Experts say Virginia needs a signature wine

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by Jim Raper

The Vision 2015 strategic plan guiding the Virginia Wine Board’s promotion of the state’s industry suggests the slogan, “Virginia Wineries: Next Big Thing.” For this to come true, industry experts say Virginia needs “breakout” wines. Specific vintages of certain wines must become media darlings, and, more importantly, certain varietals and styles of wines must become dominant and define Virginia winemaking.

The Horton Vineyards 1993 Viognier — the first Viognier to be produced in the state — showed the way. “We’ve already had a breakout wine in the Horton Viognier,” says William Curtis, the chef-owner of Tastings, a restaurant and wine shop in Charlottesville. Today, dozens of the state’s wineries make wine from this white grape native to the northern Rhone region in France. The term “Virginia Viognier” is well known among wine fanciers all over the nation. “I don’t want to distract from the quality of some of our Chardonnays, but long term it may be Viognier among the white,” adds Bruce Zoecklein, the state oenologist.

The picture is not so clear among the reds. About the only matter insiders agree on is that Cabernet Sauvignon, the red grape everyone wanted to grow in the first few decades of the modern industry, is hard to get ripe year-after-year in Virginia. Better for Virginia are other Bordeaux varieties, most notably Cabernet Franc, but also Merlot and Petit Verdot.

Bartholomew Broadbent, the international wine expert and merchant — and son of the famed wine critic Michael Broadbent — has especially high praise for the Barboursville Vineyards Octagon and Linden Vineyards Hardscrabble Red, both of which are blends of Bordeaux type varieties. Broadbent recently settled in Richmond, where his wife, Spencer, is from, and has posted his Virginia wine tasting notes at 

Curtis and Charles Smith, owners of Washington Street Purveyors gourmet shop in Lexington, are fans of Virginia Syrah, or Shiraz as it is sometimes called by
by state vintners. “I’ve been drinking the Valhalla 2001 Syrah, and, wow,” says Curtis. In August, Smith attended a tasting of some of the state’s best wines from the excellent 1998 vintage. “My wine of the night was the Valhalla 1998 Syrah,” he reports.

The finest examples of Syrah come from the northern Rhone, the same region that originated the Virginia-friendly Viognier grape.

Zoecklein says his dark-horse candidates for the next big varietals would be the white grape Petit Manseng (used for sweet wines as well as dry) and red grape Tannat, both of which are native to southwestern France. There also is a small fan base for Italian varieties such as Pinot Grigio and Nebbiolo, especially as used in the winemaking of Barboursville, Ingleside Vineyards on the Northern Neck, Villa Appalaccia Winery in Floyd County and Breaux Vineyards in Loudoun County.

Another variety always comes up in discussions about breakout wines in Virginia, and that is the native Norton grape, developed by a physician in Richmond in the 19th century. It does not have the foxy kinkiness of other native American grapes. A thick-skinned, very dark grape, it produces a bold red wine. Norton disappeared from commercial vineyards in Virginia near the beginning of the 20th century and was reintroduced in the 1980s by Horton Vineyards, which is near Charlottesville. Horton’s Norton has become very popular, as have the Nortons of Chrysalis Vineyards in Loudoun County. Jennifer McCloud, the Chrysalis owner, admits she has trouble convincing some wine fanciers of the merits of Norton, but she says she thinks it tastes earthy like a St. Estephe from Bordeaux’s Medoc. “This is a distinctive Virginia wine,” she asserts. New Kent Winery, which opened in May, is making a White Norton.

Finally, late harvest dessert wines — most made with the varietals Vidal, Traminette and Petit Manseng — are among Virginia’s best known and appreciated, but not yet broadly marketed outside the state. That may be changing, however. Accolades have been raining down on these dessert wines. For example, the Gray Ghost Vineyards 2007 Adieu Late Harvest Vidal has won top medals at five major national and international competitions in 2008, including gold at the Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition and the “Gold Star” best-in-show award at the Lone Star International Wine Competition in Dallas. 

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