Virginia is a challenging spot in which to make fine wines. Yes, that’s despite global warming trends. In fact, those trends might even make it a bit more challenging.
No one knows the challenges impacting that promising little corner of eastern U.S. wine making like the folks with whom I had a recent Zoom tasting: those representing the wines chosen as part of the 2023 Virginia Governor’s Cup Case, meant to highlight the best-of-the-best from Virginia’s annual Governor’s Cup competition (moderated by Master of Wine Jay Youmans, who acted as Director of judging for the competition).
These guys jokingly (I think) described the Virginian winemaking climate as a “deciduous rain-forest.” Vintages will be wildly different in that demanding and fickle climate, with almost all of them certain to be warm and humid at some point, and with increasingly severe one-off weather events potentially complicating the already thorny moisture and pest-related pressures on the vines and the fruit.
Wanna make wine in VA? You need to make smart decisions, be prepared, and not be afraid of putting in hard work.
Fortunately, the wineries included in the 2023 Governor’s Cup Case seem to have all three requirements locked up pretty tight.
This sultry white has an interesting backstory. As Barboursville’s Luca Paschina recalled, Vermentino seemed a natural choice to him, if not a natural choice for Virginia. “It’s something that I was really exposed to as a teenager,” he said. “My father was from Sardinia, and we would spend vacation there… That’s what people would drink there at the beach.” When controlled for yield and growth, he finds it “potentially a great wine with a lot of character.” He grabbed the only clone that he could from Sardinia when it became available in 2009, with promising results; promising enough for him to plant more acres of it. “It’s resilient to rain, with very thick skin. All around, I would say it’s one of the easiest things to grow [in Virginia]. We try to keep it on the lees as long as we can.”
A hint of salinity, with a robust and ripe tropical fruit nose, this white is mineral, fresh, and buoyant in the mouth. It’s both fun in its citric fruitiness, and serious in its structure, astringency, and concentration—all of which hangs out for quite some time on an exceptionally long finish.
Delfosse’s Andrew Bilenkji is originally from Orange in New South Wales, and spent eight years working for Ledson in Sonoma. This 50% Petit Verdot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Malbec blend was (accordint to him) “bottled early because I wanted to preserve the fruit flavors. The wine came together really nicely in terms of the tannin balance and the acid balance. It looks good young, and it has the robust tannins to age well. It’s got all the components to age very nicely, at least ten years.”
Black cherry and dried cranberry dominate the nose initially on this PV dominant blend. Blackcurrant, dried spices/herbs, and a hint of violet creep in there after a few moments in the glass. The PV comes from two blocks at their highest points in the vineyard, around 1,300 feet. There is very good balance here on the palate at first, with a nicely compact core of red and black fruit all boosted by good acidity and wrapped up in mouth-drying tannins. Lots of dried spice notes linger on the finish. While our hosts considered this as showing really well now, I disagreed a bit—it’s excellent, don’t get me wrong. But it’s set up for longer aging, and will be even better once all of its puzzle pieces edge closer together and meld with one another in a few years.
Jefferson is now under ownership of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, who also own Monticello (they border the Monticello property). As per Jefferson’s Chris Ritzcovan they have had Petit Manseng plantings for at least 20 years, though it was mainly used as a blending component with Viognier. It ripens well in the region, while also keeping its acidity—the trick, according to Ritzcovan, is keeping the residual sugars in check.
Honey and blossom, with a hint of almond kick this white off. Pineapple, grapefruit, and tropical notes dominate, and its heady in its big aromatics. Good acidity helps to cut through the rich, dried-pineapple and mandarin orange palate flavors that recede slowly on a lengthy finish. This one could be quite versatile at the dinner table, matching with a lot of salad styles, pork, or even shellfish.
Fewer than 650 cases were made of this 45% Merlot, 40% Petit Verdot, 12% Cab Franc, 3% Malbec blend (aged 20 Months in American, French, and Hungarian oak). Explaining the oak treatment, Ritzcovan said “I always like to use heavier toast on my American oak with Petit Verdot, I think that Petit Verdot can handle it.”
2019 was a great vintage for VA in general. These guys embraced PV early and it sees a hefty and noticeable inclusion here. Fresh red fruit action pops from the glass, with dark spices and toasted wood notes. Hints of vanilla and a sense of juiciness round out the nose. There’s a great mix of black and red plum flavors in the mouth, with very good acidity and a nice amount of structure, with complexity coming by means of caramel, dried herbs, and cedar hints. It hides its 14+ percent abv well, feeling light on its feet throughout. It also feels young, and likely has a nice life ahead for the tannins to soften up (though it is quite tasty now if you’ve got some flank steak handy to pair up with it).