Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tasting Virginia's "Best" Wines

Let me get one thing straight: I’m not here to slam Virginia wines. There are many solid viogniers and chardonnays, and some decent red blends coming from all across the state. I am ocassionally surprised by the state's adopted red, cabernet franc, and I've been impressed by lesser-known red varieties like norton, tannat and nebbiolo. I love Virginia so much I’m even planting my own vineyard on my parents’ property in Appomattox County. There's a lot for a wino to like in Virginia, but the quality is so variable, and so many of the wines are downright terrible, that drinking Virginia wines is like playing Russian roulette with your palate.

The Governor’s Cup is an annual wine tasting competition that is supposed to highlight the best Virginia wines. Hundreds of wines are submitted and tasted by a panel of judges, who rate each wine according to the 100-point scale: 95-100 is classic (among the best in the world); 90-94 is outstanding (of superior character and style); 85-89 is very good (a wine with special qualities); 80-84 is good (a well-made wine of good quality); 75-79 is average (a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws); and 50-74 is not recommended. Below 50, I guess it’s not really a wine. Whatever flaws and contradictions are inherent in this scoring system (and there are many), it does offer a framework through which we can analyze different wines, taking into account all their different attributes, and place them along a continuum of quality. It’s not perfect, but it can be useful.  

Apparently, any wine that got a gold medal this year received an average score of at least 90 points. I was curious to see whether these wines were as good as they were alleged to be. Well, thanks to my friends at Terroirist, a daily wine blog, I got to taste through all of the Virginia wines that got gold medal awards at the 2012 Governor’s Cup. (
Here’s the full list of medal-winning wines from Virginia.) I took some notes and scored each wine according to the same 100-point scale that the judges used. To say I disagree with the Governor's Cup judges on these wines is a bit of an understatement.

Here’s my take on these gold medal wines…

(Note: there are several European wines that we snuck in because... well... we needed some diversity.)

2008 Trump Winery Blanc de Blancs Kluge SP - Virginia, Albemarle County
The new Trump Winery in Virginia, like everything Trump touches, has received a lot of fan-fare. I'm sure the winery is as classy as Donald's hair, but forgive me if I was a bit skeptical about the juice in the bottle. This 100 percent chardonnay sparkler was my first taste from Trump, and I'll admit... I was impressed. It did have quite a reticent nose of lemon-lime, some chalk. The palate shows tangy acid and green apple fruit. The bubbles seem a bit weak, and I wanted more power, but overall this is a nice sparkling wine. It's by no means a steal at $28, but that's Trump for ya. (86 pts.)

2010 White Hall Vineyards Gewürztraminer - Virginia, Monticello
Aromas: sweet lychee fruit, mixed nuts, white grapes. Rich and oily on the palate, almost like green grape jelly. There's some sweetness here, and lots of chunky tropical fruit, but also some white pepper and spice to keep it interesting. It's hard to get too excited about a gewurz that doesn't have any of the mineral flavors I love in wines from Alsace, for example. This needs more acid or some minerals to balance the sweetness and thickness of the fruit. Still, this is an impressive effort. (83 pts.)

2010 Tarara Winery Viognier Honah Lee - Virginia, Loudoun County
Wow, I can't believe this wine got a "gold medal." It's unbearable. Aromas of white grapes, oil and marmalade. The palate tastes bitter, like someone crushed grape seeds in with the fruit. And the alcohol clocks in at 15.5%, which gives this wine the feel of a bizarre cocktail gone wrong. The fruit is bitter and the alcohol overbearing. How someone could vote to give this wine a gold medal is beyond me. It's quite miraculous to taste a wine this bad that doesn't have a specific chemical flaw. It's like they set out to create the worst wine possible. A good half-dozen people tasted this wine with me and not one of them wanted to finish a glass. (60 pts.)

2009 Linden Chardonnay Hardscrabble - Virginia, Northern Region
My long-time wine buddy Brett snuck this "silver medal" winner into the tasting, as he's a big fan of Linden. Drinking this wine, I couldn't help but think: who the hell are these judges and why didn't they give this wine a gold? This chardonnay is well-made, delicious, and truly deserving of a 90-point rating. Aromas of green apple, white flowers and fresh pear. Lots of gummi fruit flavors, white peach and green apple on the palate, balanced by solid acid. It got better with two hours being open, and could age for several years at least. It's Virginia chardonnays like this make me wonder why so many winemakers choose red over whites in the state. Still, it gives me hope for the state's white wines. (90 pts.)

2010 Keswick Vineyards Merlot - Virginia, Monticello
The first red of the tasting didn't set a good precedent. It smells like sweet cassis, oak and cherry jam. The palate is full of sweet fruit, lots of grippy oak, giving it the overall feel of spiked grape jam. Cough syrup lingers on the finish. Ugg. (71 pts.)

2008 King Family Vineyards Meritage - Virginia, Monticello
Okay, now we're dealing with a legit Virginia red wine. It smells like dessert: cherry pie, cheesecake topping and black cherries. It's quite lovely on the nose. The palate shows grippy tannins, sweet cassis, and a distinct note of iron. It's very Napa-esque, but even a bit sweeter. This wine had the most petit verdot in it, which could contribute to that extra weight and grip that a lot of the other reds were lacking. It's a good wine, but when I heard it was $70+, I thought... no friggin' way. (87 pts.)

2010 Jefferson Vineyards Cabernet Franc - Virginia, Monticello
Aromas of sweet cherries, musk, tobacco and some old barn. The palate is sweet with cherry fruit and oak. This wine is mouth-coating, and it tastes sweaty. Not sweet, sweaty. There is absolutely no acid. To be honest, this wine is a total mess, and it's nowhere near Virgnia's best example of cabernet franc. (70 pts.)

