Tastecamp-ing in Virginia

Typical conversation, before leaving the office to take part in this year’s Tastecamp.

– So you’re flying to Washington tonight? Do you have any plans for visit around the capital?
– Nope! I’m going there for Tastecamp, a meeting of wine bloggers. We’ll tour the local wineries for the weekend and discover that kind of wine they make there!
– Errrr… People are making wine in Virginia?

Indeed, wine in Virginia. I’ve had the opportunity of discovering the region’s offering along with around forty bloggers from all over the US (with a nice delegation from Québec). The goal of this annual weekend is to meet as many winemakers as possible and taste as much wine as possible during the course of a busy (but oh so fun!) weekend.

One the wine-level, Virginia is a textbook definition of an unknown wine region, but with plenty of potential, at least seen from here in Québec. Unknown, as not many wines make their way north of the border on the shelves of the SAQ (there are only 2 at the time or writing…). Full of potential because the best wines tasted over the weekend were fabulous. But the region lacks some maturity and we felt that many winemakers were still trying to figure out what to do with the cards that were dealt to them.

The main grape varieties planted in Virginia are the red Bordeaux grapes (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot) and, on the white side, viognier. The tell-tale sign that the region is rather young is the numerous experiments that are taking place: malbec, petit manseng, nebbiolo, barbera, syrah… As with every experiment, it’s often hit or miss…

Some great wines

Let’s start by the easy part, the best wines and encounters of the weekend.

The weekend started really strong, with a visit at Boxwood, a winery belonging to the former owners of the Washington Redskins. As you might guess, the winery reflects the ambitions and the means put at the disposition of the winemaker. However, and more importantly, the winery’s lovely setup is not the only reason to visit Boxwood.

Le groupe de Tastecamp, écoutant les explications d'Adam McTaggart, winemaker chez Boxwood
Le groupe de Tastecamp, écoutant les explications d’Adam McTaggart, winemaker chez Boxwood

The wines here show a vision and all strive towards a common goal. The two main cuvées of the winery, Boxwood and Topiary, each aim to be classic high-level Bordeaux blend. With a consultant winemaker like Stéphane Derenoncourt and a touch of good will, results and good wine usually flow. For 25$ at the winery (39$ at the SAQ), it is a good buy (ok, more at the winery than at the SAQ. The rosé would bring summer to pretty much any location and the Trelli’s, a blend that changes from year to year is a bit less complex but very good nonetheless.

Kirsty Harmon, from Blenheim Vineyards
Kirsty Harmon, from Blenheim Vineyards

In 2010, summer was hot. Scorching hot. It made the grapes pushing their maturity levels to the maximum, pushing the sugars up (and thus the alcohol level) and lowering the acidity of the resulting wine, throwing everything a bit out of balance.

This is exactly the opposite of what we were served by Blenheim Vineyards‘ Kirsty Harmon. Her Carbernet Sauvignon 2010 was showing only 13.5% ABV and sells for a mere 20$. Part of this success can be explained that she “picks for acid rather than sugar content”, which allows to keep balance even in hot years. Her motto is “Always overdeliver” and it clearly shows in her bottles. Currently, Blenheim’s wines are not availble in Québec, but I’ll be on the lookout for the bottles of this smiling winemaker if they ever make it north of the border.

However, the highlight of the weekend was without any doubt the visit at Linden Vineyards on Sunday morning. Jim Law is a pioneer and he is the example that all winemakers in Virginia should look up to. The wines were precise, always in balance (even in hot years like 2010 or in really bad years like 2011) and show what the state can do at its best. From the start of the Handscrabble vineyard walk, it was clear that it was the tour of the weekend. It was so good that it deserve its own article…! The Handscrabble Red 2008 (a Bordeaux blend, mainly made from Cabernet Sauvignon) and the Handscrabble Chardonnay 2009 were particularly stellar and I already look forward to sharing it with people I like. No hesitation: these were clearly the best wines of the weekend.

Tastecampers at Linden Vineyards
Tastecampers at Linden Vineyards

Lots of potential, but not quite there

Virginia is looking at Viognier to build its future and making it its signature grape. Those who know me well will remember that I am not a fan of viognier, as I find that the wines are often caricatural and lacking acidity. The virginia version of this grape did not reconcile me that much with the grape, as many of the samples that we had suffered from that lack of acidity.

However, the best ones served over the weekend really good. When it ages, viognier takes a much more interesting flavour profile. It loses its over-the-top floral side and acquires some yeasty notes (not unlike some aged champagne) and much more restraint and balance. Barboursville Vineyards Viognier Reserve 2002 was the best example of this type of wine, along with the Château-Grillet that we got to taste at the BYOB supper (thanks to whoever brought this great bottle!).

Some viogniers that were tasted would have some potential, but were obscured by some winemaking choices. The prime example is this viognier that was Breaux Vineyards Viognier 2010 which was served as an appetizer at the suppoer organized by them. It would have been pretty good except the fact that it was obscured by so much new wood that you could not taste anything else. It is a prime example of what I did not like in many of the wines that we got: the ever-so-present new oak flavours which are sometimes seen as an ingredient in wine rather than an accent brought by how the wine is made. Unfortunately, when a wine spends more than 18 months all in new oak, we can forget most of the fruit’s complexity as it will be hidden behind a thick veil of vanilla and toast.

The last point that I hope will be improved is the rather aggressive use of herbicide under vine rows. In the picture below (click to enlarge), we can see all the damage that was done by Roundup since one of the rows was missed in the background. There are other ways to deal with vegetation competing with vines than flatly killing them like that as we saw at Linden (where they encouraged growth of chicken weed as it kept many other invasive species at bay) or at Tawse during last year’s Tastecamp, where they used clover for the same purpose. Regardless of what is said regarding this practice, I would rather not find that much herbicide in my glass…

Using Roundup. Draw your own conclusions (click to enlarge)
Using Roundup. Draw your own conclusions (click to enlarge)

In the end, I was thrilled (as always) to discover the potential of this region which is rather unknown outside of its borders. If all producers could look up to Linden Vineyards and use that as an inspiration to better understand their terroir and how to use intelligently the tools that is put at their disposal, Virginia would be able to fulfill this potential. Until then, the wine lover who wishes to discover Virginia will need to taste and taste and taste in order to find what suits him. If I go back to Virginia, I know exactly where I am heading first.