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Saturday, 10 December 2011

Virginia Wines at the Circle of Wine Writers' Christmas Party‏

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,
On the trail of the lonesome pine
In the pale moonshine our hearts entwine,
Where she carved her name and I carved mine;
Oh, June, like the mountains I'm blue
Like the pine I am lonesome for you,
In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,
On the trail of the lonesome pine.

Standing in a room full of wine professionals and MWs at the Circle of Wine Writers' Christmas Party, I am relieved when my neighbour admits to not knowing anything about Virginia wines and suggests that most other people in the room do not, either.

Earlier in the day, a tweet to Rob Tebeau who writes about Fringe Wines in a blog of the same name, brought the information that Virginia wine is generally hard to find outside of the state itself.

With only 210 wineries in the state and a little over 3,000 acres under vine, one might wonder why the wines of Virginia are looking to the UK as an export market when they have the rest of the US on their doorstep.

The answer, apparently, is that if you are going to ship it out of the state, you may as well go all the way and send it to a country interested in overseas wines like the UK.

Moreover, the wines prove to be very European in style, with low alcohol levels and at least as much emphasis on acidic structure and mouthfeel as on fruit.

Whilst Virginia is one of the original US states - it even passed a law in 1619 requiring settlers to plant vines - the current wine industry mostly dates back only a couple of decades.

Perhaps as a result of this, the wines are distinctly modern in style, with lots of stainless steel, fresh acidity and pure, precise fruit.

Overall, the standard is, I find, generally high with consistent quality and enough variation in styles to keep things interesting - thankfully these are not identikit, textbook, me-too wines.

Over the course of the tasting, I hear the words European-style and food wine a lot and tell people "It's alright, we're in Europe here, I know exactly what you mean."

I get a little sense of Virginia's geography - with the Blue Ridge Mountains, flatlands and the cooling influence of the Eastern seabord - but I'm keen to lean more.

I have found visiting places such as Austria's Wachau, the Mosel and Alsace to name but a few, has given me a much greater understanding of the effect of geography in the final wine, whilst talks on the geo-history and subsoils of Chile have provided insights into the subtleties and potential of its complex terroir.

For me, the terroir of a region is both a literal and figurative map to understanding its wines, the climatic influences, natural advantages and challenges - perhaps a more experienced professional taster than I will pick out these things without the benefit of a map or explanation, but I find it helpful.

What I do learn is that Virginia's signature white grape is Viognier, with Petit Manseng a close second - the Americans seem to pronounce it "Putty Man-seng", neither fully anglicised to "Pet-it Man-seng" nor fully francophone "Putt-EE Mon-SOH", which seems to be a metaphor for the wines here with French varieties and European alcohol levels made in a very modern-technique, clean style.

The reds are generally Bordeaux varieties with a surprising amount of Cabernet Franc which historically I've never particularly got along with, but here shows well.

The producers are arranged around the room in alphabetical order, so I start with Barboursville.

Barboursville, http://www.barboursvillewine.net/, @barboursville

The winemaker, Luca Paschina, is originally from Italy and describes the climate of his vineyards as similar to Maremma; his 2010 Viognier Reserve has an aromatic, peachy nose with toasty notes. On the palate it is leesy and mouthfilling with a long finish from a year spent aging on the lees in stainless steel. Very elegant and fresh.

The 2008 Cabernet Franc Reserve has a nose of bramble and vanilla with earthy, liquorice notes. The palate has a lovely soft texture, with fresh acidity and some grip on the finish.

The mainly Merlot-blend, Octagon 2007 shows bramble, liquorice and vanilla - it has an inky texture and a smooth, rounded mouthfeel.

Boxwood - http://www.boxwoodwinery.com/, @BoxwoodWinery

Rachael Martin introduces her wines, telling me that her parents planted vines in the early noughties and that the winery seeks to combine both tradition and modernity. The (mainly Cab Franc) 2010 Topiary rosé is relatively neutral on the nose, with red berry fruit on the palate and a mouthfilling texture; it feels well-made and balanced.

The 2009 Boxwood Cab / Merlot blend shows dark berry fruit, with liquorice, elderberry and dark spice on the palate and a vibrant, fresh mintiness; there is a grippiness but it feels well-integrated.

The 2009 Topiary (Cab Franc / Merlot) has a nose of liquorice, tobacco and dark fruit, with lots of liquorice on the palate and dark, bramble fruit. It has an inky texture and feels very well-made with a hint of herbaceousness and smooth tannins on the finish.

Breaux Vineyards - http://www.breauxvineyards.com/, @BreauxVineyards

Breaux Vineyards' wines were perhaps the most distinctive here - from vineyards planted on hillsides in 1996, the 2009 Viognier has a peachy, floral nose, good acidity on the palate, floral aromas, a peachy texture and a pleasantly surprising minerality on finish.