Palate Cleanser
At this point in the tasting I needed a muscadet to cleanse my palate of some of that lingering sweet, oaky taste.

1999 Domaine Pierre de la Grange (Luneau-Papin) Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie Le "L" d'Or - France, Loire Valley, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
Nothing cleanses the palate like a muscadet from Luneau-Papin. Aromas of lemon zest, with aged aromas of peanut brittle and hints of sherry. The palate is plump with apricot and lemon fruit, but the minerals and acid are still there for balance. Sweet apricot and butter linger on the finish. (88 pts.)

Virginia's Big Reds
A lot of these reds weren't just disappointing, they were flat-out terrible. Overall, most of them tasted startlingly similar, showing sweet red fruit, bizarre flavors, too much oak and bitter tannins.

2009 Keswick Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Reserve - Virginia, Albemarle County
Thick aromas of black cherries and figs. The palate is too rich, with sweet figs and cherries, overwhelmed by lots of oak. Again, no acid whatsoever. Too goopy to enjoy. (69 pts.)

2010 Veritas Vineyard Vintner's Reserve - Virginia, Monticello
After a lot of crummy Virginia reds, this one was actually good. Sweet cherries and leather on the nose. Plummy on the palate with smooth tannins, some sweet and savory aspects. Almost Napa-cab like. Not thrilling, but much better than a lot of the other red blends. (85 pts.)

2009 Potomac Point Vineyard & Winery Richland Reserve Heritage - Virginia, Albemarle County
Aromas of sweet rhubarb pie and toasted oak. Sweet and baked on the palate, with fig and gritty coffee. The theme here is sweetness. At this point, I really wanted a Virginia red that wasn't laced with unfermented sugar. (76 pts.)

2009 Glen Manor Vineyards Hodder Hill - Virginia, Shenandoah Valley
Sweet black cherries on the nose, figs as well. Sweet, again, on the palate with lots of fig and chocolate. Very baked-tasting, almost like cough syrup and chocolate. Overdone. Some at the tasting liked this wine, but I found it out of balance. (75 pts.)

2010 Bluestone Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon - Virginia, Shenandoah Valley
Cassis jam and caramel on the nose. Not as thick as some of the other reds in the tasting, which was nice. Flavors of grilled plums are a bit awkward. Not good, but not terrible either. (74 pts.)

2007 Delfosse Vineyards and Winery Meritage - USA, Virginia, Central Region, Monticello
The last Virginia wine in the tasting was actually good. Ripe gushers candy on the nose, along with raspberry jam. The palate is like strawberries, sugar cane and pancake syrup. It's sweet, but somehow still fresh and quite pleasant. This wine showed more acid than most of the others. (81 pts.)

Non-Virginia Wines
After all that sweet, hot mess of wines, it was time for something more Old World...

2011 Domaine Tempier Bandol Rosé - France, Provence
Pale copper color. Aromas of gooseberry, honeydew melon, and a sauvignon-blanc-like grassy, peppery aroma. Lots of cut on the palate, but also nice creaminess. Watermelon, strawberry mix with chives and pepper. Lovely stuff with a great crisp finish. This wine was perfect after a bunch of those overdone Virginia reds. (90 pts.)

2010 Domaine Servin Chablis 1er Cru Butteaux - France, Burgundy, Chablis 1er Cru
Bright yellow color. Aromas of white grapefruit, seaweed, and minerals. With some time, I picked up some sage and herbs, which was really nice. Tons of acid on the palate, which I love. Creamy yellow apple fruit, grapefruit, green apple, accented with sea salt and a bit of brine. Delicious stuff that will continue to improve for a long time. I love the ocean-like qualities of chardonnay from the Butteaux vineyard, and this is a great example. (91 pts.)

2008 Domaine Pascal Cotat (Pascal & Francis) Sancerre Chavignol - France, Loire Valley, Sancerre
Jeremy brought this wine and poured it blind. He had us all guessing, because this is such a strange wine. Light copper colored. A bit of oxidized aromas, but not too much. Some white peach and stone aroams. The palate shows tangy acid and an interesting combination of flavors: honeycomb, strawberry, yellow apple and pumpkin seeds. There's a lot of limestone and quinine in this wine as well. Acid carries the finish. I like this wine, but it's also quite strange. Maybe a good salad wine? (86 pts.)

2008 Alain Hudelot-Noellat Bourgogne - France, Burgundy
Soft burgundy colored. Aromas of sour cherries, beef broth and celery seed. The palate shows searing acid, tart fruit and brisk minerals. Also, flavors of green olive, tomatoe paste and beef broth. Interesting wine, definitely on the austere end of the spectrum. This wine shows those earthy flavors and ripping acid of the 2008 vintage, but in a light and fresh package. (88 pts.)

2009 Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon - France, Loire Valley, Chinon
Smoky aromas, also some green olive and soy sauce. Very young, right out of the bottle, it really needs time to breathe. The palate shows gritty tannins, dark cherry fruit, as well as beef broth and some bay leaf. Very complex and delicious, but it really needs some time. (88 pts.)


  1. I'm shocked that the label on the Trump wine doesn't even say Trump on it anywhere!

    1. It's surprisingly restrained and tasteful for a Trump product.

  2. Isn't that just because they didn't want to bother re-labeling all the bottles on hand after he bought out Mrs. Kluge? I'm sure the 2012 labels will be more Trump-y.

    1. That's my understanding, Kevin. I'm sure the new vintages will look like the front of the Tropicana in Atlantic City.

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