My wife’s conference brings baby and I to Virginia. We stay in Alexandria: namesake of our ten month old and posh tourist excursion from Washington DC.
Now, with a week to kill, between eponymous photo-ops, I explore Alexandria’s wine shops and bottle bars. Years have passed since I last sold or tried wine from Virginia. I remember liking it. Lean and structured, like Bordeaux, Baboursville Octagon Red seemed solid.
But a concern slowly creeps in. Alexandria’s shelves and lists feature fab Sancerre, German bubblies, Rhône growers, interesting South African Chenin Blanc, Langhe Nebbiolo, and Californian classics. Heck, every shop has at least three Oregon Pinot Noir, even unseen single vineyards, and I come from Oregon.
Yet after five shops, only one shop had one bottle of Virginian wine…on the bottom shelf.
Meanwhile, King Street clatters with rolling luggage. Tourists the world over stay here to visit D.C., Mount Vernon, and Virginia at large. But shops and wine bars could care less. Why?
I see this in Portland. List, after rack, after cooler fill with cool labels and small producers. But they end up having the same wines. In their rebellion, they all grow the same beards and man buns, get eagle tattoos, wear plaid shirts, tight jeans, and boots in summer. Rebellion of the redundant always folds into the Zeitgeist.
Maybe their sameness/difference helps them survive against the big chains. But I look at Total Wine, state ABC stores, and chains: they only stock a few natives too.
Could the problem be Virginia’s wine?
Virginia lays claim to the oldest vitis vinifera grapes in the States. Jefferson planted cuttings that survive. Native Norton grape took the world by storm in the 1890s. Sure phyloxera, Prohibition, and California’s rise knocked with wind out of Virginia. But surely, some wine should be worthy of these posh spots.
I start with Horton Vineyards’ Viognier 2016. $14. Like Rhône whites, they barrel ferment their Viognier for complexity.
Its APPEARS clear with medium lemon color, slight petilance (ruh roh), and washy thin legs.
On first crack, AROMAS smell of matchsticks. Let it breath. Sulfur fades to medium intense fruits of canned pineapple juice, mint leaf, vanilla icing, honeysuckle, and musky beeswax.
The near dry PALATE starts soft and fruity and then revs to top gear with a whiplash of lemony acidity. The acidity obliterates nearly everything until a warm, viscous layer of alcohol levels it out.
FLAVORS follow the palate, with melon and pineapple fruit first, then torque into lemon juice, green bell pepper, salt and cracked flint. A light foxy musk hangs around for a medium length.
Good (3 of 5)
Horton’s Viognier oddly reminds me of retsina with its musky, citric, yet vegetal notes. But stick with it. Don’t read a book by its cover. First impressions are odious. It takes a while to acclimate to this wild and whippet white. After a few glasses we seem to accept each other. Even then, I would advise food: garlic things, hummus and pita, Greek salad, feta, white fish, veal with lemon sauce. $14
Let’s try Horton’s red. The grape in glass is Norton: a rare US Native Vitis aestivalis that gained respect, crushing French wine in the 1890’s because it broke from the cliché that American grapes make foxy, musky wines (more on that later)…
Horton, Norton, Orange County, Virginia 2015 $15
Multiple vineyards of 93% Norton, 7% Touriga Nacional get aged fourteen months in oak.
The APPEARANCE is inky purple with medium legs.
Aromas glow with creme de cassis, raisins, blueberries, spices like nutmeg and cinnamon from christmas pudding, and, like the Viognier, a wild fox musk.
The PALATE feels dry, with lip-puckering acidity, medium splintery tannins, a medium alcohol and body. Chunky and edgy.
FLAVORS come quick but lean and shallow, reminiscent of black raisins, cassis, pomegranate juice, red cedar, with fox musk. The finish is medium length, citric yet gamey.
Good (3 of 5)
Horton’s Norton has edge, under-ripeness, and a forest-feral quality that I want to admire. Sheep cheeses, seitan tofu, noodle dishes with soy sauce, or spicy sausages might marry well with this young, wild one. Horton seems to know what’s up, when they suggest, “game, grilled sausages, and spicy ethnic foods.” It is hard to love alone but still good, real wine, so reflective of place to a fault.
Maybe my old favorite Barboursville can step past the funk. They have been around since …. and play up their Jefferson connection. The label spends more time on the home he designed for Barboursville than the juice inside.
I go past $20 in hopes that Barboursville Cabernet France Reserve 2015 ($23) can they dodge the musky bullet?
The APPEARANCE looks a clear ruby with medium legs.
Medium AROMAS echo the French oak via dried tobacco, added with dried sage and thyme, dried mint, and the inevitable musk which looms heavy over a mild raspberry juice.
The dry PALATE shows best balance with still punchy acidity, reedy medium tannins, enough alcohol, and a lean, medium body.
A bit of juicy red raspberry and plum skin catch us up front, but all that musky, oaky, herbaceousness carries from the nose into the medium plus finish.
Very good (4 of 5).
Barboursville Cabernet Franc is still that lean, punchy, red grape behind the serious French oak. It tames but also cannot hide the feral, foxiness that seems endemic to Virginian wine. It begs for aged cheddar, blue cheese, portabella mushroom burgers, lamb, venison, even wild boar.
Shoot. Let’s go off the deep end with an ancient grape from the near east: Rkatsiteli.
North Gate Vineyard, Rkatsiteli, Virginia 2015 $16
Rkatsiteli, called R-kats for ease, clearly begs for a label with cats on it. So Mark and Vicki Fedor hired a local artist to draw lions from her native Nambia. Of course.
The APPEARANCE looks clear as a pale, lemon ice with a wimpy wash.
Again, matchstick sulfur clears way to light AROMAS of honeydew melon, fresh ginger, rose water, and light musk oil.
The PALATE feels plump, dry, with medium plus acidity hidden by a viscous stream of slow burning alcohol.
Medium FLAVORS limeade, honeydew melon, and a spicy ginger on the finish carry a medium length.
It works well enough to drink alone, but throw spring rolls, cucumber appetizers, and light mediterranean appetizers its way and be happy.
Good (3 of 5). Well wait…
OK. There is far more Virginian wine out there. Maybe, my coin flip floundered. But funk at these levels can border on fault. New York, Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, et cetera often also suffered this fate. Their cold winters, short seasons, and young vines lead to underripe fruit. This means green flavors too little to hide funk. But that foxiness the French once blamed our native vines for, really comes from bacteria. The French have Brettanomyces that, when tamed, creates complex layers of saddle leather, barnyard, and forest floor. But Brett can ruin French wine just like Virginian wines.
Yet having drunk the koolade for a week: eaten local fish, peanuts, cheese, and ham, North Gate’s Rkats and Barboursville’s Cab Franc start grow on us. We cringed at New York wine when we moved there. But after a year, some (not all) started to taste amazing. We acclimated.
So back to Alexandria’s wine buyers. Many are transplants trying to make it in a tourist hub. They brought their hip wine baggage with them. Even though they buy ham, cheese, honey, veg, et cetera from Virginia’s lush western hills, they forgot the wine in their backyard.
It takes hard work to keep acclimating: to find the good in the new, old, weird, and wild.
But wine buyers forgot to be relevant in the pursuit of being interesting. It must frustrate them to send a curious tourist away because their list/shelf lacks the local. But find something decent, Horton, Barboursville, take their money, and support your community.
That, or there’s always local beer: