On March 11th, Jay Youmans MW who runs the annual Governor’s Cup wine competition hosted a Zoom meeting with the winemakers of the top twelve wines in the competition this year (the “Governor’s Case”.) Attendees included the competition’s judges and members of the media.

The Virginia Wine Marketing Office provided a PDF which had a page for each of the twelve wines, with technical specs and winemaker notes.

  1.  Trump Brut Reserve 2014 (Jonathan Wheeler, winemaker). This wine was made using the classic champagne method, with a secondary fermentation inside each bottle. A full malolactic fermentation was done, but the wine still holds impressively firm yet balanced acidity. The wine was aged on the yeast for five years, as is typical for top Champagne houses for their “reserve” labels. The nose is elegant, classic and restrained, with lemon brioche and the complexity of aged yeast impact. On the palate, the wine is complex; neutral oak gives the wine a rich texture and balances the high acidity. This is the most impressive Virginia sparkling wine I’ve had and its a big improvement over the 2008 Trump sparkling reserve, in where new oak and low acid did not help the wine to age. You could enjoy this now or continue to let it age in the bottle. Price: $80.00
  2. Barboursville Vineyards Vermentino Reserve 2019 (Luca Paschina, winemaker). In the last five years or so, this excellent and very stylish wine made by Barboursville from this Italian grape has consistently placed in the Governor’s Case. This brilliant example from the fine 2019 vintage is probably the best so far. The nose is bright and fresh, bursting with passion fruit and tangerine. The palate is lively and fresh, with ripe tropical fruit doing a tango with firm acidity all the way through the finish. There is a full-bodied texture thanks to eight or so months aging on the lees. Long-time general manager Luca Paschina says this wine, despite its forward fruit, shows a minerality which is almost “salty.” This gives it complexity but also makes it very food-friendly. Price: $23
  3. Bluestone Vineyards Petit Manseng 2019 (Lee Hartman, winemaker). There were many Petit Manseng wines in the final 100 wine judging this year, and I thought the average quality was higher than in the Viognier category. Still, Petit Manseng is a challenging grape to work with if you want to make a dry wine, because it has high sugars which will convert to high alcohol, as well as very high acidity. Lee Hartman explained that the wine’s ambient fermentation stuck at 0.8 percent residual sugar. This accident helped the wine gain balance with 8 grams/liter of acid and 14.8% alcohol. On the nose, this wine shows lovely ripe peach, pineapple and apricot aromas. On the palate, the wine is juicy and ripe with loads of peach, pineapple and apricot flavors, all clean, forward and balanced by firm acidity in the background. Lee believes being fermented in French oak, a little residual sugar and aging on the lees for ten months helped this wine achieve optimal balance. Price: $24.50
  4. Michael Shaps Meritage 2015 (Michael Shaps, winemaker). This fine Meritage blend was the oldest of its type in the Governor’s Case this year, and showed both maturity and excellent integration. The d spicy (the wine spent 20 months in oak, with more new than used). The blend ratio is 38% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Franc and 17% Malbec, 11% Petit Verdot and six percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Michael says the higher ratio of Malbec than ususal “really makes a difference”; I noticed blueberry and sandlewood notes that are typical of that grape. Palate: mature, well-knit, with loads of dried fruits and spice and savory notes. It most resembles a Rioja Gran Reserva for me; stylish and unusual for a Meritage but elegant, with smooth, well-integrated tannins. Price: $50.
  5. Breaux Vineyards Meritage 2016 (Josh Gerard, winemaker). This Meritage blend is 57% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Franc, 18% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Malbec. The integration of the fruit is excellent, but the wine is very much Merlot-dominant in its style. The color is dark ruby, and the nose is rich but subtle, with strawberry and black cherry and briar fruits. The palate is silky smooth like “red velvet”, showing great integration of ripe fruit, smooth tannins and gentle supporting oak. Sexy and smooth, drink now or hold for a romantic evening. Price: $45
  6. Barboursville Vineyards Octagon 2016  Octagon is a Merlot-dominated Meritage-style blend; this vintage is 46% Merlot, 38% Cabernet Franc, 16% Petit Verdot. This wine is made in a style that favors long aging to show it at its best, and it’s still a little young now, with the nose subdued but with black cherry and forest floor notes along with garden herbs typical of Merlot. Palate: very smooth, flavors a bit closed but lovely ripe smooth tannins, with chocolate mocha notes on the finish. It’s best left to age for another 3-5 years but can be enjoyed with decanting. Worth buying and holding; the texture and finish are very seductive. Price: $55.
