Steven Spurrier, Renowned British Wine Critic, Praises Virginia as a “National Contender” in Wine

Oct 10

The keynote speaker at the first annual Virginia Wine Summit at the Richmond Marriott on October 2nd was Steven Spurrier, columnist for Decanter magazine and the man behind the watershed “Judgment of Paris” taste-off between California and French wines which established California overnight as a legitimate wine region when its wines won the tasting in 1976.

Spurrier’s presence at any wine event, particularly a blind tasting challenge, is news in itself. Stakes were high as the summit began with a “Breakfast of Champions” blind taste challenge featuring eight sets of two wines each, one being from Virginia and the other being from another region.

Virginia wines were chosen by Bartholomew Broadbent, son of leading British wine writer Michael Broadbent and a Richmond native, and head of Broadbent Selections, a wine distributor. Wines in the same variety or category were chosen by Jay Youmans, a Master of Wine and head of the Capital Wine School in Washington, D.C. Neither knew the other’s choices, and both were on the tasting panel along with Spurrier, who knew none of the wines.

Long-time followers of the Virginia wine industry were confident of a good showing, but not only did Virginia win the taste-off by an audience preference (by show of hands) by five to three, Spurrier himself preferred the Virginia wines by a margin of six to two, with the two remaining flights both being a tie vote.

In his keynote address, Spurrier addressed several aspects of Virginia wine:

  • comparing Virginia to other U.S. wine regions,
  • commenting on grapes and styles of wine,
  • Virginia wine in the media,
  • wine tourism.

He admitted that while “I probably know less about Virginia wine than most of you in this room,” he said that from his initial exposure to Virginia wines at the ground-breaking Virginia Wine Experience in London in 2007, he was been impressed, and that opinion was only reinforced during his several days as a guest of Governor and Mrs. McDonnell and at the “Breakfast of Champions” tasting.

“Compared to the other American states, Virginia is a national contender,” he declared, explaining that the cooler climate than the West Coast produces wines of brighter fresher character that are more food-friendly “and most importantly, call for a second glass.”

On grapes and styles, he noted that the largest planted variety, chardonnay, was dropping in acreage. Although he believes Virginia still produces good chardonnay, he noted that “we had a great interactive discussion on viognier for 45 minutes; you can’t do that for more than ten minutes with chardonnay.” On the reds, he noted that petit verdot was “a unique calling card for Virginia wine” and that cabernet franc “is world-class here,” while petit manseng and tannat “are interesting newcomers.”

Regarding the style of Virginia wines, Spurrier admonished that “It is very important in my view that Virginia wines continue to be recognizably Virginian, and avoid a ‘flashy’ international style.” When asked about how he has seen Virginia wine evolve since he first tasted it in 2007, he replied that he felt Virginia wines were “more clearly defined” in varietal character. While noting that stylistically Virginia wines are more European than West Coast, Spurrier noted that being in the New World gave Virginia the freedom to experiment; “Virginia is not derailed by the habits of the past.”

Addressing Virginia wine in the media, he noted that other British wine writers like Hugh Johnson and Andrew Jefford were impressed with Virginia wine at the 2007 Vinopolis tasting in London and articles began to appear at that time, but thanks to the efforts of the Governor, the Secretary and the Virginia Wine Board’s marketing efforts, Virginia wine continues to be placed in the spotlight where it needs to be for it to get the attention of the wine media, due to the competition for attention from so many wine regions.  Recalling the Vinopolis tasting, he said “We were amazed  at the cabernet francs and viogniers at the time, but today’s event is another important step” in establishing credibility for Virginia as a wine region.

Finally, Spurrier addressed wine tourism, and complimented state government for actively promoting Virginia wine, which would also encourage wine tourism, and contrasted this with the “Prohibitionist” legislation in France that prevents wine producers from doing more in advertising than merely showing the product. “Wine tourism is one of the few ‘win-win’ propositions in the industry,” he observed, adding that it adds a fourth “P” of “Place” to three  other “P”s of marketing which are Product, People and Position.

Spurrier will “wave the flag” for Virginia wine  in his December column of Decanter (which also has an online edition), due out in early November; stay tuned!

Here are Steven Spurrier’s scores and identities for the “Breakfast of Champions” comparative blind tasting:

1a – 16(Guigal Condrieu 2010, $39) /1b – 17 (Ducard Signature Viognier 2010-VA), $24).

2a – 16 (Bernard Baudry Les Grezeaux Chinon 2010, $23) /2b – 16+ (Barboursville Reserve Cabernet Franc 2009, $23).

3a – 16 Ch. du Tertre Margaux 2008, $39) /3b – 17+ (Potomac Point Heritage Reserve 2009, VA, $27).

4a – 16+ (Keswick Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 VA, $49) /4b – 16+ (Ch. Montelena, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley 2009, $37) TIE.

5a – 17 (Barboursville Nebbiolo Reserve 2008 VA, $32) /5b – 16 (Vietti Barolo Castiglione, $39).

6a – 17+ (Delfosse Petit Verdot 2008 VA, $18) /6b – 17 (Casale del Giglio Petit Verdot 2009, $18).

7a – 16.5 (Quinta do Crasto Touriga Nacional, $70) /7b – 16.5 (Barren Ridge Touriga VA, 2007 $18). TIE

8a – 15 (Cispin Cider, $8/4 bottle pack) /8b – 16 (Foggy Ridge Sweet Stayman cider VA, $15/750 ml).
“It seems I really liked the Virginians!” – Steven Spurrier

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