Barboursville Vineyards, founded in 1976 north of Charlottesville, won the 2021 Virginia Governor’s Cup trophy for its 2015 Paxxito, a dessert wine made with air-dried moscato ottonel and vidal grapes in a traditional Italian method. This was Barboursville’s fifth Governor’s Cup win, and the fourth for winemaker Luca Paschina since he took over management of the property in 1990. The results were announced March 9.
Boordy Vineyards, founded in 1945 just north of Baltimore, won the 2020 Maryland Governor’s Cup for its 2015 Landmark Reserve, a Bordeaux-style red blend made from grapes grown at Boordy’s South Mountain Vineyard outside Burkittsville in Frederick County. The vineyard was part of Boordy’s effort to boost quality and stay in the vanguard of Maryland’s wine renaissance. Boordy won the trophy a few years ago for its albariño, a racy white wine from grapes grown in the same area.
“Don’t look for huge alcoholic Napa-style wines from our climate, but rather elegant, seductive, well rounded wines with ample perfume, more like what one would expect from the Left Bank of Bordeaux,” Boordy owner Rob Deford wrote in an email newsletter after the award for the Landmark Reserve was announced. “This is not a wine that is trying to be Californian or French, but distinctly and proudly Maryland.” There’s also not much of it, available from the winery for $50 a bottle.
Paschina began trying to make a classic-styled dessert wine almost as soon as he took over management of Barboursville. The late-harvest style, allowing grapes to shrivel on the vine to concentrate sugars, led to inconsistent results, so in 2001 he switched to the passito method of drying grapes after harvest in an open-air barn. This is essentially making wine from raisins — you concentrate the grapes’ sugar and acidity, while losing 75 percent of the juice.
“It’s a costly approach yet with a great reward of intense aromas, luscious sweetness, very refreshing acidity, long aftertaste and aging potential,” Paschina says. “Am I talking about port?” A nice aged tawny perhaps, though vin santo also comes to mind.
This year’s awards were held under coronavirus pandemic restrictions. The Maryland judging was originally scheduled for August, then delayed twice before being held in early February with a reduced number of judges under strict social distancing protocols. (The organizers still called it the 2020 competition.) “It was a one-off event, not to be repeated, but it got the job done,” says Al Spoler, co-host of “Cellar Notes” on WYPR radio in Baltimore and organizer of the Maryland contest. “We found the quality.”
Virginia’s competition, managed since 2012 by Jay Youmans of D.C.’s Capital Wine School, was conducted remotely. As one of 12 judges in the final round, I tasted 125 wines poured from two-ounce sample bottles, swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting right here at my desk and entering my scores online over the iPad I’m using to write this column. It was lonely work, but it worked.
Grapes were not the only fruit recognized. Port of Leonardtown Winery won a special award in the Maryland competition for the best non-grape fruit wine for its 2019 McIntosh Run apple wine. And Virginia awarded Lost Boy Cider of Alexandria a best in class medal for its Comeback Kid, a dry cider made from apples grown in the Shenandoah Valley.
These competitions are not perfect. Not every winery enters, and some prominent names from each state are missing from the gold medal lists. But the winners each year give a snapshot of who’s making quality wines. I scan the gold medal lists each year to plan my winery visits. R.A.H. Wine Co. made the Virginia Governor’s Case of the 12 top-scoring wines with a dessert wine made in a similar style of Barboursville’s Paxxito. It’s a private-label wine made by Maya Hood White, assistant winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards and a rising star winemaker for many Virginia wine fans.
In Maryland, I’m already entering Windridge winery in Darnestown into my GPS, based on its three gold medals. And the Virginia Wine Board has issued its first wine trail, highlighting the gold-medal-winning wineries from this year’s competition. Download your passport, and you can explore Virginia’s best.
The celebration of Virginia’s Governor’s Case winners on March 9 was tinged with sadness over the passing that day of Steven Spurrier, the British wine writer most famous for the Judgment of Paris tasting of 1976. That tasting, when French wine luminaries preferred California wines over their own, put California front and center on the world stage and helped galvanize a revolution in wine quality around the globe. Over the past decade, Spurrier became a champion of Virginia as an unheralded region producing wines to rival some of the world’s best. He will be missed, but his influence will live on.
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