“The biggest challenge we face is overcoming the stigma of Virginia wine.” ~ Rutger de Vink, RdV Vineyards
I’ve been visiting Virginia wineries and tasting Virginia wines for over two decades. And I wish I could tell you that’s the first (or even the 31st) time I’ve heard that. As an evangelist for Virginia wines, I don’t like it, but that doesn’t make it any less true. There is a stigma surrounding Virginia wines.
Twenty (even fifteen) years ago, I’d visit a Virginia winery and pass altogether on the red wines. Because (how to put this delicately) they weren’t good. By way of illustration, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Virginia Meritage wines (Bordeaux style blends) were earning scores in the mid to high 70s from Wine Spectator (WS is by no means the absolute arbiter on whether a wine is good, but it does illustrate a generalized trend). By 2005, those scores started to rise, and by 2011, some wines were earning scores into the very high 80s (and a handful have cracked the 90 mark). Progress. The last decade has seen a dramatic rise in the quality of Virginia wines. Due in enormous part to the tireless efforts of some outstanding wineries in The Commonwealth, stigma’s armor isn’t just scratched, it’s cracked.
Last weekend, I attended a blind tasting of 2008 Bordeaux-style blends at RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, Virginia. The tasting was set up to compare RdV’s Lost Mountain wine against similar Bordeaux style blends from around the world. I’ve heard RdV’s claim (more than once) that their wines are capable of holding court with, and even beating out, world-class wines. So, when I received an Ambassador invitation (RdV’s wine club members are called ambassadors — because we go forth and spread the good news) from RdV to attend this tasting, I couldn’t click the register now button fast enough.
Rutger and Jared Slipp (Master Sommelier and RdV’s Estate Director) gave us a great analogy about the Virginia wine stigma. I’m tweaking the cast of characters here, but the analogy remains the same. Say you’re really into this guy, and you invite him over for dinner. If he shows up with a bottle of Napa cult Cabernet or a first-growth (or even second-growth) Bordeaux, you’d think, he likes me . . . he really likes me! But . . . if he shows up with a bottle of Virginia red, you’d think, uh-oh, maybe he’s just not that into me.
Another illustration from Jared . . . Steve and Jean Case (formerly of AOL and now of Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison, Virginia) hosted a holiday dinner party last year. They served Opus One and RdV wines, both in decanters (no bottles around). Wanna guess which decanter needed refilling? The RdV. But what if the bottles had been on the table? It probably (almost certainly) would have been the Opus One that was empty. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t pass up a glass of Opus One.
That’s what’s so great about tasting blind — it’s the ultimate equalizer. You have no choice but to check your bias at the door. Tasting blind is a bit nerve-wracking, though. There’s no wrong answer in wine tasting, but when you taste blind, your palate is definitely exposed, and your wine-tasting credibility is on display.
Our blind tasting was held in RdV’s tank room. After a glass of Rosé (RdV made a few bottles of Rosé last year, it’s not for sale, and it’s not even labeled, but boy is it good), we sat down to six numbered and unlabeled glasses of wine. Rutger asked us to work through the glasses in any order we’d like, evaluate the wines, try to identify whether a wine was Old World or New World, and then, choose a favorite.
Choose a favorite? One?!? Oh, man. This is tough. I don’t dislike any of the wines. Oh, the pressure. What if my palate fails me? What if RdV snuck in a Yellow-Tail and I choose that as my favorite? What if one of the wines is corked and I don’t notice it? Several of us were dragging our feet with our choice (good grief, am I really this indecisive?), so Rutger prodded us to just go with our gut.
Make a choice.
- Wine #1 was too tight.
- Wine #2 was too big.
- Wine #3 was too funky.
- Wine #5 was too green.
- Wine #6 was too weird.
- Wine #4 seemed just right.
I chose Wine #4 — my Goldilocks wine. It wasn’t too Old World, and it wasn’t too New World, it was just right.
After we all submitted our favorite, Rutger went on to reveal them one by one. I did a little bit more research on each wine after the tasting — the prices listed are the best Internet retail prices I found. My tasting notes are in purple italics.
True Confessions: In the interest of transparency, before I reveal the wines, I want to admit my own bias. I’m a Napa Cabernet girl (looooove me some Rutherford Dust). Don’t get me wrong, I adore Bordeaux, but there’s just something about Napa that makes my toes curl.
