By Bill Plante, Photos by Molly McDonald Peterson
Virginia wines are kicking glass and taking names.
Winemaking in the Old Dominion has a long history – but it’s never been better than it is today. That was the verdict of the Flavor tasting panel following a marathon night of sniffing, sipping, and savoring 74 Virginia wines on February 28.
For the second year, Flavor asked a panel of wine experts and enthusiasts to sit down and wrap their taste buds around five flights of Virginia wines. There were five professional sommeliers: Master Sommelier Kathy Morgan of Michel Richard Citronelle in Washington, D.C.; Jennifer Knowles of The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Va.; Andy Myers of CityZen at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C.; Kevin Switz of Foti’s in Culpeper; and Ramon Narvaez of Adour at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C. We were also joined by Dave McIntyre, wine columnist for the Washington Post.
At 7:30 pm, the panel raised their glasses in the quiet of the mezzanine at Washington’s Park Hyatt and got to work, fortified with bread, cheese, and charcuterie to clear the palate. They were ably assisted by the hotel’s efficient and gracious staff, which filled and cleared nearly 500 wine glasses before the night was over.
This year, unlike last, all the wines were red – a cross section of most of the varietals grown commercially in the state. They were submitted by winemakers who responded to Flavor’s invitation. And this year, unlike last, there were a few “ringers” thrown in to confuse the tasters and challenge Virginia’s best – wines from France, Italy, California, and Chile, which were recommended by the Wine Guild of Charlottesville and Schneider’s on Capitol Hill.
It was a double-blind tasting. Each bottle was numbered and secreted in a white paper bag; neither the servers nor the tasters knew what was being poured in the glass, or even which wines were in the competition. Each of our panelists scored the wines independently, but in most cases the scores did not vary widely.
First flight: a daunting lineup of 32 Bordeaux Blends – the classic left-bank Medoc mix of Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot. Best of show: the Linden 2008 Claret. Knowles tasted both plum jam and “definitely autumn leaves.” Myers found it “balanced,” with notes of “dark chocolate, leaves and red raspberries.” Switz remarked on its “beautiful mouth feel,” calling it “complex and well crafted.”
The runner-up was a ringer – Eagle’s Trace “Because” Red Table Wine 2007. Myers said it smelled of licorice and raspberries, tree bark and black pepper. It tasted of “sexy oak” and dark fruits.
Despite its strong showing, the Eagles Trace brought with it good news for Virginia: None of the professionals could distinguish this one as the California wine from among the Virginias they were tasting.
The Barboursville 2007 Octagon placed third. Knowles decribed the aroma as “dried thyme, earthy mushroom, cranberry, and violet.” Morgan detected crushed red rasberries and vanilla bean. Switz called it “well-crafted, pretty and fragrant.”
Switz noted “olive and black pepper” in the Shaps Meritage. Knowles said the Shaps smelled of “new sweet oak.” She said the aroma was “a little volatile, a bit hot, with candied cherries.”
Knowles tasted “blue/blackberry cola” in Glen Manor Hodder Hill, while Switz got “smoke and tobacco.” Myers got “pizza dough, rubber and red spice, and dry, plummy fruit.”
To Knowles, the Tarara Terranova smelled of oak with hints of dill and red cherry. Morgan sensed “cherry, cabbage, and cinnamon stick.” Myers called it “green peppercorn and tomato water” on the nose.
Cabernet Franc, the next flight, is primarily a blending grape in Bordeaux. But it shines on its own in Virginia and in the Loire Valley, where it makes a lighter-bodied red with lush dark fruit.
Top honors went to Chester Gap 2008. “Deep black cherry,” said Morgan. Myers liked the combination of “smoke, ash and dried fruit.” “Delicate berries and cocoa,” said Switz of the aroma. It tasted of “creamy cherries and malt.”
King Family 2009, which the tasters ranked second, reminded Narvaez of “rosebud and spices.” Switz sniffed a floral perfume and found a “big fruit bomb” in his glass. Knowles said it was “a little leafy” with spicy florals, cherry blossoms and red raspberry.
