How Virginia Does It: Viognier from the Piedmont

The Back Story:

It’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a Virginia wine. Through no fault of my own, I’ve recently turned my attentions east, towards the Tokajis, Grüner Vetliners, and Gewürztraminers of the world. It wasn’t too long, though, before my attention wandered back to local fare. Thus, I picked up a Virginia wine on one of my recent wine shopping trips: The Horton Vineyards 2008 Tower Series Viognier.

Because what actually happened was rather dull, allow me to utilize the age-old writer’s device known as creative embellishment, and to point out that the unnamed wine shop villainized as such below is decidedly not evil in real life:

*cue the string quartet*

Scene: Caroline of the North Empire’s Wine Fortress. Year unknown.

Our hero, the wine explorer, nameless, approaches the imposing storefront. Glowing, blood-red letters embellished with a cluster of insidious grapes materialize in the air before the building, swelling a lump in his throat and beating him down to his knees. Give in, give in. The unreadable glyphs pierce his mind, forcing him to gaze into them one by one, each one sapping more of his energy.

He wrenches free of their hold, rolling to his feet as a terrible shriek cuts through the air around him. He sprints towards the only entryway, two glass portals framed by bars of pulsing obsidian. As he nears them, he throws his hands forward and snaps them apart, splitting the doors and sliding them in either direction as he tumbles through the doorway. Just before a sentry turns his way, the explorer rolls behind a stand of wine, the bottles rattling as he brushes by them.

Peeking around the corner, our intrepid hero spies multiple sentries throughout the area. He studies them carefully, seeking any kind of weakness that he can exploit. He notices several denizens unlike them, lacking uniforms, shambling throughout the aisles, collecting various corked bottles stored on racks on the walls. The sentries indicate which bottles are acceptable to remove, and if a denizen selects incorrectly, the sentry uses an overwhelming aura, what they call “snobbery,” to break their spirit and mold them into proper servants. All the hero has to do, he thinks, is shamble forth and submit to the sentries when spotted. So long as he didn’t let on his true target, the 3-liter casks of wine strategically placed far, far away from the Châteauneuf du Pape, he should be able to complete his quest.

Mere seconds after he rises from his crouch, he is approached by a sentry.

“Why have you entered our domain?” The sentry begins to emanate his oppressive aura, prepared to batter the explorer’s intelligence and willpower with a sickly wave of snobbery. Unprepared for such an encounter, the explorer grasps at the first diversion he can find.

“I seek the ambrosia of Greek Moschofilero.” The explorer hopes the obscurity of such a treasure would satisfy the sentry’s inclinations and suppositions. The sentry begins to tremble with anger, and the explorer worries he may have overreached in his estimation of the varietal. As the explorer considers his escape and steels his mind for a painful onslaught of magic hidden in thinly-disguised invective, the sentry slumps, the wave of snobbery all but vanishing around him.

“We have failed to procure most of such treasure, though the meager stores we have exist to the far west, there.” The sentry points towards one corner of the room and then hurries away, warming up his aura to exact his anger upon an unsuspecting denizen in the zone of Italian reds. As our explorer watches, horrified, the sentry grabs the denizen and flings her across the room where she lands in a wooden chair bolted to the floor. The sentry straps her legs and arms and turns on the TV in front of her. Sideways is on loop.

The explorer dashes in the direction the sentry had pointed, rounding the corner and swiping a bottle of the ambrosia as cover. Just around the corner, he senses, are the casks, his true goal, also stuffed in this forgotten corner. He approaches the wall of casks with caution, ensuring no sentries are in sight as he begins his cautious approach towards the musty shelves of casks. There are so many! He stands in awe of the vast array of casks, trying to discern which the most potent of them all. He only has room for two, and he had not expected such a selection. He wonders briefly why creatures such as these sentries, who reviled these casks so, would continue to stockpile them in such great quantities, but his musings are cut short as one rounded the corner. In his haste, he stuffs two casks that seemed most likely to hold the liquid he sought into his satchel and moves onward to the next zone. He finds himself face to face with shelves of wine from his homeland, Virginia.

