Statewide wine competitions are a chance for a growing industry to give itself a report card, celebrate its accomplishments and elevate new stars to prominence. This month the Virginia Wineries Association crowned the Old Dominion’s oldest and most prominent winery and its flagship wine, awarding the 2013 Governor’s Cup to Barboursville Vineyards for its 2009 Octagon.
This is the fourth Governor’s Cup awarded to Barboursville since the competition originated in 1982, making it Virginia’s most elite winery. (Ingleside Vineyards has won the cup three times.) And it’s Barboursville’s third cup win under winemaker Luca Paschina, who left Italy’s Piemonte for Virginia’s Piedmont in 1990. But for Paschina and his fans, the win for Octagon is extra satisfying. Since he first created the merlot-based blend of Bordeaux varieties in 1998, Paschina has confidently offered Octagon as Virginia’s flagship red wine. To be recognized as a great wine region, he argues, Virginia must have an icon wine that is consistently good from vintage to vintage and that ages well.
Though a commercial success, Octagon has not always won over critics or judges in blind tastings. The 2006 Octagon wowed the panel of sommeliers and retailers at The Washington Post’s “Judgment of D.C.” tasting in 2009, but Octagon has been a perennial also-ran in more formal competitions, such as the Governor’s Cup, rarely receiving a gold medal. Paschina acknowledges some frustration at that track record, which he attributes to the style of wine he’s trying to achieve.
“It’s not the most soft, polished and smooth wine,” he says. “I don’t fine it or do micro-oxygenation” — a popular winemaking technique that softens a wine’s tannins — “so the wine is a bit more assertive at a younger age and takes a bit longer to show well. It does really well at table with food, but in a wine competition it comes off as aggressive.”
His 2009 Octagon, which will be released for sale in August, impressed this year’s judges, who met in Richmond last month to taste wines that advanced through two preliminary rounds. This was the second year for the contest’s revamped format, in which the Governor’s Cup winner and 11 other top-scoring wines will be presented as the “Governor’s Case” and used to promote Virginia wines nationwide. It was organized by Jay Youmans, a master of wine and director of the Capital Wine School in Washington.
So how was Virginia’s report card this year? Twenty gold medals were awarded, up from 13 last year — possibly a reflection of the strong 2010 vintage, which provided most of those winners. The 12 wines in the Governor’s Case were made by Barboursville (the Octagon), Cooper Vineyards, King Family Vineyards, Lovingston Winery, Philip Carter Winery, Pollak Vineyards, Potomac Point Vineyard and Winery, Rappahannock Cellars, RdV Vineyards (two wines), Sunset Hills Vineyard and Trump Winery. Among those, King Family, Potomac Point and Trump were also represented in the 2012 Governor’s Case.
Nine of the 20 gold medalists were red blends of Bordeaux grape varieties, suggesting once again that Virginia’s best wines are blends rather than single-variety wines. Advocates of cabernet franc as Virginia’s red grape, however, will point to the five golds won by wines with that variety on the label.
One of those advocates could well be Michael Shaps, co-owner and winemaker at Virginia Wineworks, south of Charlottesville. Shaps was involved in six gold medals, including three from his own winery and three by client wineries he consults with (two for Shenandoah Vineyards and one for Pollak). Four of the six were cabernet franc. His Michael Shaps chardonnay, from a vineyard in Loudoun County, was the only white wine to receive a gold medal. (The contest might have a structural bias against white wines; the judging takes place in January, when many whites are sold out and the most recent vintage has not yet been released.)
The gold medal list included some of Virginia’s highly regarded producers and also some newcomers, Shaps noted. He attributed that to the strong 2010 vintage.
“I look forward to seeing how those wineries do in future years,” he said. “It could be a boost for the industry if we have a more diverse group of top producers.”