From Thursday 11/5 through Saturday 11/7 the American Wine Society (founded in 1968 at Dr. Konstantin Frank Cellars) held its annual conference in Tyson’s Corner, VA. A record crowd of nearly 600 registered for the program, which featured a wide range of wine education and tasting sessions, from the Union des Grand Cru Bordeaux to Charles Krug Napa cabernet sauvignon, to chef Tony Lawrence who matched a range of foods with old vine Lodi zinfandel.
In addition to old favorites, Virginia wine was front and center at this year’s conference, which kicked off on Thursday night with a walk-around tasting with wines from around the Commonwealth, and continued Friday and Saturday with sessions on Virginia’s top white wines (by Annette Boyd of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office), a tasting of the Governor’s Case (the top 12-scoring wines from the Governor’s Cup Wine Competition of 2015), given by Jay Youmans MW, Virginia’s unique varietals, given by Michael Shaps, the future of Virginia wine (given by this writer), and my favorite, “Site Selection & VA Viticulture for High-End, Terroir Driven Wines”, given by Jim Law of Linden Vineyards. Virginia wines also appeared in a presentation given by Jeff Siegel (a k a “The Wine Curmudgeon” of Dallas, TX) titled “Five wine regions you don’t know but should.” He included a fine dry Provencal-style rose from Boxwood Vineyards of Fauquier Co, VA.
This writer queried a number of attendees, and all said they were very impressed with the wines they tasted in the Thursday tasting, which included the Octagon from Barboursville Vineyards.
A Tasting Lesson in Terroir
The room was packed when I took a seat Saturday morning for “Site Selection & VA Viticulture for High-End, Terroir Driven Wines” given by winegrower Jim Law of Linden Vineyards. Jim’s purpose was to illustrate the effect of terroir, or the interaction of the vine with what happens below the ground, by controlling for other variables and then demonstrating how individual vineyards express the same grape or group of grapes.
Jim illustrated three different vineyards in two parallel tastings of vineyard-designated wines; Avenius, Boisseau, and Hardscrabble, all just a few miles apart but all with different soils demonstrating different taste characteristics in the two tastings (chardonnay and red Bordeaux blends). There were six wines, chardonnay from these three vineyards in 2013, and a blend of red Bordeaux grapes from the 2012 vintage and same vineyards.
Perhaps because the chardonnay was the sole grape variety, and a non-fruity grape, it was easier to see its subtle variations in the three vineyard tastings. Jim described the Avenius vineyard for chardonnay as the “Chablis-style” and indeed the wine was high acid, racy, flinty and tight. The Boisseau vineyard he described as a “Macon” style, and it was more forwardly fruity with bright apple aromas and flavors and more moderate acidity. The Hardscrabble (the estate vineyard) he described as “Puligny”, which had a blend of pear/apple fruit wiht firm, long acidity.
Jim emphasized that his fermentation regimen is the same for all three chardonnay wines, and he blocks malolactic fermentation in his whites to retain bright acidity but he also likes lees contact. The different character in the chardonnays, he explains, is due to the vineyard and site character.
To emphasize this, Jim’s second tasting was with the 2012 vintage and with these same three vineyards. The Avenius was a 50/50 blend of cab sauv. and merlot, bursting with ripe red fruits but with firm acid. The Boisseau was 39% cabernet franc, 32% cabernet sauvignon, 22% merlot and 6% petit verdot, with young, robust fruit and acid, promising a long life. The Hardscrabble was 60% cabernet sauvignon, with roughly 20% each of cabernet franc and merlot. The wine was elegant, with ripe cassis and smooth tannins, very polished and Bordeaux-like.
Although there wasn’t a single consistent grape variety in the red trial of the three vineyards, you could taste the character of each vineyard in each vintage and how it differed from the other two. Jim explained how he continues to pull out and re-plant grapes to best suit the soil and conditions of each vineyard, which is a work in progress. “I only have a few more years to get this right,” the 60-year old vintner says with a smile, but he’ll continue to fine-tune the Linden terroir project as long as he can.