A compunction to liberate one overwhelms his senses, and just before the sentry can approach him, he swipes a golden bottle from the shelf and sinks softly into the shadows. In his search for a single legendary cask of wine, he had collected four different containers, each one glowing brightly with the promise of invaluable treasure. He is amazed at how easily and quickly he had gotten them. Escape, he thought glumly, will be a whole other matter. What will it cost to get these home?

Fin

The Results:

Horton Vineyards Viognier in glass and bottleThe appearance of the wine is an extremely light straw. When I say light, I mean the wine is almost clear. The color in that glass is almost entirely from the light in the oven behind it. The swirl suggests a creamy texture and a very high viscosity.

The nose of the wine is pungent and palatable. Floral and tropical notes combine for a very exotic, perfume-y scent. There are hints of mango and banana that jump out, and a honeyed, slightly musty odor lingers on the nose.

The mouth feel of the wine is as the swirl suggested. It was very creamy, with an extremely active acidity and effervescence that gave it a tingly, tangy consistency similar to a Frizzante.

The flavor of the wine was rather unlike a typical Viognier. It was very dry and extremely complex, full-bodied and refreshing. The attack was both floral and citrusy with a toasty undertone, followed by strong mineral and honey flavors. The finish was rather long with subtle mango and peach flavors coming through the minerality. at 13.8% alc, there was no suggestion of the alcohol in the flavor. It was an all-around harmonious wine.

For the Casual Drinker:

This is a fantastic summer sipper. It’s aggressive, full-bodied, and refreshing. There’s some sugar in this wine, but the acidity and alcohol are so high that it manages to be crisp even though it has a thick texture. This is one of those wines that you want to experience on its own: take a sip, close your eyes, and enjoy the flavors and sensations as they wash over your tongue. If you had to pair it, I would suggest a lighter seafood or pasta meal. This wine would not handle tomatoes, spiciness, or red meat well at all.

Conclusion:

Though I wasn’t expecting this style of wine at all from this region and this grape, I was thoroughly impressed by it. It’s well worth the $20 price tag. And seriously, are you gonna turn down a bottle that beautiful? 7/10

(Don’t) Spin the Wheel: Nostalgic Music Wine Pairings

This week I overrode the randomizer and chose two songs myself as a way to reacquaint myself (and acquaint you all) with two bands that I’ve spent some time away from. The first, Atom and His Package, I haven’t listened to at all since high school. The second, The Besnard Lakes, I’ve only listened to sporadically since last summer. Shame on me on both counts.

Atom and His Package – I Am Downright Amazed at What I Can Destroy with Just a Hammer

This song is one that you listen to and just grin the whole time. The lyrics are absurd, chronicling a trio of college-age kids who buy a fixer-upper and realize only one of them knows how to repair things while another is marginally useful. The other one, bored with the process and with being utterly unhelpful, roams about the house indulging in destructive fantasies with his trusty hammer.

The instrumentation for this song is all provided by Atom (Adam Goren), who plays a guitar and a synthesizer, and his “Package,” a sequencer, a hardware music device that allows him to play multiple recorded or generated instrument sequences simultaneously while focusing on his live guitar-work and keyboarding. He snaps back and forth between chorus and verse with nary a pause in some sort of ADD stream-of-consciousness flood, the synthesizer barely keeping up with the manic output. The synth drums maintain a ridiculously quick 4/4 time signature, sounding more like an overexcited metronome than an actual instrument.

This song is giddy, simple, and short. It seems to me like it would pair very well with a late harvest Riesling. A late harvest Riesling stands well on its own, is enjoyable by even casual drinkers, and works when you don’t want a wine that commands focus and attention. The flavors are generally safe, harmonious flavors that match the higher sweetness and acidity levels: floral, light fruits, minerals. It’s almost syrupy sweet, though just acidic enough to give the wine some depth. Atom and His Package is assuredly irreverent, but there is enough substance, social and political commentary, there to keep it from being overindulgent nonsense.

