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Results from the Oregon vs. Virginia Viognier and Cab Franc Tasting

Last month I was invited to participate in a Virginia vs. Oregon blind tasting featuring two of my favorite grapes — Viognier and Cabernet Franc.  Yes, Viognier and Cabernet Franc from Oregon — that state best known as one of the top Pinot producing regions in the US (and perhaps the world).

The tasting included six Viogniers and six Cabernet Francs from Virginia and southern Oregon, three wines from each state included in each flight.

This bi-coastal event included two groups — one in Virginia and one in Oregon  — that tasted each flight simultaneously.  The Virginia judging contingent gathered at The Wine Loft in the Short Pump area of Richmond, VA.  My fellow judges from Virginia were:

  • Bartholomew Broadbent of Broadbent Imports (on Twitter: @BollewBroadbent)
  • Christine Lezzi from the Country Vintner
  • Booth Hardy, owner of The Barrel Thief wine shop (on Twitter: @BarrelThief)
  • Emily McHenry, Sommelier, The Wine Loft (on Twitter: @TheWineLoftRVA)


Avid collector, wine consultant, and mathematician Neal Hulkower, PhD, selected the three Viogniers and three Cab Francs from Southern Oregon for the tasting.  Neal, Hilary Berg, Editor of Oregon Wine Press (on Twitter: @OregonWinePress), and other wine and food professionals gathered 2,900 miles west of Richmond at the offices of the News-Register in McMinnville, OR.

On the Virginia side, Annette Boyd, Director of the Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office and Richard Leahy, author of Beyond Jefferson’s Vines organized the event and carefully selected the Virginia wines for each flight.  Annette and Richard also masterfully managed logistics during the tasting to keep both groups on schedule.

Both flights were tasted blind and the judges were not told which Virginia or Oregon wineries or wines the organizers included in the tasting.

Getting Skype connection between VA and OR setup to communicate throughout the tasting.

Getting Skype connection between VA and OR setup to communicate throughout the tasting.

Rather than using one of the traditional scoring systems — 100-point scale, Davis 20 point, etc. — to determine the rankings and winner in each flight, we used a consensus-based ranking system called the Borda Count method.  With the Borda method, judges can use the scoring system of their choice — 100-point scale, Davis 20 point, 10 stars, 5 corks, or whatever — and then ‘rank‘ the wines based on those scores (their favorite wine ranked 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.).

After each judge ranks their favorite wines by preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd, …), the Borda score is calculated for each wine via a simple formula, n-1 (where n is the total number of wines in the flight).  The wine with the highest total score is the winner; the wine with the second highest total score is ranked 2nd, and so on.

Both of the two blind wine competitions that I judge each year use the Davis 20 point scale for scoring, which, in my opinion, is the most straight forward of the many different numerical scoring systems out there, however none of the numerical scoring systems are as mathematically fair as a ranking system like the Borda Method.

Tasting co-organizer Neal Hulkower writes in the February 2012 issue of American Association of Wine Economists, ‘The Borda Method is the most mathematically defensible method for combining individual rankings of wines to arrive at an aggregate ranking.

Though I agree that the Borda Count method of ranking is effective at reducing the skewing that can result from significant scoring fluctuations between judges when a traditional numerical scoring system is used, I personally feel that a simple 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc., ranking (what I call racking & stacking) method is equally effective.  (* For a more in-depth analysis of the Borda method, I recommend reading ‘Borda is Better‘ written by Neal in the Oregon Wine Press.)

The first flight of the tasting featured Virginia’s official signature state grape, Viognier.  Once the judges rankings were collected and the Borda scores calculated, the bottle bags were removed and labels revealed — not surprisingly Virginia’s Viggy showed exceptionally well, placing #1 and #2 in overall scoring:

  1. King Family Vineyards, 2011 Viognier (VA)
  2. Narmada, 2010 Viognier (VA)
  3. Spangler Vineyards, 2011 Viognier (OR)
  4. Troon Vineyard, 2011 Viognier (OR)
  5. Michael Shaps, 2009 Viognier (VA)
  6. Del Rio Vineyards, 2010 Viognier (OR)

On my personal score sheet, the Spangler Vineyards 2011 Viognier from Oregon finished 1st, followed by the King Family 2011 Viognier from Virginia, and the Narmada 2010 Viognier from Virginia finished 3rd.

As a fan and avid consumer of Virginia wine, I have to admit that I was surprised that an Oregon Viognier finished #1 on my score sheet (suppose this is a benefit of a blind tasting).  Given the aromatic and flavor profile of the Spangler Viognier I thought for sure this was a Virginia Viognier.  On my scoring sheet notes I guessed this to be a Viognier from Keswick Vineyards.  Missed that one by about 3,000 miles. D’oh.

A disjointed mix of muted fruit and a pungent alcohol taste landed the Michael Shaps Viognier at the bottom of my scorecard. I am generally a fan of Michael’s wines, in particular his Viognier, but the last two bottles I’ve opened have been equally unimpressive.

Viognier tasting line up.  Photo courtesy of Clara Hulkower.

Viognier tasting line up. Photo courtesy of Clara Hulkower.

I visited Oregon in August for WBC12 and tasted a number of nice Viogniers, but did not taste one Cab Franc that I can recall so I was looking forward to this flight.  Since the cabernet franc grape does well here in Virginia and is arguably used to produce some of the state’s most notable wines, I fully expected Virginia to run the table in this flight.

Once the rankings from all 11 judges were tallied, Virginia’s Sunset Hills 2009 Cabernet Franc finished atop the Cabernet Franc flight.

  1. Sunset Hills, 2009 Cabernet Franc (VA)
  2. Spangler Vineyards, 2009 Cabernet Franc (OR)
  3. Troon Vineyard, 2010 Cabernet Franc Reserve (OR)
  4. Jefferson Vineyards, 2010 Cabernet Franc (VA)
  5. Cliff Creek Cellars, 2007 Cabernet Franc (OR)
  6. Barboursville, 2009 Cabernet Franc Reserve (VA)
Cab Fran line up.  Photo courtesy of Clara Hulkower.

Cab Franc line up. Photo courtesy of Clara Hulkower.

Like the Viognier flight, the wine from Oregon’s Spangler Vineyards (on Twitter: @SpanglerVyds) finished #1 on my score sheet for the Cabernet Franc flight.  Oregon Pinot-centric wine fans looking to expand their palates should look south and check out Spangler Vineyards. Founded in 2004 in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, Spangler Vineyards focuses on growing Bordeaux and Rhone grapes.

The Jefferson Vineyards and Sunset Hills Cab Francs finished in a tie for the #2 spot on my personal score sheet.

When the wines for this flight were revealed, I was shocked to see the Barboursville (on Twitter: @OctagonVA) Cabernet Franc Reserve in bag #5.  An excellent wine and a personal favorite, the Barboursville Cab Franc Reserve was surprisingly near the bottom of the ranking.  I should note that this same wine was selected as the favorite cab franc over the Bernard Baudry Les Grezeaux Chinon at the Virginia Wine Summit a few weeks earlier so I will chalk this up to a bad day for this particular bottle (or, perhaps I was suffering from a case of aromatic dyslexia 😉 ).

Overall, the wines from both states showed well, but on this day the 11 judges preferred the wines from Virginia.  Although it’s impossible to declare any wine as the best wine, such blind comparative tastings do help to significantly reduce the biases we all hold.

The results of this tasting serve as yet another example of how Virginia wine stacks up to similar priced wines from larger, more notable regions.

Many thanks for Neal, Richard, Annette, my fellow judges and everyone else that participated to make this a memorable event.