Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Top Virginia Red Wines - Governor's Cup 2010

Picture: Thomas Jefferson, 3. President of the US and father of Virginia Wine

The King Family Vineyards 2007 Meritage has won the 2010 Virginia Governor’s Cup for red wine.

Virginia is the fifth largest wine industry in the US, following California, Oregon, Washington State on the west coast and New York State on the east coast, with nearly 200 wineries and 2,500 acres of vineyards. Over the past 50 years, Virginia wines have experienced a tremendous development - to elegant and balanced mostly European vinifera-based wines.

One thing that is not well known in Europe is the struggle in America in the past centuries to find the appropriate grapes for winemaking. In the original charter of the thirteen colonies was a royal commission to pursue three luxury items that England was unable to provide for itself: wine, silk, and olive oil. Every colony made attempts to satisfy the requirements of its charter, but made only limited progress. The problem was that on the one hand there were the native American grapes. All these native American grapes were cold tolerant and disease and pest resistant, but not well suited for wine making, due to their coarseness, high tannins, and "foxy" flavors. On the other hand, the vitis vinifera which settlers brought from Europe, were well suited for wine making, but uniformly did not survive long enough to produce a crop.

Despite many years of failure, the early Americans persisted in their efforts. And they had some success. First, they planted several different native varietals in the same vineyard and over time some natural mutations occurred; the results from some of these hybrids were far better than any of the unadulterated natives. A big step forward was made in 1740 when a natural cross pollination occurred between a native American grape and a European vitis vinifera. Other successful crossings followed.

Only native American grapes and hybrids were grown in Virginia half a century ago. Today, the picture is quite different. European vinifera grapes overwhelmingly dominate wine production.

As far as white wines are concerned, the European vinifera grapes Chardonnay and Viognier are the leading varieties today. Increasingly they are made “naked” or with little oak only, with the objective of retaining natural acidity and freshness.

For hybrid varieties, Seyval Blanc is still popular, but resembles now the fresh and crisp wines from France’s South West. Vidal has become the backbone of the artificially frozen ice wine, which I am not a great fan of.

The first ice wine was reportedly produced in Germany in 1794. Today, ice wines are highly prized wines that are made not only in Germany, but also in Austria and Canada as well as other countries, including the United States. Canada has experienced an amazing ice wine boom in the past decades. See about German and Canadian ice wine here.

In the context of ice wine, some wine regions, including Virginia, are pushing cryoextraction. This is an approach, which kind of simulates the frost in the vineyard in the wine cellar. It was developed by the French. Instead of waiting for mother nature to produce frosty temperatures in the vineyard, the winemaker subjects the grapes to frosty temperatures in the cellar and presses them while frozen.

As far as red wines are concerned, there was a shift in top Virginia reds from straight varietal wines to blends. And blends have gone from being dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with a significant amount of Petit Verdot. The latter grape may well be Virginia’s future signature style in this category. There is an increasing focus on neutral oak and clean, vibrant fruit, mirroring the evolution of Virginia white wines.

Tannat, Uruguay’ signature grape from the South West of France, is showing up in more Virginia wines, usually as a blend. The only red French hybrid which has performed consistently well in Virginia is Chambourcin, which, with its bright cherry aromas and flavors, crisp acidity and low tannin, resembles the Gamay grape of Beaujolais. In Germany, a new grape variety, Regent, has been developed as a crossing of Diana and Chambourcin, which is exceptionally fungal-resistant and hailed to be the first “green” grape.

Finally, Virginia sparkling wine from Claude Thibault was served at President Obama’s first state dinner a few months ago. While respectable sparkling wines have been made in Virginia in the past, sparkling wines have been taken to a new level in Virginia by the work of Claude Thibault, a native of Champagne. Thibault now consults for a number other Virginia wineries and produces his own sparkler, NV Thibault-Janisson, made from 100 percent Chardonnay, which President Obama offered his guests at the state dinner. See here.

The results of the 2010 Virginia Governor’s Cup were announced on February 26, 2010. Of 200 red wines entered in wine competition, 15 earned top-honor gold medals.

* King Family Vineyards 2007 Meritage $25.95
* Potomac Point Winery 2008 Cabernet Franc $22.99
* Sweely Estate Winery 2007 Cabernet Franc $21.95
* North Mountain Vineyards 2007 Cabernet Franc Reserve $22
* Cooper Vineyards NV Noche $16
* Fox Meadow Winery 2007 Le Renard Rouge $29
* Tarara Winery 2007 Meritage $40
* James River Cellars 2007 Petite Verdot $18
* North Gate Vineyard 2008 Petit Verdot $24
* Sugarleaf Vineyards 2008 Petit Verdot $28
* Gadino Cellars 2007 Petit Verdot $27
* Ingleside Vineyards 2005 Petit Perdot Reserve $24.95
* Rosemont of Virginia 2007 Kilravock $24.95
* Chrysalis Vineyards 2005 Norton Locksley Reserve $35
* Paradise Springs Winery 2008 Norton $24

I find it intriguing that there is such a high concentration of Petit Verdot amongst the winners. Is Petite Verdot the new Virginia Wine?

