Over The Barrel With Lenn Thompson

New York Isn’t the East Coast’s Only Emerging Wine Region

Two weeks ago, I found myself in Charlottesville, Virginia for the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference. I was there primarily as a member of a “Drink Local” panel where we discussed topics and reasons for drinking local like community, price and value and diversity.

It went well, but with a room filled with mostly local wine enthusiasts, I wonder if there was much, if any, real impact.

This was my second trip to Virginia wine country and while I’d never consider myself fluent in their wines or industry, I’ve learned – I think – to look at Virginia as a wine-producing region and compare it to New York. It’s easy for those of us in New York to only think of New York when it comes to East Coast wines – but they are making some delicious and compelling wines just a few hours south of us.

This column isn’t long enough for a detailed look at VA versus NY, but I can share some high-level thoughts and observations:

They Consider Themselves the Best Too. Within the New York wine community we often take it as fact that New York is the best wine region this side of the Rockies. Right or wrong, down in Virginia they are quick to dispute that, pointing to their nearly 200 wineries and success with a wide range of varieties – everything from vinifera like Viognier, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to the Norton grape.

We Have New York City – They Have Washington, DC. Proximity to New York City is often rightly cited as a huge advantage for New York wineries versus other lesser-known regions. Similarly, Virginia producers have Washington, DC nearby. In fact, one wine trail in Northern Virginia has branded itself as “Washington’s Wine Country.”

Virginia’s Message Isn’t as Mature as New York’s. I don’t mean that as a negative, just an observation. In the Finger Lakes, Riesling rules. Here on Long Island, it’s Merlot. In Virginia, I’ve heard winemakers point to Merlot, Viognier, Petit Verdot and Norton as “the” grape for the state. The Virginia Wine Board – the well-funded version of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation – has created a campaign focusing on Viognier, so for now that is the signature variety – at least in name.

Virginia’s Wines Are Extremely Inconsistent, but on the Whole Quite Good. Every region has its good, bad and ugly wines, but the chasm between the bad and the good seems quite large in Virginia. I have tasted a lot of very good wines there, but also many not-very-good wines with out-of-balance high alcohol or excessive use of new American oak.

Speaking of Oak, There’s Too Much of It. I’ve made a point of tasting as many Virginia Viogniers as I can get my hands on, and some of them are beautiful, with honeysuckle and peachy citrus character. A bit of oak can bring some complexity and improve the mouthfeel, but the vast majority of the ones I’ve tried have been way too oaky – to the point that any varietal character is beaten out of them. It’s a shame, too. At its best, Virginia Viognier is on par with the best Long Island Sauvignon Blanc.

New York’s Best Wines Are Far Better. I haven’t tasted nearly as many Virginia wines as I have New York, but I think New York’s best are far better than the best Virginia wines I’ve tasted. That may not always be the case – there is obviously some serious potential in Virginia.

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