It’s been busy times of late. I’m in the process of changing jobs (moving up the 3-tier ladder from retail to the wholesale level) and just this past weekend had a whirlwind trip to the D.C. area courtesy of the German Wine Society to present my MBA thesis together with the wines of Weingut G.A. Schneider (the winery I had interned with a year ago in Nierstein, Germany).
However, Saturday lent itself to a free day and thanks to the wonderful arrangements of renowned wine bloggers Allan Liska of CellarBlog (who knows everything and everyone when it comes to Virginia wine; not to mention is quite connected in Bordeaux where we first met!) and Christian Schiller (German Wine Society board member and publisher of SchillerWein, aka. the go-to blog for the latest on the German wine scene) we wound up spending what I would consider a VIP introduction to Virginia wine.
The basics: Virginia today features 192 wineries which ranks it #5 among all fifty U.S. states (after California, Washington, New York and Oregon) in terms of number of wineries. It produces wines made entirely from vitis vinfera grapes (e.g. Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Petit Verdot), as well as wines made from hybrid grapes and other fruits. Its most famous viticulturist undoubtedly remains Thomas Jefferson, who did a lot of experimentation around the turn of the 18th century with vitis vinifera vine cuttings that he would bring back from Europe while serving as U.S. ambassador to France and later as U.S. President.
Ribs, Brownies and a Glass of Chambourcin—Lunch at Fabbioli Cellars
That could be one description of heaven. Our day began at Fabbioli Cellars where Allan treated us with the best Loudon County, Virginia has to offer in terms of take-out culinary. As we pulled up we eyed the harvest teaming in the middle of crushing some Petit Verdot. Allan followed with the food to which we were promptly seated inside the tasting room and joined by winemaker and founder, Doug Fabbioli.
Doug had plenty to say about the Virginia wine scene. Returning from California after a ten year stint at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, he started Fabbioli Cellars in 2001 and today has an impressive business featuring some engaging wines. His focus is to continue building the image of Virginia wines (citing the motto, “a rising tide lifts all boats”) by acting as a consultant to new growers and winemakers in the area.
Like much of the East Coast, the Virginia wine industry is relatively young (excluding those experimental vineyards planted by Thomas Jefferson back in the day), dating back to the mid-seventies. Doug feels attention is still needed on finding the right grapes to match with the region’s humid and often wet climate. I asked him a bit about the local soil structures and he mentioned that Loudon County features mostly loam together with some limestone; but that the growers aren’t quite ready to devote full attention to extracting the soil properties in the wine because work is still needed on growing the best fruit in the given climate.
8 Chains North and Breaux Vineyards
Next stop on the tour was to 8 chains north, a relatively new vineyard that just opened its doors a year ago. Our main reason for stopping here was because the tasting room also featured the wines of Otium Cellars, a small boutique winery with a German-born proprietor who makes a point of growing traditional German grape varieties like Dornfelder and Blaufränkisch (though technically its Lemberger—apparently the Austrian name is more marketable). Again, Allan was escorting two renowned German wine enthusiasts, so he knew how to impress his audience!
Our tour finished at Breaux Vineyards, where we had the pleasure of meeting with Jennifer Breaux Blosser, who manages the property that was founded by her father in 1980. It was definitely a party-like atmosphere when we arrived, where a good 100+ people were gathered at bistro tables and chairs throughout the property, surrounded by cheese, crackers and bottles of Breaux wine. Aside from the usual excitement, an additional buzz was stirring since just the day before Jancis Robinson, M.W. had released an article on her impressions of the Virginia wine scene, in which she announced Breaux Viognier as being among her favorites.
Indeed, after speaking with Jennifer we learned that Breaux has for the 4th year in a row been named Virgina’s Favorite Winery (frankly, the shear crowds it drew that day make this fact easy to accept). Furthermore, it is one of the few VA wineries to sell its wine outside the U.S., with a fairly healthy export market in the U.K. In fact, this year Breaux Vineyards was even awarded three medals at the Decanter World Wine Awards.