Wines in the “Future of Virginia” Seminar
Four speakers were in my seminar on the future of Virginia wine; Brian Roeder of Barrel Oak Winery, Christine Iezzi of the Country Vintner, Frank Morgan of www.drinkwhatYOUlike.com, and Dave Barber, AWS member, wine judge and wine educator (and Northern Virginia resident).
I chose four wines to pour in this seminar. First, was Barrel Oak’s estate chardonnay 2014. Chardonnay is the most-planted grape variety in Virginia but nobody talks about it which is a shame, since this wine shows how fantastic it has become. This wine was crisp and lively with bright lemon/lime acidity and green apple fruit.
The second wine was Michael Shaps Wineworks Rose 2014 which was chosen since it is the first Virginia wine packaged in a three liter bag-in-a-box and sold for $39.98 (at the winery only). This means you get a quality red Bordeaux blend rose from Virginia for $10 per regular size wine bottle. I hope we’ll see more of that in the future!
The third wine was a powerhouse and a “velvet hammer”; the Muse Vineyards (winner of the 2015 Governor’s Cup) 2010 Clio or meritage-style blend, 25% each of the two cabernets, petit verdot and merlot. The vintage was hot and dry, and the wine was in oak (50% new/neutral) for 30 months before bottling in 2013…and only just released.
The wine is rich and dense with black fruits and spice, but with well-integrated fruit and oak, and a smooth long clean finish. This is as fine a Virginia red wine as I’ve tasted, although I prefer the style of the lighter and more elegant 2009 Clio which won the Governor’s Cup. Jim Law said in his seminar that when Virginians were first making red wines, they kind of apologized for them; “Parker doesn’t like us, woe is us.” Those days are gone. This wine is glorious, on a par with any of the celebrated Virginia red wines, and although it’s rich, it’s also elegant and balanced for a 2010.
My purpose in showcasing this wine was to illustrate that the early-ripening clone of cabernet sauvignon (#337) is making a “cabernet comeback” for meritage blends in Virginia, as well as showing that the Shenandoah Valley has arrived as a red wine region for Virginia (the 2009 Hodder Hill from Glen Manor also proved that).
The final wine poured was the “Dry Dock” 2012, a dry norton port from Bluestone (another Valley winery, west of Bridgeport). Following fermentation to dryness and 15% alcohol, the wine is aged in used bourbon barrels and rises to 18% alcohol. The wine is spicy, rich and well-integrated with dark norton plum fruit, spicy oak and whiskey tones and appropriate oxidation. The point in this wine was to show that norton is very versatile and people are experimenting with it and making all kinds of amazing non-typical wines from it, and I’m sure, will continue to do so.
Wine of the Week: Gray Ghost Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
One of the rewards of attending the American Wine Society conference is to go to the banquet, sit with friends, and bring a large number of amazing wines to pile on the table and share with them. Thanks to Michael Wangbickler of Balzac, there was a Caymus Select cabernet sauvignon 2009 on every table (I’d like to see that as a campaign slogan). Our table also had the “leftovers” of a white Burgundy tasting, a Weinbach Cuvee Theo Riesling, and a special library selection of Virginia cabernet sauvignon from 17 years ago, from the fine 1998 vintage and Gray Ghost Vineyards.
Al and Cheryl Kellert of Gray Ghost have been inspired by Silver Oak Vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, and were making some of the best cabernets in Virginia in the 1990s before that grape lost favor to merlot and cabernet franc.
As a sign of how the industry has evolved, even in a good vintage, the alcohol of this wine was only 11.9% In California, a winemaker would be fired for making a cabernet with such a low alcohol level. I wondered if the grapes were harvested too early and the wine would be hard and green.
I poured the wine and gave a taste to my friend and colleague Peter May of the Circle of Wine Writers who had traveled all the way from London. He exclaimed his surprise that the wine was “really good.” The color was impressively dark, and the bouquet of ripe cassis with cedar hints and cigar box, but still amazingly young. I would have guessed it as being from 2007 or 2002.
I gave a taste to Michael Wangbickler from California, and his eyes widened in amazement. Everyone who tasted it (including me) was amazed at its youthful vitality, classic Bordeaux style, and fine varietal character.
Both the Gray Ghost cabernet 1998 and the just-released Muse 2010 Clio demonstrate the value of aging fine Virginia red wines, either pre-or post-release.