Other songs by Atom and His Package include “The Palestinians Are Not The Same Thing As The Rebel Alliance, Jackass,” “(Lord It’s Hard to Be Happy When You’re Not) Using the Metric System,” and “People In This Computer Lab Should Shut the Hell Up.” If you need a good dose of angry, harmless, funny, nerdy punk, well, I think you’ve pigeon-holed yourself very nicely. Enjoy!

The Besnard Lakes – And You Lied to Me

Wine first. Considering I’ve only had dry Tokaji before, it would be dishonest of me to pair this with an Aszu. That’s fine, because I think a dry Tokaji goes very nicely with this music. Its acidity and residual sugar, though both generally fairly standard at around 6.5 g/l, are paired with a higher alcohol level (typically 14% and up). Higher alcohol, within reason, tends to enhance the flavors inherent in a wine, so long as the acidity and sugar aren’t overwhelmed.

Everything about a good Tokaji would be described as sumptuous. The acidity is very active, providing a nuanced mouth feel that I would liken to the feeling of ball bearings rolling across skin. The sugar and alcohol balances with the acidity well, giving the wine a very full, sensual flavor. The complexities in this wine persist through a long finish, many different aspects of fruits, minerals, and herbs constantly jostling for attention. The wine is simply chill-inducing.

Chill-inducing describes this song perfectly. There are few bands that warrant headphones, closed eyes, and focused listening. For me, The Besnard Lakes always command that dedication of my time. This song in particular makes me stop and listen no matter what I’m doing at the time.

The ominous vocals, sung both solo by Jace Lasek (also the guitarist and keyboardist) and in chants with his wife Olga Goreas (also the bassist), cast a surreal pall over the ornate instrumentation, pumping wave after wave of distraught emotion into the rising, triumphant guitar riffs to maintain a continual dissonance, a sense of unease. They fill empty spaces between verses with subdued distortion and wavering vocal harmonies, barely holding the song together and making the anticipation for each resurgence palpable. Like a dry Tokaji, the sweetness is tempered by a subtle mordancy; the song embraces dichotomy.

And, like any good wine, the complexity persists through a long finish. Generally, after the final verse of a song, a repetition of the verse or chorus riff or a guitar solo ends abruptly or fades out. The Besnard Lakes instead begin a second guitarist’s distorted guitar interlude before the final repetition of the chorus, replacing the chorus riff. As the chorus ends, another guitar solo begins, with a third guitarist and guitar bringing in a cleaner, slower sound. The original guitarist, Lasek, playing a subdued version of the chorus riff underneath of the solos, suddenly comes forward with a hammer-on solo as the third guitarist fades away, providing the most complex guitar-work seen thus far before one final choral riff finishes the song.

I would have a hard time finding a more appropriate metaphor for the progression of the flavors of wine from the attack to the mid-palate to the finish than this song.

The 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit Part 4: Eye on the Future

Looking for the rest of our series? You can find it here:
Part 1: The Dawn of Cooperation – opening arguments of Texas vs. Virginia on Vinotology
Part 2: The Great Tasting – the Texas / Virginia wine swap on Wine(Explored)
Part 3: Independent Research – Texas hyping up Virginia and vice-versa on Vinotology

Chairman: Ladies and Gentlemen, we have reached the finale of the 2010 Texas / Virginia Wine Summit. So far we’ve made cases for each on the basis of history, provided wines, and independent research. Today, we ask our participants to make a case for the futures of their respective states’ wine industries. We’ll begin with the gentleman from Virginia, Mr. Joshua Sweeney of Wine(Explored).

Josh: Thank you, Chairman. I would like to begin my statement with a few eye-opening stats. First, I would like to highlight the rapid growth of wineries in Virginia. We had only 64 registered wineries in 2000. As of this year, there are over 160 wineries, and they’re opening at an average of two a month. We currently have 260 independent vineyards farming over 2400 acres of land dedicated to growing the grape.

