The Friday Fermentable: Some Wines of Virginia, by Erleichda

In late August, our colleague and correspondent Erleichda conducted a winetasting of some offerings from Virginia, picked up on a tour with his beloved Sweetpea. The tasting fell on PharmPreKer's birthday, so we were unable to make it, but here is Erleichda's missive.

Two things strike me: first, is a whole new education he is giving us about cheeses, an area of my supreme ignorance. Second, is something many of you have known for years: that lovely wines are being made all over the US outside of California and the Northwest. All I can say is that I have to start plotting out our own tour of Virginia wineries - Thanks, Erleichda! - Abel

The gathering one Saturday this summer was composed of our neighborhood friends, and my cousins who live an hour away with whom I've grown closer these past half dozen years now that our age ratios have collapsed. As with the pool and New Zealand wine party earlier in the season, the recent participants were those who liked wine but were not, with few exceptions, readers of national wine magazines, or attendees of wine tasting classes, or the like. Unlike most of my previous tasting parties, where I provide, typically, five or six primary bottles (somehow I always wind up opening several extras) in duplicate, thus insuring everyone attending will taste each wine, with and without food, and over a period of several hours, I had but single bottles available of the Virginia wines I had purchased.

An aside: I await the day most of our interstate shipping regulations concerning wine purchases will be resolved. It is unfortunate that I cannot get the Va wineries to ship to my home state. Their reluctance to do so is mirrored by that of several retail wine stores. Some will ship to me, while others will not. Consequently, many of the wine selections I brought back with me included those I knew to be obtainable, even if only occasionally, in stores in our vicinity.

There were nine primary wine selections, and another held back in reserve as it was a desert wine. Seven of the nine wines were white and I prepared the "tasting notes" sheet in the order I thought might make tasting sense (lighter to fuller bodied), whites before reds. First on the list was one of several offerings from the Barboursville Vineyard, their 2004 Pinot Grigio ($15). A dry but fruity pinot grigio that lingers awhile on the tongue. A nice start to the day's tastings. From my perusal of the tasting notes of others, "light and crisp", "dry but not overly astringent", "easy to drink" appear. (The Barboursville Vineyard winery was founded in 1976 and is worth visiting for the plantation home designed in part by Thomas Jefferson, the fine restaurant on the premises, and the variety of high quality wines they offer.)

Next up was the 2004 Barboursville Sauvignon Blanc ($13), with a typical herbaceous underpinning coupled with a citrus, and other fruit, layering. The assorted tasting notes included: "drier than the Pinot Grigio", and in contradistinction, "sweet; long finish". I suppose it depended on what you were eating at the time? Speaking of which, both of these wines went quite well with the half dozen different cheeses offered, as well as the smoked blue fish, Milwaukee bratwurst, grilled Pacific coast salmon, and Sweetpea's assorted homemade humus, an artichoke dip (using fennel spears), caponata, and several neighbor- contributed dishes, bruschettas, tomato, mozzarella and basil salad, and Italian sausages with grilled sweet peppers.

Cheeses? Of course, you know from July's New Zealand wine column that I love to explore cheeses with whatever wines are being tasted. My standards, Kasseri, and Ladotiri, were represented, as was some remaining Chabichou du Poitou (not a favorite of mine, but a favorite that day of one neighbor), but another old friend, Murcia al Vino was on hand too. This goat cheese from Spain is similar to "Drunken Goat", if you've had that one, and is washed in red wine during ripening to impart the red rind and floral bouquet. Three other cheeses were being sampled for the first time. Chaubier is a 50/50 blend of pasteurized cow and goat's milk from France that is aged for six month and has a nutty flavor. This was at least one attendee's favorite of the bunch. Queijo de Nisa is from the Alentejo region of Portugal where Sweetpea and I hiked a few years back. It is made from raw sheep (Merino) milk, which is curdled after coagulation provoked by thistles, and has quite an earthy flavor. The last new cheese tried was Majorero, from unpasteurized goat milk, made in the Canary islands. It won a best hard "Document of Origin" cheese award in England in 2005 and has a creamy long lasting taste that goes well with red wines. I must say that each of the three new (for me) cheeses was to my liking and I will buy them again at some point. While I liked them all, I did notice there were tasters who leaned toward the Kasseri and Ladotiri (oily and mildly pungent cheeses), and others who preferred the tamer Chaubier or Murcia al Vino. You're just going to have to try a few of each for yourselves.

