This week, Andrew Jefford looks at Virginia's classic grape varieties, and how they compare to their European counterparts, plus he tastes eight wines.

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Jefford on Monday: Old Dominion Classics

Jim Law of Linden Vineyards was remembering the 2013 vintage.  Acorns were scarce that year: late freezes and spring damp had led the oak trees to abort their flowers.  ‘The bears didn’t have enough to eat, so they came into the vineyards.  I was running round with a gun all night.  A bear can eat half a row very quickly, and then they poop right under your vines.  They only digest the juice, so you look down in the morning and see all your fruit, right there in the poop.’  Just one of the trials of viticulture, up on the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia.

I wrote about the varieties which seem to me to be most promising for the USA’s fifth largest grape-producing state at the beginning of this month (Tannat, the Mansengs and Nebbiolo), but they’re not what’s most widely planted there right now.  Excluding hybrids, Virginia’s top half-dozen varieties in 2014 were Chardonnay (178 ha), Cabernet Franc (152 ha), Merlot (134 ha), Cabernet Sauvignon (117 ha), Viognier (105 ha) and Petit Verdot (79 ha).  Virginia’s wine-growing classics, in other words, are Chardonnay and Viognier (the latter already adopted as the state’s ‘signature grape’) plus Bordeaux blends or individual varietal wines.

There are over 80 growers of Viognier, and it’s made headway here, according to Emily Hodson of Veritas, because ‘it hangs happily into September,’ its thick skins helping it resist the challenging late-summer rains better than Chardonnay can do.  The key question with Viognier, as always outside the Northern Rhône, is how far to push ripeness: Condrieu is a more heady, exotic and low-acid benchmark than many non-French winemakers are comfortable with.  ‘Some people,’ Emily Hodson reflected, ‘say you don’t get Viognier character until you get to 24˚ Brix’ – which would equate to over 14% abv.  Hodson herself aims for 23˚Brix, already a little riper than she’d really like.

Do you, in other words, go all out to make a global statement Viognier, or do you make something a little more amenable to most local drinking occasions, with just enough character to distinguish it from Chardonnay?  ‘Bright aromatics plus a little crispness in the mouthfeel,’ is what Mike Canney of Sunset Hills looks for in his Viognier.  ‘Our customer base really likes that.’  Most follow Hodson and Canney in reining the variety in, though its Virginia aptitude still means that it has classic floral and apricot notes. Personally I’d like to see a little more flamboyance, at least when the season allows.

Much the same can be said for the range of Bordeaux varietals in Virginia, which with a few exceptions make polite, well-bred red wines with freshness and balance, much enjoyed locally, but without the kind of arresting originality and dense core which would send Virginia storming on to the world wine map.  (Useful comparisons could be made with Hawkes Bay Bordeaux blends from New Zealand; a comparative blind tasting of wines from the two sources would be fascinating.)

At least two of the exceptions are estates where key Bordeaux consultants are working, notably Eric Boissenot with the ambitious Rutger de Vink at RdV Vineyards, and Stéphane Derenoncourt with Rachel Martin at Boxwood Estate. Michel Rolland formerly worked with both RdeV and the large Kluge Vineyard and Estate – though the latter contract didn’t survive the estate’s purchase at auction by Donald Trump in 2011, after former owner Patricia Kluge ran into financial straits.  What is now called Trump Vineyards is owned and run today by Donald’s son Eric.

Amongst the Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon is the hardest to ripen satisfactorily in Virginia, and Cabernet Franc the most widely planted.  ‘The biggest problem with Cabernet Franc,’ says Emily Hodson, ‘is that it’s called Cabernet Franc.’  Maybe – but it can also easily acquire green notes here, and is rarely plump and comely.  ‘Our biggest mistake in the past with Cabernet Franc,’ says Riaan Rossouw of Lovingston, ‘was in treating it like Cabernet Sauvignon.  We’re now going for a pretty cranberry-cherry style, with less extraction.’  That works.

Merlot often comes across as smooth and cool here, thus won’t have Pomerol owners hunting down Virginia estates just yet. Petit Verdot is undeniably impressive – but that excess of personality, as usual with this variety, just doesn’t make for a comfortable or particularly drinkable wine.  It is Virginia’s red blends, in truth, which work best.  A second reason for this may be because the best fruit heads for blends.

And Chardonnay?  This variety’s star quality and love of travel means that it is rarely less than competent in Virginia.  For all that affability, though, it’s a grape which insists on a level of cultural understanding (which perhaps implies a respect for terroir) to raise it to the highest levels.  Michael Shaps, who spends part of his working year in Burgundy, certainly has that – as does Jim Law, who was first introduced to wine when his father fell in love with Meursault, who set out to make great Chardonnay as long ago as 1983, and who is still perfecting his art via a range of three Chardonnays.  Bears allowing.

Andrew Jefford’s pick of Virginia’s classics

Barboursville, Octagon 2012

A blend of 55% Merlot with 45% Cabernet Franc, this shows root spice and pepper behind its oak.  The palate is impressively concentrated – sleek black fruit, but with the structure and density needed to back that up.  Serious and ageworthy.  90

Boxwood 2012

This estate Bordeaux blend (56% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon and 11% Petit Verdot) is relatively lightly coloured, with elegant but fully ripe aromas of balanced, deftly articulated red and black fruits.  Despite its overall grace, this wine has impressive tannins and aromatic complexity, and the combination of softness and freshness is finely judged. 90

King Family, Viognier 2014

Winemaker Matthieu Finot is from the Northern Rhône himself, and this beautifully crafted Viogner (which contains 10% Petit Manseng to up the overall acidity a little) is gentle, creamy, classy, perfumed and finally rich: a perfect rendition of the local idiom without sacrificing varietal inspiration.  (It contains different portions fermented in stainless steel, concrete egg, acacia wood and used oak.)  90

Linden Vineyards, Avenius Chardonnay 2013

Restrained scents of moist clay, spring leaves, parsley and anis, with a pungent, cascading palate: fine-grained, vinous, structured and sinewy.  Perfectly ripe yet mouthwateringly fresh Chardonnay like this is rare outside France.  91

RdV Vineyards, Lost Mountain 2012

Lively blackberry fruits with citrus-blossom freshness and a creamy undertow: enticing aromas.  Fresh, tight, poised and briskly flavoured, with dramatic focus and intensity.  Spicy depths and shaping tannins to finish: a convincing Bordeaux blend, with a balance closer to its Aquitaine inspiration than anything from big-boned Napa. 92

Michael Shaps, Wild Meadow Vineyard Chardonnay 2013

Graceful, gently honeyed scents, with pure, fine-lined flavours whose limpid pear fruit gradually fills and builds in the mouth.  A beautifully crafted, gastronomic Chardonnay.  90

Trump Winery, New World Reserve (red) 2012

This Bordeaux blend (42% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Franc, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petit Verdot) looks west rather than east with its lavish oaking profile, soft tannins and plush, low-acid style.  Generous and easy to drink, yet the forest-copse notes which are Virginia’s birthright give it some sobriety and seriousness, too.  88

Veritas, Vintner’s Reserve 2010

The outstanding wine in a four-vintage vertical of this Bordeaux blend, with immaculate blackcurrant fruit showing attractive secondary complexities, poise and balance within a light, lively frame.  89