Under the direction of Jay Youmans, MW, the 2015 Governor’s Cup wine competition, final round began Sunday and finished this afternoon. Entries followed last year’s pattern; about 440 wines entered and about 130 making the elimination round to proceed to this final round.
We were only given numbers to identify individual wines; all data entry and wine bottles were kept from the judges so the competition was truly blind, and none except competition organizers and Virginia Wineries Association staff will know the identity and scores of the wines until wineries are notified. The public (including judges) won’t know the results until the gala in Richmond Tues. Feb. 24th.
Sunday started with an assortment of whites including a Prosecco-like chardonnay which was fun and original. A flight of cabernet franc pretty good; a surprise was an older wine with beautiful dried rose petal and cherry nose, pure fruit. The best flight this short day was merlot; some really Bordeaux-like world-class wines driven by fruit and herbal/spice notes, very smooth tannins. A meritage flight was up and down; too much oak for me in some of them.
Monday: a flight of viognier mixed bag, but all in the 80s (we grade on the 100 point scale) except a delicate fresh one with fun spice notes I judged a 94. Most balanced, but some were harsh because of high alcohol or clumsy oak treatment. One was cheesy w. low acid.
The big pleasant surprise of the morning was a flight of BFC (barrel fermented chardonnay). I remember last year I was also pleasantly surprised by the complexity, restraint and balance of wines in this class. My favorites had fresh bright fruit, neutral oak, and not too cheesy, great integration and finesse on the palate. It was hard to find any Virginia wines in this class that I liked in the past, now producers have finally seen the light and figured out what to do and what to avoid doing.
A flight of cabernet franc was even better than yesterdays. Three were tops for me, with scores from 89-95. Some of these were huge, but fruit-driven, and one had enchanting rose petal and red fruits, but 3 others were fruit-driven and lacking clumsy oak. The one low score was dried out like it had been in oak too long and oxidized and lost fruit.
Some of the best and most expensive red blends in Virginia were in flight 12, a much better (I thought) meritage flight than yesterday’s. The flight was characterized by fine, subtle fruit and oak integration, gorgeously plush textures, and a lot of finesse. I only gave 2 scores in the 80s I think, the rest ranging from 90 to 96. Beyond starting with clean well-ripened fruit, texture and integration are the keys to a successful high-end meritage blend and this flight had plenty of that. Of my 3 favorites one was very Old World, one seemed very New World, but they were all brilliant and could go up against meritage blends from anywhere. I suspect that merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc (in that order) were the dominant grapes in this flight.
Fellow judge and wine writer Barbara Ensrud (NC) and I disagreed on a number of red wine flights but we both agreed on how much we liked the four varietal tannat wines (last flight before lunch). Interestingly, half of them were more fruit-forward and half were big, oak and fruit wines, but they were all clean, showing the potential for this grape at giving loads of ripe black fruits with a panolply of baking spices and white pepper, and an ability to handle a lot of oak. There’s huge potential for wines with tannat in the Mid-Atlantic (if the vines survive the winter; in 2014 there was no commercial tannat crop in Virginia due to primary bud loss due to winter kill a year ago).
The first two flights after lunch were varietal petit verdot; an intense way to start an afternoon of wine judging! Like the flight of tannat, these wines showed the potential of this grape for high quality in Virginia. I’m a big fan of cabernet franc but in this competition have been more impressed as a whole by the quality of petit verdot and tannat; black color, deep black fruits, complex aromatics, and either fruit-forward or oak style can be equally impressive. My favorites in the first flight of PV had lots of rich black fruits, spice and oak to handle the rich fruit. Who needs West Coast petit sirah when you have really good Virginia petit verdot, or tannat?
A flight of five cabernet sauvignons demonstrated why this variety is unreliable, and unsustainable as an economic crop in Virginia for the long term. Two wines were lovely, well-balanced examples of fruit and oak and tannin integration. The other three were either flawed from bad fruit, unhygienic wine cellars, or poor winemaking.
The next flight of three tannats showed the consistency and high quality this grape achieves in Virginia. Even the rustic styles were inoffensive and would have fans, where the really elegant ones with finesse and balance would satisfy fine wine drinkers like me.
A final flight of meritage was largely rewarding; lots of time in oak but richly balanced fruit, oak and spice elements; smooth silky texture, and a style that reminded me as much of Reserva and Gran Reserva styles from Rioja as anything else. A couple of wines were laughably clumsy, esp. a 15.5% alc. Blend which should have stayed even longer in oak to run up those flavors and raise the alcohol so it could be labeled and marketed as a fortified wine instead of a table wine.
On Tuesday, three fine petit mansengs (2 dry, one semi-dry) showed both ripe pineapple fruit and good fruit/acid balance; this may be the future white grape of Virginia. A flight of BFC was lighter than yesterday’s, but by and large, very successful with lots of finesse.
A flight of cabernet francs had a couple of stars but was uneven, with the same for a meritage flight; some amazingly complex yet smooth and integrated wines, but some disappointments. Between flights of meritage, three fresh and elegant dry ciders, showing great potential for this beverage in Virginia.
A final flight of four dessert style wines showed richness and skillful fruit/acid balance.
I think there were a few more white wines in the competition this year which was welcome. Chardonnay seems more consistent than viognier, and petit manseng is promising, either dry or semi-dry and in dessert wines too. Unfortunately there were no sparkling wines that made it to the final round. Most sparkling wine production in Virginia is quite small and competition rules state that 50 cases of the wine have to be commercially available at the time of the competition to be eligible. For the same reason white wines are under-represented; most wineries have sold through their 2013 and earlier vintage whites and the 2014 whites haven’t been bottled yet.
Cabernet franc was generally consistent with a few shining stars but too many of them spent too long in the barrel or bottle, or both. For people who like sexy reds full of well-balanced fruit, oak, spice and silky texture, there are lots of Virginia meritage wines to provide these things. For those who like chewy, gutsy reds, petit verdot and tannat in this competition were the most impressive and consistent varietal reds, although a few merlots were also stunning in the Bordeaux style.
There will be lots of stylish, complex reds in the Governor’s Case (top twelve wines), and thanks to the rise of petit verdot and tannat, they won’t all be red Bordeaux-based.