Virginia Wine Is for Lovers

Second, if I asked you to estimate where Virginia fell in terms of total volume of wine produced in the US, what would you guess? 5th, 6th? As much noise as Virginia is making in the wine scene, in 2008, we were merely the 9th highest producer of wine with 3.7 million liters, or a little under 1 million gallons, crushed from Virginia grapes. Surprisingly enough, Ohio, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Florida produced more wine, while North Carolina was narrowly edged out at 3.5 million liters. Virginia is making noise in the industry while producing .17% as much wine as California, 3.46% as much as New York, 4.84% as much Washington state, and 23.72% as much as Oregon.

Also, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, Virginia has approximately 8.5 million acres of farmable land. Viticulture currently occupies roughly .028% of Virginia’s farmable land. To put it another way, for every acre of vines planted, there are 7000 acres of other farmable land. Industry saturation is not an issue in Virginia.

These facts point to a few important conclusions in my mind: The lack of total production combined with a growing reputation in the country suggests an overall high quality of wines being grown, and wine-makers are quickly figuring this out. And it’s not some specialized grape that’s found its niche here; traditional varietals are making an appearance. Our top four varietals produced in 2009 were Chardonnay (18.4% of total volume), Cabernet Franc (13.2%), Merlot (11.8%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (7.5%).

Other white varietals that vintners are having success with in Virginia include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Viognier, Vidal Blanc and Petit Manseng. Red varietals becoming popular in the area include Norton, Petit Verdot, and Chambourcin. Petit Manseng and Chambourcin especially are developing into regional specialties.

Because of the popularity of our most commonly produced varietals and the development of a few marketable specialties, our growth potential, and the rate of new wineries opening in the state, we could very well see our output beginning to match our reputation and triple by 2020. While I don’t currently foresee us taking over Oregon by then, at the very least we should be able to close the gap in total production by at least half. At the very least, the future is looking very bright for the wine industry in my state.

Chairman: Thank you, Virginia. We will now hear from the honorable gentleman of Texas, Ben Simons of Vinotology.

Texas Wine Resources

Handy resources at gotexanwine.org

Ben: Thank you Mr. Chairman.  It has been a pleasure to be able to participate in this event and to represent my state before you all.  Both of the great states represented in this event have demonstrated that they deserve to be thought of as of quality wine regions.  We have tasted some great wines, and have learned much about each state.  Today I would like to talk about the Texas wine industry, past, present, and future.

Like my colleague’s home state of Virginia, Texas also has experienced rapid growth in the number of wineries around the state.  As recently as 2003 there were only 54 wineries in the state, but that number has ballooned to over 160 wineries today.  There are roughly 3600 acres of wine grapes planted in Texas right now, which is not nearly enough acreage to produce the grapes for the wineries operating in the state.  This is both a curse and an opportunity.  The fact that Texas is producing an ever increasing amount of wine, while still having to import so much fruit, seems to indicate that there is a good deal of growth potential in both the quantity and quality of Texas wines.  Currently Texas is producing roughly 2 million gallons of wine a year, but less than 500,000 gallons are made from Texas fruit.

For most of the history of the Texas wine industry, French Bordeaux varieties have dominated the wine production in Texas, with Cabernet Sauvignon making up nearly 25% of the grape production, followed by Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Merlot.  In recent years there has been a growth in the production of more Mediterranean varieties, such as Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Rhone varieties like Syrah, Mourvedre, and Viognier.  The challenges of the Texas growing season have lead many growers to seek out varieties more amenable to our conditions.  The result is a Texas wine industry that shows the potential to differentiate itself with some unique varieties.