The complete listing is here:

The Best of Show winner is the 2007 King Valley Vineyards Meritage. The family-owned King Valley Vineyards is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains 15 minutes from Charlottesville. The King Family Vineyards specializes in small productions of ultra-premium wine. Founded in 1998, the winery produces approximately 5,000 cases of wine per year.

Picture: King Family Vineyards, Virginia

The 2007 Meritage is a blend of 56% Merlot, 20% Petit Verdot, 16% Cabernet Franc, and 8% Malbec. It was aged in French oak for 18 months. A total of 615 cases were produced. The grapes were hand-harvested, hand sorted, then de-stemmed without crushing (whole berry). Fermentation vessels were a combination of open-top stainless steel tanks and fermentation bins. The lots were kept separate. Punch-downs and gentle pump-overs were done during fermentation to extract color, tannins, and structure. Different yeast strains were used for each batch to start alcoholic fermentation, to increase the wine’s complexity.

Many lots underwent an extended maceration to increase mid-palate body, after which the lots were transferred to French oak barrels for malolactic fermentation and aging. The final blend was determined through exhaustive tastings, trial blends and individual barrel selection prior to the first racking in June 2008. After eighteen months in barrel, the wine was fined with egg whites just before bottling. No filtering was done in order to maintain the complexity and life of the wine and increase the aging potential.

Judging took place Jan. 23 at Lansdowne (Virginia) Resort. Only reds were included in the competition; whites will be judged later in the year and announced in conjunction with October Virginia Wine Month.

Finally, a few words on Thomas Jefferson. While he is best known as the third president of the United States, Ambassador to France and Secretary of State, he was also an avid write and a wine connoisseur and vineyard operator. His role in promoting grape growing and wine making in Virginia is probably his least known accomplishment, but one of enormous significance for wine lovers like me.

Thomas Jefferson believed that Virginia with it's rolling, red clay hills and mild climate was perfect for vine growing. Before moving to Europe Jefferson had already tried to grow wine in Virginia, but without much success. In 1773, Jefferson first tried to grow wine by hiring an Italian winemaker. However, he produced only a small quantity of American wines and none from the imported European Vitis vinefera vines. That did not change when he came back from Europe with new plants.

While his personal foray into wines only saw success as a connoisseur and not a wine producer, he was considered an expert during his lifetime. For more than sixty years, Jefferson wrote about wine growing and wine making.

Today Jefferson's dream of wine growing in Virginia has been achieved. Virginia is among the top US wine producing regions. At Jefferson's Monticello, more than 20 varieties of grapes are grown.

Schiller Wine - Related Posting

Inaugural Thomas Jefferson Wine Festival at Poplar Forest in Virginia, USA

Eiswein in Germany and Icewine in Canada

Wine Served at President Obama's State Dinner in Honor of Prime Minister Singh from India

Thomas Jefferson, 3. President of the United States, Visited Hochheim, Germany on April 10,1978


  1. Dave McIntyre writes about the Governor's Cup here.

  2. Dr. Christian! You are hilarious, spitting out blog entries like a machine. I love these with the historical backgrounds. Wonderful! Thank you! Your blog will be a nice book some day.

    Greetings from Sweden

  3. Yes, Petit Verdot is definitely the new Virginia wine - at least the new red varietal. First Viognier came and loved it here in Virgina. PV must feel the same way.
    Great blog!

  4. Interesting article and that Kluge Winery in Charlottesville, VA is not even on the list of participants. Kluge's wines are said to be the finest and also probably the most expensive. Did other wineries snub the G Cup or just them? Cheers!

  5. Forgot... A couple of years ago (before I was 'in to wine'), during a visit to TN + SC, we actually did a day tour to the mountains where we dropped in at Chateau Morrisette. It was a rather nice place - have you been there? But, I can not report on the wines... (Shame) maybe you can?

  6. Ondine: I do not know why Kluge did not participate a why others did not. I have to visit more of these Virginia wineries, but I am now on the Board of the German Wine Society, which will keep me busy.
    Heike: No, I can not report on these wines, but plan to get more involved with VA wines in the future.

  7. we have family, self-professed California red wine snobs, and would love to invite them to visit VA for a winery tour. is VA now better known for whites or reds, and depending upon your response, what variety? also, suggestions for the best winery (or wineries) in Central VA to take them? thx

  8. Virginia's Blackberry Delight wine is my top choice. This wine is great to sip after dinner and it complements with cheesecakes and chocolate dessert.