It happened again. The third time in as many months. A well intentioned, yet misinformed tasting room staff member compared Virginia’s climate to the climate of another, more notable region in a misguided attempt to link the Virginian wine she was pouring to this more prominent region.
“This is our Cabernet Franc,” says the pleasant young lady from behind the tasting room bar of a Northern, Virginia winery as she pours a taste of their garnet colored Cab Franc in to my glass. After describing all of the aromas and flavors I should detect and listing the various medals this particular wine has garnered, she went on to tell me that, “Cab Franc grows really well here in Virginia and at our vineyard because the climate here is very similar to the Loire Valley where Cabernet Franc is from.”
I cringe every time I hear winery staff or other industry folks compare Virginia’s climate or terroir (ah that elusive terroir) to that of more notable regions like the Loire, Condrieu, California, or Italy. Although these silly comparisons are not rampant throughout the entire Virginia wine industry, the the frequency of occurrence is increasing, especially in the last few months.
Given the tasting room employee’s enthusiasm for the wines she was pouring, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Cabernet Franc does not grow well in Virginia or that particular vineyard ‘because the climate here is very similar to the Loire Valley.’
In terms of climate, Virginia is not like Chinon, not like Vouvray, not like Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, not like Anjou or any other region in the Loire (all ~ 500 east-west km of it).
“Saying that we [Virginia] are like the loire valley makes me laugh,” says Matthieu Finot, native Frenchman and winemaker at King Family Vineyards in Charlottesville. “Before coming to Virginia, I worked in a lot of different places; Burgundy, Rhone, Provence, Jura, St. Emilion, Friuli, and South Africa and I have to say that Virginia’s climate is quite unique.”
I have heard Virginia compared to other more notable regions in France, California and Italy on a number of occasions, but the myth about ‘Virginia’s climate being just like the Loire’ is the most common comparison that I hear.
A comparison of the most basic climate data — like average monthly rainfall and average high and low temperatures — provides a reasonable basis for burying the Virginia’s climate is just like the Loire Valley’s (or any other region’s) climate myth.
(Ed. Note: At the risk of stating the obvious, I feel compelled to note that I am not a climatologist, meteorologist, or viticulturist and concede that comparing average high and low temperatures, rainfall amounts, and a broad climate categorization does not provide an absolute perfect way to demonstrate differences in climate in the context of viticulture. There is no one perfect method to compare the climates of two regions however, for the purposes of this comparative exercise, the table above does provide a basic illustration of the climate differences between Virginia and France’s Loire Valley. If you have knowledge of a proven, precise method to measure climate differences, I welcome the sharing of that precise method.)
The lower humidity and rainfall amounts and much cooler average low temperatures in regions like France’s Loire Valley provide a significant (and important) contrast to Virginia’s climate.
The Köppen climate classification system — arguably the most widely used climate classification system — supports the same conclusion that Virginia’s climate is not like that of other regions like the Loire Valleyor California or other notable regions. Under the Köppen system, Virginia is classified as a humid subtropical climate while the Loire (at Saint-Cyr-sur-Loire) is classified as an Oceanic climate (this changes slightly given the length of the Loire region).
When other factors like elevation, soils, latitude and especially humidity are considered, it’s even clearer that Virginia is not like the Loire, the Rhone, California or too many other more notable regions.
Comparing Virginia to more acclaimed regions is not really about climate. Instead, it’s about marketing. This sort of silly reputation tapping is nothing more than a feeble attempt to piggyback on the status of a more notable region with the hope of improving the perception of a particular winery or wine.
“Virginia has a wild mixture of soils from impenetrable loam clay, to limestone (also normally combined with clay), to granite and sand,” says Jordan Harris, winemaker and General Manager of Tarara Winery in Loudoun County. “The only other wine regions that have some of these same mixtures in similar proportions that I know of would be the Niagara-on-the-Lake region in Canada and the Coonawarra region in South Australia, yet I never hear these places mentioned as comparisons because comparing Virginia to these regions isn’t a help for marketing.”
I find it hard to believe that (Virginia) wine consumers would place a higher value on a wine compared to a more notable region but, apparently, some consumers do according to the findings of a 2012 research experiment reported in a Working Paper of the American Association of Wine Economists . The experiment, which included two Virginian wines (Barboursville Vineyards 2009 Viognier and Veramar Vineyard 2009 Chardonnay), found that references to well-established regions in France did resonate with the 263 subjects that participated in the study.
Regardless of the results of this limited study I hold the belief that Virginia does not need to piggyback on the reputation of more acclaimed regions to improve perception or sell wine. Good wine sells wine. Authenticity sells wine.
As the ‘support local’ movement continues to strengthen, I believe consumers will place more value on local goods like Virginian wine.
‘Embrace Virginia’s uniqueness!’ ~ Oz Clarke, Virginia Wine Summit, 2013
1. Rickard, B., J. McCluskey, and R. Patterson. 2012. “Reputation Tapping.” AAWE Working Paper 119. Available at: http://www.wine-economics.org/aawe/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/AAWE_WP119.pdf