Can Virginia wines stand tall among some of the best wines in the world? Undeniably yes, if the results of an in-depth tasting I attended on February 27 are any indication.
The occasion was the second annual Virginia Wine Expo, held this weekend in Richmond. The tasting was conducted by Bartholomew Broadbent, wine importer and head of Broadbent Selections, scion of Michael Broadbent, and resident since early last year of Richmond. Broadbent presented six pairs of wines, each matching a Virginia example against an imported wine that had been highly rated by leading wine magazines. The tasting, attended by about 100 people, mostly in the trade, was conducted “semi-blind” – meaning, the list had been posted on the Expo’s Web site (where I had seen it), and the bottles were on display on the dais. But we did not know which wine was which, and we were guess the grape varieties and which one of each pair was from Virginia.
In each pair except one, it was pretty easy to tell which wine came from Virginia. (Or, perhaps I should say I was lucky six times out of six – the show of hands was not always consistent.) The difficult pair, the Bordeaux blend from 2001, was tricky because the first wine was tired and past its prime, while the second was still youthful and lively. The easy tendency – even the winemakers in the room – was to assume the Virginia wine had not held up over time. And of course that was wrong.
Here are my notes from the tasting, in the order tasted. The imported wines are all from Broadbent Selections, which obviously simplified the organizational aspects. Pretty gutsy, though, to subject one’s own portfolio to such competition in front of so many people rooting for the home team. Broadbent selected the Virginia wines with the help of Richard Leahy, east coast editor of Vineyard & Winery Management magazine.
Linden Vineyards “Avenius” Sauvignon Blanc 2007, paired with Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2008. It was easy to tell which was the local here, if only because the Spy Valley’s aggressive grassy and passion fruit aromas shouted its New Zealand origins. The Linden had some grassy notes and a hint of spice; it was rounder and fuller than the Spy Valley, with some creamy mango tango juicy loosey going on.
“The Spy Valley has classic New Zealand acidity, while the Virginia wine has more complexity,” Broadbent said. “Both are high-quality wines.”
Rockbridge Vineyards DeChiel Reserve Riesling 2006 and Louis Guntrum Riesling (Yellow Label) Spätlese 2006. Virginia is not noted for its Riesling, but the DeChiel Reserve was charming for its bright fruit and appealing acidity. It was the clear crowd favorite, but primarily because many in the audience disliked the classic “petrol” minerality of the Guntrum, which hails from Germany’s Rheinhessen region. Broadbent said he picked this particular German contender because it was the same price as the DeChiel (about $18).
Warwick Estate Cabernet Franc 2006 from South Africa, paired with Michael Shaps Cabernet Franc 2007. I was sitting next to Michael Shaps at the tasting, and when we reached this pair he started bouncing on his chair like a giddy schoolboy who knows the answer to a pop quiz. So there was no way I’d vote for the first one. But I wouldn’t have anyway – the Warwick Estate had too much bandaid flavor to it, and I found it rather unappealing. (From crowd comments, others seemed to like it better than I.) The Shaps wine was simply gorgeous – concentrated, ripe and lively, superb fruit from a superb vintage that received superb handling in the winery. After tasting several dozen Virginia wines at the Expo later that evening, a friend and I both said as we left, “Shaps – the wine of the tasting.”
Barren Ridge Touriga Nacional 2007 from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, paired with Quinta do Crasto Touriga Nacional 2006 from the Douro Valley in Portugal. There was no doubt which was which here, as the Crasto was simply sublime – it featured all the leafy tobacco and fennel aromas of the Douro, with amazing complexity. The Barren Ridge was simpler, with bright fruit and a surprising exuberance for Virginia. It was a delicious eye-opener, especially when Broadbent mentioned the prices - $18 for the Barren Ridge, compared to $75 for the Quinta do Crasto. (Another, less expensive Touriga from Crasto was ranked #3 in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 ranking for 2008.
Warwick Estate “Reserve”2001 from South Africa, with Barboursville Vineyard “Octagon” 2001. This was the tricky one. I had tasted the 2001 Octagon about a year and a half ago, and I was confident that it would not have turned brick red and tired so quickly. Winemaker Luca Paschina was in the audience, and he seemed nervously confident as some crowd chatter clearly considered the first wine the Virginian. But the Octagon was quite lively, even picking up an attractive note of orange peel and clove.
“The Barboursville Octagon is classic Bordeaux in Virginia,” Broadbent said. “I rank this wine as good as you get in Virginia.”
Paschina was quick to spread the praise. “There are other Bordeaux blends to come from Virginia,” he said. “What it takes is having vineyards with enough age and knowing what works well in each one.”
Chateau Guiraud Sauternes 2005 paired with Veritas Vineyard “Kenmar” 2007. Again, it was obvious which wine was Virginian, as the Veritas featured perfumey floral aromas typical of Traminette. The Guiraud, #4 in Wine Spectator’s ranking last year, was rich with botrytis and crème brulée notes.
Broadbent stressed that the tasting was not meant to be a competition, but rather an exhibition of how some of Virginia’s best wines stand tall among the best wines from around the world.
Quod erat demonstrandum.