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On Sunday I gathered with twelve wine friends at Early Mountain Vineyards (on Twitter: @EarlyMountain) for the third annual Virginia sparkling wine blind tasting.  Technically, Sunday’s tasting marked the fourth year for the sparkling wine blind tasting but the 2010 tasting was very informal and only included five wines with no formal scoring.


This year’s tasting line up included ten different Virginia sparkling wines, along with three bottles from other regions mixed in — one from New York’s Finger Lakes region, one from Spain, and one from New Mexico.  Nine of the wines were non-vintage, two were 2008s, one was 2010 and one was a 2006.

Of the approximately 220 farm wineries in Virginia about 14 produce a sparkling wine, eight of which were represented in this year’s tasting.  At last count, two wineries produce more than one sparkling wine, bringing the total number of Virginia sparkling wines to about 16 (this number seems to fluctuate year-by-year based on wineries private labeling and producing sparkling wine for weddings).

Consistent with our process the last two years to keep the scoring/ranking simple, we used a favorite-to-least-favorite ranking system wherein each taster ranks the wines from 1 to 13 — #1 being the favorite, down to the least favorite, #13.  This simple ranking system allows everyone to use his or her preferred scoring system (I used the UC Davis 20 point scale) and simplifies the process of determining overall winners.  This ranking system also helps reduce the numerical skewing that can result from scoring fluctuations between judges when a traditional point system is used.

Admittedly this favorite-to-least-favorite scoring system coupled with the mixing of vintages and varietals are far from scientifically perfect, but this ranking system does provide a reasonably accurate accounting of opinions and helps reduce the numerical skewing that can result from scoring fluctuations between judges when a traditional point system is used.

Once rankings from all 12 judges were tallied, the wines were unwrapped — the final rankings:

  • 1stThibaut-Janisson 2008 Cuvée D’Etat (USA, Virginia, Monticello, $30)
  • 2ndThibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay, NV (USA, Virginia, Monticello, $28)
  • 3rdTrump 2008 Blanc de Blanc, 2008 (USA, Virginia, Monticello, $24)
  • 4thThibaut Virginia FIZZ, NV (USA, Virginia, $23)
  • 5th TIEVeritas Vineyards Scintilla, NV (USA, Virginia, Monticello, $30)
  • 5th TIEDr. Frank 2006 Blanc de Noir (USA, New York, Finger Lakes, $28)
  • 7th — Barboursville Vineyards Brut, NV (USA, Virginia, Monticello, $19)
  • 8th — Prince Michel Winery Sparkling Wine (USA, Virginia, $40)
  • 9th — Gruet Brut, NV. (USA, New Mexico, $16)
  • 10th — Paradise Springs Apres, Sparkling Viognier, NV (USA, Virginia, $43)
  • 11thAfton Mountain Vineyards 2010 Bollicine (USA, Virginia, Monticello, $30)
  • 12thHorton Vineyards Sparkling Viognier, NV (USA, Virginia, $25)
  • 13thJaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava, NV (Spain, Catalunya, Cava, $7.99)

* Prices above are approximate retail prices.  Some wines were provided as samples for this tasting and others were purchased at industry pricing.


The good news from this year’s tasting: a Virginia sparkling wine actually ranked 1st this year, unlike last year when New Mexico’s Gruet Brut took top honors. The not surprising news:  Claude Thibaut’s wines finished in three of the top four spots, with Trump finishing in the top three.

The less than good news: the sparkling Viogniers finished near the bottom of the overall rankings. Both the Horton and Paradise Springs sparkling Viogniers are nice wines but did not show well in this blind comparative setting along side Chardonnay-based sparkling wines (I know better, yet keep including them).  After discussing this last year and again on Sunday, we made the decision not to include sparkling Viogniers in next year’s tasting in the same flight next year.  Instead, we will try to get all three sparkling Viogniers produced here in Virginia for a separate flight.


On my personal score sheet, my top five were:

Aside from the Trump 2008 Blanc de Blanc, Claude Thibaut’s wines took the top five wines on my ranking sheet.  In addition to producing three sparkling wines under his own label — Cuvée D’Etat, Blanc de Chardonnay and FIZZ — he consults on sparkling production at Afton Mountain Vineyards, Veritas Vineyard & Winery, King Family Vineyards, and Prince Michel.

Thibaut, a fifth-generation French winemaker, came to Virginia in 2003 to consult on sparkling wine production at the winery formerly known as Kluge Estates (now Trump Vineyards).

