Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mixing Up the Virginia Reds

After my small and incomplete survey of red wines from Virginia for #WBC11 I was left with the impression that some the varietal offerings were one dimensional and not significantly interesting or complex on their own. I certainly didn’t taste wines from a huge number of Virginia wineries, but I did have wines from several regions in the state and from different years making my impressions workable, but not comprehensive. Contrasting my conclusions with my impressions of the Bordeaux and Meritage blends I tasted I couldn’t stop thinking that more of the blends would be a better application for these red wines. Supporting this idea beyond the tasting notes previously published is the subject of this post.

Historically the blending of wines has been taken for granted as the path to exceptional wines. The Oxford Companion to Wine states “Almost all of the world’s finest wines are made by blending the contents of different vats and different barrels” in the first paragraph of the entry entitled “blending.” The opening sentence of that same entry infers that the practice is “more distrusted than understood”, which is clear from the share of mystery and myth I’ve experienced surrounding the method. 

I won’t get into how you blend wine, I am assuming folks have blended liquids before and get the mechanical concepts, but rather stick with my experiences with the blends I tasted and what the outcome might be if the varietals I tasted were pressed more into blending. If you are interested there are wine blending classes, some in Virginia, that explain much more about the process and provide hands on experimentation. Having these types of experiences for the sensory feedback is a must do. There is a link at the bottom that contains information on the process and places that offer opportunities for curious wine lovers to try it first-hand.

From Principles and Practices of Winemaking (a text book that has been used in the UC Davis Winemaking Certificate program) we get a simple definition of the objectives for blending. “Of course, the objective of blending is to make the final wine better. This may be to standardize it, balance it, achieve complexity, achieve a certain style, or optimize it under specific economic conditions.” That’s a mouthful! And it is written very optimistically. Here’s why that makes sense. Anybody who makes wine knows (or should) that you can rarely fix a flawed wine and blending to improve flawed wines drags down the other wines in the blend. Bad idea. The textbook excerpt above is written the way it is because first and foremost we are talking about taking unflawed, drinkable wines and blending them to produce a final wine that through the combination of the varietal attributes is more complex and more interesting to drink

In my last #WBC11 post, Life’s Too Short Not To Be Badass, I wrote the following about my overall impression of the Virginia reds I tasted:

“I’ve been pulling together my ideas about the red wines from Virginia. My premise after tasting a bunch of them is that a focus on the blends will be their key to success. Why do I say this? Because most of the Bordeaux varietals on their own were boring and lacking in distinction. I found many of them to be one dimensional and where some of them had good character, I think they should be matched with worthy peers to great more dimension in a blend. There are examples of that, and I think more would be a good thing. The least interesting wines, those with very subtle aromas and flavors, might not good candidates for rescue, what can I say?”

My overarching thought was that some the varietal Cabs, Cab Francs, Petit Verdots and Merlots didn’t have enough character on their own to captivate me. I did a rough blending experiment at Ducard and not having enough wine or time to really conclude anything; but the results were different and more nuanced adding weight to the argument. I did a few minor experiments elsewhere, but again did not have a sufficient quantity to produce several blends to evaluate from the same components.

First I will review the blends I did have so my thoughts on what was at work there can be on display up against my suggestions for blends, process changes, and collaborations.

Barboursville Octagon - I had this at least 3 times and in vintages 2002 and 2006 (that I found from my notes, but thinking one more). The nose on the 2006 was what got me. The richness of the 2002 in comparison was one of my motivations to think blends was a key story. It is Merlot driven but still not fooling around. (my exact notes from my original review) This wine is a blend driven with Merlot and in different years differing amounts of Cab Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Clearly the wines made from those grapes at Barboursville bring the right balance of elements together in very good years.

Boxwood  - Boxwood poured two different blends over the weekend, the Topiary and the Boxwood. I had both on two different occasions. Both wines are well made but didn’t distinguish themselves to me. My optimistic opinion is that more aging time of these wines might be a worthwhile change in process. Both were from 2007 and saw 1 year in oak. These wines drive their small (and growing?) portfolio and with continued attention and experimentation could be the key to significant exposure in the coming years.

Tarara CasaNoVA and TerraNoVA – both of these wines come with a list of interesting features right on the outside of the bottle! Not really, but the metaphor of wearing oneself on your sleeve is what I was going for. These wines are accessible AND interesting. The addition of the Tannat to the TerraNoVA gives it a richness that is different but consuming. The CasaNoVA is a Bordeaux-style blend that definitely gets the sum of its parts right. They both saw 18 months in new Virginia Oak which could be an important difference here. I’m not an oak expert but if VA oak is wine-worthy then 18 months of time in new barrels made from it worked phenomenally well!  A good example here of using what you have to make it more than it might otherwise be.

