Sunday, October 14, 2012

Virginia’s Signature Varietals

As Virginia's reputation as a world-class wine region continues to skyrocket, it's worth spotlighting five varietals distinct to the Commonwealth. Other (Old World and New World) winemaking countries offer these varietals, as well as several U.S. states. But Virginia's offerings are standing above and beyond the others: Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Norton, Petit Verdot and Chambourcin. It's interesting to note that although Virginia may be better known (and respected by more discerning wine fans) for its whites, only one white earns a spot on signature list: Viognier.

CABERNET FRANC If you've been to any winery in Virginia, chances are high you've tried Cabernet Franc. One of the major Bordeaux varieties (others include Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot, another spotlighted varietal), Cab Franc traditionally has been used for blending, especially in California, which has been working with Cab Franc for decades. Paul Giamatti's character Miles from Sideways may not have been a fan of Cab Franc (although he didn't detest it as much as Merlot....), but Virginia has embraced it (the state and probably Giamatti's co-star from the movie, Virginia Madsen). The climate and soil throughout the Commonwealth has proved to be ideal for the grape; if you want to capture the state in a bottle for a relative in another state, Cab Franc would be your best bet for a red. Cab Franc tends to have a peppery, earthy or "mineraly" quality that could be off-putting to those more used to smooth and bold New World style reds from California, Oregon and Washington state. Depending on growing region and style of wine, additional aromas can include tobacco, raspberry, black cherry, and sometimes even violets. Where to try it: Nearly every Virginia winery has one. The blogmaster's favorites include Stinson Vineyards, Rockbridge Vineyard, and Rappahannock Cellars.

VIOGNIER Recently named the official state grape of Virginia, the reputation of Viognier is spreading to California - one of the blogmasters entertained a group of scientists not long ago, one of whom owns a vineyard in Napa, and who ordered a Virginia Viognier from the menu during dinner. The Rhone region of France has been crafting wines from Viognier for years, and several higher elevation California wineries offer Viognier. Admittedly, it's not a wine many people love on first taste. It took the blogmasters about a year to get accustomed to the wine. Now we actively seek it out. Viognier can be a difficult grape to grow because it is prone to mildew. Many states have attempted to create a viognier, only to be invaded by humid and rainy weather that spoil the grapes. In Virginia, despite the humid summers, the grape thrives, probably due to the state's latitude and soil. In fact, some winemakers claim it grows like a weed in the state--several wineries have shunned the wine, mainly due to the fact that the winemaker loathes the taste of the wine, which can run the gamut from butterscotch to almonds to grapefruit to honeysuckle. Where to try it: Our favorite viogniers can be found at Chester Gap Cellars near Front Royal, Delaplane Cellars, and Barboursville Vineyards.

NORTON Born in Virginia (Richmond, to be exact) in the early 19th Century and later perfected in Missouri (where it's the official state grape), Norton is similar to Viognier in its introduction to wineheads familiar with New World offerings from the west coast. A bit of a shock is more like it--it's one of those wines you love, tolerate only once or twice a year (like the blogmasters), or hate. Norton is typically dry, and has an inky appearance, and a bold taste that has been likened to tar and leather. But don't let the description and the blogmaster's hesitation with Norton turn you off. Everyone should try it once. You may find that you adore it. We prefer some of the wineries in the state that blend Norton, such as Lexington Valley Vineyard, which has a stand-alone Norton as well as a rosé Norton. Horton Norton (say it three times) is available at some supermarkets, if you don't get a chance to visit Horton's Gordonsville location; it is our favorite Norton in Virginia. Finally, the king of Norton has to be Chrysalis Vineyards near Middleburg, which has the most acreage of Norton in the world.

PETIT VERDOT Another Bordeaux variety, Petit Verdot is well on its way to further root Virginia as a serious red growing state. Petit Verdot is normally used for blending, especially in Meritage, a blend of five Bordeaux varietals (others are Cab Franc, Cab Sauv, Merlot and Malbec). In order to be classified a Meritage, the winery must subscribe to the Meritage Association; some Virginia locations not wanting the additional expense have become creative, adding an "A" in front of the word Meritage. On its own, Petit Verdot is rich and hearty; a real red meat wine, good for aging on the rack for up to 15 years, and especially good in the cold months. Some Virginia wineries have won numerous awards for their stand-along Petit Verdot. The best in the state have to be from Glen Manor Vineyards near Front Royal; Ingleside Vineyards; and Flying Fox Vineyard south of Waynesboro.

CHAMBOURCIN From extremely bold, to a varietal called "the red wine for white wine drinkers." Chambourcin is slowly making a name for itself in the Commonwealth, especially in Northern Virginia, where the terrain and climate must be perfect for the hybrid. The grape has only been available since 1963, and has its origins in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Unlike Viognier, Chambourcin has a good resistance to fungal disease, which makes it well-suited for Virginia's muggy summers. The wine is light and can even be served chilled; many have compared the wine to a Chianti, with its soft notes of strawberry and black olives. Chambourcin contains acidity that is higher than the norm for reds; another white varietal characteristic. The blogmasters have become huge fans of chambourcin. Most of the favorites are in Northern Virginia locations; for some reason, the hybrid has not caught on in the Monticello or Northern Neck sections of the state. Scaling our favorites down to three was not easy, but they are Fabbioli Cellars, Zephaniah Farm Vineyard, and Hiddencroft Vineyards, all in Loudoun County.

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