Love those Virginia reds: Hello Keswick Cabernet Franc

Keswick winemaker Stephen Barnard's Reserve Cabernet Franc won the 2016 Governor's Cup in Virginia. (Image courtesy of

Keswick winemaker Stephen Barnard’s 2014 Reserve Cabernet Franc won the 2016 Governor’s Cup in Virginia. (Image courtesy of

Once a year, I am fortunate to taste the best wines Virginia has to offer — the winners of the annual Governor’s Cup Competition. The 12 top wines comprise the “Governor’s Cup Case” and the best entry wins an impressive trophy, the Governor’s Cup. And my reaction keeps intensifying: Wow. The reds. The blends. And the whites from those surprising grape varieties.

Virginia has more than 280 wineries spread around the state — often meshing with the state’s historic sites and structures. Wineries are as close as 40 minutes from Washington Dulles International Airport.

Virginia wineries are building a reputation for high-quality red wines and blends from Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Tannat and the American grape Norton. The signature white wine is Viognier, but running a close second are Chardonnay and Petite Manseng — the grape better known in southwest France. Italian varietals have a place at the table too, including Vermentino.

If you haven’t hit their wine trails, you can get help from Virginia’s resident wine authority and author Richard G. Leahy who can take you on a road tour in the Second Edition of his “Beyond Jefferson’s Vines: The Evolution of Quality Wine in Virginia.” The Virginia Wine Marketing Office offers a free Virginia Winery Guide revised annually.

As for purchasing the wines, you usually won’t find them in national distribution because the wineries are mostly small and family owned, and don’t have the capacity or resources to make enough wine to sell around the country. But you can buy them at the winery web sites or try them at restaurants in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Here’s a look at the 2016 Governor’s Cup Case:keswick

WINNER of Governor’s Cup: Keswick Vineyards Cabernet Franc Estate Reserve 2014, $50: There aren’t many Cabernet Francs in this country with the power, structure and concentrated fruit of this one. It has aromas that wake up every sensory point in your head. Tannins are smooth as silk and the acidity provides structure. Aromas of dried cherry, dried cranberry, pomegranate, dark chocolate, spice and vanilla are followed by meaty, intense flavors. It’s delicious.

Keswick owners Al and Cindy Schornberg are former residents of Holly, Michigan. They founded the Virginia winery in 2000. The winemaker is Stephen Barnard from South Africa who found his way to Virginia by way of the Ohio State University wine internship program (the same program that brought Cornel Olivier of 2 Lads and Coenraad Stassen of Brys Estate to Michigan).

Barboursville Vineyards Vermentino 2014, $22: It’s not surprising that this Italian-owned winery would grow vermentino, a grape primarily known in Italy. This one hits all the high notes with bright acidity and intense mandarin orange, pineapple and lime aromas. It’s dry and stylish with nice strains of minerality in the finish. It’s all-stainless steel produced.

Barboursville Vineyards with its sprawling grounds, Palladio restaurant and the ruins of a Thomas Jefferson-designed residence for James Barbour, the governor of Virginia, is a destination spot for wine tourists. Winemaker Luca Paschina is a leader in the Virginia wine industry. It’s his aged red wines that often win the Governor’s Cup. Barboursville is owned by the Zonin family, a prominent wine producer in Italy.

Bluestone Vineyard Estate Grown Chardonnay 2014, $23.50: While Viognier is considered Virginia’s leading white wine, Chardonnay is a strong second. This one has that signature minerality and white stone fruit that seem to weave through all the state’s white wines. It’s dry, rich and structured with notes of green apple, pear, white peach, citrus and vanilla. It’s fermented in French oak and spent nine months aging on the lees.

General manager and winemaker Lee Hartman, son of Bluestone founders Curt and Jackie Hartman, studied under one of the state’s best-known vintners, Michael Shaps. Lee is an ambassador for Virginia wines, serving on the board of the Virginia Wine Council.

Cardinal Point Vineyard and Winery Clay Hill Cabernet Franc 2014, $30: I love Cab Francs, and again I have to say, it’s a grape variety that fares well in the East. This wine is graced with intense aromas, smooth tannins, creamy mouthfeel and lush fruit. It has nice integration of oak — mainly American, which complements the wine. The fruit is dark cherry, dried cranberry, blackberry, a pinch of spice and dark chocolate.

Cardinal Point has deep roots in the modern Virginia wine industry dating to the mid-1980s when founders Paul and Ruth Gorman decided to be vintners in their retirement. Today, the winery and vineyard are a total family business with their children in leadership roles.

Fabbioli Cellars Cabernet Franc Reserve Loudoun County, Virginia 2012, $35: With finesse, style, tremendous depth of flavor and balance, and tannins like satin, this is an approachable, food friendly, age-worthy beauty. It has aromas of intense cherry, dried cranberry, dark plum and brown baking spices.

