Last Saturday I had the privilege of collaborating with Jay Youmans, Master of Wine and head of the Capital Wine Academy on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C. as he presented the wines of the “Governor’s Case”, the top 12 wines of the Virginia 2013 Governor’s Cup, to a class of 16 attendees.
The attendees all received a copy of Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, and Jay presented a powerpoint with technical sheets on all the individual wines. He also spoke in broad terms about the “evolution of quality wine in Virginia” which he said was a very good subtitle for the book, as the 12 wines in front of us illustrated the concept very well.
We all agreed on the metaphor I use to describe Virginia wine style: Virginia is located stylistically as well as geographically between Bordeaux and the U.S. West Coast, but Jay pointed out that the best Virginia red wines are closer to Bordeaux as the model than to West Coast reds.
Tasting the wines was a remarkable experience, and should have convinced anyone that the top rank of Virginia wines today are not just good but also world-class. Interestingly, this was not completely focused on the wonderful 2010 vintage; three of the wines were reds from 2009, and the sole non-red (a rose sparkling wine from Kluge) was from 2008. The resulting diversity showed that top Virginia wines are far from monolithic, and that vintage variation gives us lots of stylistic diversity.
Here are my tasting notes on the “Governor’s Case” or the top 12 Virginia wines of 2013:
Trump Winery sparkling rose 2008:
Originally made by the Kluge Vineyards then bottled and labeled by the new ownership with the Trump label, this 90% chardonnay/10% pinot noir rose sparkler is indeed world-class, not least due to the unintended, coincidental extra aging the wine received on the lees before disgorgement and bottling which gave the texture a rich, creamy character balancing the delicate freshness of strawberries on the nose and palate. Dry but stylish and elegant with a long rich finish.
Pollak Vineyards cabernet franc reserve 2009:
Only two barrels of this winery’s cabernet franc were held back to make this impressive reserve. Nose of subtle dried red cherries and clean forest floor, a definite influence of toasted oak. On the palate, the wine is rich and concentrated, with depth of fruit offset with assertive but balanced oak (22 months of French oak). Drinking well now, will be at its peak this fall/winter for the next year. Sold out.
Lovingston Winery Josie’s Knoll Reserve 2009 (Estate Bottled):
This wine is a surprising stylistic contrast to the Pollak although from the same vintage, and spent a full 3 years in oak. 85% merlot, 10% cabernet franc, 5% petit verdot. Color is vibrant ruby with assertive, forward fruitiness and a hint of volatile acidity, very New World style. On the palate, the wine has forward juicy fruitiness and the oak is surprisingly in the background. It drinks more like a 2010 than a 2009. Mature now, it’s just hitting stride and will last at least until 2019, likely best in the next three years.$24.95
King Family Vineyards Meritage 2010:
A blend of all 5 Bordeaux red varieties. As explained on their website, KFV makes their meritage for aging. Nose: closed and young, with hints of heat, ripe red fruits and spice. On the palate, the wine is rich and full-bodied, well-balanced with intense ripe red fruit flavors with hints of smoky oak and creme brulee on the finish. Needs another two years of cellaring before it opens up, it will last beyond 2020. Currently sold out but a small quantity will be re-released in March 2016 at a price TBD.
RdV Vineyards “Rendezvous” 2010:
This is the more merlot-dominated of the two signature wines from this new, passionately devoted to quality and terroir operation. Blend: 35% merlot, 32% cabernet sauvignon, 21% cabernet franc, 12% petit verdot. The first impressive part was the color: not only opaque purple, but such depth of fruit that it stained the glass. Nose: closed at this point. Palate: silky texture like liquid red velvet, hints of creme brulee nutmeg and creamy texture, incredibly plush but very young; needs 3-4 more years to open and fully integrate. Not yet available; price for 2009 vintage is $75/bottle.
