Claude Thibaut, the man who helped legitimize Virginia wine for restaurant sommeliers, today released a new cuvée called Thibaut-Janisson Xtra Brut. Like his popular Blanc de Chardonnay, the Xtra Brut is 100 percent Chardonnay grown in the Monticello AVA near Charlottesville. But this new wine is one-third oak aged Chardonnay, compared to 10 percent of the Blanc de Chardonnay. And it has only 4 grams of residual sugar per liter, compared to 8g/l for the other. Therefore it is drier, more full-bodied and oaky. And as you might expect from Thibaut, it’s delicious. It should appeal to fans of a classical, dry Champagne style.
You’d better hurry if you want to taste it, however. Thibaut made only 100 cases.
I tasted the Xtra Brut at Cork & Fork in Washington’s Logan Circle neighborhood Saturday afternoon, where Thibaut and his business partner, Manuel Janisson, were pouring for about 40 customers of Cork & Fork owner Dominique Landragin. It was almost like being in a small wine shop in Champagne, as Landragin and Thibaut grew up in the same village there. Janisson flew to DC for the weekend from his home where he makes his Janisson & Fils line of grower Champagnes.
Claude told me he will be able to release about 200 cases next year, but he has a dilemma – the same one faced by many Virginia winemakers. There simply aren’t enough grapes. “There are too many wineries and not enough vineyards,” he said.
“The more I make of this,” he explained, pointing to the Xtra Brut, “the less I can make of the Brut,” meaning the Blanc de Chardonnay. Thibaut makes about 3,000 cases of sparkling wine a year, of which 2,000 are the Blanc de Chardonnay about 600 are FIZZ, a softer, Prosecco-style bubbly. The remainder are for vintage cuvées and experiments such as the Xtra Brut.
Thibaut does not own any vineyards. That appears to be somewhere on the list after getting his own wineries. For now, he said, he will try to increase production slowly as he competes with other winemakers for quality grapes.
That competition is a main factor in the common complaint that Virginia wines are too expensive. Cork & Fork was selling the FIZZ for $30, the Blanc de Chardonnay for $37, and the Xtra Brut for $50. Yes, you can get Champagne for these prices (well, not Janisson’s, which were $70 each for a Grand Cru Brut and Grand Cru Brut Rosé), but these are Champagne-quality wines, their French accent softened by the Virginia sunshine.
And of course, this being DC’s trendiest neighborhood, the wine quickly picked up a new moniker: TJXB.
We met with our vineyard consultant this past Saturday and got into a discussion about this – not Thibaut-Janison – the price and availability of fruit. Everyone in the industry bemoans the shortage of fruit, yet they are very reluctant to pay the growers a price that makes the endeavor profitable for the grower. You should think about attending a meeting of the Virginia Vineyards Association next year. It usually takes place at the end of January in Charlottesville. I wouldn’t expect you to sit through the technical presentations on the latest insect or fungal pest we have to deal with (and the frighteningly expensive fungicides we have to get), but the social events are fun and enlightening. Certainly winery owners attend, but you can meet the many growers who don’t have wineries and have an opportunity to learn about the cultivation side first hand from the growers who don’t have to worry about entertaining people at their wineries.
Consider some “back of the envelope” numbers. Our own cost to cultivate our vines in 2013 came to roughly $38,000 – for hired labor, fungicides, supplies, etc. (the owners get paid nothing). Our yield was 9 tons. According to the 2013 Virginia Wine Marketing Office Commercial Grape Report, the weighted average price for vinifera was $2,014/ton. If we use that to price our crop, that comes to $18,126 — a loss of $20,000. But we aren’t selling our fruit so this is all conjectural, but it gives you an idea of what most of us are up against.
So while the industry is growing, I think its going to grow incrementally. Grape prices need to go up to provide an incentive to growers; increased production will, to some extent, reduce production costs, which will allow wineries to reduce their retail price per bottle, since the public expects an inexpensive bottle of wine.
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