As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thinking about all of the American wines that I have tried over the past few years. Some stand out, others less so but all interest me in terms of the evolution of the wine industry in the USA.
This past year at the Society of Wine Educators conference, I attended a seminar about wines from Virginia entitled, “Virginia: the Bordeaux of North America?” A pretty big claim but I was willing to listen because the speaker was none other than Jay Youmans from the Capital Wine School. Jay is a wonderful speaker and a lovely person to boot, as well as being an incredibly knowledgeable member of the wine community.
We learned during the lesson that male settlers in Virginia in the 1600s were called to plant at least 10 grape vines. We also learned that Thomas Jefferson tried to grow grapes in Virginia for 30 years in the 1700s but failed to produce even a single bottle of wine. George Washington too apparently struggled at Mount Vernon to produce a wine but to no avail. In 1873, a Virginia wine was finally made from Norton. Eventually, in the 1900s a series of wineries were opened. In 1973, Chardonnay was grown successfully at the Waverly Estate while in 1976, Gianni Zonin established Barboursville Vineyard.
Today there are 230 wineries in Virginia and the state is the fifth largest wine producing state behind California, Washington, Oregon, and New York. Who knew?
So why did Jay compare Virginia to Bordeaux? Both have maritime climates, three principal rivers, and somewhat similar soils (clay, gravel, sand, among them). Additionally, they have similar rainfall and temperatures.
According to his presentation, Virginia and Bordeaux also share a “common struggle to attain phenolic ripeness in red grapes (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc) while this is not a problem in other states in the US such as California, Washington and Oregon” although it most certainly is in New York State.
On to the wines, we tried 12 wines. I enjoyed a number of them but others had too much oak on them for my taste. I can see why they might do well in the US market though. Of the 12 wines that we tried, I was partial to the 2010 Cooper Vineyards – Petit Verdot Reserva made from 86% Petit Verdot and 14% Cabernet Sauvignon. This winery doesn’t own its own vineyards but buys fruit from around the State. I thought it was a well-balanced and harmonious wine that would have worked well with Steak or heavy fare. They also used new American oak from a Virginia cooperage which I think is interesting and I applaud the effort.
I favored the 2010 RdV Vineyards “Rendezvous” from Middleberg made from 44% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Franc and 12% Petit Verdot which I thought was polished and elegant with juicy ripe tannins. It also showed a lot of oak.
I also liked the 2010 Sunset Hills Vineyard wine called “Mosaic” made from 37.5% Merlot, 37.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc and 7% Petit Verdot. I liked that they aged their wines in used American oak as well as new French and Hungarian barrels. This wine had more minerality than the others according to my notes and is the only one that doesn’t say oak next to my tasting note.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to taste so many Virginia wines together, a feat I would not be able to repeat on my own. On the whole, I think they are producing some very nice wines in that State and there is much to taste through. In the past, I had thought of Virginia as the home of Viognier in the USA. Now I know that it is also home to many good Bordeaux blends. I look forward to discovering more of what Virginia has to offer.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I try to “cultivate an attitude of gratitude” as my friend Jean Koerner says. So thank you Virginia and thank you Jay.