Much of the wine being produced in Texas is also being consumed in Texas.  Texas consumers seem to be increasingly interested in the new varieties that are becoming more common in the state.  With the shortages in grape production that Texas faces, the likelihood of Texas wine being distributed out of state is very slim.  The single factor that will most impact Texas’ ability to become recognized as a premier wine producing region is probably grape production.  Unless more acreage is planted in grapes, thereby leading to more genuine Texas wines, Texas will not be able to develop a reputation on a national stage.  Given the wines that I have presented, I feel confident in saying that an increase in production could easily send Texas into the list of elite wine producing states.  Texas has only been seriously producing wine for the last 30 years, and the industry has come a long way in that time.  One thing seems to be clear, the best days of the Texas wine industry are still ahead of us.  Thank you.

Chairman: We’ve now reached the end of our summit. I would like to thank both participants for taking much time in the recent weeks to advocate for their respective states. It has been grueling, taxing, even bloody. Incidentally, we hope that the stenographer recovers from his nasty fall. But I digress. The chamber has reached a verdict. In my humble opinion, the state that has secured the right to be come the next big wine region is…

—END TRANSCRIPT—

The 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit – Part 2: The Great Tasting

Looking for part 1 of the 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit? You can find the Dawn of Cooperation here on Vinotology.

Chairman: Welcome to the second session of the 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit. Our participants are Joshua Sweeney, Virginia born-and-bred and host of today’s venue, Wine(Explored), and Ben Simons, native son of Texas and the man behind Vinotology. In our first session, we laid the groundwork evidence for Virginia’s and Texas’s credentials as major wine-producing regions. Today, we will accept one wine from each state as physical evidence. Virginia, please present your wine to the chamber for review.

Chairman of the wine summit

Josh: As evidence of Virginia’s worth as a major wine-producing region, I submit for review the 2008 West Wind Farm Rosé. I have selected this wine because it showcases both the abilities of Virginia wine growers as well as the creativity inherent in Virginia wine culture. When you think of a Rosé, what wine characteristics come to mind? What would you consider to be the typical Rosé? *pause for dramatic effect*

Close behind the argument of red wine drinkers versus white wine drinkers is red AND white wine drinkers versus Rosé. Bastard child of the red wine, white wine wearing the makeup of an incorrigible trollop, a blush wine for people who can’t handle their tannins, Rosés have suffered many slights in the minds of drinkers with a wine superiority complex. In actuality, a pink wine is an art unto itself, a beautiful, shape-shifting creature that can embody the crispness and sweet nature of a white or the aggressive acidity and tannic bite of a mature red. The trick is, as with any wine, in the respect and dedication of the wine maker.

When I first tasted this wine, I had no idea what I was getting into. The color was rich but light for a Rosé, a pure pink that betrayed only the slightest hint of red. The nose was dry and pungent, fruit-forward but rather tame. I was ready for the standard pink experience. Fool me once… The thing is, Merlot grapes aren’t the standard grape for a Rosé, and if I had bothered to read the tasting notes, I would have known the wine, 100% Merlot, was allowed a little under a day’s worth of skin contact to get that deep pink color.

Putting that first sip on my tongue was like dropping a bomb of dryness on my palate. After I figured out that no, I hadn’t utterly lost my mind, I was absolutely in awe of the characteristics of that wine. So crisp, so dry, balanced so well, and with a beautiful red fruit flavor that faded to a ripe strawberry finish, I was duly impressed. Unusual innovation like that is one of the benefits of living in an “up and coming” wine region, as there are no traditions to buck or expectations to meet. An additional benefit of the lesser-known region is the lower price point on these wines. The Rosé sells directly from the winery for $14.

I’ll now yield the floor to my colleague from Texas before I encroach upon his rebuttal. Your thoughts on this wine, Mr. Simons?

West Wind Farm emblem

Ben: Josh, I have to say that I admire the courage of choosing something unconventional like a Rosé.  I admit that I was intrigued when I heard that you would be presenting this wine.  As a resident of a state that is making some interesting wines from some unusual varieties, I can appreciate the creativity shown with this wine.

