Virginia reds drive reputation, growth of state's wine industry

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Jefferson Vineyards is just outside Charlottesville next to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. (Image courtesy of Jefferson Vineyards)

VIRGINIA WINES only surprise the people who have never tasted them before. The critics figured out Virginia’s rosy future a while ago, with strong praise from wine experts Bartholomew Broadbent and Steven Spurrier. Washington Post wine writer Dave McIntyre not only follows their progress in the vineyards but their growing presence on D.C. restaurant wine lists.

Over the last decade, this burgeoning regional wine industry has proved it can grow and make world-quality wine from many European grape varietals, hybrids and American grapes.

Robust fruit, elegant tannins, sturdy acidity: They have the stuff it takes to age and please the most discerning wine lovers. Many of the reds are blends — but not always predictable. You nearly always find Petit Verdot in the mix, while Merlot and Cabernet Franc play lead roles.

Virginia grows unusual grape varieties for reds like Tannat (more at home in Southwest France) and Touriga Nacional (Portugal). Norton is an American cultivar that some wineries have embraced quite successfully for age-worthy reds. Petit Manseng is fairly common for white wines, but the most famous white of all? That would be the Rhone’s Viognier. It’s so successful here it’s simply known as “Virginia Viognier.”

Virginia has more than 250 wineries — some just 30 minutes away from transport hubs like Washington Dulles International Airport. And for visitors, the wines not only shine, but the mountains and valleys and rural countryside views are stunning, plus the wineries may not only be a stone’s throw from an historic site but even occupy it.

The only thing holding back this wine industry is the shortage of grapes and the occasional vintages when weather events damage the vines — and let’s see, that seems to happen across Europe as well.

Wine professional Richard Leahy, who has just revised his book on Virginia wines, “Beyond Jefferson’s Vines” (available at Amazon.com), writes: “Whether you’ve been following Virginia wine for decades or have just discovered it, there are a lot of good, very good and even great wines to be discovered here in 2015, where Thomas Jefferson’s vision of viticulture and fine American wine has finally been realized some 200 years after his own vineyards failed to yield a crop.”

Here’s a taste of the 12 highest scoring wines in the 2015 Virginia Governor’s Cup Wine Competition. They demonstrate the diversity and strengths of this industry.

Muse Vineyards “Clio” Red Wine Shenandoah Valley, Virginia 2009, $65: Intense aromas of dark berries, cherry, plum, vanilla and dark chocolate are followed by bold flavors braced with sturdy acidity, an infusion of oak and supple tannins. The structure is firm. Let this beauty be your introduction to Virginia-style red blends. It’s a heady mix of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. It was aged for three years in barrel in 50 percent new, 50 percent neutral French oak. Look at the vintage: It proves the aging potential of some Virginia reds. This wine won top honors at the 2015 Virginia Governor’s Cup Wine Competition.

Muse Vineyards, owned by Robert Muse, is in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, just east of the town of Woodstock. The vineyards are on a site continuously farmed since the mid-1700s. Owner Robert Muse is the winemaker. He also practices international law in Washington, D.C.

King Family Vineyards Meritage Monticello 2012, $30.95: Do decant this wine: I am re-tasting it the second day and the flavors and tannins have so relaxed. It needs air and patience to unfurl its beauty. This is Virginia: a blend of 42 percent Merlot (dark cherry, plum, coffee, spice notes), 27 percent Cabernet Franc (cranberry, herbs), 25 percent Petit Verdot (inky color, complexity), 6 percent Malbec (berries, spice). Tannins are like velvet; acidity is the spine holding these flavors upright. It’s a wine to sip and savor. I think back to Thomas Jefferson and his love for the finer things in life – he would have adored this wine. The winemaker is Matthieu Finot who was born in the Rhone Valley of France and is from a family of viticulturists and wine lovers.

King Family Vineyards is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Crozet, just fifteen minutes from Charlottesville.

Narmada Winery Yash-Vir Red Table Wine Virginia 2010, $28: This wine is more confirmation of the wonders of Virginia Merlot and Petit Verdot blended with Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Aromas of plum, dark cherry, espresso coffee beans and dark chocolate lead the way to velvet tannins, crisp acidity, and a total package that shows just how lovely these wines can age. Flavors are infused with oak. Alcohol is a drinkable 13.4 percent. This blend is 43 percent Merlot, 29 percent Petit Verdot, 14 percent Cabernet Franc and 14 percent Malbec.

Narmada Winery is in Rappahannock County. Owner-winemaker Dr. Sudha Patil, M.D., a longtime Virginia endodontist, studied winemaking with Jim Law of Linden Vineyards and works closely with wine consultant Tom Payette.

Jefferson Vineyards Meritage Monticello Virginia 2010, $59.95: Jefferson Vineyards gives the lead to Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with support from the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Now do you see the pattern in Virginia red blends? This wine also demonstrates how nicely the best Virginia reds can age. It has flavors of ripe black currant, raspberry and cherry with notes of dark chocolate and vanilla. A lovely infusion of oak, round tannins and sturdy acidity complete the package. So beautiful. It has plenty of body with alcohol at 14.7 percent.

Jefferson Vineyards in Charlottesville is on the historic land between President Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and President James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland. The winemaker, Chris Ritzcovan, grew up in a family of gardeners and graduated from the University of Virginia. His tenure at Jefferson began in 2007.

