The Fifth Annual Virginia Wine Summit attracted a sold-out crowd of 220 attendees on Tuesday May 16th. Attendance by category was 45% wine trade, 33% wineries, 12% media, seven percent state government officials and three percent misc. friends and volunteers. Media attendance included two writers from Wine Enthusiast magazine, Elizabeth Snyder from “Wine For Normal People”, Nancy Bauer, author of the Virginia Wine App “Virginia Wine In My Pocket”, Frank Morgan of “Drink What You Like”, and Dave McIntyre, wine columnist for the Washington Post.

“We were very pleased with the attendance this year,” says Annette Boyd, Executive Director of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office which produced the event with funding from the Virginia Wine Board. “It’s important for wineries to be in the room and part of the conversation, but we feel it’s important to include other wine trade people; this year I felt we really hit the right balance of wine trade vs. wineries. I had a lot of feedback from wineries that they were very happy with the ratio of trade to wineries and that things were being said in breakout sessions that wouldn’t happen elsewhere. We want to continue this,” she said. “I think the initial (first four) years of investment in the event are finally paying off.”

There was a brief plenary session with Virginia Wine Board member Diane Flynt of Foggy Ridge Cidery (cideries operate under the Farm Winery Act), attendees had two sets of three session tracks before lunch and one set afterwards. Geared towards licensees selling wine, the sessions included: Philosophy of a Wine List, Standing Alone: Petit Verdot, The Competitive AdVirginiantage of Virginia Wine, A Discussion on Virginia Rosé, Defining Local on the East Coast, Winemakers Research Exchange Tasting, Mixology with Virginia Wines, A New Look at Viognier, and Selling Virginia Wines in the Three-Tier System. There were also two tasting sessions as well as plenty of wine choices with lunch, and an outdoor tasting reception.

The six wines in the “Competitive Advantage of Virginia Wine” seminar: from bottom to top, left to right, chardonnay, viognier, chambourcin, cabernet franc, meritage and petit manseng.

The Competitive Advantage of Virginia Wine

This session featured Jay Youmans MW who runs the Virginia Wine Governor’s Cup competition, Julie Dalton, lead sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotel, Baltimore, and Dave McIntyre, wine columnist at the Washington Post as panelists with Neal Wavra, founder and sommelier of FABLE hospitality as moderator.

To highlight the diversity of Virginia wine today, attendees were given six wines to taste during the session: chardonnay, viognier, chambourcin, cabernet franc, meritage, and a late harvest petit manseng.

Neal explained that “This conversation is about competitive adVirginiantage outside of your tasting room, in the retail/trade worlds,” noting that “It’s easy to sell your wine at the winery.”

Jay asked to speak first from the Cup perspective. He says he’s most impressed with Virginia white wines and thinks they don’t get enough focus. “Our competitive advantage is that we’re kind of exotic, even more so overseas, since we make so many kinds of wines.” He points to petit manseng as an example of new, exotic white variety.

Dave McIntyre credits the wine marketing board for making Virginia wine more visible; the media are getting better in respecting Virginia wine but recalls “it had to start by going in the back door” writing on food and travel.

The discussion proceeded by grape variety. Jay says that a balanced, oak fermented Chardonnay does well in the Cup competition but he likes the unoaked ones as well. “Chardonnay is a commodity, and it can be great here, but it’s not going to drive our reputation” because of its commodity status.”

Dave, answering a question on regional styles for Virginia chardonnay, recalls “A decade ago, “local” was a bad word for wine, now it’s a good thing” because quality has improved so much.

Regarding trade price points for chardonnay, a distributor attendee said that $9-$15 wholesale cost works well for a distributor and their customers. Panelists noted that it’s going to be a challenge for a Virginia winery to compete on the basic trade competition level. “You have to have a local story and distinctive quality and style” to justify a higher than average price.”

