Something extraordinary happened this Christmas. Not birth-of-the-savior extraordinary mind you, but something so unexpected that I had to rub my eyes before I could believe it actually happened.
I was served a Virginia wine at “Wine Camp.”
Wine Camp is my family’s name for our annual exercise of that quintessentially geeky game vinophiliacs love to play, the blind tasting. We open a ridiculous amount of wine and say, “Guess what this is.” It’s not the way wine should be drunk, but it’s a really fun way to get drunk. Instructive, too.
My adversary in this annual joust is Dave Johnson, of Norfolk, Va. Dave is my brother-in-law’s brother-in-law, and a noted wine lover and gastroenterologist, which means he can not only tell you the story of the wine he’s just poured you, but also exactly what’s happening to it as it traverses your G-I tract. (Luckily, he prefers to talk about the wine in the glass.)
Dave likes big wines, and his heart is in California. Sometimes Spain, or Australia. Never France. And not really Virginia, despite my efforts each year to impress him with a local or at least a regional wine. As a University of Virginia family, the Johnsons are familiar with the wineries around Charlottesville, but they’ve never spoken of the wines in a way that would make me suspect a Virginia knuckleball might be headed my way.
So there we were Sunday afternoon standing in Dave’s driveway plowing through wines while watching his son, Drew, deep fry two turkeys for the family feast. I was feeling a bit frustrated because my special wine of the day hadn’t gone over as well as I expected (more on that later), when Dave opened the seventh wine of the day.
“This is my jump-up-and-down-and-cheer wine,” he said as he poured me a taste. From the first sniff and sip it was obvious this was a Bordeaux-style blend, but from where? It didn’t have the roasted notes or earthiness that Bordeaux tends to feature; it was beautifully ripe and very tannic, which said New World. I was guessing California, though it didn’t have the excessive alcohol that so many wines have. My teeth itched, but my palate didn’t burn. This beauty clearly needed food, so we moved inside to fill up our plates and continue the discussion.
The food – featuring the crispy turkey seasoned with herbes de Provence – kicked the wine up a notch, accenting the delicious fruit and moderating the tannin. What was this wine?
“The first time I tasted this wine, it was ungainly, and a friend told me it needed to sit a day,” Dave said. “So we opened this yesterday to let it breathe.” That should have been another clue that something was up, because many East Coast wines really shine the day after they are opened.
Then he pulled the bag off the bottle, and I was staring at the RdV Vineyards 2008 Rendezvous, the second wine from Rutger de Vink’s stellar debut offering that I wrote about earlier this year. (And well, more than once.) To be honest, I’d been underwhelmed by the Rendezvous – compared to the main wine, RdV – when I tasted it in March, but the extra nine months in bottle, plus the day’s exposure to some air, have obviously helped it.
But I couldn’t get over the idea that Dave had served me a Virginia wine so enthusiastically. His palate hasn’t changed – but Virginia has finally given him a wine to jump up and down about.
Just for geekiness’ sake, here’s a list of the wines we parried over at Wine Camp 2011. The initials DJ signify a wine Dave Johnson opened, while DM … well, you get the idea.
1: Monte Schiavo, Palio di San Floriano 2009 Verdicchio (Siema Imports). Excellent and crisp, a refreshing start. (DJ)
2: Bricco Delle Ciliegie (my iPhone changed that to “Broccoli”) 2010, Roero Arneis, Giovanni Almondo. The Fleet Street Collection. Extraordinary. Thrilling fruit, with lemongrass and mineral accents. (DJ) By now I was getting perplexed, because Dave usually likes bigger wines.
3: Donelan Chardonnay “Nancie” 2010, Sonoma County. (DJ) Whew. Back to the big wines and more familiar territory for wine camp. (I’m convinced Dave was psyching me out.) This is rich and oaky but well balanced with a delicious long finish. Gorgeous.
4: Sanguis, An Uncloudy Day. (DM) From 2009, this blend of Chardonnay, Roussanne and Viognier is deceptive. The Chard dominates at 74%, but the Roussanne is most noticeable on the nose, giving this a white Rhone character that is rich and beguiling. This was really exceptional.
5: Ankida Ridge, Pinot Noir 2010, Virginia. (DM) My ringer of the day. Only the second time I’ve tasted this wine, and the first was in 100+ degree heat at Monticello during the Wine Bloggers Conference in July. I thought it was excellent, as did Drew, while the turkey was bubbling, but Dave had trouble pinpointing the wine. He finally pegged it as “pinot noir from a region not known for making pinot noir,” which I frankly could not quibble with. He and Drew quibbled with the price being in the mid-$30 range, and Dave quickly ran to the trunk of his car and brought a bottle of …
6: Calera, Pinot Noir 2009, Central Coast. (DJ) Dave said he’d just bought a case from a New Jersey retailer for $17 a bottle with case discount and argued strongly that the value was so much better than the Ankida Ridge. The Calera was indeed delicious, in that candied strawberry California way, and without the brown sugar that weighs down so many Cali pinots, but with a short finish. Then again, Parker apparently gave it 92 points, so who am I to argue? These were obviously wines from different clones, different climates, different altitudes, different production models, not to mention vine age and experience in wine making. The more interesting wine? For me, the Ankida Ridge, no doubt, but maybe I’m just being a homer. And while I don’t doubt Dave’s sincerity, I’m convinced he was setting me up for …
7: RdV Vineyard 2008 Rendezvous (DJ). Described above.
8: We moved on to Domaine des Grands Devers, Cotes du Rhone 2007 (DJ). Since I don’t expect Dave to open French wines, I glommed onto the acidity and immediately assumed it was Italian. (At least it was from the part of France almost closest to Italy, sort of … ) It was delicious, though light and maybe suffered from its order in the tasting.
9: Saggi, 2007, Columbia Valley, Washington. (DM) From the Long Shadows project, made by the Folonari brothers from Tuscany, this blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was delightful.
10: Wolf Blass Black Label 1999, Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz (DM). Wow – this wine was still fresh and young tasting, with black fruit flavor and excellent balance. What a contrast to …
11: Burge Family Winemakers, Draycott Shiraz, “The Grateful Reserve,” 1999, Barossa Valley (DJ). Riddled with brettanomyces, barnyardy, tough to drink.
12: Alto Moncayo, Garnacha 2007, Spain. (DJ) Dave called this “the wine of the night” (even though it was still afternoon), while I found the 16% alcohol too overwhelming. Different reactions to palate fatigue, perhaps?
13: Rosewood Vineyards Chambers Special Tokay Rutherglen, Australia NV (but probably old) (DJ). Rich and unctuous, though a bit woody.
14: Yalumba Museum Muscat, Museum Release, Victoria, Australia NV (but probably also old) (DJ). More elegant and harmonious, though I think I was in the minority in preferring this slightly to the Chambers. Oh well, more for me!