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Tasting Notes: French Flair, Virginia Terroir

The VWG-Online Tasting Panel focuses on Sauvignon Blanc and Petit Verdot this month. These two grapes are believed to have originated in France, in the Bordeaux region.

“If Chardonnay is Marilyn Monroe, Sauvignon Blanc is Jamie Lee Curtis.”
– Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible

Sauvignon Blanc

Karen MacNeil, in The Wine Bible, calls Sauvignon Blanc the polar opposite of Chardonnay. She writes, “If Chardonnay is Marilyn Monroe, Sauvignon Blanc is Jamie Lee Curtis.” Hhmmm. This was written well before the yogurt commercials we should note. But you get the idea!

Chateau Margaux

Chateau Margaux’ Pavillon Blanc is an outstanding example of the Sauvignon Blanc grape as vinified in Bordeaux. Courtesy photo.

Wines labeled Bordeaux Blanc and Graves are Sauvignon Blanc, blended with Sémillon and Muscadelle to add structure and fruit. Sauvignon Blanc also plays a part in the world’s most renowned dessert wine, Sauternes, in which the botrytized fruit (called noble rot by the less-squeamish) is the minor grape blended with Sémillon. The Loire Valley (Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé), California and New Zealand all produce 100% Sauvignon Blanc wines.

The grape is still relatively rare in Virginia, but is gaining in popularity. Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Loudoun received a silver medal for their 2011 Sauvignon Blanc in this year’s Governor’s Cup competition. (See our related stories on Gov Cup and the new format for the competition.) AmRhein, Breaux, Doukenie and Trump also medaled, receiving Bronzes.

Classic Sauvignon Blanc is light in body but bold in flavor – the wines tend to be vivid with bright acidity. Sometimes notes of flint or minerals are present, and grass, fresh-mown hay, or boxwood flavors and aromas can dominate. It’s a very food-friendly wine.

The grape buds late, ripens early and doesn’t tolerate excessive heat. It requires a long, moderate growing season in order to develop aroma and flavor and preserve acidity. Like Viognier, Virginia’s premier white grape, there is a small window of time to harvest when increasing sugars and decreasing acids are in balance, after which you can lose crispness and get a wine that could be called flabby.

Here’s a fun fact: In the 1600’s, Sauvignon Blanc spontaneously crossed with Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux’s vineyards to create Cabernet Sauvignon.

Petit Verdot

Until recently, Petit Verdot wasn’t vinified as a single varietal wine. In the Médoc, Petit Verdot is one of the classic grapes of the red Bordeaux blend, but in such minor proportion the vine accounts for less than ten percent of the vineyard area. It is said to contribute color, structure, fragrance and fruit density, yet many winemakers find it lacks finesse.

No fewer than 24 different bottlings medaled at Gov Cup, 15 received silver, and 9 bronze.

South Australia is a major producer of single-varietal Petit Verdot and has about four times as much planted as France. The style there, according to Wikipedia, is massive and brooding, and intended for mid-term aging.

The Petit Verdot vine produces small, round, thick skinned berries. Perhaps the skin is one of the reasons Virginia winemakers have decided to cultivate it. The warmer climate here ripens the grape a bit more, producing an almost jam-like fullness. No fewer than 24 different bottlings medaled at Gov Cup, 15 received silver, and 9 bronze. I’ve had some very nice Petit Verdot out of barrel at several cellars as well, including Doukenie and Jefferson.

When young, aromas of banana and pencil lead may be prominent. As it matures, leather and violet flavors and aromas can appear. Notes of spice, pepper, black fruit, and violets are characteristics to look for.

Our tasting panel for this session included Sandra Brannock, Don Kinnan, and myself. Sandra was formerly an on-premise sales representative with Virginia Imports, Ltd.  She’s traveled to the West Coast and throughout Europe to visit winemakers and producers and has coordinated numerous winemaker dinners and seminars here in VA.

Don Kinnan, Certified Wine Educator, recently retired from the position of VP of Education for Kobrand Corporation. He has served on the board of the Society of Wine Educators, and regularly teaches seminars to sell-out crowds. He’s at SWE’s annual conference  in CA this week, presenting Burgundy, and will do a Burgundy intensive at the The Capital Wine School in DC  in August.

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 recently accepted the position of general manager at Narmada Winery in Amissville, but will continue to operate VWG-Online as an independent publication.

Virginia Sauvignon Blanc

Barboursville Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Light in color with a slight floral scent. Very lean and light, with high acidity and no oak. Balance is ok, finishing clean and light. Bordeaux-like style. (SB)

Glen Manor Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Pale straw in color with subtle green highlights. Intense boxwood on the nose, with proper straw-hay flavors on the palate highlighted by notes of lime. Very assertive, with a crisp, refreshing finish. (MA)

Virginia winery Stinson VineyardsStinson Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Medium straw color, with delicate, integrated aromas of fruits and herbs. In the mouth, light hay intermingled with some honeysuckle. Well-balanced, with elegant white fruits and hints of apple and citrus. Lovely! (DK)

Interestingly, this wine was ranked number one by the three of us. Winemaker Rachel Stinson works with consultant Matthieu Finot [King Family Vineyards], and tells us the wine was fermented in their concrete egg, a new trend here in VA that harkens back a century to more traditional winemaking methods.


Virginia Petit Verdot

Virginia Winery Berry Hill Vineyard Petit VerdotBerry Hill Vineyard Petit Verdot 2010
Brilliant with deep ruby color. Bouquet contains herbal notes with a higher pitch; elegant berry fruit mix. On the palate, big tannins, dense black fruit. Very bold and extreme; long finish. A dominating style, lacks finesse. (DK)


Virginia winery Cooper Vineyards Petit VerdotCooper Vineyards Petit Verdot 2008
Deep robe (dark color – ed.). More subtle nose, rich and sweet with soft, ripe black berry and floral notes. Nice elegance, great balance and integration of elements. Tannins are supple. Nice drink. (DK)


Turk Mountain Vineyards Petit Verdot 2010
Purple in color. Nose of smoked meats, bacon, baked bread – old leather like a Bordeaux. Sharp on approach, needs time? Good flavors of black fruit and an intense finish. (SB)