Palate Press Prognosis on Virginia Wine: Pretty Good, But…

Posted by / Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

(Image: David Kay/Shutterstock)

Palate Press Contributing Editor and New York Cork Report Executive Editor Lenn Thompson weighed in on the state of Virginia wine in a lengthy post this week, saying several nice things about our fine state, and then following up that praise with a healthy dose of derision. To Thompson, while Virginia produces some fantastic wines, the state’s overall character lacks distinction, tastes too much of wood and lacks that “spark.” Let’s break it down, first the nice:

Virginia Makes A Lot of Wine

Fifth largest wine grape producer in the country! 500,000 cases per year! “A player in the East Coast wine community.”

Loads of Diversity

Because Virginia weather is what we here in the state would describe as “wackadoo,” with all sorts of varied soil types, elevations and weather patterns, Virginia wineries are able to work with a wide selection of grapes, opening the door for loads of variety and experimentation. “Out of that miscellany come several successful varieties—everything from crisp, focused Sauvignon Blanc to beautifully floral and peachy Viognier to intense, almost-brooding Merlots to varietally-correct Nebbiolo to ripe but not over-ripe cabernet Franc to Petit Verdots that burst with ripe black fruit and spice character.” He also goes on to say that Virginia Rieslings are kind of bad.

It’s Hot!

We complain about the heat in Virginia as often as possible, but on the upside of things, it allows for wineries to work with late-ripening strains which other states can’t produce.


And that’s more or less it when it comes to nice things. “While I have found many good wines, the exquisite, life-changing wines that I would seek out and drink again and again are few and far between,” says Thompson. According to him, this is where the state’s wineries go wrong:

Virginia Wineries Over-Crop Their Vineyards

Because most of Virginia Wineries are relatively recent upstarts, a lot of their crop has had to sit for a few years before it produces anything, burning cash the entire time. To make up for it, some wineries, according to Thompson, put too much strain on their vines to make up for the lost revenue to the detriment of their product. He says: “I am not saying that increasingly lower yields absolutely results in better wine. We know that is not always the case. But are there Virginia viticulturists and winemakers pushing that down to two tons or fewer? If there are, I have not met hem yet.”


Everything Tastes Like Wood

Well, not everything, but Thompson does seem to think that most of Virginia’s wines, especially Virginia Viogniers, are dominated by an over-emphasis on oak aroma and flavor. “Unfortunately, too much of the Viognier I have tried tastes too much of wood, wood-derived vanilla and spice, and ML-derived buttery notes. Why would you cover up wonderfully ethereal honeysuckle aromas in favor of the Home Depot lumber aisle?”

The Region Lacks Distinction

While Thompson praises the state for its variety of grapes, he says too many of them are hybrids, and many shouldn’t even be growing here, singling out Virginia Chardonnay as being particularly dull. Because the wines from the state are so varied, it makes it difficult to peg the state down to one unifying flavor: “It can be difficult for those outside of the region to quickly grasp but Virginia wines are all about. They very well may ask, “Oregon has Pinot Noir. Napa has Cabernet Sauvignon. What does Virginia have?”

Too Much Tourism, Not Enough Innovation

The biggest slight Thompson lays on the region is that many Virginia wineries rely too heavily on drawing tourists out to their tasting rooms rather than putting their product out in the market. He cites a statistic that many wineries sell 70% of their stock directly to visitors, which is tremendously more profitable than working through wholesalers. This great news for vintners, what’s to stop them from getting complacent? “But if you are selling out of all of your wines every year—consistently—simply doing what you are doing today, what motivates you to lower yields (see above) or invest in and employ new or different vinification techniques to make your wines even better? Where is the spark? Where is the obsessive drive to improve?”

If you’re interested, there are over 50 lengthy reproaches already on Thompson’s article (most of them from winery owners by the read of them), nitpicking practically everything he says to death. So if you feel like you have nothing better to do than read vintners argue about viticulture and oak character, by all means dive right in.

For everyone else, did you see that AC/DC is getting into the wine business? Highway To Hell Cabernet Sauvignon!

- Kris King

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