K&F: Oenology obscura: Virginia’s new wave of unique, experimental wines

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(From left): Horton Vineyards' sparkling Viognier, Early Mountain Vineyards' Pétillant Naturel, King Family Vineyards' orange Viognier, Lovingston Winery's Pinotage, Stinson Vineyards' Rkatsiteli. (From left): Horton Vineyards' sparkling Viognier, Early Mountain Vineyards' Pétillant Naturel, King Family Vineyards' orange Viognier, Lovingston Winery's Pinotage, Stinson Vineyards' Rkatsiteli.

Virginia’s wine identity orbits around Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Bordeaux-style blends. Increasingly, however, winemakers are pushing the boundaries of possibility and bottling some unique wines.

Part of the new fascination with experimentation, says winemaker Jake Busching, is driven by a desire to learn more about getting well-suited grapes planted on the right sites and learning the nuances of local Virginia terroir. “What I am seeing and discussing with winemakers and growers alike is a continuing focus on what works with our various terroirs,” he says.

The exuberance of unique wines is also driven by the natural blossoming of a new wine region. At King Family Vineyards, winemaker Matthieu Finot suggests that some of the experimentation is because the Virginia wine scene has come of age. The past two decades have shown the world that Virginia—and especially the Monticello AVA—can produce world-class wine, with respect to the standard of classic winemaking. “I think now our industry is mature enough to push our winemaking and explore some different styles,” Finot says.

Producing unique products can also help distinguish a wine program from the crowd. “For the last three vintages, I’ve made an orange Viognier,” Finot says. (Orange or amber wine gets its color from grape skin contact.) “It’s a little bit more of a nerdy wine, but the public reception has been great, which signals that there is an opening for us to explore.”

Finot’s wine is an industry favorite. “My current favorite,” says Busching, “is the orange wine Viognier of Matthieu Finot at King Family Vineyards in Crozet. It’s a beautiful twist on a Virginia wine-certified theme.”

Busching is no stranger to making skin-contact wine himself. A few years ago, when he worked at Pollak Vineyards, he made a skin-contact Pinot Gris that Evan Williams, wine director of The Wine Guild of Charlottesville, still remembers.

“Jake’s skin-contact Pinot Gris was an eye- opener for me: a Gris with complexity, delineation and personality that speaks gently to the true potential this region holds,” says Williams.

And then there’s Rkatsiteli, a grape from the Caucasus that features in the 2015 bottling at Stinson Vineyards.

“The 2015 Wildkat Rkatsiteli will be a new release for us,” says winemaker Rachel Stinson Vrooman. A skin-fermented Rkatsiteli, it’s inspired by traditional wines of the country of Georgia. “It takes on a light orange or amber hue from skin contact. This also adds layered aromatics and textured tannins to the wine’s profile.”

Horton Vineyards also makes a unique wine from Rkatsiteli. Horton winemaker Michael Heny has observed a few exciting things about the grape.

“I find it odd, interesting and fascinating that the spiritual homeland of the orange wine movement should be most closely associated with a grape—Rkatsiteli—that in our experience has very little color,” says Heny. “Coming through the filter, the color of young Rkatsiteli in the glass is hard to distinguish from water. The golden-hued Petit Manseng is on the other end of the spectrum, as if sunlight can’t quite travel through its richness and instead gets trapped inside.”

Pét-nat, Pinotage and Tannat

While most sparkling wine in Virginia is made from Chardonnay, at Horton Vineyards, you’ll find a unique sparkling Viognier that has become a local favorite among wine-lovers. It’s atypical because even in Viognier’s homeland of the Rhône Valley, you rarely find sparkling wine. At Horton, Heny says they embrace its outlier status: “Let’s enjoy this tiny asterisk for what it is: a unique star in the endlessly expanding firmament of wine.”

You’ll also find a fascination with sparkling wine among the team at Early Mountain Vineyards. There, vineyard manager and enologist Maya Hood White experiments with Pétillant Naturel wine (or “Pét-Nat” for short). It’s sparkling wine made from a single fermentation. A few centuries ago, before Champagne houses discovered how to control a secondary fermentation, most sparkling wines were made pét-nat-style, and many were accidentally bubbly, historically considered faulty for the fizz. In 1806, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Thomas Appleton to complain that one wine bottle in a large lot he had received was sparkling. Jefferson wrote, “It… had probably been bottled too new,” which reads today as a recipe for pét-nat. Bottle a wine before it is finished fermenting, and the CO2 in the last bit of the ferment will be captured in the bottle, producing sparkling wine. Today, pét-nats are usually made on purpose, and they are growing in popularity as a tasty and low-intervention method of making sparkling wine.

“I’ve always been interested in sparkling wines and ended up doing research on them while in school,” says Hood White. “I liked the rusticity of the ones I had encountered.” So, in 2014, she made a small lot from Early Mountain fruit, just to see if she could. When it worked, she made more the following vintage, specifically for the people who helped with the harvest. “I liked the idea of a sparkling wine that is consumable so close to harvest and is somewhat a memory of that vintage.”

At Lovingston Winery, they point to Pinotage as their unique grape. It gets much of the soft cherry and elegance of a Pinot Noir, a genetic parent of Pinotage, with a hint of an earthy/savory component, says winery manager Stephanie Wright. “And we’re discovering that fermenting it at slightly higher temperatures yields a bolder, more complex version off of our site.”

You’ll also find some unique dessert wines, like Imperialis, a fortified Tannat, at Stinson Vineyards. “Our Imperialis is a sweet fortified Tannat inspired by the Maydie Tannat from Château d’Aydie,” says Vrooman. “They’re located just outside the Madiran region in southwest France, where Tannat is king.” Fortifying the wine is another way to round out “Tannat’s aggressive structure by emphasizing its ripe fruit flavors,” she says. The Imperialis tastes like a port-style wine and adds diversity to Virginia’s local after-dinner wine selections.

Summing up the unique Virginia wines on the market, you’ll see plenty of interesting grape varieties, along with wines that use less mainstream winemaking techniques, such as skin- contact or capturing the natural bubbles of a primary fermentation. “Orange wine and pét-nats are hitting the tasting room bars around the state,” says Busching, as Virginia’s wine identity continues to expand its orbit.

Erin Scala is the sommelier at Fleurie and Petit Pois. She holds the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, is a Certified Sake Specialist and writes about beverages on her blog, thinking- drinking.com.

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