What exactly is the style of Virginia Wine?

I had an interesting conversation with a fellow Virginia winemaker the other day.   He made a comment that he could pick out Keswick wines in a flight every single time, that is to say that there is something about our wines that make them uniquely Keswick!

Huh, I guess in a way that means that we are making wines that are consistent despite the variations in vintages [of which there are many in Virginia]. But what is it that defines our style I asked, the answer.   “I dunno, I can just pick them out”.

Well that helps me as much as reading a book in Chinese.

There is no question that Bordeaux wines have a unique style, the same can be said of German Rieslings, New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and Burgundian Pinot Noirs. There is a quality in those wines that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world that defines the very essence of where the grapes were grown and how the wines were made.  The wine makers touch is important too, it takes some work to get that finished wine to reflect the quality of the grapes, trust me I have made mediocre wine out of fantastic fruit.

So back to Virginia and it’s style.  With almost 200 wineries in operation today and the state being the 5th largest in wine production in the U.S., it’s safe to say there are a fair number of folks who believe in the quality and the potential of Virginia wine. just look at the awards some of the wineries have won in international competitions and you will see that we have come a long way in a short amount of time.

To be truly competitive in the global market and to gain the trust of the consumer, I believe that Virginia has to market an identity of sorts and start playing to our strengths. I believe those strengths to be Viognier and Cabernet Franc.  Both these varietals do well in the vineyard, unlike others that are less forgiving in poorer vintages.  Yes we make good Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon; but consistently?  I am not so sure about that, a bit of hit and miss for me.  Furthermore, can we compete with the best versions of those wines world-wide?  Again the honest answer for me is no.  Can the best version of a Virginia Cabernet Sauvignon compete with the best Bordeaux or Napa Valley?  Maybe in the future but not right now.

Viognier and Cabernet Franc are a completely different story though.  Outside of Virginia, Cabernet Franc is generally used as a blender and Viognier (outside of the Rhone) is planted in such small quantities that varietal bottlings are hard to find.  That just screams market opportunity and the chance to create an identity for Virginia by putting our best foot forward. I have tasted many Virginia Viogniers and have found them to be comparative to the best offerings from around the globe (maybe a bit of bias creeping in).  In a recent blind tasting, conducted by my good friend Andy Regan, Virginia wines rated consistently in the top against many fine and well-known producers from California, France, South Africa and Australia.

For me at Keswick, I have been focused on producing consistent wines, despite the vintage variations. That means understanding the vineyard and producing fruit that will allow me to push the envelope of quality and style, even if we cannot define it.

In any case, Virginia is a state to watch, and man it is good to be making wine in this part of the world.

Cheers

Stephen

Keswick Vineyards

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4 comments on “What exactly is the style of Virginia Wine?

  1. Stephen says:

    Very valid points from both Frank and Dezel, thank you for those. We had an interesting chat at a recent meeting where some winemakers in the Monticello trail expressed an idea of creating a Monticello style of Viognier, that is we make it conforming to a certain style [oak or tank, dry or sweet] and market the wine as a regional style. I think influences of place, soil, sunlight and exposure also need to play an important role and cannot be ignored, after all that is the starting point of any great wine. Our style has definitely evolved over the vintages and it will be interesting to see the kinds of Viognier being made from the 2010 vintage, seeing that there is has been no vintage quite like it in the last few years.
    Stephen

  2. Dezel says:

    In my humble opinion, to truly be competitive in the global market, I think three things must happen: 1) overall increase in production (state-wide) for the given variety 2) the quality envelope **must** be pushed for that given variety 3) which goes to your point, the varietal has to have some distinction, state identity. Staying on the subject of Viognier, I would say Virginia produces three styles with varying degrees of quality. Even with Cabernet Franc, some producers blend it up to be a red meat wine, others a light & bright, fruit forward, easy-drinking food-friendly wine..

    Much like New Zealand redefined and put their own spin on a classic European variety (Sauvignon Blanc), Virginia can do the same with Viognier. That said, the industry is young and we have winemakers from France, Canada, Italy, California, home-grown ladies and gents, and even some from as far away as South Africa. These winemakers bring different skill levels, philosophies, styles, etc. with them and this very well may lend itself to wines based on that winemaker’s personal style as opposed to showcasing a regional style or character. Another question is what’s the benchmark?

    I started hitting the Virginia wine trail in 2005 and have seen nothing but growth and improvement and its been exciting watching the industry blossom. By the way, I could probably peg some of your wines, particularly reds, against other Virginia wines — you do have a style! Good post, bro.

    Smiles & Sips,

    Dezel

  3. […] Stephen, winemaker at Keswick, muses about the “style” of VA wine […]

  4. Frank says:

    Great subject… you winemaker-blogger-guys are really sharing some great info. Interesting that your winemaker friend noted that he could pick out your wines – I’ve been able to pick out your reds (perhaps we can test that next time I’m up that way).

    Completely agree with you on this, ‘to be truly competitive in the global market and to gain the trust of the consumer, I believe that Virginia has to market an identity of sorts and start playing to our strengths…’. This is indeed Viognier, Cab Franc and perhaps Petit Verdot and/or Petit Manseng.

    As of right now, roughly 75 of Virginia’s 192 wineries produce a Viognier. As an avid consumer of Virginia wine, I would certainly like to see more of your peers join the Viognier club.

    I hope all is well with you, Kat, Cupcake, StringBean and the bun in the oven. Cheers!

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