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Napa wines needn’t be the benchmark – let’s appreciate what other regions do well, too

By Dave McIntyre Special to the Washington Post

The plea went out over social media to a group of dedicated Virginia wine fans.

“I need recommendations on Charlottesville wineries that have wines that are comparable (or at least as close as we can come) to Napa wines,” the poster wrote. “I have a friend coming to visit who, thus far, has been very unimpressed with (Virginia) wines in comparison to Napa. … She specifically likes those big, bold, fruit-forward reds, as well as an amazing chardonnay.”

By the time I wrote this column, five days after the original post, there were 150 replies. Virginia wine fans are enthusiastic ambassadors of their local vino. The first responses suggested specific wineries, not all of them in the Charlottesville area.

Apparently, RdV and Linden Vineyards in Northern Virginia are considered the most “Napa-like” wineries, accolades their winemakers may not entirely agree with. (Though they would like the idea that their wines stand tall next to Napa’s.) There were many more recommendations of specific wineries around Charlottesville and elsewhere.

But before long, another theme emerged in the discussion thread. Why try to convince your Napa-loving friend that Virginia can produce Napa-like wines when Virginia produces wines of its own? Why not showcase Virginia’s wines on their own merits?

Here’s my advice for welcoming an opinionated California friend to your home region, be it Virginia, Maryland, New York, Michigan, Texas, Missouri or Colorado. Don’t try to match your local wines to California’s or any other wine regions. Showcase what your region does best.

The quality of wine across the country has improved so much in recent years that we no longer have to apologize for local wines not tasting like Napa. Instead, we can celebrate their individual expression as something special. Life is too short to be scared of wine.

There are a few terrific Virginia chardonnays, of course: Michael Shaps (a Charlottesville-based winery using Northern Virginia grapes) and Linden Vineyards (Northern Virginia) make outstanding chardonnays that stand tall in company with the world’s best.

And, at least in hot vintages, some Virginia reds approach Napa ripeness. At King Family Vineyards, winemaker Matthieu Finot says his Meritage red blend “looks east” to France, while the riper Mountain Plains blend “looks west” to California.

For white wine, Virginia excels in petit manseng, a grape that produces fruity wines of high acidity in a range from dry to sweet. You don’t find these wines anywhere else – even in its native southwestern France, petit manseng is a minor player in blends.

In Virginia, it excels. My favorites are Michael Shaps, Horton Vineyards and Early Mountain Vineyards, and there are many more. The vermentino from Barboursville Vineyards is better than many I’ve tasted from Italy, but the grape hasn’t really caught on in Virginia. Sauvignon blanc and albariño have, and they do well here.

For reds, look to cabernet franc from Barboursville or Hark Vineyards, or petit verdot – another grape you will rarely find elsewhere as a single-variety wine – from Veritas. Red blends including tannat also have a Virginia signature. If your friend has a little sense of adventure, introduce her to the natural wines of Lightwell Survey for a taste of innovation by local winemakers.

If I lived in New York, I’d welcome my Napa-centric friend with a glass of bubbly from Sparkling Pointe winery on Long Island and follow with a Finger Lakes riesling from Boundary Breaks Vineyard or Agness Wine Cellars (or, to be honest, any riesling from many other producers). Next, I’d serve a cabernet franc from Anthony Road or a blaufränkisch from Red Tail Ridge. You’re not likely to find wines like these from California.

In Michigan, I’d look for rieslings from the Old Mission Peninsula and chardonnays from the Leelanau Peninsula, near Traverse City. Left Foot Charley’s kerner is a delicious white wine, one of only two U.S. wines I’ve seen made from this grape. (David Ramey makes a kerner from Lodi grapes in California under his Sidebar label.)

Texas wines don’t taste like Napa’s, either, but we shouldn’t hold that against them. McPherson Cellars, William Chris, Pedernales and others are producing quality wines from Spanish grapes such as tempranillo and mataro (mourvèdre in France). A friend of mine extols the wines of Adega Vinho winery in the Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio. Pro tip: Leverage your friends and their palates.

The short lesson here: Don’t hold your local wines to a Napa standard, and don’t let your friends do so, either. Each region in this country is finding its own voice, and the wines are good enough that we can celebrate them rather than make excuses for them. Wherever you go, enjoy wines from around here, wherever “here” happens to be.

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