Catoctin Creek Winery Meritage 2012, $26: This limited-production red blend has flavors of dark plum, red currant, blackberry and spice, with an infusion of vanilla and spicy oak. It was barrel-aged 24 months. The grape mix is 30 percent Merlot, 25 percent Petit Verdot, 25 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Cabernet Franc. The heavy helping of Petit Verdot gives it the inky color and dark berry tones.

Owner-winemaker Jim Hanna spent a long career with the World Bank and moved to Virginia from Maryland in 2004 to learn winemaking. He produces limited offerings designed for Virginia restaurants, inns and resorts.

Cross Keys Touriga Virginia 2013, $45.99: This wine will get your attention with its bold aromas and flavors, and its balance. This is a structured red with plenty of fruit to stand up to French oak aging. It explodes with beautiful aromas of intense cherry, black currant, plum, vanilla. It’s medium-bodied with soft, supple tannins and a sturdy backbone of acidity. Touriga Nacional is a grape variety used for some of Portugal’s finest wines.

Cross Keys winemaker Stephan Heyns learned his skills in his native South Africa where he studied at Elsenburg College in Stellenbosch and worked in Australia and South Africa before moving to Virginia.

Vint Hill Craft Winery Petit Verdot Virginia 2012, $39: You don’t find many wineries making Petit Verdot as a single-varietal wine. It’s usually used for color and flavor nuances in Bordeaux-style blends, and it’s a late ripener and tricky to grow. But in Virginia, a straight Petit Verdot is fairly common. This one has the trademark inky color and intense dark berry, dark chocolate tones. Aromas are cherry, plum, dark chocolate, dark tea and spicy oak. Flavors of intense cherry, blackberry, brown spices, cola and vanilla are wrapped in supple tannins. It’s quite nice.

Ashton Lough, a native Virginian with a strong background in science and art, is the winemaker. He also makes the wine at Pearmund Cellars and The Winery at Bull Run.

Michael Shaps Wineworks Tannat Monticello 2012, $35: This grape historically grown in Southwest France has a strong future in Virginia. The wine is another to make you believe in the reds from this state. Intense aromas of black currants, blackberries, plum, raisins, cedar and espresso coffee beans are followed by bold, earthy flavors infused with French oak, supple tannins and sturdy acidity. It has body at 14.6 percent alcohol and all the right stuff to age.

I have followed the work of Michael Shaps for a long time. His wines are the real deal. He is French-trained and moved to Virginia in 1995 to make wine at Jefferson Vineyards for six vintages. With the 2000 vintage, he produced his first wines under his own “Michael Shaps” label from grapes at Virginia’s King Family Vineyards in Crozet, where he moved to be winemaker. Today, he is a consultant to East Coast wineries, makes small lots of wine in Burgundy, France, and runs his custom-crush facility, Michael Shaps Wineworks, which he opened in 2007 in Charlottesville.

Michael Shaps Wineworks Raisin d’Etre White Virginia 2012, $25: This golden beauty is a blend of late-harvest Petit Manseng and Riesling produced in the Italian ripasso style — the grapes are air-dried for 10 days in a tobacco-curing barn prior to fermentation to dehydrate the grapes and produce intense honeyed, raisined flavors. The texture is like silk, the flavors pop with concentrated pineapple, pear and orange peel notes. It’s positively yummy. It’s dessert all by itself. 

North Gate Vineyard Meritage Virginia 2012, $24: This sturdy red blend gives the star role to Merlot followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, with help from Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It’s quite young and tightly wound but still shows off gorgeous flavors of cherry, raspberry, currant and plum. Each component is aged by itself in French oak for a year, then blended and aged another year in barrel.

Mark and Vicki Fedor own this beautiful property in Purcellville. They planted their first grapes in 2002. Their production facility and tasting room are LEED Gold certified. Both have a long history in technology.

Delfosse Vineyards & Winery Petit Verdot Virginia 2013, $45: This gentle giant with intense color and a truckload of dark berry fruit is another example of a Virginia winery flexing its muscles with a single-varietal Petit Verdot. It offers bold aromas of blueberry, blackberry, vanilla and spice. This is a structured wine with layers of flavor, well-integrated oak, smooth tannins and firm acidity. Eight percent of the juice was bled off for rosé to concentrate the skin to juice ratio for this wine.

Skilled winemaker Paul Mierzejewski has been working in the wine industry for more than 35 years. He joined Delfosse Vineyards & Winery when it opened in 2004 and has steadily built the reputation of this winery near Charlottesville.

Rockbridge Vineyard V d’Or Virginia White Wine 2010, $20: This copper-colored beauty is a dessert wine made from frozen late-harvest grapes — grapes that are frozen commercially, not outside in nature. The idea is to give the impression of ice wine. Riotous flavors of peach, apricot, mandarin orange and ripe apple explode on the palate. The sweet, honeyed flavors still have firm acidity for structure. It’s a blend of Vidal Blanc, Vignoles and Riesling.

Proprietors Shepherd Rouse and wife Jane Millott-Rouse own Rockbridge. Shep Rouse is one of the state’s modern-day pioneers, and his family heritage in Virginia dates to the 17th century. With vast winemaking experience in California and Virginia, he brings to his wines traditional small-batch methods with minimal processing to capture the essence of the vineyard. He is highly respected in the state and far beyond.

LEARN MORE ABOUT VIRGINIA WINE

Check out the state’s Virginia Wine web site to learn more about the wineries, regions and events. www.virginiawine.org

Richard G. Leahy’s second edition of “Beyond Jefferson’s Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia” at Amazon.com takes you on an informative road trip with plenty of insight and details you won’t find anyplace else.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at ssilfven@Hotmail.com.