Virginia Wine—first impressions
Having visited just three wineries, I can’t say these wines are telling of the entire Virginia wine scene. However, upon revisiting the tasting sheets at each place, I did notice somewhat of a pattern in terms of common grape varieties, wine styles and token blends:
- Cabernet Franc is king: Though it appears Viognier is on its way to becoming Virgina’s “signature grape”, I noticed a lot more Cab Franc on the menu. In the case of Fabbioli Cellars, one could sip it as a varietal wine with or without oak. Though the alcohol levels are relatively low (12% on the unoaked version) this is not a cool climate expression of the grape. I noticed very little vegetal notes (e.g. bell pepper, mushrooms, etc.), but instead a lot of red fruit, some black pepper spice and a fairly substantial amount of weight on the palate.
- Where East meets West: My experience to-date with East Coast wineries (New England and Long Island) is they tend to look towards Europe for stylistic expression in their wines. You’d often hear someone reference a “Bordeaux blend” or “Bungundian-style” Chardonnay. That was not generally the case in Virginia. Though they do grow many of the European grape varieties (especially those from the Bordeaux region), the styles and influences tend to vary (and I even came across an official “Meritage” wine at Breaux). Overall, I find the wines to be fairly fruit-driven, but not so high in alcohol as one would expect from a warmer climate, and with balanced acidity. This was especially true in the case of Fabbioli Cellars, which I believe has to do with the ten years Doug spent in training at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. Otherwise, I noticed a more European influence on the wines at Breaux Vineyards, where the reds emulated that token rustic character you generally find across Italy and much of France.
- Hybrid wines with character: Coming from New England, I am quite familiar with hybrid wines and believe they can be equally interesting and enjoyable as those made strictly from vitis vinifera grapes. Two wines in particular stood out for me: the 100% Chambourcin at Fabbioli (light, fruity red wine that really does pair well with BBQ!) and what I guess could be seen at the state’s “token white blend” of Traminette and Vidal Blanc. This is a refreshing white wine produced at both Fabbioli and 8 chains north. It’s dry, yet very aromatic and reminiscent of a more subdue Gewürztraminer (which makes sense since Gewürztraminer is a parent grape of Traminette).
- Fun with fruit: I love the creativity found at Fabbioli cellars, where they featured an Aperitif Pear Wine (port is more like it since the wine is fortified with distilled pear brandy, so it’s pretty high-octane stuff), as well as everyone’s favorite Raspberry Merlot. This wine is a blend of 70% Merlot and 30% fermented raspberry juice made from berries grown on the property. It is further rounded out with some oak barrel aging. What I found most intriguing was just how influential the raspberry wine was vs. the Merlot. Though you could detect Merlot’s soft texture, what you smelled and tasted was an abundance of raspberries.
- Wines of distinction: What follows are the wines that really stood out for me in terms of quality and/or just plain, simple enjoyment (prices are quoted from the winery).
- Fabbioli Cellars 2010 Something White – refreshing dry, white blend of Traminette/Vidal blanc. Crisp, aromatic—think Gewürztraminer on sedatives. ($16.00)
- Fabbioli Cellars 2009 Chambourcin – dry, light red wine with an abundance of bright strawberry and cherry flavor; none of the foxyness you may expect from a hybrid red. ($16.00)
- Breaux Vineyards 2010 Viognier – a surprisingly light style wine, yet full of flavor; peaches & cream in a glass. ($24.00)
- Breaux Vineyards 2009 Nebbiolo – Wow, reminiscent of a great Langhe Nebbiolo. All the dark fruit flavor, leather and rustic notes you’d expect from the mother county. Good structure, acidity and fairly light on the palate. ($38.00)
- Breaux Vineyards 2006 Petit Verdot – I think this is for wine club members only (thank you Allan for the hook-up). This is a big wine full of black fruit flavor with plenty of structure, yet offers a smooth, velvety texture that’s not too tannic. (Price??)