The number three wine in this category was another ringer, Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc 2008 from California. Knowles praised its “nice concentration.”
Merlot, a grape often derided for its use in characterless everyday wines – remember the movie “Sideways”? — fares well in Virginia. Five of the eight entries won praise from the tasting panel. King Family Merlot 2009 Monticello placed first. McIntyre noted its “good texture and sweet, ripe soft tannin.” Chester Gap scored again with its 2008 Merlot, in which Knowles tasted “cherry and cola.” Michael Shaps 2007 Monticello Merlot smelled of “earthy forest floor” to Switz, but he tasted “bacon!” Veritas Vineyard and Winery 2009 Merlot also showed well; Myers detected “rose water,” while Morgan noted “sweet cherry, plum and thistle.”
Next up was Petit Verdot, another grape that old world winemakers usually consign to blending but which thrives in Virginia and here stands on its own. The winner was Jefferson Vineyards 2005 Petit Verdot Reserve, which Narvaez described as “rich,” with “spice, blueberries and bacon fat.” McIntyre said it had “nice balance with a cherry/cocoa finish.” Morgan got “bright cherry, raspberry, wild strawberry, and nettle.”
In second place was Flying Fox 2008, in which Morgan tasted “wild strawberry…and violets.” Opolo 2005, a ringer from California’s Central Coast, had “dark fruit and spice,” according to Narvaez’s notes. It was rated third. Close behind was the Delfosse Winery 2008 Petite Verdot which was “full,” with “good tannins and alcohol,” said Myers. Knowles said it tasted “rich, with medium acid” and smelled “very floral — violet and purple rose petal.”
And Now for Something Completely Different
Finally, as midnight approached , so did the wild cards. We sampled other varietals from Virginia – most of them are better known elsewhere. Barboursville’s 2008 Nebbiolo was the panel’s first choice, beating out the last of our “ringers,” a 2006 Cascina Adelaide Langhe Nebbiolo, from the home of the Nebbiolo grape, northern Italy.
Citronelle’s Morgan sniffed out the Italian ringer — but preferred the Barboursville. McIntyre found the Barboursville “quite pleasant,” with notes of “cherry and slate.” Myers called it “pleasant and quaffable.” Knowles said it tasted richer than she thought it would from the fragrance, which she described as “strawberry, rose petal, white raspberry, cherry, and a little spicy.” Sitz said it was “elegant and complex… beautiful.”
The 2007 Syrah from Delaplane also got kudos from the panel. Narvaez praised its “intense rich red fruit.” McIntyre noted its “caramel, toast and sulfur” perfume.
Tying for fourth was the Winery at LaGrange 2008 Tannat, and Delfosse’s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Tannat grape is originally from southwestern France and is now widely planted in Uruguay. Morgan said La Grange’s 2008 evinced “blackberry, black cherry and vanilla. “ She said it was “powerful, tannic.” Knowles said it was “grapey and neat, with almost cardamom notes and cinnamon stick.”
In the Delfosse 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Myers detected “dark, granite, and black fruit, spice and juicy fruit. Nice.” Morgan called it “very pleasant Jolly Rancher raspberry.” Knowles smelled red licorice, red plum, a little dried herb.” On the tongue she tasted red fruit, strawberry, medium acid and cranberry.” Switz jotted: “smoked, pleasant, mushroom.”
When the tasting ended after midnight, the sommeliers did socially what they do professionally – they drank. But this time, it was crisp, cold beer – a welcome change after sniffing, tasting and spitting 74 wines.
In the corner, though, Knowles, snuck a look at the master list of the wines she had tasted and scribbled notes to herself. She told Flavor she is considering adding more than two dozen of the Virginia wines that competed in the blind tasting to the famed cellars of the Inn at Little Washington.
As always, however, it’s your taste buds that should guide you. And the more you taste, the more you’ll appreciate the nuances in the glass. Start with the winners here – the best palates in D.C. and Virginia have done the hard work for you.
-Journalist Bill Plante is CBS’s Senior White House Correspondent. A 30-year resident of D. C., he is also a well-known wine aficionado.