Virginia grows into hot new frontier for world-class red wines

Luca Paschina, winemaker and general manager of Barboursville Vineyards, has produced 12 vintages of the Merlot-based blend called Octagon that put Virginia reds on the map. (Image courtesy of "Virginia is for Lovers" at

Luca Paschina, winemaker and general manager of Barboursville Vineyards, produces the Merlot-based blend called Octagon — the wine that has inspired the push to make world-class dry reds in Virginia. (Image courtesy of “Virginia is for Lovers” at

Virginia is for lovers of big red wines — flavors that explode out of the glass, silken tannins, balance and alcohol, and tons of great oak.

Virginia wineries — when they don’t get pounded by hurricanes — are blessed with a climate and soils, steep slopes and a can-do spirit of historic proportions. Many are located at America’s most historic sites.

Red wines are built strong as tanks that purr like a Mercedes  — they include single varietal Petit Verdots and Cabernet Francs and Nortons, and blends of all the usual Bordeaux varieties with special emphasis on Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

The state wine industry is home to more than 230 wineries and 3,000 acres of wine grapes. And if you are headed to Washington, D.C., and happen to land at Washington Dulles International in Virginia, you are only a 30 to 45 minute drive from the closest wineries.

There are seven main growing areas, with a big cluster around Charlottesville — the Monticello AVA (American Viticultural Area), which is only a two-hour drive from Dulles.

I recently tasted through a case of the top reds in the 2013 Virginia Governor’s Cup Wine Competition, and my teeth are still purple.

Here’s a look at the state’s best red wines in the 2013 Virginia Governor’s Cup Competition:

Barboursville Vineyards Octagon 12th Edition (Governor’s Cup Winner) 2009, $50

As general manager and winemaker, Luca Paschina has elevated Barboursville and “Octagon” to star status — along with the Virginia wine industry. I have judged Virginia wines in the past and I think I now can identify this blend blind. It’s such a smooth, well-structured, well-mannered Merlot-driven beauty. This 12th vintage, or “Edition,” of Octagon is 70 percent Merlot, 15 percent Cabernet Franc and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s like a liqueur-spiked cherry chocolate bonbon that melts in the mouth. It’s layers and layers of flavor — ripe plum, cherry, blackberry, brown spices, cassis, cola. It’s juicy and balanced. No rough edges. Supple tannins. And it ages like a champ.

King Family Vineyards 2010 Meritage

King Family has been on my radar screen for a decade. The passion of the King family, the wines, the winemakers are solid hits. The Meritage is their prize. This blend is 43 percent Merlot, 27 percent Petit Verdot, 22 percent Cabernet Franc and 8 percent Malbec. It’s a symphony of blackberry, plum, cherry, brown spices and vanilla. It’s a lovely knit package with well-integrated oak and smooth tannins.

Lovingston Winery 2009 Estate Reserve, Josie’s Knoll, $24.95

Tremendous extract and great weight on the palate make this Merlot taste like the Right Bank of the Gironde estuary in Bordeaux. It’s Old World meets New. The “New” is the fruit-forward style and sculpted tannins. The “Old” is the muscle and the oak. It’s a blend of 85 percent Merlot with 10 percent Cabernet Franc and 5 percent Petit Verdot. This is a powerful wine that bursts with plum, blackberry, cherry and dark chocolate; the blast of smoky oak envelops the wine, but eases as the wine sits in the glass.  It was aged 36 months in barrel. Winemaker Riaan Rossouw is from South Africa. This certainly is one of the more gently prices wines. Lovingston Winery is in Lovingston, Va., southwest of Charlottesville.

Philip Carter Winery Cleve 2010, $45

This dark, brooding beauty is a 50-50 blend of Petit Verdot and Tannat, aged in French and American oak — an example of creative blending to produce a robust red wine from varietals that grow well in Virginia. It offers cherry, dark plum, bittersweet chocolate flavors with black licorice in the finish. Tannat is historically grown in Southwest France. There are few plantings in the U.S. outside of Virginia and Maryland. Cleve is only made in the best vintages. The Carter family has a rare history — as far back as 1762, they produced wine at Cleve Plantation on the banks of Virginia’s Rappahannock River. Philip Carter Winery is in Mid-Northern Virginia in Hume, Va.

