The following is a guest post from fellow Virginia State Fair wine judge, Patrick Getlein.

Compared to California, which has over 4,500 wineries, Virginia’s wine industry is tiny. Still, with nearly 300 wineries and over 400 vineyards producing 2.4 million gallons of wine annually it ranks among the top 10 wine producing states, coming in at number 8 in 2018.

Unless you’ve been to each one, tasted every wine, and are blessed with an encyclopedic memory of the experience, it can be challenging to stare down your options in the store.

As a State Fair of Virginia Wine Competition judge for the last 18 or so years, I can say with confidence that Virginia produces some world class wines comparable in their elegance to top wines from around the globe. But you don’t have to take just my word for it. I mean, you don’t even know me, right?  Plus everyone’s tastes are different.

Each winemaker has their own approach to the craft, and each vineyard has different soils, geology, and micro climates. While Virginia wines are broadly very good, some are in fact exceptional while others are still navigating the journey. Beyond the marketing on the labels and the agro-tourism promotions, how can you discern the quality in the bottle?

Recently I analyzed the results of two key state wine competitions — The State Fair of Virginia Wine Competition and The Governor’s Cup — looking at the gold and silver award winners from 2007-2019. Turns out by studying the over 2,600 award winning wines across 13 years of competitions adjudicated in blind tastings by panels of dozens of judges, some trends begin to emerge. 

For example, if you like cabernet franc, you’re in luck. Cab franc has won 346 total medals and is the highest winning varietal, beating out chardonnay (305 medals) which is the most widely grown grape in the state. But there’s another gem: petit verdot (260 medals). That’s a red wine grape you don’t see very often because it’s typically blended with other grapes into wines where it constitutes less than 75%. But In Virginia it is capable of producing delicious, soft, fragrant wine all by itself.

Top Winning Varieties 2007-2019 (over 100 awards)

CABERNET FRANC

346

CHARDONNAY

305

PETIT VERDOT

260

VIOGNIER

225

MERLOT

138

CABERNET SAUVIGNON

129

Another stand out is the wine often labeled Meritage, sometimes also Ameritage (300 medals). These are red blends that take the great wines of Bordeaux as their reference point. Typically a blend of three or four varieties from among cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, and probably some others (sometimes tannat), these wines are often big, complex mouthfuls capable of developing for years. They often enjoy pride of place — and a higher price point — in a winery’s pantheon of products.

Looking at medal winners by region of the state and American Viticultural Area (AVA) also shows some interesting trends. The Shenandoah Valley AVA wines earned the second highest number of medals (328 medals) with about half the number of wineries as Monticello (833 medals); and Middleburg AVA, which has only 19 wineries, pulls in a strong 149 medals. Overall, more than half of all medal winning Virginia wines are from designated AVAs, with over 90% of them from within those three.

You can read the full analysis here — Va Wine Analysis

With the massive advances in the Virginia wine industry over the last 30 years, your odds of selecting a winner have never been better. But don’t just take my word for it. Look at the data.

Patrick Getlein is a State Fair of Virginia wine competition judge and writer. A retired non-profit communications and management executive, he has followed the Virginia wine industry for over two decades. He lives in Richmond.