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Fine on their own, Virginia's cabernet varietals are at their best in the company of other grapes.

All's Well that Blends Well

Good or bad, above all else, wine is a matter of personal taste preferences. This point was driven home during a recent blind tasting of 25 Virginia cabernets and cabernet blends by our five-person tasting panel. We tasted 15 cabernet sauvignon varietals; five cabernet franc varietals; and five blends of the two cabernets with merlot or malbec, so-called meritage blends.

Was there a bad wine in the lot? Well ... that's a matter of taste. One of the most important things we learned is that even though the label says cabernet sauvignon or cabernet franc, the wine inside is most likely a blend made with at least 75 percent of the grape variety named on the label. This is called a varietal wine.

We also learned that while our individual scores varied — sometimes wildly — as a panel we favored the easy and soft cabernet franc over the prickly, unpredictable cabernet sauvignon. But we especially enjoyed one meritage blend above all the other wines. In addition, we picked up on some general trends among Virginia reds.

Cabernet sauvignon

Generally speaking we found Virginia cabernet sauvignon as a varietal to be a hard wine — stiff, unforgiving, sharp-edged, requiring a heavy hand in the winery to blend or age-out unappealing elements. Most were red-orange in color with slight fruit aromas, some offering up vegetal aromas. The more appealing wines had identifiable aromas of tobacco, clove and bell pepper and a greater complexity of fruit flavors.

We especially liked the Gabriele Rausse Cabernet Sauvignon Albemarle County 1997: deep red, herbal (like fresh cut earth), fruity with soft tannins and a short, harmonious finish. To be fair, this 100 percent cabernet sauvignon is stylistically unique: It is fermented and aged in stainless steel vats and never touches the inside of an oak barrel. This concentrates the flavors entirely on the character of the fruit, which in this case was certainly ripe.

Also scoring high with the panel were the Oakencroft Monticello Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 and the Linden Cabernet Sauvignon 1995. While the cabernet grape comprises only 76 percent of the Oakencroft, compared to 81 percent in the Linden, Linden aged its wine for two years before release. Both approaches have achieved nice results. The Linden was deep, ruby red with a complex, woodsy aroma of red berries and spices and an especially harmonious finish. The Oakencroft has hints of strawberries on the nose and palate and a tapered, pleasant finish.

One odd characteristic pervasive among many of the cabernet sauvignons we tasted was a discordant flavor that shows up in the aftertaste — the finish — and which is out of key with the other fruity, spicy aromas and flavors. Members of the panel described it variously as bitter, chemical and metallic.

Cabernet franc

By contrast, the panel found Virginia cabernet franc to be a much easier wine to enjoy. According to Bruce Zoecklin, an assistant professor of food science and oenology specialist at Virginia Tech who also provides technical assistance to the Virginia wine industry, cabernet franc is a more forgiving grape variety. It is less dependent than cabernet sauvignon on the soil and climate making it "more malleable and elastic," he says. "It's easier to round the edges off" during the winemaking process.

Rosier in color, cabernet franc has aromas and flavors similar to cabernet sauvignon but it lacks the edginess, producing a more even varietal wine that sips well on its own.

We liked all five we tasted especially the Willowcroft Cabernet Franc 1997, the Jefferson Monticello Cabernet Franc 1997, and the Ingleside Cabernet Franc 1995. One panelist sensed hints of cinnamon on the nose of the Willowcroft, another found it to be like fresh-cut grass, and all five noted a thoroughly even and pleasant tasting experience. All three wines showed fine tannin structure keeping them a safe distance from being overly simple.

The Blends

It was in the blends that the Virginia-grown cabernets were most appealing. While Virginia still produces large quantities of varietal wine, that trend may be on the way out, at least with reds.

"We now know that's not the optimum way to go," says Zoecklin, the industry consultant. "People that have additional varieties to blend are making wines that have a harmonious character."

The blends we tasted are all meritage blends even though they didn't say that on the label. A meritage blend is a wine that has at least two of the traditional Bordeaux wine grapes: the two cabernets, merlot, malbec or petit verdot. The wine is blended according to each winemaker's preference and according to which grapes perform the best in the vineyard. "Learning what to blend and how to blend it is a process of slow evolution," Zoecklin says.

That being the case, our panel would give a Darwin gold star to the Jefferson Monticello Estate Reserve 1997, the fully evolved, high scorer of the evening. This is a substantial wine with cabernet franc (50 percent) edging out merlot (33 percent) and mixed with a healthy shot of malbec (17 percent): deep red color, thick, vibrant aroma, creamy mouth-feel with strong fruit and earth flavors that open up to chocolate on the mid-palate and a peppery finish.

The Prince Michel Merlot Cabernet Reserve 1997 also does very well with a mix of 55 percent merlot and 45 percent cabernet sauvignon.

While the trend away from varietal wines will make more demands on consumers long accustomed to ordering wines by grape name, the net result for Virginia could be red wines with broader market appeal and greater recognition in the worldwide wine community. Perhaps winemakers will learn to list the grapes on each label for our sake. But remember, it's whether or not you like what's inside that counts, and the only way to know for sure is to keep trying. With 53 wineries now in the state, that should take us all a while.

Panel Picks

The wines are listed in the order they were tasted. Panel scores are in boldface. In most cases the price listed is the winery price and does not include tax; not all wines are available in stores. The four wines scoring less than 80 points are not listed.

Score Key:
80-84 OK; may have odd flavors
85-89 Has style and character; recommended
90-94 Highly recommended
95-100 Exceptional

Cabernet sauvignon

Barboursville Cabernet Sauvignon Monticello 1995 (86) $14.99
Breaux Cabernet Sauvignon Old Vine 1997 (82) $NA *Not released until winter 1999
Williamsburg Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 (83) $14
Linden Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 (88) $16
Naked Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 (84) $14
Oakencroft Monticello Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 (88) $14
Ingleside Chesapeake Claret Cabernet Sauvignon [NV] (86) $9.50
Jefferson Cabernet Sauvignon Monticello 1997 (86) $16.95
Gabriele Rausse Cabernet Sauvignon Albemarle County 1997 (89) $13
Barboursville Monticello Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 (83) $19.99
Ingleside Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 1995 (86) $20

Cabernet franc

Naked Mountain Barrel Fermented Cabernet Franc 1997 (83) $12
Breaux Lafayette Cabernet Franc 1998 (84) $15
Ingleside Cabernet Franc 1995 (86) $14
Jefferson Monticello Cabernet Franc 1997 (88) $14.95
Willowcroft Cabernet Franc 1997 (89) $16

The Blends

Williamsburg Winery Limited Gabriel Archer Reserve 1995 (83) $21
Barboursville Octagon Virginia Historical Red [NV] (81) $21.99
Jefferson Meritage Monticello [NV] (86) $26.95
Prince Michel Reserve Merlot Cabernet 1997 (86) $19.95
Jefferson Monticello Estate Reserve 1997 (91)

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