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VA’s Reigning Stars

Recommended Viogniers and Cabernet Francs from Virginia

Virginia winery: Chrysalis Vineyards

Springtime at Chrysalis' Locksley Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Chrysalis Vineyards.

Virginia has been in the spotlight quite a bit recently as a serious wine region here on the east coast. The modern renaissance of winemaking in VA dates to the mid-1980’s. Over the past thirty years, a consensus has formed among many winemakers that Viognier, the lush grape of the Rhone Valley in France; and Cabernet Franc, perhaps best known as a blending grape in Bordeaux, are particularly well-suited to the climate and soils here.

Richard Leahy writes in his new book Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, “Virginia’s climate allows Viognier to ripen most years to the ideal benchmark of at least 23.5 degrees Brix (a measure of sugar level in the juice of the grapes), where the delicate floral and tropical-fruit aromatics and flavors are realized. At the same time, the climate is usually not hot enough to burn off the delicate fruit aromatics, and Virginia vintners usually can harvest classic Viognier between 13 and 14 percent potential alcohol.”

Virginia Cabernet Franc’s “…savory scents and grainy tannins suggest the Loire in their lighter iterations, the Right Bank in warm vintages,” Patrick Comiskey wrote in Zester Daily this February. “Either style is supported by plenty of red fruit, good lift and energy, with tannic precision.”  He found Virginia Viognier “considerably leaner [than California’s], with lighter body and lower alcohols, with brisk acidity and a wiry texture maintained by a regional preference, by and large, for restricting malolactic fermentation.”

The Washington Post’s Dave McIntyre, one of the Virginia wine trade’s most dedicated supporters, characterizes the Commonwealth’s Viogniers as either effusive or classic: “lush and opulent with exhuberant fruit, sometimes slightly sweet. The second [style] is more austere and subtle in the classic fashion of the wines of Condrieu”.

Part I: Virginia Viognier

Virginia wine: Jenni McCloud, Chrysalis Vineyards

Chrysalis Vineyards owner Jenni McCloud's work with viognier will be featured in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute. Photo courtesy of Chrysalis Vineyards.

Jenni McCloud, owner of Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg, is the antithesis of  austere.  With a ready laugh and exhuberant style, she’s bursting with enthusiam and has a treasure trove of fascinating stories. “Chrysalis Vineyards consistently produces some of the best Viogniers in America, and our winemaker, Alan Kinne, was the first person to vinify Viognier in Virginia  – hell, he taught us all how to make a good one,” Jenni told me as we sat at a picnic table at the winery overlooking her vineyards and graceful, spring-blossoming trees.

She continues, “As a matter of fact, I recently donated to the Smithsonian Institution – at their request, as they contacted me about Viognier – the original flip chart presentation Alan did back in the mid-90s for me when I was getting started in the business. It, along with some other stuff from Chrysalis Vineyards, will appear in a new exhibition at the Museum of American History on the history of food and wine in America this coming August.”

Winemaker Alan Kinne

Winemaker Alan Kinne is a pioneer of Viognier in Virginia. Photo by Richard Leahy.

Alan Kinne sat opposite us at the picnic table on this lovely spring morning. He makes wine with Jenni at Chryslis currently, and is quick to give credit to Dennis Horton as well. He says “Dennis Horton was the first person to commercially plant and grow Viognier in the Eastern United States.  He hired me as his consulting winemaker starting with the 1991 vintage.  We did not produce Viognier until the 1992 vintage.

“Both of us were instrumental in the development of the Viognier Guild which turned into the Rhone group known as Hospice du Rhone.” According to Alan, “The 1993 Horton Vineyards Viognier is still considered by most in the wine industry as the best Viognier ever produced in the US.  It also was a wine that defined the style that most producers of Viognier strived to make throughout the remainder of the 90’s and, I believe, into this century.”

In February 2011, Dennis Horton received the Gordon W. Murchie Lifetime Achievement Award at the Governor’s Cup ceremony for his pioneering work in developing and promoting Virginia wines. His experimental work led to Viognier, Norton, Petite Manseng, Tannat and other vines being introduced here. He turned to the Rhone region of southern France for inspiration, as Virginia’s summers were very warm, and our humid conditions favor grapes with loose clusters and thicker skins. Today, Horton creates over thirty wines at his soaring timber and stone winery in Gordonsville.

Panel Tasting

Don Kinnan, CWE

Don Kinnan, Certified Wine Educator. Photo by MA Dancisin.

Over the past three weeks, my colleagues Don Kinnan, CWE, Richard Leahy, and I tasted a selection of Viogniers and Cabernet Francs from around the Commonwealth. Don has recently retired from the position of VP of Education for Kobrand Corporation, an importer/marketing agent for a portfolio of international wines.

He has served on the board of the Society of Wine Educators, and regularly presents semnars to sell-out crowds at SWE’s annual conferences.

Virginia wine expert Richard Leahy

Author Richard Leahy. Photo by MA Dancisin.

