineyards about 6 weeks or so ago, and winemaker Stephen Barnard offered to conduct a barrel tasting for me. The wines were all red, of the 2006 vintage and had just been barrelled down. Consequently they were very young and some still had just a touch of residual sugar.

I am no particular fan of Eastern reds, but these were all very good indeed. I'm looking forward to the finished product. Included in the tasting were Merlot, Touriga, CS, CF, PV and others.

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