If you enjoy Virginia wine, and you’re social media savvy, there’s only one online place to gather: #VAWineChat. Frank Morgan, a friend and fellow blogger who tweets @DrinkWhatULike, has been bringing wine lovers and Virginia vintners together since 2013.
For its 35th iteration, we focused on Horton Vineyards, the reliable, long-running, and exceptional producer based in Orange County, Virginia. I’ve enjoyed Horton’s wines for years, so I was excited at the prospect of tasting some new releases and talking with winemaker, Michael Heny, a great guy who’s been with Horton for almost 20 years.
We tasted through three wines, a Viognier, a Cabernet Franc and a Norton, all of which were delicious and modestly priced.
Horton sealed its spot in Virginia wine history by bottling the first varietally-labeled Viognier from the commonwealth. Founder Dennis Horton made a bold move when he planted the first Viognier vines in the United States back in 1989. This white grape of the Northern Rhone Valley in France was planted in very small amounts and in very few other places. Since then, Viognier has exploded all over the country, especially in California. In Virginia, at least 70 wineries make a Viognier, and in 2011 Viognier became Virginia’s official state grape.
Michael maintains (and I agree) that Viognier has found a sweet spot here. It’s not easy to grow, but Virginia Viogniers can be brighter and more refreshing than some of the richer, more honeyed wines from California. “Here in Virginia often time we get some cooler weather, some rain, ” Michael said. “We can hit that sweet spot without going over the top.” Horton now produces about 3,000 cases of Viognier a year. “There’s great demand for it,” Michael said, and other winemakers are always on the lookout for quality grapes.
For my palate, Virginia’s best white wines come from Chardonnay and (although there aren’t as many examples) Petit Manseng, but I love Virginia Viognier. It has become a staple for a lot of producers and consumers (including myself), and I hope this trend continues. Fans of tropical fruit flavors and freshness, check out some Virginia Viognier, asap.
Horton is also a consistent producer of high-quality Cabernet Franc. The grape is planted widely around Virginia and bottled as a varietal wine or blended with other Bordeaux grapes like Cab Sauv, Merlot and Petite Verdot in many of the best Meritage blends. While some of the lesser Virginia Cab Franc’s can taste a bit green and weedy, Horton’s 2014 hits the spot, providing plenty of structure, bright fruit and complex herbal/spice elements.
Lastly, we tasted Horton’s Norton, which gets my vote for the coolest-sounding wine in the world. Norton is as American as it gets. This grape variety hails from Vitis aestivalis, a native American grape species. The grape was introduced by Dr. Daniel Norton of Richmond in the early 1800s. He believed the seedlings came from the obscure (and terribly named) grape variety Bland, and the father plant was a wild American vine. As such, the grape thrives in the mid-Atlantic climate, and it does well all over the country, from Oklahoma to Colorado to Georgia. Norton became the backbone of Missouri’s wine industry, and it is still that state’s official grape. “Norton is fantastic in the vineyard in this climate,” Michael said. It can require a lot of vineyard work, as the vines grow like crazy with leathery leaves, but if tended properly, Norton delivers in Virginia.
Norton grapes are high in anthocyanins, which are pigments that give the finished wine a rich purple/violet color. The finished wines can get a bit grapey and funky, but Horton’s is relatively user-friendly. And while the grape is a bit strange compared to traditional European varieties, Horton has no problem selling 3,000-4,000 cases of this stuff every year. “There’s a huge following for Norton out there,” Michael said. A lot of people buy multiple bottles for cellaring, he added, as this high tannin, high acid wine can age for quite a while.
If you are interested in exploring Virginia wine, and haven’t tried Horton, I highly recommend you check them out. At $20 or less, they are some of the best offers in the state.
I have pasted my tasting notes below...
2014 Horton Vineyards Viognier - Virginia, Central Virginia, Orange County
Light gold color. Smells of juicy peaches, pineapple, honey, a blend of yellow and white flowers. Rich and creamy from the maloactic fermentation, but I love the balance between the waxy texture and the crisp acidity. Nothing heavy or goopy about this wine at all. A mix of rich flavors (banana, honey, pineapple, apricot jam) with brighter elements (kiwi, lime, baby’s breath, cucumber water, floral perfume). It includes 5% Petite Manseng. About 3,000 cases made, this is consistently a reliable Virginia Viognier for a moderate price, and the 2014 is on point. Paired with chicken tikka very nicely. (88 points)
2014 Horton Vineyards Cabernet Franc - Virginia, Central Virginia, Orange County
Vibrant ruby color. Wow, these aromas are kicking. Such freshness in the fruit (strawberry, red currant, tart cherries), but also plenty of tobacco, pepper, sage, sweet clove, black licorice. Wow, so much to contemplate in here. Medium-bodied, quite sturdy on the tannic structure – impressive in its grip, but it shows a lot of freshness as well. A very pretty wine despite it wiry tannic structure and earthy, savory flavors. Juicy black cherries, tart red currant fruit, which is doused with smoke, spicy clove and cinnamon, tar, rose petals. Opens up a lot with air and could age quite well, I think. Spent six months in French, American and Hungarian oak. 79% Cabernet Franc, 14% Tannat, and 7% Merlot. (88 points)
2014 Horton Vineyards Norton - Virginia, Central Virginia, Orange County
Vibrant magenta color. Aromas: Spicy, earthy and smoky notes on top of roasted chestnut, jammy blackberries, red apple peels, paved road – some unique and somewhat strange aromas. On the palate this is bold and rich with hard tannins but it’s so tart as well. Red apple, purple Laffy Taffy, tart cherries, tart strawberries, but there’s also this dark fruit compote and jam essence. On top of that, I get this streak of IPA, tarry pot pipe, old man musky cologne, sweaty leather jacket – I’m ranting and throwing craziness out there, obviously, but my point its: there is some nutty stuff going on with this wine. Only $15, so it’s wallet-friendly, so a lot of people drink them immediately, but I’d love to taste this in four or five years. Funky for sure, but an interesting example of Norton. (86 points)