I really like the color of this wine, most definitely somewhat lighter than you generally see, but an interesting pinkish hue. * sniff- Hmm, the dryness of this wine is surprisingly evident even on the nose.  I do smell a bit of red fruit, but I wouldn’t say that the nose is overly fruity.  I also wouldn’t call the nose overly friendly or inviting, but it is interesting.

*sip – Wow, very interesting flavors. Surprisingly dry, and surprisingly big on the palate. The flavors of crisp cherry and citrus stand out. This wine feels like a walking contradiction. I’m getting citrus, but not a ton of acidity. I get something that seems slightly like cherry candy, but the wine is by no means sweet. The lingering flavor of strawberries and a touch of apple finish are like a nice hug goodbye.

Chairman: Thank you, Texas. The chamber now calls on you to present your wine for review.

Ben: Mr. Chairman, as evidence for the quality of Texas as a wine region, I submit the 2006 Pheasant Ridge Pinot Noir. I selected this wine for a number of reasons, but one of the primary reasons is that Pinot Noir is a grape that most people would assume cannot be grown successfully in Texas. In fact, I have even been told by a Texas winemaker that Pinot Noir can’t be grown here. This wine shows the amazing versatility of Texas viticulture.

This wine was produced in the High Plains of Texas, in my hometown of Lubbock. The winery operates under a philosophy of minimal intervention, trying to do their best to let the grapes speak for themselves. The High Plains is probably the only place in the state where Pinot Noir could be grown, as the nights get cool enough to support these thin skinned grapes. Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape to grown, and an even more difficult one to do well, but I think this winery has done an excellent job.  There were only 70 cases of this wine produced.

The color of this wine is what you want a Pinot Noir to be, not dark and inky, but a somewhat light shade of garnet red. There is no doubt that this is a true Pinot Noir. The nose has beautiful red fruit notes of strawberry and cherry, with just a touch of earthiness. When I sip on this wine, I love the acidity that leaps out, with tangy fruits like sour cherry and cranberries standing out. This wine practically screams for a pork tenderloin to pair with it, which we just happen to have to serve the Chairman and each of the panelists after the evidence presentation is complete.  One final note, this wine costs only $15, which is a remarkably low price for a Pinot Noir, especially one made from a small production winery.

I now yield to the gentleman from the state of Virginia, Mr. Sweeney…

Pheasant Ridge logo

Josh: Thank you, Ben. Like that misinformed winemaker, I had never considered that Pinot Noir could be grown in a state so far south as Texas. Consider me enlightened. It would seem that Texas, like Virginia, has an interesting array of growing areas. I had known about how Texas was well suited for Mediterranean varietals such as Tempranillo and Sangiovese, but Pinot Noir? It will be very interesting to see how this pans out.

I can see what you mean about the color of this wine. That is a very rich red, though still light enough for a quality Pinot Noir. *sniff – Those red fruits really jump out at you. The cherry smell dominates for me, but I still get that undertone of earthiness that seems to me an appropriate expression of the terroir. It’s a little bit spicy and floral, but just enough to accent the red fruit, nothing overpowering. Its aroma is powerful, too. I can smell it from across the table.

*sip – Oh my. That is an incredibly harmonious wine. Fantastic acidity, and it’s well-balanced, off-dry. A very easy drinker. Again, massive red-fruits on the palate, raspberry, cherry, and, yes, cranberry. The mouth feel is velvety with a pleasant bite. I’m even getting something a little like cinnamon and pepper on the mid-palate, which transitions nicely to a long, dry, cherry finish. I probably would not have placed this as a New World wine in a blind tasting. It’s only 15 dollars, you say? I would have pegged this wine for at least $20. Chairman?

Chairman: We will now take a recess. I would like to thank our participants, Mr. Ben Simons representing Texas and Mr. Joshua Sweeney representing Virginia. We will pass preliminary deliberations onto you, the panelists. Pass the pork tenderloin, please.

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