The 2005 Nebbiolo was unsual here both for its non-French grape variety and age - with nearly 4 years in barrel, pale in the glass with a truffley, earthy nose of garrigue herbs; the palate shows good cherry-fruit acidity and plenty of grip.

The 2010 Nebbiolo Ice was even more unusual, but very delicious - first created as a "see what happens" in 2007, it is the colour of rosé and has a fresh, watermelon acidity to balance the intense, marmaladey sweetness.

Angela Reddin mentions the notable presence of tannins on the finish of this wine, but I'm not sure if the mince pies in circulation at this point are enhancing or masking this - in any case, the two sadly don't match, even though separately they are delicious.

Keswick Vineyards - http://www.keswickvineyards.com/, @keswickvineyard

The 2010 Viognier Reserve is barrel fermented and aged for 10 months on the lees in neutral French oak - it is relatively neutral on the nose with a peachy, mouthfilling texture and a long finish; very much a food wine, it has a fresh acidity and feels well-made with good structure.

Lovingstone Winery - http://www.lovingstonwinery.com/, @lovingstonwine

I first came across the fairly obscure Petit Manseng only recently (see here) and am really surprised to hear it talked of as a second "signature" white grape for the state; the 2010 Petit Manseng is aromatic and floral, with a sweetness and acidity that rather reminds me of classic German Rieslings. At 14.2%, however, alcohol levels are much higher than one associates with the Mosel, but it still feels fresh and balanced.

Philip Carter Winery of Virginia - http://www.pcwinery.com/, @PCWinery

The 2009 Chardonnay is barrel fermented and barrel aged sur lie; it has a toasty nose and shows tropical fruit, good, balanced acidity and toasty, creamy oatmeal on the palate. The finish is long and leesy.

The 2009 Cabernet Franc seemed less impressive, with musty cellar notes on the nose, a whole lot of grip and good acidity, but maybe will show better with more bottle age and / or some food.

Prince Michel Winery - http://www.princemichel.com/, @PrinceMichel

The Petit Manseng (from 2008) has a floral, white flower nose and shows tropical fruit sweetness and fresh, rounded acidity on the palate. The finish is crisp with some minerality and overall it feels well-made.

White Hall Vineyards - http://www.whitehallvineyards.com/, @whitehallwinery

The 2010 Pinot Gris, fermented in neutral oak, has a rounded palate with good apples and pears fruit Neither quite as crisp as an Italian Pinot Grigio, nor as perfumed as an Alsace Pinot Gris, it treads something of a middle path with elegance and balance.

Williamsburg Winery - http://www.williamsburgwinery.com/, @williamsburgwin

Patrick Duffeler, President of the Williamsburg Winery, trained in Burgundy and has a European feel for food wines. His 2009 Acte 12 Chardonnay had, perhaps, the lowest alcohol content of any wine on show that evening at just 12.4% and as a result, it is not quite so attention-grabbing initially.

However, with a bit of air and consideration, the sophistication of this wine is revealed with subtle buttery, oatmealy oak and a fresh, lightness that is elegant but not insubstantial.

The 2007 Burgesses' Measure Merlot is initially very grippy with just some berry fruit on the finish - again, however, with a bit of air and some food (beefy canapes) it shows much better and reveals more fruit aromas on the finish.

The 2007 Gabriel Archer Reserve (40% Cab Franc, 30% Petit Verdot, 20% Merlot, 10% Cab Sauv) shows blackcurrant and liquorice and blackcurrant on the nose, with soft, ripe, mouthfilling tannins and aromas of bramble fruit and cassis on the palate.

The 2007 Virginia Trianon, mostly from Cab Franc, has an elderberry nose with liquorice and shows ripe tannins and sweet fruit on the palate; the texture is inky and mouthfilling with a grippy finish.

Recommended wines

Overall, I thought the quality of the wines was high and also quite even, so it makes it hard to pick out a winner; I tweeted this to Peter Csizmadia-Honigh (@borvilag) who was representing the IMW there whose view was that "there were some v nice ones, but also some question marks re quality vs price".

I did not get any UK retail prices for these wines, so it is hard to comment on value.

For, me the most unusual and interesting wines were from Breaux - the Viognier for its minerality on the finish and the Nebbiolo Ice both for the quality and balance but also for the bizarreness of a dessert wine made from red Italian grapes grown in Virginia.

The Acte 12 Chardonnay deserves a mention as a food wine to fall quietly in love with whilst from the reds, the 2009 Boxwood impressed with its vibrant mintiness.

UK Distributors include:

- Whole Foods Market
- Oxford Wine Company
- Hercules Wine Warehouse
- Good Wine Shop
- The Sample

The UK importer of Virginia wines is New Horizon Wines.

Wink Lorch has also written up her impressions of the event as a guest post on Drink What You Like - see here:

Virginia Wine - http://www.virginiawine.org/ Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/VAWine
Circle of Wine Writers - http://www.winewriters.org/
New Horizon Wines - http://www.newhorizonwines.com/

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