Perhaps 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 of the sparkling wine production here in Virginia.

My notes on a few of the notable wines from the tasting:


Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Chardonnay, NV
USA, Virginia, Monticello, $28
100% Chardonnay
Always excellent, and one of my favorite Virginia wines.   Bright gold in color with a frothy mousse and fine, steady bead, this wine offers aromas of green apple, pear, and hazelnuts around a brioche core.  Refreshing in the mouth with flavors of pear, brioche, and mineral.  The lemony acidity put this one over the top in the close 1-2-3 rankings on my score sheet.


Thibaut-Janisson 2008 Cuvée D’Etat
USA, Virginia, Monticello, $30
100% Chardonnay
A fantastic sparkling wine made from Chardonnay grapes from Ivy Creek Vineyards, the oldest Chardonnay vines in Virginia.  An interesting factoid, this wine was served at the White House Inaugural State Dinner in 2009. At just 0.6% residual sugar, this was the only extra brut in the tasting line up.  Much to like about this sparkling beauty, aged on yeasts for two years before being released — it shows a frothy mousse with zesty lemon-lime, fresh baked apple pie, hazel nut, pear and hints of chalk on the edges.  Fantastic acidity.   Buy this wine!


Trump 2008 Blanc de Blanc
USA, Virginia, Monticello, $24
100% Chardonnay
I am glad to see (and taste) this winery back on its feet.  Another Virginia winner at just $24, this wine offers loads of red apple, doughy toast, pear, stone and picked up hints of quince leading to a crisp, vibrant lemon-lime finish.

When I shared the results of the tasting with Claude Thibaut and asked specifically about the 2008 vintage, he told me “2008 was a very good year for sparkling wine production. Not too early, not too late. The crop load was medium to small and, as a result, the acid level in the juice was on the high side.”  Would be interesting to taste these same wines blind along side the 2007 vintages.


Veritas Scintilla
USA, Virginia, Monticello, $30
100% Chardonnay
Gold color in the glass, this wine offers aromas of golden delicious apple, layers of pear and sweet lemon candy.  Brioche and citrus flavors on the palate, along with zesty lemon-lime acidity.  Always consistent.


Afton Mountain Vineyards Bollicine
USA, Virginia, Monticello, $30
70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir
Made from one of the few Pinot Noir growers in Virginia. Bollicine means ‘tiny bubbles’ in Italian.  Though this wine finished in 11th place in the overall rankings, I liked this wine — crisp and refreshing with aromas and flavors of crème brulee with quince compote and hazelnuts.  Very nice.


Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava, NV
Spain, Catalunya, Cava, $7.99
50% Macabeo, 35% Parellada, 15% Xarel-lo
This wine has been the subject of much positive press — like an 87 from Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar — so I thought it would be interesting to include this much heralded bargain bubbly in the tasting.   This Cristalino Cava captured the last spot decisively, ranking 13th on five of the twelve score sheets, and not ranking better than seventh on any score sheet.  After reading all the accolades, I picked up three bottles of this wine at a local bottle shop last month and opened two of the bottles over the last couple of weeks and held the last one for this tasting.  All three bottles were the same — not good, even at the bargain price of $7.99.  Dull yellow in the glass with old strawberry and apple aromas followed by weird industrial flavors in the mouth along with virtually no acidity. Would be curious what other readers have experienced with this wine.  Given the amount of positive chatter on the wine interwebs about this wine, I will likely pick up a couple more bottles this weekend to retaste.

Though the Gruet did not finish as high in the rankings this year, I still believe this to be one of the best value sparkling wines in the US.

As an avid consumer of sparkling wine, I wish more Virginia wineries would produce a sparkling wine (or two).

More than deciding on a winning sparkling wine, this tasting is more about taking a breather and catching up with friends over wine.  Was great to reconnect — Paul & Warren of Virginia Wine Time, VWD and GEG from Swirl Sip Snark, Anthony and Jaymie from Virginia Pour House blog, Megan Headley who writes for CVille Weekly,  Allan and Kris from Cellar Blog, Pia Mara Finkell from The BuzzBin, and Michelle from Early Mountain Vineyards.   Hopefully by next year, we’ll meet our go paperless goal and have that tasting app will be ready… 😉

I would like to sincerely thank Michelle, Jacob and the entire Early Mountain Vineyards team for their time, stemware and for allowing us the use of their beautiful facility!