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The Best Virginia Viognier Wines
Comments () | Published November 22, 2011

The tasting began with a briefing by the Ashby Inn’s sommelier and manager, Neal Wavra. How Viognier came to be planted along a winding section of the Rhône River in Southern France, he said, is a mystery. He favors the fable that bandits around Condrieu stole Viognier cuttings from the baggage of Roman legionnaires on their way to Beaujolais a couple of thousand years ago.

“We are lucky to have any Viognier at all,” Wavra said. “In the mid-1960s, it was being grown on a mere 3.2 acres of the world.”

Winemakers around the globe have since planted the grape, including many in Virginia, where it grows especially well.

“In 1993,” Wavra said, “Dennis Horton put Virginia Viognier on the map when his wine won first prize in a California tasting.” Horton’s success prompted other Virginia winemakers to grow the grape.

Wavra selected eight bottlings for our Sunday-afternoon blind tasting. The wines would be paired and matched with a luncheon menu prepared by Ashby Inn chef Tarver King.

On the scoring sheet, each wine was assigned a letter from A to H. Participants were asked to rate the wines from 1 to 5, with 5 the most preferred. At the end, the scores were tallied and the wines ranked by their total scores. We were also asked to rate our favorite food pairing. There were four food stations and two bottles of wine at each station.

While there’s much similarity among Viognier wines, there’s a spectrum of flavors. The two wines paired with each food course were thought by the chef and sommelier to be the most similar.

With 102 points, the 2010 Jefferson Viognier was the winner. It was served with the cheese course and matched against the 2009 Barboursville Viognier, which scored 94. Jefferson Vineyards is just outside Charlottesville; the wine’s clear green bottle features a replica of Thomas Jefferson’s signature on its label.

While the Jefferson wine was a crowd-pleaser, it wasn’t the favorite of the professionals. It was subtly sweeter than the other wines. The point in the harvest when the grape is picked influences the wine’s sweetness. Viognier gets ripe very fast and builds sugar quickly.

Andy Myers’s favorite, the 2009 Horton Viognier, finished a very close second with 100 points. It was also the favorite of two other sommeliers, Kathy Morgan and Matthew Carroll. The Horton and the 2009 Chrysalis were served with the crowd’s favorite dish, the tilefish.

The Chrysalis Viognier from winemaker Jennifer McCloud near Middleburg scored 91 points. After selling her computer-software company in 1995, McCloud attended a wine conference in Charlottesville and heard Alan Kinne talk about what he was doing with unusual varieties of wine, including Viognier. Three years later, she was planting Viognier grapes herself.

In third place, with 98 points, was the 2010 Veritas Viognier. Winemaker Emily Hodson Pelton won the Judges Choice Award at the National Women’s Wine Competition in 2007. At our tasting, Pelton’s Viognier was poured alongside the 2008 Viognier from Michael Shaps, which scored 88, to accompany the spicy opah ceviche. Viognier is a natural complement to seafood and shellfish. (It’s also a fine accompaniment to Thanksgiving turkey.)

Shaps felt that his wine and the Jefferson wine represented the two extremes in sweetness that have emerged in Virginia. Shaps’s wine is subtle and classic in the Condrieu style. The Jefferson is more opulent, with exuberant fruit. Shaps worked with the Veritas winemakers as they were refining their Viognier wines.

The creamy, slightly sweet crab risotto was served with the 2009 Chester Gap and 2009 Pearmund Viogniers, which tied at 90 points. Sommelier Jennifer Knowles liked the Chester Gap Viognier best of all but admitted that “choosing a favorite wine is the most subjective subject outside of art and music.”

Chester Gap, a small family-run winery with a European heritage, is located close to Knowles’s workplace, the Inn at Little Washington, on the crest of the Blue Ridge. The grapes for this bottling were grown at Boisseau Vineyard in Front Royal, just a few miles away.

Chris Pearmund’s Viognier grapes were grown with imported cuttings from the Condrieu at the Vinecroft vineyard, a few miles from the Ashby Inn.

Jim Law, who started the Linden winery in 1983, doesn’t grow Viognier. As a result, he rightfully proclaimed when it came his turn to comment on the tasting, “I am wearing my objective hat. Viognier is a great grape for Virginia. It is what we do well. It is easy to grow, and it commands a great price.”

Law’s favorite of the tasting was the Barboursville Viognier, but as he pointed out, “There is a spectrum of tastes of Viognier that work well with food. It can be paired in so many different ways, and in the end it comes down to personal taste.”

What our luncheon tasting might have proven is that there’s no one real Virginia Viognier but many good ones—and for fans of Virginia wines, that’s a very good thing.

This article appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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