Virginia Grows What?
Bordeaux-style red blends and Viognier-based whites have helped put Virginia on the wine map as a place capable of fashioning high-quality wines. But winemakers of the commonwealth are also cultivating eccentric grapes like Pinotage and Rkatsiteli. Exotic and delectable, these wines prove Virginia is more progressive than you might think.
Riaan Rossouw, winemaker at Lovingston and a native of South Africa, has had great success in the state with his home country’s idiosyncratic grape. A crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, Pinotage was first fashioned in 1925 by chemist and viticulturist Abraham Izak Perold. In South Africa, Pinotage often yields wines with tones of dark fruit, spice and earth, and many versions come with hints of coffee and chocolate. The variety usually creates medium- to full-bodied wines, bolstered by firm tannins.
“South African Pinotage tends to be more rustic when young,” says Rossouw. “[They have] big structures, high tannins and need time to cellar.”
Rossouw’s style at Lovingston captures the grape’s nuances and delicate aromas, which can include cherries, violets and leather, plus a spicy finish that’s reminiscent of cracked pepper—and they’re ageworthy.
“When freshly opened, it acts more like a Rhône and when it settles it is more Burgundian,” he says. “This might give insight into how this wine will age. Decanting is of utmost importance.”
90 Lovingston 2011 Gilbert’s Vineyard Pinotage (Monticello)
abv: 13.5% Price: $27
Petit Manseng is known for producing the luscious wines of Jurançon, a region situated in the foothills of the French Pyrénées. These late-harvest sweeties often vie with the likes of Sauternes and Alsace’s vendage tardive as some of France’s best dessert selections. But wineries like Linden and Glen Manor prove that the grape can flourish in Virginia and produce wines that rival those of Southwest France.
Like Jurançon, Virginia has an Atlantic-influenced climate, which amounts to plenty of rain and cloud cover. Although these conditions are considered viticultural hazards, they are nearly unproblematic for the variety, according to Jim Law, winemaker and owner of Linden.
“Petit Manseng vines are exceptionally resilient to the point where I rarely worry about them during the growing season,” he says. “Because of their late-ripening and thick, rot-resistant skins, the grapes hang well into November without problems.”
What can consumers expect from the Old Dominion’s late-harvest Petit Manseng? Law says his grapes tend to yield exotic, just-overripe tropical fruit notes, plus a wet straw tone that’s reminiscent of Chenin Blanc. On the palate, the wines are dense and concentrated, with penetrating acidity that balances the sugar content and lends lift.
“Sort of like a Tokaj without the oxidation or botrytis influences,” says Law.
90 Linden 2008 Late-Harvest Petit Manseng (Virginia)
abv: 11.8% Price: $28/375 ml
Some of the greatest expressions of Tannat hail from Madiran, an appellation in Southwest France, where the grape yields rustic, dark-fruited wines loaded with brawny tannins and naturally high acids.
Uruguay is another stomping ground for the grape. There, the variety produces a spectrum of styles, spanning from light and Beaujolais-like to fortified dessert bottlings. In Virginia, wineries such as Fabbioli Cellars and Stinson Vineyards have demonstrated Tannat’s promise.
“Even with the huge variation in harvest years here, Tannat has the potential to be a reliable single-varietal wine that is consistent from year to year,” says Rachel Stinson, winemaker for Stinson Vineyards. “It has thick skins and therefore good resistance to mildews and rots, and ripens relatively early for a red. All these factors make for a very good rainy-climate varietal.”
Virginian winemakers are just beginning to discover the grape’s potential. Like in Uruguay, styles in the Old Dominion span from elegant and easy-to-drink to decadent and Port-like. The best, however, are made in the Madiran vein: bold and mouthfilling, with strapping tannins, equally elevated acids and loads of dark fruit.
89 Fabbioli Cellars 2010 Tannat (Virginia)
abv: 13.5% Price: $14
Italy’s Piedmont is the home of Nebbiolo, where the grape is the sole component of Barolo and Barbaresco. There, the grape fashions transparent, age-worthy selections, which often need to be cellared for at least a decade.
Although much of Virginia lacks Piedmont’s continental climate and steep hillsides, successes from wineries like Barboursville and Breaux show the finicky, late-ripening grape has a predilection for the region’s warm climate and clay-dominated soils.
Given the differences between the regions, Luca Paschina, winemaker and general manager of Barboursville and a Piedmont native, doesn’t try to emulate the wines of Barolo. Instead, he crafts Nebbiolo that reflects the state’s terroir.
“One substantial difference comes with the acidity of our wine, which is lower due a warmer overall growing season,” he says. “For this reason, our Nebbiolo has a tendency to be more supple at a younger age and more developed in color as well.”
Despite the early approachability of his Nebbiolo, Paschina has found his wines to benefit from cellar time.
“It is to our delight to discover that it has great aging potential,” he says. “We are drinking the 1998, our first vintage, with great satisfaction.”
91 Barboursville Vineyards 2010 Reserve Nebbiolo (Virginia)
abv: 15.1% Price: $40
Jordan Harris, winemaker and general manager of Loudoun County’s Tarara Winery, is a bit of a renegade when it comes to winemaking, and his experimentation with Rkatsiteli is a case in point.
This white variety hails from the Republic of Georgia—one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world—where it’s traditionally vinified into so-called orange wines. To craft these bottlings, Georgian vintners allow the juice to macerate with the skins in qvevri (clay amphorae) that are buried underground. This process yields wines that are orange in hue, oxidative in flavor and strengthened by tannins—an uncommon attribute for most whites.
Although Harris’s 2012 Boneyard Skins—a 100% Rkatsiteli wine—isn’t made in subterranean earthen crocks, it’s a product of a modified Georgian-style vinification. He allows the juice to ferment on its skins for 31 days in stainless-steel tanks. This method is more controlled than the customary Georgian process, but it still lends the finished wine an exotic edge and a pleasant astringency.
“I tend to push the envelope more than most, but the idea of classic Rkats winemaking scares the hell out of me,” he says. “Our version of an orange wine is more about precision … having the faith to just set it [in qvevri] and forget it is just too scary.”
Tarara 2012 Boneyard Skins (Virginia)
abv: 11.5% Price: $20
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