I doubt many people successfully filled out their March Madness brackets to predict Butler and the University of Connecticut appearing in the final game. Similarly, if you were to fill out a bracket of wine from around the world, I doubt very many people would have a Virginia Cabernet Franc winning the whole thing. Yet that is just what happened last month when Jessica Milby, a fellow Virginia wine blogger and myself, organized a March Madness-style wine tasting. Fabbioli Cellars Cabernet Franc won the whole thing, and a second Virginia wine – Phillip Carter Chardonnay – made it to the Final Four. The other two wines in the Final Four were from California and Chile.
During our tasting, the underdogs prevailed time and time again. Wines from regions that wouldn’t have been taken seriously ten years ago eliminated wines from France and the more-established regions of California. These regions – such as Loudoun County, Virginia - are now producing interesting, complex and great-drinking wines.
The wines were separated into four regions – Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Local Specialties. Cabernet Franc and Viognier both grow really well in Virginia’s climate, so we decided to give them the home field advantage. Chardonnay was chosen because it grows in practically every winemaking region and is one of the most reflective of a winemaker’s craft. The Local Specialties category was a way to highlight unique wines that are associated with particular regions: Zinfandel from California, Pinotage from South Africa, Norton from Virginia and Carmenere from Chile. While these wines have little in common in terms of taste and style, it did give the tasters the opportunity to try more unique wines. The winner of this category was Shenandoah Vineyards Zinfandel from California.
French wines fared poorly overall – being eliminated in either the first or second round by more local and less-expensive wines. The French Cabernet Franc and the French Chardonnay were both beaten by Virginia wines despite the fact that one of the judges was a Paris-born Francophone who let it be known that she was planning to vote for all French wines. The head-to-head tastings made her change her mind on more than one occasion.
The wine championship came down to Fabbioli Cellars Cabernet Franc and the Porta Viognier from Chile. While the Northern Rhone is the ancestral home of Viognier, and it is a varietal that grows exceptionally well in Virginia, the Chilean selection – with its crisp finish and refreshing honeysuckle and melon flavors – won over all the other white wines. The winner, Fabbioli Cellars Cabernet Franc is indicative of the quality and complexity that Virginia wines can have. A medium to full-bodied red, Fabbioli Cellars’ Cabernet Franc is loaded with plumb, cassis, vanilla and oak flavors that leaves a satisfying spice accent on the finish.
Virginia wine is coming into its own, in terms of the wine the state is producing and the reputation it is developing. Many people still see Virginia wine as a novelty, an enjoyable accompaniment to the locavore movement, or simply don’t know that the state produces great wine. As our Virginia Wine Bracket Challenge proves, the taste and quality are in the bottle. As more people discover Virginia wine, the more people will appreciate its depth, complexity, diversity and most importantly, its taste.
Congratulations to Fabbioli Cellars and Philip Carter for their impressive showing.
Chris McGurn is a freelance writer living and working in the Washington, D.C., area. He also edits the blog Beltway Bacchus. When not working, he can most often be found at Virginia wineries with his wife Caitlin.