Monday, February 9, 2009

Monticello Wine Trail Tour 2009

Last month, at a weekly wine tasting, several of us discussed the various wine regions in Virginia and which, as a region, were producing the finest wines in the state. We concluded that perhaps the Monticello area was sovereign, and to prove our hypothesis we planned a visit to the region. Our excursion was organized by Jim and Lori Corcoran - the proprietors and winemaker from Loudoun County's Corcoran Vineyards. The Corcorans make some of the best Cabernet Franc and Viognier in Loudoun County and they were looking forward to an exchange of ideas with other winemakers. Our party also consisted of other experienced wine professionals including Mary Watson-Delauder, a sommelier who graces the current cover of the Virginia Wine Lover Magazine; her husband Rick Delauder of Australia's Ballast Stone Estate Wines; wine writer Dezel Quillen from My Virginia Vine Spot; Michael Ching, a partner at The Winery of LaGrange; and a few other wine connoisseurs. Our destination was several of the top wineries surrounding Charlottesville: Veritas Vineyards, King Family Vineyards, White Hall Vineyards, Blenheim Vineyards, Jefferson Vineyards, and Keswick Vineyards.

In the upcoming weeks look for separate articles on each winery, but we have several general conclusions we'd like to share. Overall, our initial hypotheses was not validated. Whereas we did sample some tremendous wines, there was enough doubt among us to conclude that many wineries in northern Virginia make comparable wines. Instead, the trip exposed the potential in Virginia wines and introduced us to a new generation of young winemakers who are striving to produce world class wines. In most cases, the wine making was conducted by a young, educated winemaker - we are talking about winemakers in their 20s and 30s - who have both the experience and geographic background to add value to their products. At Veritas Vineyards, Emily Pelton has taken over the daily wine making chores from her father Andrew Hodson and is producing over a dozen still and sparkling wines that were first class. Kirsty Harmon (Blenheim Vineyards) is beginning to inject her experience working with Gabriele Rausse and in France and New Zealand to enhance the winery's portfolio. The same holds true for Stephen Barnard (Keswick Vineyards) who uses many techniques that he learned in his native South Africa to produce excellent wines. And Andy Reagan (Jefferson Vineyards) uses his background at several mid-Atlantic wineries to produce a portfolio of great Bordeaux-styled wines. Matthieu Finot, from King Family Vineyards, was not able to meet with us, but his credentials include working in his native France, as well as in Italy and South Africa. The future is definitely bright at these wineries. In addition, the quality in the wines made by the female winemakers lead many in our party to suggest that, in general, females are better winemakers than men. That's another interesting hypothesis we can discuss at a later date.

More importantly we saw the direction where these wineries want to lead Virginia in terms of wine grapes. In the past, many Virginia wineries have gambled on different varieties, hoping that they would elevate Virginia in the wine market. Some thought Norton, others Chardonnay. In the past few years many wineries thought Cabernet Franc. And over the weekend we tasted several excellent versions of this wine. Virginia wineries make excellent Cabernet Franc - but are they world class wines? We also discovered several excellent Merlot wines and learned from David King that it grows rather consistently from year to year in the state. Normally not pleased with Virginia grown Cabernet Sauvignon, we tasted a fabulous version aging in the barrel at Blenheim. We also sampled good Touriga and Petit Mensing at White Hall and Sauvignon Blanc at Veritas Vineyards. But, as good as all these wines tasted, two grapes clearly stood out, and we believe that these grapes have the best potential to elevate Virginia wines to world class status. We are referring to Viognier and Petit Verdot. The first is not surprising since many wineries have been producing excellent Viognier over the past decade. Interesting, this ancient grape was recently threatened with extinction for as late as 1965 there was only eight acres planted in Northern Rhône. Considering the history of the grape (it migrated to the Rhône region with the Romans) and how well it has rebounded, that would have been tragic. Particularly since it also produces excellent wines. Each winery we visited had a superb Viognier wine - regardless of style - that would hold their own against California and Rhône produced varietals. As for Petit Verdot, this grape is normally used in Bordeaux blends and is a relative newcomer in the state, yet almost each winery we visited choose to vinify it. And as a 100% varietal. The winemakers recognize the potential in the grape and believe that is very suitable for their climate. And in each instance, the wines were fabulous; full bodied with depth and tannins worthy for further aging. We have seen the future for Virginia....and its not Cabernet Franc, or Norton.

Finally, we listened to fabulous discussions on wine making. Stephen Barnard stressed how managing the vineyard was the single most important factor in making good wines. And in a later email exchange, Matthieu Finot reiterated that point. At Veritas Vineyards we tasted how the juice from the same grapes picked from the same lot produce different wine depending on when they were picked. At Blenheim Vineyards and Veritas Vineyards we compared the fruitiness of free run juice against more tannic juice from grapes pressed once or twice. We discussed blending, yeast, malolatic fermentation, racking, and several other principles involved in making wine. And we talked screw caps. Some wine makers wanted to convert their entire portfolio to this closure device in order to eliminate the cork taint caused by TCA, others only the whites. Nevertheless, all hesitate since the general public still associates screw caps with cheap wines. But they expect to release more wines closed with screw caps - at least white wines; but until the public's perception changes - keep the corkscrew handy.

This was the type of trip that every wine consumer should experience. Although we did get special access due to the Corcoran's association with the wineries, the average taster can plan a similar venture. Many wineries hold wine classes that explain their wines and are usually taught by the winery's winemaker. In other instances the winemaker assists in the tasting room, providing an excellent opportunity for interaction. Research before you travel - start at, find wineries and events in your destination and drill into the winery's website. Contact the winery directly, the information is available; it just takes planning. Next up, Veritas Vineyards.

1 comment:

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