Winning with red


On the heels of the Virginia Wine Board’s spring announcement that viognier would be our state’s signature grape, it came as no surprise that eight of the 15 participating Monticello AVA wineries submitted a viognier as one of their four wines to be judged in this year’s Monticello Cup. But what I and the other six judges at Prince Michel Winery did find surprising last Monday was how few of the viogniers we loved. Only one took gold and two left without medals. On the other hand, of the nine petit verdots (unofficial runner up for state grape) entered, six got gold medals, two got silver and King Family Vineyards Petit Verdot 2008 won the Cup. Could we have been too hasty planting our viognier stake in the public relations ground when other grapes might show as well, if not better?

Winemaker Matthieu Finot brought King Family to the winner’s circle last week with his 2008 Petit Verdot.

Fellow judge Richard Hewitt, Keswick Hall sommelier, thinks the viognier’s lackluster showing this year was just a fluke. “They showed much better last year. Maybe 2010 just wasn’t a great vintage for viognier,” he said.

I get the sense that Virginia’s still experimenting with a signature style of viognier. The grape’s home turf, the Rhône Valley in France, has a similar climate to Virginia (hot), which is what the grape needs to fully ripen into the full-figured gal that she is. However, our local grape’s perfume was being masked by too much new oak and possibly some cultured yeasts that often resulted in aromas of piña colada and overripe bananas. Since oak and yeast “recipes” are both choices made in the cellar rather than in nature, could winemakers be gussying up a grape that’s perfectly pretty on its own?

With each entrant, I longed for the fragrances of apricot, peach, honeysuckle and orange blossom that make a true viognier experience on par with “running through a garden naked,” as judge Elaine Futhey from C&O Restaurant so aptly described. Another judge, Christine Iezzi from The Country Vintner, wondered if it was the competition-friendly 55-degree serving temperature (10-15 degrees warmer than whites served at restaurants and tasting rooms) that diminished their aromatics. Any which way, none made me throw my clothes off and go bounding through the vines off Route 29.

What did blow our proverbial skirts up was the solid lineup of petit verdots. This oft-forgotten blending grape of Bordeaux stands on its own here in the Commonwealth with a quality and consistency that’s staggering. Seven of the 16 wines we tasted for a second time in the medal round were 2008 and 2009 vintages of petit verdot and both years were showing beautifully. In fact, even after four dozen wines, it took willpower and discipline to spit them out. Pollak Vineyards Petit Verdot 2008 won last year’s cup and its 2009 won a gold this year. At last year’s awards, when I interviewed Pollak’s winemaker at the time, Jake Busching, he said that petit verdot’s a love it or hate it grape because of its “French-ness” and austerity. However, it was precisely its grace and suppleness that won us over. King Family’s winner demonstrated a seamless balance of ripe yet fresh blueberry fruit, hints of cedar, and cashmere-like tannins. We were putty in winemaker Matthieu Finot’s very able and, as it happens, French hands.

Other gold medal standouts on the red side were Afton Mountain Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Barboursville Vineyards Octagon 2007, Jefferson Vineyards Meritage 2008, Keswick Vineyards Syrah 2010, King Family Vineyards Meritage 2009, and Pollak Vineyards Meritage 2008. Gold medal-winning whites were Jefferson Vineyards Chardonnay 2010, King Family Vineyards Viognier 2010 and Afton Mountain Vineyards Pentola D’Oro 2009 (a gewürztraminer/muscat dessert wine).

There were no sparkling wines entered this year, only two rosés, and no Norton (sparing our already purple teeth permanent damage), so it’s clear that Virginia’s proud of its chosen white grape and red runner-up. And rightfully so. Our petit verdot is truly remarkable and good Virginia viognier is as brag-worthy as our dogwoods and cardinals. I just hope that the winemakers let the grape run around naked in the next vintage.

Open for tasting—and tying the knot

Already hopping with couples saying “I do” overlooking gorgeous North Garden vistas, Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11am to 6pm (5pm close on Fridays and Saturdays) for tourers and tasters. Six acres of vines are planted, but not yet producing fruit, so Pippin’s wines are being custom crushed at Virginia Wineworks under the experienced eye of Michael Shaps.