  7. King Family Vineyard “Mountain Plain” 2017 (Winemaker: Matthieu Finot). Matthieu explains that this is a more concentrated style of Meritage blend than their regular label. The blend ratio is 43% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc, 22% Petit Verdot. It features 100% estate fruit and the wine was aged in 100% new oak. On the nose and palate, the wine did seem a bold, New World style, bigger and more concentrated than the regular Meritage. On the nose, ripe red fruits and new oak. On the palate, it was big, ripe and concentrated, with red cherry as the primary fruit. The oak matches the concentration of fruit, a very different style than the subtle Octagon. This wine will benefit from 3-5 years of further aging. Price: $69.95.
  8. Breaux Vineyards Nebbiolo 2016. Host Jay Youmans MW recalled that when British wine writer Andrew Jefford visited Virginia some years ago, the grape that impressed him the most here was Nebbiolo, which is seldom found outside its classic home in Italy’s Piedmonte. The nose has fresh strawberry and rose, no funk, and a hint of vanilla and spice (there’s 15% new oak). The palate has big acidity but ripe tannins, gentle fruit flavors and punchy acidity on the finish. The wine isn’t over-oaked and the fruit is clean and pure. It still needs another three or more years but is a fine example of the grape and its potential in Virginia.
  9. Carriage House Wineworks Petit Verdot 2019 Co-owner and winemaker Michael Fritze told us he entered this wonderful wine “against his better judgment” on the advice of wine friends who had tasted it. Most of the Petit Verdot wines from the great 2019 vintage haven’t even been bottled yet, and he was concerned the wine would be too tight. His friends were right; although young, the silky smooth texture and ripe tannins, together with ripe pure black fruits, are a great showcase of small-lot, terroir-driven Petit Verdot in Virginia. On the palate, there are hints of fresh blackberry with lovely juicy frutiness. The texture is soft and smooth with pure Petit Verdot flavors. Carriage House Wineworks is a new, very small operation in Waterford, northern Loudoun County.
  10. Veritas Vineyards Petit Verdot 2017 Jay Youmans MW says winemaker Emily Pelton has a reputation in Virginia as the “Petit Verdot whisperer.” This fine Petit Verdot is a very different style from the Carriage House one, but they both the stylistic range for this grape in Virginia. This wine was made from 100% estate fruit. The nose has rich black fruits with nice oak and spice notes. On the palate, there are smooth ripe tannins, ripe black fruits and black pepper and spice notes from oak, all well-knit together. Pelton explains that she did both a cold soak and post-fermentation maceration, and because the stems were nicely brown, she included them because their tannins could “soften the rough edges” of a big-bodied Petit Verdot. This wine needs at least another year but can be laid down for a decade.
  11. R.A.H. Series 1 2017 (sweet blend of 75% Petit Manseng and 25% Malvasia Bianca). Maya Hood White, winemaker. As with the Cup Winner, this wine was made in the appassimento method, pressing dried (and concentrated) grapes. This finely balanced sweet wine needed the last three years for the sugar and acidity to integrate. On the nose, ripe pineapple. The palate shows juicy, ripe pineapple and even with brisk acidity it is elegant and well-integrated, and doesn’t taste overly sweet. Residual sugar: 12.8%, price $35/375 ml.
  12. 2021 Governor’s Cup Winner: Barboursville Vineyards Paxxito 2015 This “vin santo” style sweet wine has been produced by Barboursville Vineyards since 1999. The blend is half Muscat Ottonel and half Vidal blanc. The grapes are picked and placed in a cool dry storage room where they shrivel to 41 degrees Brix (twice the sweetness of normally harvested white grapes). The grapes are then crushed vigorously and the juice put fermented in stainless steel unti it reaches 10% alcohol, then is racked into neutral oak barrels to finish fermentation for up to six months, then age in barrel for two years before bottling and further aging.

The resulting wine has the complexity and dimension of a high-end tawny port. On the nose, apricot, spice and orange marmalade. On the palate, it is mature and complex, with butterscotch, apricot, peach, caramel and baking spices. The flavor is an impressive blend of fruit and oxidative elements. Luca Paschina has “always told people that sharp cheeses with maybe some fruit and a biscuit would be the ideal food pairing instead of with a sweet traditional dessert.

Last year, the Cup was also won by a sweet wine made in the appassiomento method, like this Paxxito, and the R.A.H. Based on the track record of these wines, Luca says Virginia vintners could consider making a “passito designation” for wines like this because they work well in Virginia.