Gov. Robert McDonnell, left, and first lady Maureen McDonnell greet British wine writer Steven Spurrier at the Virginia Wine Summit held in early October in Richmond. (Jay Paul /PHOTO BY JAY PAUL)
Columnist, Food

“Virginia makes the kind of wines I like to drink.” 

By itself, that statement is unexceptional. Spoken by Steven Spurrier, the eminent British wine writer, at a reception in the grand setting of the Virginia governor’s mansion in Richmond before an assembly of Old Dominion winemakers, it was electric.

Spurrier — not to be confused with the former Redskins coach of a similar name — is a consulting editor for Decanter magazine, Britain’s most highly regarded wine periodical. But he is most famous for his 1976 blind tasting in Paris in which French judges preferred California wines over some of the best from Burgundy and Bordeaux. The “Judgment of Paris” galvanized California’s wine industry just as its modern era was transitioning from novelty to powerhouse. Spurrier was the first European to recognize and promote the quality of U.S. wines. 

And so Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell, who have championed Virginia wines around the world since his election in 2009, invited Spurrier to Richmond this month to be a keynote speaker at their inaugural Virginia Wine Summit. The audience for the event included several winemakers who took time away from harvest for what amounted to a day-long pep talk. Virginia is increasingly making world-class wines, but its winemakers still have a “pinch me” attitude about their success.  

That’s why Spurrier’s endorsement at the summit and at the governor’s reception the previous evening pulsed through his audience. The man who elevated California onto the world wine map was saying he has a growing preference for Virginia wines.

Spurrier elaborated on his endorsement during his keynote address and an interview. His introduction to Virginia wines came five years ago at a tasting at Vinopolis, a London wine museum, and in subsequent years at the London International Wine Fair. That means his exposure to Virginia was primarily to top wineries that had made the effort to present their wines to the U.K. market. Through those tastings, he became a fan of the wines of Barboursville, Breaux, Keswick, King Family, Veritas and Williamsburg wineries in particular. Other U.S. wine regions, such as Oregon, Washington and New York, are not well represented in the U.K. market, he said. Their absence gave Virginia an opening.

“Virginia is indeed a national contender,” he said. “Here on the East Coast, with its cooler, more humid climate, Virginia makes quite different wines. This is in my view a strength, not a weakness, and should be built upon.”

As for grape varieties, Spurrier endorsed viognier as Virginia’s “calling card for whites,” and cabernet franc and petit verdot as its strongest reds. “Petit verdot is almost a unique calling card for reds,” he said, repeating a favorite phrase, “because very few wine regions in the world make a varietal petit verdot.”

He also praised the “novelties,” nebbiolo and petit manseng, an aromatic white variety from southwestern France that can excel as either a dry or a sweet wine. “Take the Tarara 2010 Honah Lee white,” he said, singling out one of the 12 highest-scoring wines in this year’s Governor’s Cup competition. It’s a blend of viognier, petit manseng and roussanne. “That’s a blend no one in France would even consider,” Spurrier said. “The idea of blending viognier with petit manseng is completely out of the question.” Except in Virginia.

But why does Spurrier favor Virginia wines over those from California? “They are not flashy or over-extracted,” he said. “They call for a second glass. It’s not very often with some of those big, burly 15 1 / 2-[percent alcohol] wines from California that I even want half of the glass in front of me.”

I asked what he would say to people who live here but are skeptical of the local vino, like those of us who never visit the monuments or the Smithsonian. 

“I think they ignore what’s in their back yard.”

McIntyre blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.