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Category Archives: Regional wine

2016 Virginia Governor’s Cup

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Virginia Governors CupIt’s not the high quality of the wines that impressed me when I judged a preliminary round in the 2016 Virginia Governor’s Cup earlier this month. Rather, it was the consistency. There were almost no undrinkable wines among the five dozen or so wines we did, a far cry from the first time I did the competition in 2010.

If this is not unprecedented, it’s certainly rare in any state that’s not on the west coast. One of the biggest difficulties for regional wine, given that most local producers have too little experience and too little money, is consistency and improving toward that consistency. It’s not enough to make one great wine every three or four years; for regional wine to succeed, it must make drinkable wine every year. If it can do that, the great wines will follow on a regular basis.

And my panel saw that consistency earlier this month, allowing for the small sample size and that we judged blind. Especially impressive — but not surprising, given past experience — were the viogniers, where I though three of the five wines deserved gold medals (though medals won’t be awarded until the final judging in February). The other two were well worth drinking, too. Every wine was fresh and varietally correct, and even the two that had been oaked were nicely done. The oak complemented the wine, and was not its reason for being.

The half dozen cabernet francs, another Virginia specialty, were surprisingly fruity, without the elegance I have come to expect. But they were enjoyable and two were worthy of silver or gold meals.

Even those regional wines that usually fare poorly, like chardonnay and dry rose, were professional and competent. The former are usually under-ripe and over oaked, while the latter are usually just a mess. But though simple, they were drinkable, and that’s not damning with faint praise given the difficulty in making those wines drinkable.

This is the slow, steady improvement that we haven’t seen in Texas for several years, and is one reason why I despair about the Texas wine business. But if Virginia, Texas’ arch-rival, can do it, maybe we can be motivated to do it as well.

The Wine Curmudgeon’s Arizona wine adventure

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arizona wineFive things I learned during a weekend of Arizona wine, where I visited six wineries and spoke at regional meeting of the American Wine Society:

• The technical quality of the wine was impressive, especially given how young the Arizona wine industry is. Allowing for the small sample size, the wines were clean, without flaws, and varietally correct. This is not often the case with regional wine, and that producers in Arizona are already able to do this speaks to how far they have come in a short time.

• The best grapes seem to be planted for the state’s terroir and climate, which is warm and mostly dry. This means Mediterranean varietals and not chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon, something it took us more than 20 years to figure out in Texas. In this, many of the wines reflected the terroir, which surprised me based on what I’ve  tasted in the past. Those had been hot, heavy, and not all that interesting.  Especially impressive: the Caduceus Shinola ($25, sample, 13.4%), a red blend with tart cherry fruit and dusty tannins; the Stronghold chenin blanc ($20, sample, 13.5%), a little oily and with pear fruit; and the Fire Mountain Sky ($24, sample, 13.7%), a white blend that was fresh, simple, and enjoyable.

• The catch? The prices, of course, since the state doesn’t make enough wine to enjoy economies of scale. I love chenin blanc, but $20 is a lot of money for chenin. This is something everyone there knows, and say they’re working on.

• Having said all of that, Arizona faces tremendous challenges. First, it grows grapes at altitude, often more than 3,000 feet. There are only a handful of places in the world where this is done, and so there is little information or historical data about how to do it well. The growers are truly pioneers. Second, the state suffers from every problem imaginable, whether the dreaded Pierce’s Disease or late and early freezes. Deer eating grapes (also a serious problem in California) is common, too.

• Consumers want to know more about wine, and are happy when someone talks to them in language they understand. The 40 or so people who heard my speech were appreciative when I pointed out the emperor’s new clothes as it relates to wine, and the idea that we can buy quality for much less than $25 was a big hit. We bought five cheap wines and served them after dinner, and that there was tasty $10 Provencal rose was a revelation much appreciated.

Texas wine developments: 2015

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texas wineSome thoughts after driving some 900 miles through the Texas High Plains in search of Texas wine:

• It’s not so much that this year’s harvest was plentiful, or that quality looks to be good. Rather, it’s that growers who normally had a couple of tons of grapes to sell have six or eight. Or 10. That means wineries may have more grapes than they know what to do with — something that could only happen in Texas, where short harvests have been the norm for a decade. Hence, there may not be anywhere to store the extra crushed grapes, and I don’t even want to think about what it will do to grape prices over the next couple of years. The good news? That there will be almost no excuse to sell Texas wine that doesn’t carry a Texas appellation, a practice long common here and which has generated huge controversy.

• Even I get tired of ragging on Dallas restaurants that don’t carry Texas wine, but after eating in three Lubbock restaurants that do Texas wine justice — the Pecan Grill at the Overton Hotel, La Diosa, and West Table — Dallas restaurants have no excuse for not carrying Texas wine. If they can do it in Lubbock, why can’t we do it here? We are supposed to be more cosmopolitan than Lubbock, aren’t we?

• Neal Newsom, a west Texas cotton farmer who planted his first grapes 30 years ago and today grows only grapes, says his fellow cotton farmers used to heckle him — literally — over that decision. Because what kind of self-respecting cotton farmer would grow something as silly as grapes in a part of the country where cotton is king? Today, though, says Newsom, they’re practically jealous, given his success. “I got more people asking me about growing grapes last year than I did in the previous 29 years put together,” he says.

• The less said about my experiences in Post, about 50 miles southwest of Lubbock, the better. Who knew driving through a small town, no bigger than five minutes from north to south, could cause so much aggravation, and both times I went through it?

• The best wines I tasted? A tempranillo from Llano Estacado (which I’ll use in my American Wine Society seminar about Texas wine in November) and the McPherson rose. The former had varietal character — some earthiness, a bit of orange peel — but tasted of Texas, with more red fruit than a Rioja and more balanced acidity. It’s about $15 for people lucky enough to have an HEB in their town. The rose, about $10, is sold out in much of the state, but a couple of restaurants in Lubbock still had it. That it sold out so quickly speaks to how well it’s made — juicy strawberry fruit and a crispness that makes me smile when I write about it — as well as how much Texas wine drinkers have changed. Just a couple of years ago, to paraphrase my pal John Bratcher, you couldn’t sell rose here if you left it outside the liquor store with a sign that said free for the taking.

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