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A Snapshot of Virginia Wines

The 12 winners of the 2015 Governor’s Cup competition show diverse character and some impressive quality
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 26, 2016 3:00pm ET

The wine industry is thriving in Virginia. Although post-Prohibition pioneers who planted vinifera grapes in the 1970s saw mixed results, they set the stage for the boom to come; by 2015, more than 250 wineries—more than double the number a decade earlier—were farming more than 3,500 acres of grapes.

The state has been proactive in supporting this growing industry, providing technical and marketing assistance that has spurred impressive progress. Each year, the Governor’s Cup competition spotlights some of the state’s best wines; in 2015, 94 wineries entered 390 wines, of which a dozen were selected as winners.

The competition requires that all wines entered be produced 100 percent from Virginia-grown grapes. However, not 100 percent of Virginia wineries participate; two of my favorites, RdV Vineyards and Linden, apparently did not submit.

Still, it’s an interesting and enlightening exercise to sample the wines this competition spotlights. The Virginia Wine Board kindly sent me the 12 winners, which I recently tasted non-blind in our New York offices.

I was surprised first by the absence of white wines (aside from two dessert versions); I have enjoyed a number of Virginia whites, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. But perhaps the judges agree with the dictum that "The first duty of wine is to be red."

Among the reds, I was impressed by the importance of Petit Verdot. This red grape is normally used in small percentages as a blending grape in Bordeaux, where it adds deep color, chewy tannins and, when it ripens fully, lovely blackberry and blueberry flavors. It has become increasingly important in Virginia, where varietal bottlings date to at least 2001 (the earliest example officially reviewed by Wine Spectator). Of the 10 winning reds, two were 100 percent Petit Verdot and six others contained significant percentages, up to 25 percent, of the grape.

I particularly enjoyed two of the Meritage bottlings. King Family Vineyards 2012 (mostly Merlot, with 25 percent Petit Verdot) was supple and polished, with focused sweet cherry and plum flavors (87 points, non-blind; $31, as listed in the Governor's Cup booklet). The Muse Vineyards Clio 2009 (25 percent each Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot) showed vanilla and chocolate notes from three years of oak aging, but its black cherry and currant flavors are fresh and the wine showed good balance (88 points, non-blind; $65).

My favorite of the case was the Michael Shaps Tannat Monticello 2012 (90 points, non-blind; $35). Powerfully built, yet focused and balanced, it showed savory notes of loamy earth, smoke and licorice with a core of black cherry. Shaps has been making wine in Virginia since 1995 (and in Burgundy since 2004) and his experience is clearly paying off. Only hard work leads to progress; Virginia is moving forward, and wine lovers are reaping the benefits.

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