Julie explains what convinces her to carry a new wine is “the deliciousness to price ratio.” Kirk Wiles of Paradise Springs Vineyard recommends selling wine at a discount to restaurants for by-the-glass programs since “it’s a form of advertising.”

On viognier, Jay says “We make some of the best viognier in the world,” but due to low acid and high alcohol, sommeliers don’t really put it on lists in a big way. Neal says it’s a special and distinctive wine, but not a volume wine that sells. Sudha Pantil says her winery, Narmada, blends with other white grapes to give balance. Jay says the Governor’s Case (top 12 wines) this year included Horton viognier 2016 with four percent petit manseng which worked very well.

Jay is bullish on Mediterranean white grapes albariño and vermentino since they have good acidity and food-friendly. Julie says the existing Virginia examples are so far too expensive.

Moving to chambourcin, Neal asked “Do hybrids have a place in the industry?” Dave says “We’ve developed an anti-hybrid bias which makes it tough for them in the market.” Jeff Sanders of Glass House Winery says he’d like to see more winemakers working with hybrids because “most of them hate hybrids”; nobody disagreed.

Next came Virginia’s long-standing signature red grape, cabernet franc. All panelists agreed that the quality of Virginia cabernet franc has improved especially with “getting out the veggies” or green pepper-like pyrazines. Jay says cab franc stylistically is more congruent with pinot noir than a big oaky cabernet sauvignon. “The competitive advantage of this wine is it’s being unoaked, lighter, and more elegant” than most other red Bordeaux grapes produced elsewhere.

Moving to the meritage blend, a retailer from Wegmans in Northern Virginia says the category is easy to sell. Jay says the best Virginia meritage blends are merlot and cab franc-driven, and petit verdot has largely replaced cabernet sauvignon since it doesn’t have the green pyrazines of cabernet sauvignon. Julie is bullish on petit verdot and uses it instead of malbec on her wine list.

Where to classify meritage? Julie’s way on a list is to describe the category as “Cabernet and blends.” Dave points out that “it’s an old concept, but Americans have been “varietally focused” in how they think about wine.  “I’d like to see Virginia create it’s own meritage category like the South African Cape Blend, and we can define the terms for us”, says Jay, such as tannat could be included.

He pointed out that petit verdot is getting hot on the demand side as well, with 5 examples this year in the Governor’s Case.

A late-harvest petit manseng ended the wine examples. Jay and Neal say we’re doing as good a job with the grape here as anywhere. The challenge is making it in a dry style since it’s acidity is so high, but last year Michael Shaps’ varietal example of a dry version got in the Governor’s case.

George Hodson of Veritas Vineyards notes that “Consumers don’t buy the sweet versions. It’s a good candidate for a Virginia white blend.” David Kostelnik  of Early Mountain Vineyards said their winery had released a “Five Forks” white blend last  year featuring viognier and petit manseng as well as pinot gris, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, which made a “very successful” dry aromatic white blend. Julie sells it as a “different kind of dessert wine.”

Winemaking Research in Virginia

Presented by the Winemakers Research Exchange. Moderators were Michael Attanasi and Emily Pelton. Speakers (all members of the winemaker’s research exchange) were: Stephen Barnard of Keswick Vineyards, Corey Craighill of Sunset Hills Vineyard and 50 West Vineyard, and Kirsty Harmon, winemaker of Blenheim Vineyards.

Emily explained that the Wine Board has funded research projects suggested by the team. While they had many good ideas they didn’t have the study protocol background that Michael Attanasi, who was trained at UC Davis, has, and his technical expertise has helped quantify their trials very well. She says that more viticulture studies are being planned, and that this year the Board funded 60 research studies across Virginia.

Kirsty Harmon and Stephen Barnard, panelists on the Virginia Winemaker’s Research session

Emily explains that the research group in the Monticello AVA had specific protocols so they could isolate the variables in the experiments and tell which ones were making the differences. They started in 2014 and then got funded by the Wine Board in 2015 and hired Michael Attanasi to do the data analysis and set the protocols. In 2016 the Board asked them to go statewide with research. Each project has a treated vs control wine all from the ’16 harvest now in barrel.