The 2004 Barboursville Chardonnay ($11), was characterized by me as "full, nice, hint of oak", and as "pleasant", "nice flavors" on other tasting notes. For the price, it was a great buy. The other chardonnay entry was from Burnley Vineyards, a 2003 bottling whose price I don't recall. This offering had a lot more oak, with citrusy acidity that balanced out the wine well. Still, it didn't meld for me and I don't think, given my taste preferences, that I would buy it again.

Next was my favorite white wine of the day, a 2005 Michael Shaps' "Monticello" Viognier from the King Family Vineyards ($26). This is also one of the vineyards I like to visit on my annual trek to Virginia. The tasting tidbits from others included "very nice, fruity, citrus aftertaste", "very nice, don't know why", and mine read "real nice viognier, dry, spicy, well balanced".

The 2004 "Harlequin" from Veritas Vineyard ($20) was next on my list. It is a blend of 75% chardonnay and 25% viognier. It was a pleasant to drink softly dry white wine reminiscent of an unoaked chardonnay with nuances of fruit. But having tasted it after the Shaps' Viognier, it just paled in comparison. Still, I wouldn't have brought it home for the tasting had it not stood out on the day I purchased it. And, let me add, that if you have time for only one Va. winery in the central Va. area, this is the one worth visiting for the sheer beauty of the setting, and the client -friendly tasting room. They also have occasional musical evenings on the premises and I would certainly partake of them were I in the area at these times.

The final white wine on the day's offering was a 2005 Afton Mountain Gewurztraminer ($19). It is made in the Alsatian style, with minimal residual sugar, and I found it to have mild spiciness and a generous finish. This vineyard is a bicycle ride away from Veritas vineyard, and is a beautiful property worth visiting for the wine, the scenery and the friendly owners, Tom and Shinko.

I conducted an informal vote on the favorite white wine of the nine we had tasted. Asking folks to name their favorite and runner-up wine, only the 2004 Barboursville Chardonnay failed to garner at least one such vote. The two winners with the most votes were the 2004 Barboursville Pinot Grigio and the 2005 Shaps' King Family Viognier.

Two Va. red wines were included in the tasting. The 2003 Barboursville Cabernet Sauvignon ($15), was soft, well rounded, nicely balanced with mild oakiness (despite the 12 months of barrel aging). But of the two reds offered, Veritas' "VR" (Vintner's Reserve: a mixture of 60% Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot), was the hands down favorite by a 6 to 1 margin. The "VR" was a bit more fruitier than the cabernet sauvignon and with greater refinement (easier on the palate) among the tannins ($25 at the vineyard, but I've seen it listed retail for $32).

To go along with the deserts several neighbors brought to the party (plum tart, apple pie, cookies, dried apricots) , I had set aside a chilled bottle of Barboursville "Phileo" ($17), a blend of Moscato and Gewurztraminer grapes and a few special ingredients. Indeed, this was a nice desert wine appreciated by the majority of the attendees. It was sweet but with sufficient acidity to provide an appealing balance.

In summary, the wines of Virginia were well received. Although there was no standout wine whose existence merited my announcing it to all my wine drinking buddies, the collective efforts of the vintners of Virginia, as judged by this limited sampling (and my unpublished experiences) have come along way developing their art. While the prices for some of the standout wines were not trivial, there were several at, or below, $15/bottle that were worthwhile.

Have you a favorite Va wine? Let's hear about it.

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While not inexpensive, the igourmet site and catalogue is fabulous for learning about different cheeses. My favorite at this tasting was the Murcia-- yum!!

The wineries in VA are in gorgeous countryside, and driving around the area on a sunny afternoon is a wonderful outing. I recommend it also.

Both of us hope you can join us for one of our relaxed wine tasting, pool party (weather permitting) afternoons sometime!!

By Sweet pea (not verified) on 29 Sep 2006 #permalink

There are also some good wines out of Arkansas, if you can believe it. I've had some wine from a 120-year old winery in NW Arkansas (Wiederkehr Winery) that was both inexpensive and tasty.

By MJ Memphis (not verified) on 29 Sep 2006 #permalink

Since I was born and raised in the shadow of the Blue Ridge (in Charlottesville) - I'm biased, but...Virginia wines are pretty good. My favorite is almost anything from Barboursville - interestingly, the former chef at the Barboursville vineyards restaurant has a place in Charleston, Al di La, where you can have a glass of Barboursville wine (and a pretty decent selection) with dinner. He offers primarily italian wines - and those from Barboursville. That says something!