Sweeely 1867 Meritage 2006 – this wine is still developing and will likely be a better drinker in a few years time. The nose was very light when I first tested it. The wine was tight overall and opened up a bit with some time, but I still didn’t get much. It feels like it will have density to the flavors, but with the moderate to high tannins that are still a little chewy those flavors didn’t grab me. A straightforward blend of Merlot and Cab Franc, this wine’s potential is not yet achieved in my opinion.

Ducard Popham Run Red 2009 – The taste I got of this was amazingly acidic and I didn’t finish it. I didn’t get the details on what is in the blend, but nevertheless I’ll be suggesting a blend based on other wines tasted at Ducard.

Barren Ridge Meritage 2008 – This is a well made wine with subtle and elusive complexity. If I had to guess I would say it needs to rest a few more years. This is one of two wines that were not tasted well on the count of heat. A blend of Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot.

Jefferson Vineyard Meritage 2008 – I picked up spicy red fruits with moderate and softening tannins. It was due the warmth of the outside event that I wasn’t able get as much from this wine as I would have liked. A blend of Cab Franc driven with Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

I had a couple opportunities to try varietal bottlings of some of the same components of the above wines, and others that might make great additions to a blend or expand a line of blends available.

Ducard had both a Petit Verdot and a Cab Franc that were good on their own. A quick swirl together proved promising. The Cab Franc easily stands on its own and warrants a single bottling. That wine brings the greens & mint, a little cherry and fine tannins. The PV added cherries and dark chocolate and a strong nose. The PV at Ducard can see two years in oak before release. The aging duration here again might be significant. I’d drive a blend of these two with Merlot, say 65% (M), 25% (CF) and 10% (PV), go with the extended aging and some of the blended wine in new oak. I could also see doing a Merlot and Cab Franc blend with some healthy aging time. Both of these wines would offer similar complexity in the mouth with distinct noses.

Both the Sweely Merlot and Cab Franc wines are essentially blends with 22% or less of other Bordeaux varietals in the finished wines. The Merlot presented tightness and restraint when I first tasted it, and just like the 1867 Meritage, didn’t open up enough to really get a feel for. The Cab Franc didn’t feel like it was doing much with the additional air and time, and likewise didn’t offer me much. A simple read here is that Sweely is already operating in the blend mindset. Fair enough. For me I might suggest a softening of the initial blend so that they express some youthfulness from both early on until a peak age somewhere in the 5-10 year range. If the resulting wines open up a little better (the need to open less?) and express a functional polish of both the oak treatment and the overall aging more easily they would be more exciting drinkers.

Afton Mountain Cabernet – I found this wine to be singular but solid. It had the cherry & dark fruits I expected with whisps of mint. Afton Mountain does use it in a Super Tuscan blend and after looking at their lineup of wines would suggest a Cabernet blend (CS &CF) with maybe some Merlot or Petit Verdot thrown in. The addition of the herbal and earth components from the Cab Franc could really amp up the breadth of the finished wine. The CF or PV would need to have some additional aromatics for the final wine to present well, but there’s potential there for sure.

As I got to thinking about some of the blending ideas I considered what blends of particularly good varietal wines from different VA producers might result in. One idea stuck with me.

Both the Barboursville and Ducard Cab Francs had different herbal and green components, solid fruit flavors, earthy tendencies and moderate finishes. A blend of each of their wines from a good year with some time in a barrel could produce some killer juice. These types of partnerships are common and without researching it I am going to guess collaborations like this are not unusual in Virginia.

Another area to consider would be cuvee blends, and specifically taking wines needing different aging times and blending them together later in their lives. I didn’t try any that I know so I have no firsthand experience to report.

As I continued to look through the winery directory I found more and more blends that broadly fit into the blend category I am kicking around here. Unfortunately I didn’t try that many of them! Clearly I have many more bottles to try before I can elaborate the argument that more of the red wine grapes grown in Virginia should be destined for outright blends rather than varietal bottling. A worthy counterpoint if I may. If the future growth of the wine industry in Virginia sees an upswing in the quality of some of varietals would that change the thesis here? It certainly could.

There are definitely economic and logistical issues with any of the suggestions above. Recognizing that I am not issuing demands so much as extrapolating different futures under different conditions, my thoughts can nonetheless be used to drive creative consideration or new business opportunities. I enjoyed my time in Virginia and was lucky enough to meet many of the faces behind the wines I tasted and reviewed. These business owners and winemakers are serious folks with lots of passion and energy invested in their products. I hope all the attention and feedback is useful to them as they continue to put their passion in the bottle.



References & Links

The Oxford Companion to Wine Third Edition, Jancis Robinson , 2006
Principles and Practices of Winemaking, Boulton, Singleton, Bisson, Kunkee, 2004

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