Virginia Wine: Chatting with Rappahannock Cellars

The site of the 27th #VAWineChat – Rappahannock’s new barrel room.

Live from Rappahannock Cellars . . . it’s the 27th edition of the Virginia Wine Chat!

For the unfamiliar, the Virginia Wine Chat is a monthly virtual gathering created (and hosted) by Frank Morgan of DrinkWhatYouLike. The chat includes Virginia winemakers, bloggers and consumers. Each chat features a particular Virginia winery and/or winemaker.  I usually participate online via Twitter; this was my first time attending in person.

In addition to tasting three very interesting Rappahannock wines, Frank posed three very interesting questions to our live and online group:

  1. Should Viognier be the signature grape of Virginia?
  2. What is the most under-utilized grape in Virginia?
  3. Is there a quality shift underway in Virginia?
Our distinguished panel: Frank Morgan, winemaker Theo Smith, and owner John Delmare.

Should Viognier be the signature grape of Virginia?  In 2011, the Virginia Wine Board designated Viognier as the signature grape of Virginia.  I was pretty jazzed about it, too (would Virginia Viognier take off the same way Oregon Pinot or California Cab has?)  I’ve long evangelized for Virginia Viognier, and a few years ago I was convinced we all needed Virginia is for Viognier t-shirts.  But, over the last couple of years (which I realize have been challenging ones for Virginia Viognier), I’ve noticed an unsettling trend:  way too much Virginia Viognier is waaaay overdone.  I’ll visit a winery, stick my nose into a glass of Viognier, and more often than not, it smells like a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil, a smell that is seared into my brain.  There was a time in my life (during my less-than-bright teenage years) when I thought I could get a tan if I just tried hard enough, and I bought that stuff by the case.  The only thing it ever got me was second-degree burns.  I digress.  The point is, I’m tired of tropical smoothie Viognier (if tropical smoothie Viognier curls your toes, then you’re probably over the moon with Virginia Viognier right now).  I still like the idea of a signature grape, but I’m looking for wineries that encourage Viognier in another direction.

What is the most under-utilized grape in Virginia?  Not the most under-planted grape, the most under-utilized.  Hmmm.  Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape variety in Virginia (Merlot is the most widely planted red grape variety).  If you’re curious about grape production and acreage in the Commonwealth, check out Virginia Wine’s 2012 Commercial Grape Report. But planting a lot of Chardonnay doesn’t mean it’s the most utilized grape in the Commonwealth.  Rappahannock winemaker, Theo Smith, offered Chardonnay as an under-utilized grape, and I agree.  I read a quote from New Zealand winemaker, Neil Culley, and it resonates here (Wine, Words and Wednesday spoiler alert!).  “Anyone can make Chardonnay — it’s a very forgiving variety — but to make a really good one is as difficult as Pinot Noir.”  Bingo. I feel like a lot of Virginia wineries use Chardonnay as their “safety” wine.  Virginia makes buckets of Chardonnay, but a lot of it is a great big bottle of Y-A-W-N wearing an oak cape.  This bums me out, because I like Chardonnay, and Chardonnay is such a blank canvas. It presents the winemaker with a great opportunity to show off his or her stylistic chops, to be extraordinary.  Happily, the Chardonnay bar is rising in Virginia, which brings us to the next question.

Is there a quality shift underway in Virginia?  The past few years have brought an interesting shift to Virginia Wine — Frank has written extensively and well on the topic he calls, the Growing Divide in Virginia Wine.  Me?  I’ve been visiting Virginia wineries and tasting Virginia wines for over 20 years.  And I’ve always thought of Virginia wine quality as a bell curve — some wines are terrible, the majority fall into the average/good range, and some are outstanding.  A predictable and reliable bell curve.  But, in recent years, more and more wineries are squeezing into the outstanding side of that curve (one Virginia winery is so outstanding, it’s not even on the curve — I’m looking at you, RdV).  I still taste a lot of perfectly fine, but ultimately unexciting Virginia wines (along with some that are far less than fine), but I’m encouraged by the growing mass on the outstanding side of the curve.  Even if it is wrecking my curve.

Ready . . . Set . . . Chat!

On to the tastings!

Rappahannock Cellars Viognier 2014
94% Viognier, 6% Petit Manseng.  All estate fruit, aged 2/3 in 2nd year French oak and 1/3 in stainless.  Viognier is a fickle grape and it’s not very cold hardy.  Rappahannock owner, John Delmare lamented, “Viognier drives you crazy as a farmer.”  Well, Rappahannock is doing great stuff with that crazy grape.  I’m officially calling this Viognier the anti-establishment Viognier.  I love the shift away from the Pineapple Express (heavy tropics) toward clean stones.  The inclusion of Petit Manseng adds spice and brightness.  Shows great restraint, elegance and balance.  The best Virginia Viognier I’ve had in a while.  $30.

Rappahannock Cellars Black Label Chardonnay 2013
100% Chardonnay.  Aged 16 months in French oak (23% new).  John Hagarty, of Hagarty on Wine, offered what might be the best quote of the night: “Oak is a spice, not a sauce.”  Touché! The oak in this glass of Chardonnay is focused, providing depth and texture instead of bullying its way around the glass.  There’s a chalkiness to the nose that is so refreshing.  Super balance and restraint.  The banana bread note on the finish is a real treat!  $34 and only available to Rappahannock Club members.

Furiously scribbling tasting notes . . .

Rappahannock Cellars Meritage 2012
Ah, Meritage.  Virginia is having across-the-board success with Meritage.  John Delmare agreed, saying, “Call it Merlot and you can’t sell it. Call it Meritage and it disappears.” 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc, 9% Petit Verdot.  Aged 16 months in French oak (20% new).  The lavender and violet notes coming off the nose of this Meritage are incredible — I might dab some behind my ears!!  There’s an unexpected softness and balance here that betrays the nose.  Hangs on for quite a while.  I’d love to revisit this wine in another decade.  $34.

I’m at a point in my wine-life where I don’t want to be clobbered over the head with a wine (I call it my palate shift — I want something less obvious and more elegant), and Rappahannock’s wines are showing great finesse and restraint.

The 27th #VAWineChat was well organized and facilitated, as usual.  I learned a lot, and it was great to meet some folks I only usually “see” online.  Overall, a lovely evening.

The March edition of #VAWineChat will be held at Breaux Vineyards in Purcelleville.  Please join the conversation!



  1. Nice recap! Thank you for joining us for the Virginia Wine Chat. The feedback I receive on this matter of the growing quality divide in Virginia wine is always curious. I’m bemused by how many agree with me yet do not want to agree in writing (via a post comment, etc.) for fear of offending/alienating some of their peers. Hope you will join us for future ‘chats.



    1. Thanks, Frank! I had a great time at Rappahannock! I suspect if you were to pose this question to 20 people, you’d get 20 different answers. At the end of the day, it all depends on experience and palate preference. I was trying to think of a winery that may have dropped from average to not-so-good, but couldn’t come up with one. I took that as a good sign. At the end of the day, maybe survival of the fittest will weed out the exisiting bottom?

      Looking forward to the Breaux Chat! Salud!!


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