by Bill Plante, photos by Molly McDonald Peterson
And now for something completely different!
For the past two years, the Flavor tasting panel has focused mainly on the better-known varietals of Virginia: Cabernet, Merlot, and Petit Verdot reds, and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier whites.
This year, our panel of local expert sommeliers explored two white varietals: Riesling and the lesser-known Petit Manseng. Both are usually made slightly “off-dry,” with some residual sugar. The wines were submitted by winemakers who responded to Flavor’s invitation. And, like last year, there were a couple of “ringers”—both French Rieslings from Alsace.
Six area wine professionals did the sniffing, swirling, and savoring this year: Neal Wavra, sommelier at The Ashby Inn; Kevin Switz of The Ashby Inn and Vinosity; Matt Carroll, formerly of 2941, now studying for the Master Sommelier exam; beverage consult ant Gina Chersevani, formerly of PS7; Owen Thomson of Jose Andres’ Think Food Group; and Samantha Withall, beverage director of The Hamilton, the new Washington, D.C. restaurant of the Clyde’s Group. She hosted the evening in one of the restaurant’s elegant wood-trimmed private dining rooms.
There were Rieslings from 12 Virginia wineries and two Alsatian ringers (neither of which scored in the top three!). Riesling is a much under-appreciated variety, perhaps because it can range in style from bone dry to distinctly sweet. It pairs well with fowl, pork, and shellfish, and is a winner with spicy Asian or Middle Eastern dishes. Most of the wines in our tasting finished with a slight but noticeable sweetness.
It’s worth noting here that the tasters, as is usually the case, didn’t always agree. So, if even the professionals don’t see eye-to-eye, why should you? Their notes can give you guidelines, but in the end, it’s your palate that tells the tale. So sample and decide!
First among the Riesling standouts was Ox-Eye 2010. It was the favorite of both Samantha Withall and Neal Wavra among the Rieslings. Neal liked the notes of tropical and citrus fruits backed up by good acidity. Samantha noted the “gripping fruit sweetness upfront, with a bit of effervescence on the finish.”
The Rapidan River Riesling Dry American, the second place winner, was the overall favorite of Matt Carroll. He tasted grapefruit, melon, lemon verbena, and thyme and found the wine “pleasantly savory” overall. Kevin Swit z found cantaloupe in the aroma and melon flavor on the palate, but his favorite was the Shenandoah Vineyards Johannisberg Riesling Dry 2011 Mount Juliet.
The Barboursville Virginia Riesling 2010 placed third. It was “easy to drink,” said Withall. Thomson tasted notes of pineapple, lime, mango, and honeysuckle, while Carroll found “tropical elements” on the palate and a “creamy texture.”
The other wine in this year’s tasting was Petit Manseng, a grape from the Jurancon in the foothills of the French Pyrenees which has adapted well to the long growing season in Virginia. In France, Petit Manseng is used for both dry and late-harvest sweet wines; Virginia winemakers are vinifying it into both off-dry table wines and dessert wines. The panel’s first choice was Sugarleaf Petit Manseng 2010.
Chersevani and Withall both picked up the scent of popcorn on the nose. This was Withall’s favorite of the Petit Mansengs. Chersevani liked its “tangerine skin” sweetness. Switz tasted lemon oil and toasted nuts—“a great balanced wine.”
Number two: Mount Juliet 2008. This was Wavra’s first choice; he tasted baked apple. Chersevani found peppery Bosc pear taste. This was also Switz’s favorite among the Petit Manseng wines.
Brad’s Stickdog Petit Manseng 2008 reminded Carroll of roasted almonds, walnuts, baked yellow apples, and ripe pears—with a “warm nuttiness” at the finish. Switz called it a “great wine,” with honey, white peach, and apricot on the palate. As in each of our two previous tastings, the panelists were impressed by the range of both grapes and styles in the hands of Virginia winemakers. With each passing year, Virginia wine becomes more varied and sophisticated.
Bill Plante is Senior White House Correspondent for CBS News and a longtime wine aficionado and collector.