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Wine: Virginia's variable viogniers

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By Dave McIntyre
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Taste a lineup of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons, and you might be forgiven if at some point you wonder why they seem alike. Napa produces benchmark American cabernet, and the region has developed a fairly consistent style and voice. There are differences among Stag's Leap District and Oak Knoll or Rutherford and Calistoga, and winemakers add their individual accents. And, yes, there are bad ones. But the Napa signature comes through.

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The same cannot be said of Virginia. Although the Old Dominion's wine industry has grown like an out-of-control vine (the state now houses about 160 wineries) and the best wines can compete proudly with those in the rest of the world, the consistency isn't there yet. The hunt for the gems is part of what makes Virginia wine so exciting -- and sometimes so frustrating.

Here are some notes jotted as I whipsawed my way through a recent tasting of 23 Virginia viogniers sponsored by Tarara Winery near Leesburg: "Delicious . . . undrinkable . . . understated and quite good . . . cloying . . . excellent, focused and crisp, really quite nice . . . rotten apples, oxidized . . . technique can't compensate . . . BRAVO! . . . super-ripe, probably won't last long but tastes great now . . . does not taste like viognier."

Two factors help explain the inconsistency: the fickleness of the grape and the choices made by the winemakers.

The viognier grape is well suited to Virginia's humid climate, but it has a narrow window of opportunity for picking: It can quickly ripen to the point where the wine becomes flabby. "Viognier can go from 23 brix to 25 brix in just 10 days, while other grapes can take a few weeks," said Luca Paschina, winemaker at Barboursville Vineyards, referring to a standard measurement of grape sugar. "At 25 brix or higher, the grape becomes overripe and the wine is higher in alcohol, with more body but less acidity and elegance." Paschina likes to pick his viognier at 23 to 23.5 brix.

The next choice for the winemaker is whether to ferment the wine in stainless-steel tanks or oak barrels, or some combination of both. Paschina uses only stainless steel and stirs the wine's lees each week for several months during aging. Michael Shaps, of Virginia Wineworks, also prefers to ferment and age viognier in tank for his eponymous label. It allows a slow fermentation that preserves fruit flavors that can turn volatile ("rotten apples") at warmer temperatures, he said.

Shaps said many wineries do ferment and age viognier in barrels because that style is popular. "This is a style for the mass market and the cocktail party crowd," he said. "The grapes are picked riper, and the wine often retains a little residual sugar."

That "BRAVO!" wine, which was also the panel's favorite, was the 2009 from Veritas Vineyard and Winery in Afton, just west of Charlottesville. In the glass it looked unassuming, but the aromas kept coming: green apple, cream, lemon curd, jasmine, then honeysuckle. It smelled so good that I was reluctant to taste it, but I was rewarded with flavors of star fruit, guava and litchi and a long, complex finish.

The winemaker, Emily Hodson Pelton, experimented with barrel fermentation but determined that "the viognier is distorted by this bigger, or heavier, style. The wine doesn't hold up in the cellar very well, and we find that it loses a lot of character very quickly." So she decided to stick with stainless-steel fermentation for most of the blend, which is then aged in used or "neutral" barrels. About a third of the juice is both fermented and aged in barrel, to give the finished wine heft. It's a combination that is working.

The nine-member Tarara panel consisted of wine educators, retailers, sommeliers and writers. The four wines selected to be featured along with Tarara's 2008 at the winery's June 12 Fine Vine Festival were the Veritas 2009, Pearmund Cellars 2007 Vinecroft Vineyard, Horton Vineyards Sparkling Viognier and Winery at LaGrange 2008.

McIntyre can be reached at food@washpost.com.



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