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2012 Sparkling Wine Tasting Recap

Webster defines consultant as one who gives professional advice or services.  Though Webster does not provide a definition of winemaking consultant (or viticulture consultant), a generally accepted definition is a person — presumably with an above average working knowledge of all things viticulture — that provides counsel and/or hands on instruction in winegrowing/making (though the lines between winery/vineyard/winemaking consultant seem quite blurry these days).

Though Consultants are sometimes painted in a less than flattering light — just read House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You The Time‘ — Virginia is fortunate to be home to a number of outstanding winemaking consultants that have brought skills, experience and techniques partly responsible for raising the quality bar of Virginia wine (along with many, many others of course).

It is one of these notable winemaking consultants — fifth-generation French winemaker Claude Thibaut — that brought global experience and domain expertise to help create the Virginia sparkling wine segment we know today.  Thibaut came to Virginia in 2003 — one of the most climatologically challenging vintages on record here in the Commonwealth — to consult on a new project to make world-class sparkling wine at the winery formerly known as Kluge Estates.

Though he has provided expertise and guidance in the production of many of the state’s sparkling wines since 2003, Thibaut is perhaps best known for his own Virginia sparkling wine label, Thibaut-Janisson, that he started in 2005 with fellow Frenchman Manuel Janisson (of Champagne house Janisson & Fils).  More than any other vintner in the state, Claude has influenced — either directly through consulting/winemaking or indirectly from his expertise shared with the industry — most sparkling wine production here in Virginia.

Last Sunday, I had the opportunity to experience the Thibaut Effect and taste several of Claude’s sparkling wines as part of a sparkling wine blind tasting at Jefferson Vineyards in Charlottesville, VA.

The event was hosted by Jefferson winemaker and General Manager Andy Reagan and attended by nine of my other Virginia wine friends — Paul & Warren of Virginia Wine Time, VWD and GEG from Swirl Sip Snark, Anthony from Virginia Pour House blog, Megan Headley who writes for CVille Weekly,  Allan from Cellar Blog, Pia Mara Finkell from The BuzzBin, and Melissa from Uncork Virginia blog.

Last Sunday marked the second year for our Virginia sparkling wine blind tasting. The inaugural event held at Keswick Vineyards in February 2011.   Aside from getting a little smarter on sparkling wine by tasting most of the sparkling wines produced in Virginia in a comparative setting, this annual event provides a great opportunity to catch up with friends who I see too little of.

Of the approximately 205 farm wineries in Virginia only 14 produce a sparkling wine, and nine of these wineries were represented in this year’s sparkling wine tasting.  Both Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards and Thibaut-Janisson produce two different sparkling wines bringing the total number of sparkling wines produced in Virginia to about 16 (there are likely a couple more not included in this count).

I recently caught up with the sage of Virginia sparkling wine, Claude Thibaut, for an interview for an upcoming print piece and asked him why so few Virginia wineries produce sparkling wine.  Claude noted that ‘the process is very complex and costly. The Champagne equipment is also very expensive. There are many steps from the pressing of the fruit to the disgorging of the sparkling wines that takes a lot of experience and skills to perform and one single mistake can be detrimental to the quality of the final product.’

Claude also noted that the consumption (demand) of Virginia sparkling wine is low, which keeps the production low. This certainly makes sense considering many US wine consumers tend to reserve consumption of sparkling wines for special occasions.

For this year’s blind tasting, our line up included ten different Virginia sparkling wines from nine producers, four of which were made by Claude Thibaut.  We also decided to include sparkling Viogniers this year.  There are currently only three sparkling Viogniers produced in Virginia, not enough for a separate flight, so we included the two sparkling Viogniers in with the others for one overall flight (we did not have the Cuvee Julia from Rogers Ford Farm Winery, a Viognier-Chardonnay sparkling wine blend).  I was a little worried that the sweetness of the sparkling Viogniers would overwhelm the other wines, however, when tasted beside the Chardonnay dominant sparklers, the Viogniers were easy to identify but certainly not peachy-sweet or overpowering.

Since Viognier was recently designated as Virginia’s State Signature Grape, one might expect to see more sparkling Viognier being produced.  I asked Claude his thoughts on Viognier’s versatility to make sparkling wine compared to Chardonnay (Note: Your correspondent feels it’s versatile enough, but knows nothing about winemaking so there is a slight possibility that I’m wrong about this); ‘If the goal is to produce a sparkling wine in the same style as in Champagne, I think that the Chardonnay has probably the best flavor profile and also keeps good sugar/acid ratio at Harvest. It is important to use a variety that can maintain a good acid level under our growing conditions. Chenin Blanc could also be a good option. On the other hand, you can make a more aromatic style of sparkling using Viognier or Pinot Blanc but you need to find a very cool site in order to preserve some of the natural acidity.

I have had requests for sparkling Viognier on a small scale but the price of the grape is definitely too high. I think that the aromas of a sparkling Viognier are very attractive but I have a feeling that the wine must be drunk young.’

Since there are just 185 acres planted to Viognier (as of 2010) compared to 443 acres of Chardonnay, I doubt we’ll see too many Virginia sparkling Viogniers in the near term.