Doug Fabbioli and wife Colleen Berg have paid their dues in the wine world, first journeying to Sonoma in 1987 where Doug would study wine and viticulture and work at Buena Vista, then moving back to the East 10 years later to work and live in Virginia. Doug made wine first at Tarara Winery in Leesburg and then Windham Winery in Purcellville. They bought a 25-acre parcel in Loudoun County and began planting their own vineyard in 2001. They are best known for their reds.

Glen Manor Vineyards grows grapes on the high hillsides of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C. (Image courtesy of

Glen Manor Vineyards grows grapes on the high hillsides of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 70 miles west of Washington, D.C. (Image courtesy of

Glen Manor Vineyards Hodder Hill Virginia Red Wine 2013, $50: Grown on a high western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this intense dry red teases the senses with aromas of black cherry, blackberry, ripe plum, vanilla and brown baking spice. Tannins are smooth and supple with mild grip. It has weight and complexity, as it lures you to take another taste. It’s a great example of the elegance and power of the best Virginia Cabs. It’s 67 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 28 percent Merlot, 5 percent Petit Verdot.

Glen Manor Vineyards is located at an historic farm on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Family-operated for four generations, the White family is the current custodian of this farm. Their ancestors arrived in the area in 1787.

Granite Heights Winery “Evening Serenade” 2010, $41. I love this blend of 80 percent Merlot and 20 percent Cabernet Franc — again, with proper planting it’s the kind of blend that works well in the East. It’s dry with such finesse and complexity, and still has more aging potential. It has lovely black currant, red berry fruit with good tannic structure and acidity. It was aged 15 months in mostly American oak, which complements the fruit.

The boutique winery Granite Heights is the result of hands-on work by Luke and Toni Kilyk — he’s an intellectual property law attorney, she’s a family practice physician. They purchased a farm outside Warrenton and hired renowned viticulture consultant Lucie Morton to give them a planting strategy.

Horton Vineyards Petit Manseng 2014, $25: This nectar-like white wine explodes with sweet tropical fruit — pineapple, melon, citrus, peach, ripe banana, ginger — balanced with razor-sharp acidity. It’s hand-harvested, whole cluster pressed, barrel fermented in French oak. It’s amazing!

Dennis Horton, one of Virginia’s veteran vintners, once told me he has ripped out more vines than most vintners have planted in his quest to see what would grow and make great wine. He clearly has a winner with Petite Manseng, a grape best known in southwest France — along with Viognier and Norton.

Michael Shaps Petit Manseng 2014, $30: Dry and tangy, tropical and floral — this lush bone-dry wine resonates with pineapple, honey, hazelnut and citrus aromas. It’s fermented in French oak — one-third new — which says something about the power of the fruit. Alcohol is 14.6 percent. Strap on your seat belt!

I have followed Michael Shaps’ wines for years — they are bold, well-made, expressive. Before running his own winery, he brought medals to the state’s Jefferson Vineyards and King Family Vineyards. He is an acclaimed wine consultant and has assisted in the startup of more than 10 wineries.

Naked Mountain Winery Petit Verdot 2012, $36: This dark, brooding wine shows how fearless Virginia vintners are. Petit Verdot brings firm tannins, tons of dark color, bold  flavors of dark berries, dark olives and floral notes. It’s blended with 11 percent Merlot and 11 percent Tannat, which smooth out the Petit Verdot and add to its complexity and appeal. It has aromas of cherry, plum, brown cooking spices woven with cedar.

Naked Mountain Winery with its chalet-style tasting room is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Washington, D.C. The first vines were planted in 1976. It is best known for barrel-fermented Chardonnay.

North Gate Vineyard Meritage 2013, $26: This blend of mostly Merlot with Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc is still young and zipped up, but if you let it sit in the glass long enough you can get a snapshot of its future — intense flavors, supple tannins, good acidity. It offers notes of plum, cherry and dark chocolate with hints of oak.

Mark and Vicki Fedor have been making wine commercially since 2003 and at their own winery in Loudoun County in 2007. They built a LEED-certified tasting room and winery — in fact the winery is certified LEED Gold. It is 100 percent solar-powered.

Stone Tower Winery Hogback Mountain 2013, $69: This smooth red blend is 69 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 24 percent Merlot, 4 percent Cabernet Franc and 3 percent Petit Verdot. It’s still young and closed in with notes of dark berries, brown cooking spices, plum, and eucalyptus. Tannins are soft, flavors are rich. It’s aged 18 months in new and used French and Virginia oak. Just one more red blend that testifies to how strong this category is in Virginia.

Stone Tower Winery is on Hogback Mountain south of Leesburg and was founded by Mike and Kristi Huber, who own Belfort Furniture, one of Northern Virginia’s largest furniture stores.

October is Virginia Wine Month: Read about the special events here.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at