The impact of carbonic maceration on the chemical and sensory qualities of Merlot to traditional fermentation was presented by Kirsty Harmon. Kirsty has been on a quest to “fill the mid palate whole” she often finds in traditionally fermented red wine without trying to do it with oak, so she did an experiment with a portion of carbonic maceration merlot added to the control traditional lot. When the carbonic sample was added to the four times daily punch down sample, it did give a better mid-palate feel. Kirsty thinks that the experiment worked for merlot, adding a nice mid-palate dimension, and the audience agreed.

The Effect Of Different Cap Management Techniques On Merlot Wines

Presented by Corry Craighill. She explained that the temperature of the cap is hard to manage during fermentation. One issue is that bitter compounds get extracted in the cap and twice daily punch downs don’t really make a difference distributing those compounds; another is that the high temperature in the cap inhibits yeast from fermenting. Small farm wineries also usually lack the sophisticated equipment that can keep skins submerged in the tank during fermentation.

The wines she presented in the study featured two a punch down daily vs. a four punch down daily samples. Everyone in the audience preferred the four punch downs sample since it added more flavor and tannin than the two punch downs sample. Interestingly, for the research project, the winemakers preferred the the two punch down sample. The audience said they picked up more “savory and Old World character.”

The third study looks at the inclusion of stems to add tannin to low tannin varieties like cabernet franc, conducted by Stephen Barnard. He explained that “there are risks, especially for high pH wines. Also, how is ‘ripe’ quantified? His wines were both cabernet franc, a control with no stems, and one with 10% stem inclusion, i.e. one pound of stems for every 10 pounds of wine by weight. The zero stem sample smelled fresh and fruity; the 10% sample smelled more of black fruits and clean earth. I liked the 10% sample; it had more depth, volume and complexity than the control without bitterness. Everyone in the room also preferred the 10% stem inclusion sample. Stephen says he likes the direction stem inclusion is going with this trial. He left it on the skins for three weeks, and wants to try it for four or five weeks. He explains that to make it work to avoid green stems and bitterness, he likes to focus on getting fruit ripe in the vineyard to get ripe seeds and avoid green pyrazines. His site has lots of shale and drains well, so it may not be possible on a heavy clay site. He also says he likes to bottle his stem treatment wines separately and taste them over years, since differences are not obvious at first.

David King of the Virginia Wine Board said this is one of the most expensive projects they fund; he polled the room and asked the non-winemakers like trade and media if they would attend project tastings around the state, and everyone said “yes”.

A New Look at Viognier

Moderated by Frank Morgan. Panelists, Matthieu Finot of King Family Vineyards, Michael Heny of Horton Vineyards, Sebastien Marquette of Greenhill Winery and Michael Shaps of Michael Shaps Wineworks.

This was a worthwhile session because all four of the winemaker samples of viognier were quite different, and after years of ballyhooing viognier as the state grape, there is no signature style, and the problems with yield and fruit set remain a challenge. It was good to hear panelists and the audience speak frankly about the grape and its challenges, which can help both producers and the trade move towards what works better for the market.

Frank said there are now almost 250 acres of the exotic white Rhone grape planted in Virginia, the 5th most planted region in the world. He asked industry members what they thought of it as a wine.  “It requires a hand sell, I don’t have the time”, said one. “Great by the glass, not by the bottle”, and “misunderstood,” Were some responses. He says just under one half of Virginia wineries now produce Viognier.

Michael Heny said Dennis Horton planted 13 acres of Viognier which was a big risk 28 years ago. He planted two clones, and in 1993 the Horton viognier wowed the West Coast-based Rhone Rangers as the best Viognier in the country, and Virginia growers quickly planted it.

