The Viognier grape makes wines that pair well with many foods. Photograph by Henry Georgi/All Canada Photos/Corbis
"I hate Viognier,” said Andy Myers, sommelier at DC’s CityZen restaurant, when it came time for him to talk about the eight Viognier wines he had just rated at a tasting at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Virginia. “Having said that,” he continued, “Viognier has personality. I like wines that are more quiet, but this tasting experience was exciting.”
By the time he concluded his remarks, he had softened: “I loved the Horton Viognier.”
Myers was one of five Washington sommeliers who took part in a 2011 version of the so-called Judgment of Paris. Others were master sommelier Kathy Morgan of Citronelle, Jennifer Knowles of the Inn at Little Washington, Richard Dunham of L’Auberge Chez François, and Matthew Carroll of Rogue 24.
Winemakers in attendance were Jim Law of Linden Vineyards; his cellarmaster, Jonathan Weber; and Michael Shaps of Virginia Wineworks and Maison Shaps & Roucher-Sarrazin in Burgundy, France. Also taking part were wine merchant Bassam Al-Kahouaji, owner of Bacchus Wine Cellar in Georgetown, and 20 enthusiastic amateurs.
Three years in a row, my wife, Marti, and I have hosted a winetasting at the Ashby Inn in Paris, Virginia (population 71). The first was inspired by the 1976 Judgment of Paris, at which California wines captured worldwide attention when they were favored in a blind tasting over world-renowned French wines by a panel of French judges.
At our first tasting in 2009, we compared Virginia wines with comparably priced wines from France and other countries. Most tasters couldn’t tell the Virginia wines from the imports and in many matches preferred the Virginia wine.
At the second tasting, in 2010, we compared Virginia sweet wines with some of the world’s great Sauternes, including the 2005 Château d’Yquem and a 2001 Château Rieussec that Wine Spectator magazine had awarded 100 points. While a $99 2001 Rieussec was the top point-earner, a $24 2008 Rockbridge Vineyard V d’Or from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was selected over the $325 d’Yquem, and two sweet wines from Virginia’s Linden Vineyards, priced in the mid-$20s, scored higher than a $125 1971 Château Rieussec and a $65 1975 Château Suduiraut from France.
This year, we decided to compare Virginia wines with one another. Specifically, we would taste Viognier—the state grape of Virginia and a wine made by 76 of the commonwealth’s 193 vineyards—to see which we liked best.
“When Virginia Viognier is good,” wine writer Ben Giliberti had written in Wine News, “it is quite possibly the best Viognier made outside of Condrieu”—the white-wine capital of the Rhône valley and home to the Viognier grape. In May, the Virginia Wine Board approved the marketing of Viognier as “Virginia’s signature grape,” just as Cabernet Sauvignon is identified with California’s Napa Valley and Pinot Noir with Oregon.
Viognier vines start to hit their peak after 20 years. In the Rhône valley, some vines are 70 years old. Most Virginia Viognier vines are younger than ten years, leaving experts to wonder just how good the state’s Viognier will get.
Judging wasn’t easy.
Chef King—who has cooked at such gastronomic palaces as the Inn at Little Washington, Le Bec-Fin, the French Laundry, the Fat Duck, and the Waterside Inn—is preparing very good food at the Ashby Inn. At his food stations were opah ceviche with sesame tabbouleh and buttermilk; a whole steamed golden tilefish with fennel stuffing and crème fraîche; crab risotto with dill gastrique; and San Simon cheese, brioche, and walnuts toasted over maplewood chips with honey.
Lunch started at noon. As people arrived, a French Condrieu was served to provide a benchmark of sorts against which the Virginia wines could be measured. Condrieu, one of the rarest white wines in France, is made from the Viognier grape in the Rhône valley.
Judges could sample the food and wine pairings in any order they chose. The enthusiastic amateurs enjoyed the food and sipped the wine while chatting and making notes. The winemakers and sommeliers sipped and swirled studiously, rating each wine before eating. By 4 pm, all of the rating sheets had been tallied and Wavra announced the results.
Next: An unlikely winner