When the story of Virginia wine is written — and it hasn’t been yet, because the plotlineis still unfolding — there should be a short list of the commonwealth’s most influential wines. They will be the wines that changed people’s perceptions and opened doors and minds.
Horton’s viognier ignited a boom that established Virginia’s wine reputation and led to viognier becoming the official state grape. Barboursville’s Octagon drove vintners away from cabernet franc and toward more complex blends of various Bordeaux varieties for the state’s signature reds. RdV’s Lost Mountain and Rendezvous have bewitched the international wine media with a potent mix of quality and swagger.
Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay should be on that list. Not that it’s turning the Old Dominion into a new sparkling wine powerhouse — that won’t happen. But this elegant bubbly, introduced in 2007, has seduced the Washington area’s wine trade and helped clear space for Virginia and Maryland on retail shelves and restaurant wine lists.
Four years ago, as the farm-to-table restaurant movement was booming, I wrote in this space about how few local wines were carried by locavore restaurants. The one popular exception was Thibaut-Janisson. Its modest price (it retails for $29) and champagne-like quality made it an ideal by-the-glass pour. Today, many District restaurants proudly pepper their lists with local wines. There are other reasons for the change, including effective marketing by the Virginia Wine Board and the overall improvement in Virginia (and Maryland) wines. But the Blanc de Chardonnay played a key role in priming the market.
“It put Virginia on the map for sparkling wine,” says Ramon Narvaez, corporate beverage director for chef Robert Wiedmaier’s restaurants, which include Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck in the District and Brabo in Alexandria. “It is great to have a high-quality sparkling wine that is local and appeals to a champagne connoisseur.”
The wine’s creator, Claude Thibaut, is a blunt-speaking, 57-year-old Frenchman of modest build and a wide-eyed expression that suggests surprise or anticipation, as though he just heard a champagne cork pop. A native of the Champagne region and graduate of the University of Reims, he has made sparkling wine in Australia and in California, where he worked for J, Iron Horse and Kendall-Jackson. Thibaut came to Virginia in 2003 to create the sparkling wine program for Kluge Estate (now Trump winery) near Charlottesville. He started his own label two years later, partnering with his friend Manuel Janisson, proprietor of Champagne Janisson & Fils.
Thibaut credits Wiedmaier and Cathal Armstrong, of the Eat Good Food Group that includes Restaurant Eve, the Majestic and Society Fair in Alexandria, for being early supporters who helped him build his brand. The wine also has been served at several official functions in the Obama White House, including the November 2009 state dinner with the infamous party crashers from another Virginia winery. And it doesn’t hurt to have the initials T-J, which evoke Virginia’s first oenophile, Thomas Jefferson.
Thibaut now produces 3,000 cases of wine annually, with the Blanc de Chardonnay accounting for two-thirds. An additional 500 cases are a softer, slightly sweeter bubbly called Fizz, popular with restaurant mixologists. This year, he released a cuvée called Xtra Brut, with a higher proportion of his barrel-aged reserve chardonnay and a lower dosage of sugar for a bolder, drier wine.
And his story does not end there. Late next year, Thibaut will release a new sparkling wine that blends chardonnay from Virginia with some from New York’s Finger Lakes region. His working name for the project is “Côte Est,” French for East Coast. He says the New York-Virginia combo will produce a wine even more like top champagne than his current bottlings.
“The New York fruit gives me the acidity and minerality, because of the cooler climate, while Virginia contributes the fruitiness,” he explained after a recent Virginia wine dinner at Brabo.
Then, perhaps fueled a bit by his Blanc de Chardonnay that had accompanied dessert, he vowed, “Believe me, when I release my sparkling wine from the East Coast, it is going to kick some a--.”