Philip Carter “Cleve” 2010:
An example of cutting-edge experimentation seen by a few Virginia wineries, this wine is a 50/50 blend of petit verdot and tannat, the dominant red grape in Madiran in southwest France (hint: it shares the same root as the word “tannin.”) Color is impressively dark purple with two dark grapes blended in a great ripe vintage. Nose: intriguing clean earthiness from the tannat as with carignane, along with the violets from petit verdot, then some dill notes from American oak. On the palate, concentrated smoky black fruits but smooth and clean in the finish. Tastes like the color purple with an earthy note. Bold and original, will be better in 6 months and last the decade. $35
Rappahannock Cellars Meritage 2010
Nose: closed. Palate: Deep, rich ripe black fruits with punchy tannins on the finish. Young but worth cellaring; will last the distance once big fruit and oak integrate. More of a West Coast style wine for a Right Bank blend in Virginia (41% merlot, 26% cabernet franc, 23% cabernet sauvignon, 10% petit verdot) but balanced. $32.50
Sunset Hills Vineyards “Mosaic” 2010
Another Bordeaux-style blend of 37.5% merlot, 37.5% cabernet sauvignon, 18% cabernet franc, and 7% petit verdot. This was my favorite wine of the tasting. Nose: classic black pepper and black cherry I associate with cabernet franc. On the palate, very dense fruit but great potential for 10-20 years. Young but rich and elegant. Note: available to wine club members only.
Potomac Point “Richland Reserve Heritage” 2010
While dominated by Bordeaux grapes, this blend also has the wild card grape tannat (13.6%). Nose: smoky oak in an Italian style like a Super Tuscan or Dolcetto. Palate: smoky and punchy with firm tannins but clean smooth finish. A food wine; think of truffles! Lots of oak here but with a few years of patient cellaring will rival Super Tuscans or nebbiolos for matching with top Italian cuisine (not currently available).
Cooper Petit Verdot Reserve 2010
A big, rich wine (100% new Virginia oak) but the oak is in the background. Smoky violets and black fruits on the nose. Palate: oak is a bit clumsy and forward with a bitter finish from lots of tannins, and dill/herbal notes from the oak. This is a Virginia version of a big West Coast cabernet sauvignon; it needs a lot of time. Noteworthy is that the blend includes 14 % cabernet sauvignon. Come back in 5-7 years.
RdV Lost Mountain 2010:
This is the more cabernet sauvignon-dominated blend (77% cabernet s., 14% merlot, 9% petit verdot) from this impressive new operation near Delaplane. Like the Rendezvous, the color is opaque and stains the glass. The nose is also closed being so young, but there are hints of cassis. Palate: ripe black fruits and vanillin, the texture is very elegant and richly smooth with nutmeg creme brulee hints in the finish. Best from 2017. $88 when the 2009 vintage sells out.
Barboursville Vineyards Octagon “12th Edition” 2009
This was likely the most elegant and (“Right Bank”) Bordeaux-like red of the Governor’s case; combined with the fact that it is currently the most accessible are reasons why it probably won the Governor’s Cup award for 2013 as the top wine in the competition. The Octagon blend varies, but always revolves around a core of roughly 60% merlot, and other red Bordeaux grapes as suits the quality of the vintage. Nose: sexy and stylish, with spicy hints from petit verdot. Palate: surprisingly light and fresh (following all the rich 2010 wines); drinking well now and has a crisp, clean Bordeaux-like finish. Put this in a flight of top St. Emilion wines, and I’d be skeptical if it didn’t finish near the top, or if anyone would accuse it of being an imposter. $49 when the 2009 vintage sells out and it becomes available.
Take-home Messages from These Results
1) “The Whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” In two good to great vintages (’09-’10), 2 of the wines were varietals while the remaining 9 were blends.
2) Petit Verdot: the New Virginia Strong Suit for Red Wines? Aside from one varietal cabernet franc, all other 11 red wines in the Governor’s Case had petit verdot as a blend component or varietal designation, in two different vintages. This could be a good argument that petit verdot has supplanted merlot and cabernet franc as Virginia’s red “grape of the future.”
3) Dark Horse coming up on the rail: tannat has potential in VA. Inspired by the recent Kentucky Derby, this metaphor works because the juice of this grape (and arguably the flavors) are very dark–and as we see in the Governor’s Case, this relative dark horse of a variety was a component of two of the top 12 wines this year. Jake Busching of the new Grace Estate Winery (formerly Mt. Juliet Vineyards) says that this red variety performed the best of any in the vineyard in the lousy 2011 vintage, and the wine he made from it, while far from the deep rich style of the wines from the better vintage of 2010, is still balanced and far better than most other 2011 Virginia reds. Other Virginia wineries making wines with blends or varietals of tannat include Cardinal Point, Chateau Morrisette, Chateau O’Brien and Delaplane Vineyards.a