As the most planted varietal in Virginia, Chardonnay remains the workhorse of the wine industry and was the predominant varietal in this year’s sparkling wines:

The purpose of the tasting was not to determine the ‘best‘ Virginia sparkling wine – that would be impossible even if we wanted to.  Instead, the real purpose was to taste Virginia sparkling wines in a blind comparative setting that we may not have otherwise tasted at one time.

Consistent with our process last year to keep the tasting moving and the scoring/ranking simple, we opted for a ranking system wherein each taster ranked the wines from 1 to 11 — #1 being their favorite, down to their least favorite, #11.  This ‘rack and stack’ system allows everyone to use his or her preferred scoring system (I used the UC Davis 20 point scale), while keeping the overall final ranking simple.

Admittedly this favorite-to-least-favorite scoring system coupled with the mixing of vintages and varietals is not a true technically correct comparative tasting, but ranking system does provide a reasonably accurate accounting of opinions.

After much sniffing, sipping, slurping, and spitting, the eleven wines were racked and stacked.

Racking & Stacking -- no more counting on my fingers.

The top five sparkling wines based on aggregated rankings from all eleven tasters:

  1. Gruet Brut
  2. Veritas Scintilla
  3. Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay
  4. Thibaut-Janisson Virginia FIZZ * (last year’s winner!)
  5. TIE:  Horton Sparkling Viognier and Kluge 2008 Blanc de Blanc

As a passionate advocate for Virginia wine, I feel it’s total lame sauce to have the only out-of-state entry win top honors this year. However, as a fan of value wines, in particular value sparkling wines, having one of the best value sparkling wines in the US finish atop the rankings is great.  (I had the chance to visit Gruet last year to taste their entire lineup of excellent QPR wines.)

The positive takeaway from the individual rankings is that the Veritas Scintilla received the most #1 (most favorite) votes with six tasters ranking this wine as their favorite.  For the five tasters that did not rank Veritas as their #1 favorite, their scores tended to be near the least favorite side of the ranking scale, which really weighed down the overall ranking.

Interestingly, only one taster ranked the Gruet as their favorite (with a #1 ranking), but four tasters ranked the Gruet as their 2nd favorite and three tasters ranked as their #3 favorite, which resulted in the best overall ranking.

In the spirit of the statistics cliché that goes something like, ‘facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable,’ I unilaterally award the Veritas Scintilla the Taster’s Favorite Award, and award the Gruet the Most Consistent Performer Award.

Though we can debate the top two or three ranked wines, the least favorite of the tasting was clear.  The Old House Vineyards Petillante received eight #11 (least favorite) rankings and two #10 (next-to-least-favorite) rankings.  As a believer in giving the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure this was an off bottle as I’m sure this wine was not supposed to smell/taste like a block of cheddar cheese that’s been rubbed in armpit funk.

The top five wines on my scoring/ranking sheet were (along with my tasting notes):

  1. Veritas Scintilla.  A brut sparkling wine made in the traditional method, 100% Chardonnay. Really good. Frothy mousse, lively bubbles, potent green apple and pear with yeasty components.  Very fresh.
  2. Thibaut-Janisson Virginia FIZZ.  Made from 100% Chardonnay. Bright in color and aromatics, with lively bubbles.  Hints of sweet apple and lime throughout.  Like Honest Tea, just a tad sweet. For anyone that has had FIZZ a few times, this one was easily identifiable in the blind lineup. Dollar for dollar, I feel this is the best value sparkling wine produced in Virginia.
  3. Gruet BrutPungent green apple and lemon/lime aromas with hints of toast.
  4. Kluge 2008 Blanc de Blanc.  Made from 100% Chardonnay grapes.  I’ve never had a pear muffin, but if there is such a thing I imagine this is what it smells like while baking – strong aromas of pear, dough with lemon spritz.  Long lemon/lime finish.
  5. Afton Mountain 2008 Tete De Cuvee.  A blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  This bottle finished #10 in the overall rankings.  Perhaps more than other bottle in the line up, scores for this wine were all over the ranking map and was the most debated in terms of questioning whether this was a bad bottle.  I didn’t think so.  The aromatics were definitely different than the other wines, but not in an ‘off‘ way.   Gold in color, this wine showed a big mousse, lively bubbles and red apple skin on the nose and palate.  Also picked up aromas of canned fruit, chalk and sweetarts on the finish.  Slightly richer than the other sparkling wines.

Most of the wines in the tasting were Brut style, which is a term used to define extra-dry to dry sparkling wine/Champagne, typically with less than 1.5% sugar.  For a quick refresher on the definition of other sparkling wine styles, see ‘What Does Brut Mean?‘)

I wish more Virginia wineries (hint hint… Ankida Ridge, Annefield, Jefferson, Keswick…) would produce sparkling wine, but given the still wobbly economy I doubt we’ll see too many wineries making the capital investment necessary to produce sparkling wine in the near term.

Thank you to everyone who participated in this tasting, and to Virginia Wine Diva at Swirl Sip Snark for picking up most of the wines for the event.  A big thanks to Andy Reagan at Jefferson Vineyards for allowing us to use the Jefferson Vineyards tasting room, stemware, the food afterwards and for the hospitality!

Tinker, Tailor, Winemaker, Pourer...

 For additional perspective please be sure to check out each of these recaps of the tastings:

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