Picking Virginia’s red wine no easy task

By Ryan Cornell

WINCHESTER — Viognier holds the title as official state grape of Virginia, but when it comes to red wine grapes, the jury’s still out.

Many grape growers and wine enthusiasts push for either Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot to be officially recognized as Virginia’s red wine, while others argue strong cases for Norton, Cabernet Sauvignon or even Tannat.

According to Annette Boyd, director of the Virginia Wine Marketing Office, the most widely planted grapes throughout the commonwealth are Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

“Even though Virginia makes lovely Chardonnays, we are never going to get a reputation for Chardonnay,” she said. “We don’t grow enough of it to be a blip on the international Chardonnay map.

“However, we have 10 to 15 years of [Viognier] growing well here, and the Viogniers here tend to be higher in acid and have beautiful tropical fruit flavors…our Viogniers always stand out.”

She said Viognier was selected as Virginia’s official grape in 2011 after the white wine generated international acclaim. She added it’s still a contentious debate as far as red wine is concerned.

“I strongly think that Virginia is not ready to declare a red, which is why the Virginia Wine Board has not done it,” she said.

Randy Phillips, owner and winemaker at Cave Ridge Vineyard in Mount Jackson, said he thinks the choice could be narrowed down between Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Although Cabernet Franc has higher name recognition and is used more often as a single varietal, he said Petit Verdot is more distinct to Virginia.

“If we stake our mark on Petit Verdot, it’s probably going to result in more people planting it in Virginia,” he said. “It’s not as well known among wine consumers, but neither is Viognier.”

But why choose one varietal when you can choose multiple?

Dan Mortland, owner of Fox Meadow Winery in Linden, said Virginia should pick a Bordeaux blend — which includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec — instead of deciding on a single grape.

Extreme weather conditions, such as the storms that dominated the 2011 harvest, are prevalent on the East Coast, he said, and blends let winemakers make up for these conditions.

“I don’t think in the Napa Valley they get too many tropical storms and hurricanes,” Mortland said. “My opinion is that we have too many variations, and blends like the Meritage blends let us make adjustments to it.”

Fox Meadow’s “Le Renard Rouge” 2008 Meritage blend won the 2011 Virginia Governor’s Cup.

If he were pushed to pick one grape, he said it would be Cabernet Franc.

“Simply because, unless statistics have changed, it’s the widest planted red wine grape in Virginia,” he said.

Charlie Fish, master sommelier and co-owner of Murphy’s Beverage Co. in Winchester, leans more toward the lesser known of the two grapes.

“As far as quality is concerned, it’s Petit Verdot, in my humble opinion,” she said. “I’ve had Petit Verdots that knocked my socks off. I’m not really sold on the quality of Cabernet Francs that I’ve tried.”

Meanwhile, J.P. Murphy, Fish’s husband and wine shop co-owner, took no hesitation in answering what he thought the answer should be: Norton.

Norton, he said, is a grape native to the commonwealth, bred in Virginia and hearkening back to early American history.

“I believe right after the founding fathers planted all of the European rootstock and it failed, it’s like well we have to make wine out of something, and there were two native grapes that the Indians had and they crossbred them,” he said.

Norton is embraced in Missouri as its official state grape, and commonly referred to as “the true American grape.”

“There’s some damn good wines in Virginia and that’s one of them,” he said. “If you’re gonna pick a red wine that represents Virginia, to me it would have to be Norton.”

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com