Richard Leahy was a regional editor for Kevin Zraly’s American Wine Guide, and was Mid-Atlantic and Southern Editor for the Oxford Companion to the Wines of North America.

He is a member of the Society of Wine Educators and the Circle of Wine Writers. His new book, Beyond Jefferson’s Vines, is available May 1 on Amazon and in selected Virginia winery tastingrooms. You can read my review of this excellent book here.

And me, I’m certified by SWE as well, as a Specialist of Wine, and have visited cellars in Champagne, Burgundy, Languedoc, Tuscany, Napa and Sonoma. I produced wine lists for restaurants from all over the US and Caribbean for several years, so my reviews tend to be a little more “floral.”

Dezel Quillen, of Dezel’s  My Vine Spot, was unable to join us this time, but wanted to share the following notes on Virginia’s vintages:

 In my opinion, (and these are generalizations) 2009 produced very nice, well-balanced wines, while 2010 (hot & dry) produced white wines that were fat in the mouth, higher than normal alcohols levels, and low-to-middling acidity levels. The 2011’s I’ve had so far in barrel and tank have the acidity but lack flavor due to a very wet year and the sun being on permanent vacation.

Hmmm. With these ideas, we agree – and disagree! That’s what makes wine fascinating. Read on to learn more.

Tasting Notes: Virginia Viognier

Breaux Vineyards Viognier 2010 $32
Light, brilliant color. Delicate, fresh, and vibrant scent: ripe peach. On the palate, rich, ripe fruit: peach, apricot, pineapple, mango. Concentrated and fresh, great acidity and length. (RL)

Virginia winery Chrysalis ViognierChrysalis Vineyards Viognier 2010 $29
Light golden straw color. Discreet peach and canteloupe backed by bitter tangerine, tangerine – zippy acidity. Aged in neutral oak and acacia barrels – giving a floral, honey note rather than oaky vanillin. (MA)

Virginia winemakers Cooper Vineyards

Jeff Cooper and Jacque Hogge, Cooper Vineyards.


Cooper Vineyards Viognier 2010 $23
Deeper yellow in hue. More subtle bouquet; rich and complex nose. Very impressive body, outstanding marriage of fruit, intensity and balance. Long finish. (DK) Note: 2010 is unfortunately sold out – owner Jacque Hogge invites you to try the 2011: “quite good as well.”

Horton Viognier 2011 $20
Brilliant light gold. Aromas of fresh ripe peach and pineapple; very riesling-like. Clean flavors, fruit-driven, vibrant and fresh. Good acid, fine clean finish. Excellent. (RL)

Virginia winemaker Emily Hodson Pelton

Emily Pelton, Veritas.

Veritas Viognier 2011 $22
Apricot, orange blossom, orange zest (slightly bitter), mango. Lively, elegant, fruit forward. Very clean and lively; long finish. Winemaker Emily Pelton revealed they dropped tons of fruit in 2011 due to poor conditions. Only the best grapes made it into these bottles. (MA)



Tasting Notes: Virginia Cabernet Franc

Virginia winery Berry Hill Vineyards

Berry Hill Vineyards Cab Franc.

Berry Hill Cabernet Franc 2009 $23
A vibrant, violet color. On the nose, loads of mocha/chocolate, black cherry and pepper. Complex, lots going on. Solid cherry flavor, some pepper, vanilla, and spice. It’s young, needs time, but quite stylish. Worth trying over time. (RL) Also see our feature story.

Breaux Vineyards Marquis de Lafayette 2008 $20
100% Cabernet Franc
Firm, good acidity. Thyme and eucaplyptus followed by white pepper and black cherry notes. Good tannic backbone. Refined, age-worthy. (MA)

Virginia winery Doukenie

Cane pruning at Doukenie, Apr 2012.

Virginia Winery Doukenie Cabernet FrancDoukenie Winery Cabernet Franc 2009 $29
Deep color. Beautiful integration of fruit, herbs, and violets on the nose. Beautiful attack, concentrated and integrated. A bit tight, give it more bottle age. Needs more time to integrate and evolve. (DK)


Rockbridge Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2007
Aged 27 mo. In oak. Silky texture, full body, firm tannin. Tending to chocolate and mocha flavors combined with plum and dark cherry fruit. (MA)

Virginia winery Stinson Vineyards Cabernet FrancStinson Vineyards Cabernet Franc 2010 $22
Medium garnet. On the nose lovely, clean fresh raspberry/black cherry fruit and rare roast beef! Lively fruit, racy, fresh, zesty acidity. The wine dances on the palate. Seems cool climate; raspberries and dark chocolate. Young, promising. (RL)

— Part II coming up soon! More info on great Virginia Cabernet Franc!

Virginia winery Stinson

Sunset at Stinson Vineyards. Photo by Stinson.

A note on the notes: Don and Richard tasted blind. I obtained the samples – most of which were donated, a few purchased – and therefore knew what was on the table, though they were poured from unmarked bags. Additionally, I’ve supplemented the panel tasting with notes of my own, made while sampling at the individual wineries.