“Terroir” is a French word that you may have heard from winery tasting room personnel or read on the back of wine bottle. Basically, it means the character of a grape planted in an ideal spot (climate plus soil) to yield not only quality wine, but a distinctive regional style.

You could also define “terroir” the way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defined pornography; “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

The DuCard estate vineyard, with new shoots, leaves and future clusters, April 27th, 2023

I visited DuCard Vineyards in NW Madison County recently where they presented me with their spring line-up of newly released white wines, and two different Cabernet Franc wines from the same vintage. While tasting them, it occurred to me that if you’d like a fine example of “tasting terroir” in Virginia, you should plan to visit DuCard, if you haven’t already.

DuCard only makes wine from three vineyards that it controls or owns in NW Madison, so you’re getting a very focused sense of place in the wines. This place manifests in wines that are fresh and bright, with well-defined fruit flavors and zesty acidity.

DuCard proprietor Scott Eliff (right) with winemaker Julien Durantie (left) just outside the winery tasting room.

The white wines included a lovely, refreshing Alsatian-style Pinot Gris (not Grigio), two separate vineyard-designated Chardonnays, an elegant dry Traminette (Gewurztraminer is a parent but the hybrid has more acidity for better balance), and an as-yet unreleased Viognier. The Viognier 2021 is elegant but lush on the palate, with honeysuckle and rich dimension, but finishes with fresh, clean acidity.

Taking the “tasting terroir” concept a step further, it was fun to compare and contrast the two vineyard-designated Chardonnays made in different styles. The DuCard Whetstone Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay 2021*+ was fermented in stainless, picked early, with fresh apple notes and bright, vivid acidity, in a Macon style. By contrast, the Tana Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 ** was very different in style. The nose was subtle, but the palate complex and multi-dimensional, with a layered texture without oak flavor or “butter” (no malolactic fermentation), and a long, elegant finish. This wine will drink best from September but can be enjoyed until then, and will reward patient cellaring for another five years.

The most impressive stylistic contrast for me in “tasting terroir” was a pair of Cabernet Francs, both from 2021 but in different styles and from different sources. The first was a (rare) unoaked version from a Shenandoah Valley vineyard; the second was a reserve version (definitely but skillfully oaked) from estate fruit.

Proprietor Scott Eliff admits he tends to prefer big-bodied red wines with lots of tannins, but knows that’s not what his site or NW Madison County will produce on a frequent basis. He and Julien discussed trying an unoaked style as a way to offer consumers originality with this signature Virginia red varietal, as well as a wine where they could taste the fruit and also experience freshness.

The 2021 DuCard Cabernet Franc *** is a rare opportunity to taste the “naked grape”, as well as how it performs in a cool European-style region like the Shenandoah Valley. I not only found fresh red fruits on the nose, but also subtle notes of rose! A very clean, Loire Valley-like style. On the palate, Wow! Big tannins (vintage), but being unoaked, the wine stayed fresh and lively, with pure red and black cherry flavors! Great for warm weather and a way for those who want to experience the “naked grape” style of Cabernet Franc.

By contrast, the 2021 DuCard Cabernet Franc Reserve (** to ***) is certainly oaked but rich and ripe, with oak in balance with black fruits and tannins. The wine is forwardly juicy but still has depth, finshing with freshness and ripe red and black cherry flavors. The 2021 vintage was tannic for red wines, but this is developing well and should be enjoyed from October to another 8 years.

Ratings key: * = good, ** = very good, *** = excellent, **** = exceptional, + = given rating plus, → = will increase in quality with time.