Cooper Vineyards Petit Verdot 2010, $30

Petit Verdot drives another wine, this one blended with 14 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged in 100 percent new Virginia oak, this has to be some wine to stand up to that blast of spice and smoke. The flavors are blueberry, dark chocolate, cassis, coffee, dark spices. Cooper is owned by Jacquelyn and Geoffrey Cooper, both medical doctors. The winery is midway between Richmond and Charlottesville in Louisa County.

Pollak Vineyards Reserve Cabernet Franc 2009,

California seldom ventures into a single varietal of Cabernet Franc — maybe they can’t make it like this. This baby is a rocket with flavors that roar: dried cranberry, dried cherry, pomegranate, spice, red bell pepper and chocolate. The finish is bigtime cherry. Tannins are like silk.

Potomac Point Richland Reserve Heritage 2010, $26.99

This Bordeaux blend is the pinnacle for Potomac Point, located just outside of Washington, D.C. It’s a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and Petit Verdot. It opens with a blast of sweet bell pepper, dark plum and ripe cherry infused with smoky oak. It has good body at 14.6 percent alcohol. “Richland” refers to the historic 1,040 acre farm called Richland that dates to the mid-16oos.

Rappahannock Cellars Meritage 2010, $32.50

Merlot may dominate the blend, but the Cabernet Franc is in the driver’s seat. And in the backseat are Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. The nose is a symphony of dark plum, sweet dried cranberry, dark berries, sweet dark currants and brown cooking spices. It has wonderful action in the mouth — bold fruit, supple tannin, acidity, alcohol. One big wow! I am not sure California could grow a wine like this. The winery is owned by the Delmare family, which began their wine odyssey in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California before migrating to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

RdV Vineyards Lost Mountain 2010, $88

Buckle your seatbelt for an essence of cassis, cherry, blackberry, bittersweet chocolate and lovely integrated oak. Flavors are concentrated, powerful, elegant. This is serious red wine, made by a team of Frenchmen, Americans and vineyard workers inspired by the passion and grit of proprietor Rutger de Vink — who gets some of his fearless energy from being a U.S. Marine. Lost Mountain is a Caberent Sauvignon-driven blend with 36 percent Merlot. Not many of the Virginia blends start with Cabernet. Eric Boissenot, a consultant to top houses in Bordeaux, advises on the blending of the wine, and Jean-Phillippe Roby helps with the vineyards; enologist Kees Van Leeuwen, winemaker at Chateau Cheval Blanc, is an adviser. Rutger de Vink, whose family is Dutch, uses his initials for the name of the winery.

Dave McIntyre, wine writer for the Washington Post, tells the story in this 2011 report.

RdV Vineyards Rendezvous 2010, $75

Rendezvous is concentrated blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, plum, dark chocolate and vanilla. This blend is Merlot driven, filled out with Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It gives RdV a Right Bank-style wine. Proprietor and general manager Rutger de Vink worked at Jim Law’s Linden Vineyard while he was preparing his own site. You can read more about the story of this winery in the first chapter of Richard G. Leahy’s 2012 book, “Beyond Jefferson’s Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia.”

Sunset Hills Vineyard Mosaic 2010, $50

This big, approachable red that’s so sturdy it stays fresh for days after the bottle is opened is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It resonates with juicy, intense plum, cassis and cherry flavors. It is aged 16 months in American, French and Hungarian oak. It’s made off the winery’s best vineyard sites in the 2010 vintage. Sunset Hills in Loudoun County, in Washington D.C.’s metropolitan area, has grown from three acres of vines in 1999 to 150 acres today.

Trump Sparkling Rose 2008 Monticello AVA, $29

This salmon-hued sparkling wine is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It is produced like Champagne — fermented a second time in the bottle. It’s dry with a subtle sweetness of raspberry and cherry. The nose is toast, mushroom, green apple and red berry. It’s approachable — with all the hallmarks of fine French production — tiny bubbles, toasty oak, lots of complexity. Donald Trump purchased the former Kluge Wine Estate in 2011 at a foreclosure auction — a winery that was much touted for its sparkling wine and French wine consulting. Trump’s son Eric runs the winery.


I recommend Richard Leahy’s book, “Beyond Jefferson’s Wines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia (Sterling Epicure, $19.95) for its up-to-date, thoroughly researched and highly readable account of the modern-day Virginia Wine Industry. Richard has credentials a milelong, plus he lives in Charlottesville. In the book, he takes you on the road with him to explore the cellars and hear all the backstories.

Check out the industry Web site Discover & Taste Virginia Wine for information on each winery, events and travel help.

Also get help at Virginia is for Lovers.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at