I spent a few days in Charlottesville, Va., last week taking part in the Virginia Wine Summit, a celebration of the Commonwealth’s wine and wine culture. I was invited to speak on a panel titled “Defining Local on the East Coast,” a vague and somewhat nebulous topic that I’m not sure we really tackled during the session, but I digress.
The summit itself was only one day but, as a speaker I was able to join my fellow panelists — mostly sommeliers and restaurateurs from up and down the Eastern Seaboard — on a tour of some local vineyards and for some walk-around tastings of other Virginia producers.
Tasting so many wines in such a condensed period of time is both exhausting (I know, poor me) and educational. There are differences between the Virginia wine industry and Long Island’s, but there are a lot of similarities, too. Though the soils there are a bit heavier — many dominated by red clay — it’s hot and often humid during Virginia summers, not unlike here. Many of the growers I spoke to pointed to fall hurricane season as a big consideration — again, not unlike here. They grow a lot of Bordeaux-varieties red wines down there as well, just like here.
And, just as the Long Island industry is relying on merlot as the region’s “signature variety,” Virginia has chosen one as well: viognier. The best Virginia viogniers were a revelation: fruity and floral with a wonderful, mouth-filling texture and balanced acidity. The problem, much as with Long Island merlot, is that there’s is so much inconsistency in Virginia’s viognier. Many were flabby and lacked freshness. Some were over-oaked. Some were picked too early to preserve acidity and didn’t really taste like viognier. Sound familiar?
I vacillate when it comes to the concept of a signature variety. On the one hand, it’s a smart, almost necessary, way to quickly brand a region in the minds of consumers. There is value in people thinking “cabernet sauvignon” when they hear Napa Valley. Long Island means merlot to a lot of people. Virginia has tried to brand itself around viognier.
On the other hand, I think that diversity is Long Island’s — and Virginia’s — greatest strength. Long Island merlot can be outstanding, but so, too, can its sauvignon blanc, cabernet franc, even malbec and some of the lesser planted varieties like blaufränkisch, Tocai, albariño and chenin blanc. The longest-lived Long Island wines I’ve ever tasted have all been cabernet sauvignon.
Similarly, in Virginia, I tasted some delicious wines made from sauvignon blanc, albariño, rkatsiteli, Mourvèdre and nebbiolo.
I think that, at least at this point in time, diversity and experimentation should — and often do — define local wine on the East Coast. Merlot is important — very important — but it’s also important that Hound’s Tree Wine just planted some nebbiolo. It’s important that Bedell Cellars just planted some pinot gris. I’m excited to see what comes of these and other similar projects.
Maybe the Long Island message should be “Come for the merlot; stay for everything else we can grow.”