So, did I choose Napa??
Wine #1 was Chateau Giscours, a left-bank Bordeaux from Margaux, classified as a Troisièmes Crus (Third Growth) in the Bordeaux Classification of 1855. A blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Franc. Seriously Old World, seriously lean (and a little mean), currants, tar, pencils, toast, vanilla. Thumbs up, but it needs more time, like about a decade of it. And food. Food would help. Retail = $55.
Wine #2 was Realm’s Falstaff, a Napa Valley heavyweight. Falstaff is named after one of Shakespeare’s comedic characters. It’s a proprietary blend of mostly Cabernet Franc, with Cabernet Sauvignon in a supporting role. The grapes are sourced from vineyards in Calistoga and Oakville. Whoa! BIG!! Tastes newish, rubies, red fruits, tobacco, earth, sunshine. I’m distracted by the bigness. Huge finish, lingering. Lovely texture. Ultimately, just BIG, though. I found this label on a couple of restaurant wine lists for around $150/bottle, but I found a retail bottle for $86.
Wine #3 was another left-bank Bordeaux, Chateau Smith Haut Lafite, a Grand Cru Classé from Pessac-Léognan. The blend here is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot. Holy Funk!! Old tobacco barn, leather, tight tannins, more funk. Has to be Old World. Some anise peeking out on the finish. Put it back in the cellar. That said . . . this was the wine that evolved the most in the glass as the afternoon wore on. Every sip got better — I couldn’t stop drinking it, and I will probably order myself a bottle or three. Retail = $75.
Wine #4 was . . . RdV Lost Mountain. Shutthefrontdoor. I chose RdV?!? A Virginia wine?!? Well, I’ll be damned. I’ll be really, really damned. Delighted, but damned. Before this tasting, I would never have imagined I’d choose a Virginia red wine over Napa and Bordeaux. You see? There’s that bias and stigma again. It’s time for them to go away. Don’t go away mad, just go away. Bright, shiny, happy, cherries. Bridge between Old and New. Softish tannins, great acidity. Gateway. I want more of this. Love. Retail = $95.
Wine #5 was a Los Vascos Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the Colchagua Valley in Chile. This estate is owned by Chateau Lafite Rothschild. The blend is 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Carmenere, 10% Syrah, and 5% Malbec. Huh. Pennzoil nose. More vegetal than the others. But different. Different, good. Mushrooms and green pepper. Not necessarily funky, but green. Earthy finish. Old World? Retail = $18. This was the Mr. Armchair Sommelier’s favorite, and now that I know the ridiculous price tag on this wine, buying more seems like a no-brainer.
Wine #6 was a Mayacamas Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from Mt. Veeder. The winemaker at Mayacamas is Andy Erickson, who was once the winemaker at Screaming Eagle. Yes, that Screaming Eagle. Something’s hiding in there. Where’s the fruit? Dirt. Not good dirt, weird dirt. Seems almost metallic. Old?? I don’t hate it, I just don’t love it. Holy Scheiße, I just called an Andy Erickson wine weird. I’m expecting Bacchus to come down and smite me any second now. Retail = $75.
My blind-tasting takeaways:
- I still can’t believe I chose a Virginia wine over Napa and Bordeaux. My mind, it’s blown. But in the happiest kind of way — I feel like I’m at the Judgement of Virginia.
- As a wine lover, putting yourself through a blind-tasting once in a while keeps you honest. Given my bias for Napa (and even Bordeaux), had I known the identity of the wines upfront, I probably would have chosen one of them. I learned something about my palate and my preferences.
- RdV isn’t just Virginia wine. It’s world-class wine from Virginia. RdV is blowing holes in stigma’s armor.
After the tasting was over, the Mr. Armchair Sommelier and I hiked up to the top of Lost Mountain and took a few photos. It’ll likely be harvest time at RdV this week. And the soul of winemaking is farming. I come from a long line of farmers, and I don’t harbor any romantic notions about picking grapes. It’s fun for about 10 minutes, and then it’s just excruciating, back-breaking, soul-searing work. I wish the RdV team and all of those glorious grapes a great and successful harvest!!
This is my entry into the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge, #19. (#MWWC19)