Heny’s winemaking “is not complicated.” The 2016 that made the Governor’s Case had four percent petit manseng added, which raises acidity but doesn’t detract from varietal character.

Sebastien says that for the last few years he’s been very challenged with viognier’s inconsistency. “When you have a wine club and your volume drops 90%, it’s a problem.” He’s moved to all stainless for fermentation, no wood. He works with vineyard sources from around the state and uses early harvest riesling instead of petit manseng for acid correction.

Matthieu says he doesn’t like to get it too ripe, but he wants the aromatic profile of ripeness, which is a challenge. He blends 10% petit manseng and uses 70% stainless with some acacia. He says the press yields are low, and that the petit manseng helps acidity.

Michael Shaps also likes “a leaner fresher style,” and uses no commercial yeast. He also uses riesling instead of petit manseng for acid balance but not in this 2015 sample. He got the correct acid balance from using fruit from a cool vineyard site. He wants to keep a slow transition from must to wine for retaining the aromatic profile.

Someone in the audience asked about the use of viognier skins after pressing, since the juice yield is much lower than with other grapes. Matthieu warns that “by adding skins you raise pH, so it’s a challenge.”

Frank says people have compared Viognier to chardonnay’s “chubby cousin”; someone says “if you don’t nail it right, it’s overblown.” Michael Heny says “We’re in a sweet spot with Viognier in Virginia”, but Frank says Viognier “is the one grape in Virginia where you can really taste the quality divide across the state.” In other words, people are still figuring out how to get it right, and that also varies by region.

Frank asks the panel how Virginia viognier has changed. Michael Shaps is doing native yeast, Mike Heny likes to slow fermentation down to 2-3 weeks. Sebastien moved from French oak to acacia , now wants a cool ferment in steel. Matthieu points out that Condrieu (the solo viognier appellation in the Rhone) is some of the best, most expensive white wine in France. He still likes to add petit manseng and also makes a skin contact “orange wine” from viognier. Michael Shaps wants to make a style of vio that “changes people’s minds” about the grape and is focused on restaurant customers.

An attendee says she loves Viognier and has one on her restaurant list but is heartbroken “Because nobody orders it.”

Chardonnay/Viognier blends are a way to get balance. Luca Paschina of Barboursville Vineyards only used oak on Viognier once, but at the time the market wanted a rich oaky style. “Now that styles have changed we can make more balanced and elegant wines.”

Michael Shaps says his wholesale demand is so strong he can’t keep up with demand. He tells his clients that if they have a good site, they should plant viognier. Elevated, north facing, well- drained is his ideal viognier site.

Clearly, there are challenges for viognier in Virginia. It is a low-yielding grape which is why it almost died out in the Rhone by 1969; the growers couldn’t get enough to make it commercially viable. In the fertile clay soils of Orange County, and with quadrilateral training on a lyre trellis, Dennis Horton changed the equation in Virginia (although, when I asked him during my interview for Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, he laughed when I asked him what the cost was to install lyres and pay the labor for keeping the space between the two sides of the canopy clear and open, saying he didn’t want to really know.)

The grape has a notoriously uneven fruit set from year to year and Virginia’s springs are getting more erratic. In 2014 some wineries lost 90% of their yield, and in 2015 some were caught by surprise with excess viognier at harvest and had to find a home for the surplus at the last minute. As the seminar explained, there are stylistic and wine balance issues for sommeliers, and high price issues for both the trade and consumers.

Perhaps the future, outside the tasting room, is for viognier-based blends with grapes like petit manseng, riesling, and chardonnay to offer acidity where viognier offers the floral fragrance and mid-palate lushness. Wines like the “A-6” by Cardinal Point and “Five Forks” by Early Mountain are promising prototypes. Adding these other grapes may lower the price for affordability and also raise the volume of the resulting wine.

Annette Boyd says that other marketing priorities like updating the functionality of the website will mean that the next Virginia Wine Summit will take place not in 2018 but in 2019…stay tuned.