March Vin-Sanity

The madness continues in our annual NCAA Final Four Taste-Off featuring wineries near each of the remaining 2011 contenders
Mar 31, 2011

This weekend, four institutes of higher learning—Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and the Universities of Connecticut and Kentucky—will send their basketball teams to Houston to determine the 2011 NCAA champion. And this year, Wine Spectator once again attempts to predict the winner based on a tasting of wines from wineries near each of this year’s Final Four participants. For those keeping track (please don’t), we’ve gotten it wrong every year dating back to 2007, when we picked UCLA.

For this year’s tasting, Indiana returns to the semifinals, but with a new face on the court. Last year, Oliver winery represented Butler; for 2011, the Indiana representative is Easley winery, located in Indianapolis, coincidentally on North College Avenue. The husband-and-wife team of Meredith and Mark Easley now run the family-owned winery, which opened in 1974. Mark’s parents, who founded the winery, were among a group of home winemakers (along with Oliver winery founders Mary and Bill Oliver Sr.) who got Indiana to change its Prohibition-era laws forbidding wineries. They’ve been making a wide range of sweet and dry red and white wines ever since.

For Connecticut, we went back to the source of our 2009 Taste-Off winner, Sharpe Hill. It’s owned by Steven and Catherine Vollweiler, and is one of New England’s top wineries. For more background on the Vollweilers and Sharpe Hill, members can read the Tasting America's Bounty cover story from the Nov. 30, 2002, issue of Wine Spectator.

Our Kentucky representative is Elk Creek, established in 2003 by Curtis Sigretto and located in Owenton, Ky. Elk Creek, a winery and bed-and-breakfast, is particularly geared toward the sports-and-wine enthusiast, with its own hunting club and its events centered around University of Kentucky basketball games and the Kentucky Derby. In fact, they’re staying open late to watch the Wildcats take on the Huskies this Saturday night.

And stepping up for the Virginia Commonwealth Rams is Chatham Vineyards’ Church Creek label (not to be confused with Chatham Hill winery, which represented the University of North Carolina in 2009). Chatham Vineyards is owned and operated by Jon Wehner, who learned the business from his parents, who ran Great Falls winery, also in Virginia wine country, for 30 years. The winery is named for a Federal-period brick house on the farm; built in 1818, it was known as the Chatham house, after William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham.

With our pre-tasting introductions out of the way, on to the 2011 Taste-Off! Each of this year’s wines was tasted blind by a crack team of Wine Spectator editors and tasting coordinators, who were told only the grape variety or blend of each wine in our lineup. Each winery submitted multiple wines; we tasted more than 20 bottlings in all and selected the best of the bunch to represent the teams. We chose two wines each from the wineries that made it into our championship final.

The Semifinals

Sharpe Hill Select Late-Harvest 2008 (University of Connecticut) vs. Elk Creek Chardonnay 2008 (University of Kentucky)

As our 2009 champion, Sharpe Hill came into this tasting as the favorite. This year, the Connecticut winery was represented by its 2008 late-harvest Vignoles dessert wine. As expected, Sharpe Hill’s dessert wine came out strong, with luscious pineapple and honey flavors. Undertones of piecrust, caramel, herb and petrol kept it running.

The dark horse from Kentucky proved to be too much for the sweet wine, however. The 2008 Chardonnay had a pleasing nose of apples and citrus, with the same flavors on the palate joined by popcorn, vanilla and vegetal notes.

Result: It was a tight call between these vastly different whites, but we gave the overtime win to the Elk Creek Chardonnay.

Easley Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2008 (Butler) vs. Chatham Vineyards Church Creek Vintner's Blend 2009 (Virginia Commonwealth)

Easley’s reserve Cabernet exhibited the varietal character expected from a Cab—floral and cherry aromas with cassis, cardamom and pepper notes on the palate—while its smooth texture made it very quaffable.

The Church Creek Vintner’s Blend is a Bordeaux-style red made up of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Cherry and blackberry fruit flavors were backed by plum and spice, with a solid oaky vanilla aroma and firm tannins.

Result: The Indiana Cabernet put forth a great effort, but didn’t have the muscle to keep the Virginia blend from moving on to the finals.

The Finals

Chatham Vineyards Church Creek Petit Verdot 2009 (Virginia Commonwealth) vs. Elk Creek Cabernet Franc 2008 (University of Kentucky)

Each of our two taste-off finalists put their best foot forward, after making substitutions for the final game, with Chatham’s Petit Verdot facing off against Elk Creek’s Cabernet Franc. The tasters were not unanimous in their votes this year, but both the Petit Verdot and the Cabernet Franc were hands-down the two best wines in our tasting.

The Petit Verdot was lean but powerful, with cacao and rose aromas and dark black fruit and pepper flavors on a well-structured frame, with solid tannins. The Elk Creek Cabernet Franc 2008 was notable for its lithe fruit flavors of cherry, raspberry and cassis, while a pleasing bitter herb note offered complexity to the perfumed aromas.

Result: Chatham’s Petit Verdot had the stuffing to stand up to the Cabernet Franc, but the Elk Creek Cabernet Franc 2008 came away the victor—one of the top wines of the tasting on every single ballot.

As has become our custom over the course of this five-year exercise in futility, we offer our congratulations to Elk Creek winery—and our condolences to the Kentucky Wildcats, who now have no chance of winning, if history repeats itself.

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