The Best Virginia Wines and Their Classic-Region Counterparts

Sommelier Erin Barbour Scala of Charlottesville's Fleurie and Petit Pois Restaurants shares six side-by-side pairings that prove Virginia makes world-class wine.

Erin Scala
Photo: © Corry Arnold

Erin Scala spent her childhood in Virginia wine country, never very far from vines. Unsurprisingly, she ended up in a wine-focused career — first at Fleurie Restaurant in downtown Charlottesville, and later overseeing the cellar and wine service at New York’s Michelin starred The Musket Room.

It was only upon moving to Manhattan that she became aware of the obstacles that Virginia wine faced on the national scene. “I wanted to put some Virginia options on my wine list,” she says, “and was so surprised that they weren’t readily available in New York at that time.” Then, there was the stigma. “A table of businessmen came in, and I tried to convince them to order this really amazing Virginia wine, but the one guy from Virginia at the table totally shut it down,” she recalls. “I think he actually said, ‘all wines from Virginia are bad; let’s get something else.’ So they ended up ordering something that was not as good. I thought it was just [unreasonable].”

The state has seen around 200 new wineries spring up in the last 10 years alone, and the best wines have only gotten better. Now, Scala is back at her old haunt, overseeing the wine programs for both Fleurie and its sister restaurant, Petit Pois, and is thrilled to have found a booming wine culture that has fully embraced its local production. “Our cuisine is French-focused, so I have to keep French wines on the lists here,” she says. “But there are enough awesome Virginia wines now in all of the categories – red, white, rosé, dessert, sparkling – that I could do a 100% local wine list. Not only would I be up for the challenge; I would welcome it.”

For the uninitiated, Scala likes to pour Virginia wines side by side with bottles from other parts of the world. “I’ll sell half of each bottle for half the price so that they can have that experiment,” she says. “And I no longer feel like I’m on the defensive when it comes to the local wines; people are excited to try them.”

Here, Scala pairs 6 Virginia wines with their classic region counterparts:

1. 2006 Linden Vineyards 'Hardscrabble Red' Virginia and 2009 Château Le Puy 'Emilien' Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
“The winemaker for Linden, Jim Law, is very inspired by Bordeaux. He travels there, tastes all the time, and has those same sorts of sensibilities, so it’s great to juxtapose this red with a classic Bordeaux wine. It might be better compared to a Left Bank wine if I’m being totally honest… something like Beychevelle, perhaps. It’s Cabernet-dominant, grown on granite and green stone, which is a kind of stone I’ve only ever seen in his Hardscrabble vineyard. But it tastes and feels just like aged Bordeaux. And I like this particular Francs Côtes de Bordeaux because, just like Virginia wine is to the drinking public, it’s an under-looked appellation within Bordeaux, and the wine is just awesome. It has a lot of both power and elegance – this rich, meaty, earthy, intense wine that’s juicy beneath all its tannic structure. The Linden is also very powerful, in the same spirit as the Château Le Puy, but they’re different in structure. Two powerful underdogs.”

2. 2015 Stinson Monticello Rosé and 2015 Tempier Bandol Rosé
“The Stinson rosé is made from Mourvèdre grapes, like Bandol, so Tempier is a pretty direct correlation as far as Old World equivalents go. It’s basically the style of rosé they’re trying to achieve. The winemaker is Rachel Stinson, and she’s this young, hip girl who’s really into French wine. There’s not a lot of Mourvèdre grown in Virginia, so she pretty much has contracts for most of it. It might be THE best Virginia rosé. And Tempier is the benchmark for great Bandol rosé. It has all this structure and mid-palate creaminess. It’s not just screaming acidity, like some Provence rosés can be, and it’s also not like dark fruited, purple-toned rosés that you might find from countries like Portugal or Greece. Bandol rosés are so great because they pair with all sorts of foods, the acid is present, but it’s tempered by this creamy palate. All of that is there in the Stinson as well.”

3. 2014 Ankida Ridge Virginia Pinot Noir and 2011 Ghislaine Barthod 'Les Bons Batons' Bourgogne
“Pinot Noir in Virginia? It’s pretty hard to do, considering the heat and humidity, but Ankida Ridge has this high elevation and a different microclimate, and they must be doing something right because the wine is unbelievable. They have the tiniest acreage; it’s basically the definition of a boutique winery. They work as organically as I’ve seen out here, incorporating some biodynamic techniques as well; they have sheep in the vineyard, honeybees, and all kinds of stuff like that. 2014 was the first year that the Pinot Noir was made with all estate-grown fruit. It has great phenolic character… it’s juicy, with this great structure from skins and seeds, without being overwhelmed by a ton of new oak. I infinitely prefer this style of Pinot Noir to the high-toned, early-picked, new oak-aged style. That’s why the Barthod wine is a great juxtaposition. Both have that same ethos: they’re rich, deep, clear, open, and all about the grape. I love pouring them side by side. They also both go so well with fish and meat; they’re great bridge wines in that way.”

4. 2013 Michael Shaps 'Wild Meadow Vineyard' Virginia Chardonnay and 2014 Arnot-Roberts 'Watson Ranch' Napa Valley Chardonnay
“Arnot-Roberts’ Chardonnay is another case for that rich, creamy midpalate. It has such great texture and this soft sort of acidity that creeps up on you. The Shaps is somewhat different in terms of acid structure, but they’re both single vineyard wines from special vineyards – one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast. Two beautiful Chardonnays that I’d want to have with dinner. Michael Shaps also has a winery in Burgundy, where he makes a Meursault, a Mercurey… all sorts of wines. And then he comes here after the Burgundy harvest and does it all over again. This particular bottling is part of a lineup he makes from the best vineyards around Virginia: these high quality, intense, site-specific wines… It’s super Burgundian. In fact, I actually blind tasted his oenologist on her own wine, and she thought it was Meursault! It has that same toasty quality paired with Meyer lemon richness, and it can handle some serious aging.”

5. 2014 Barboursville Monticello Vermentino Reserve and 2014 Yves Leccia Patrimonio Blanc
“It’s cool to see two wines that taste classically like Vermentino — crisp and dry with greenish aromas, yet also a big, full-fruit center – but their terroir expressions are so different. The Corsican version — the Leccia — has this limestone edge and a level of depth that you just can’t even believe. There’s no limestone here, really, so the vines for the Barboursville grow on predominantly clay soil. When it first came out a couple of years ago, people flipped out over it; it’s so good. It’s neat to follow what’s going on at Barboursville because the winemaker, Luca Paschina, has done so much to bring in Italian grapes into Virginia viticulture. I usually recommend either wine to someone who’s looking for something like a white Burgundy. It might sound [unbelievable] to liken a Vermentino to white Burgundy, but if somebody wants to try something different but wants that rich, full palate and bright acidity, that’s where I go. Or they’re for people who like high end Gruner Veltliner, such as Brundlmayer. They have so much going on.”

6. 2014 King Family Vineyards 'Loreley' Monticello and 2001 Grande Maison 'Cuvee des Monstres' Monbazillac
“These are two sweet wines: a French late harvest botrytis wine and a Virginia late harvest straw wine (or, vin de paille, where they dry the grapes out) using the Petit Manseng variety. Although the technique used to make them is different, they have a similar soul. I really love the Cuvée des Monstres Monbazillac. There are all these ruins around where those vines grow. It’s where Cyrano de Bergerac was written, so you imagine this romantic backdrop, where all the fog comes up and hangs around the vines and produces botrytis. The guy who makes the King Family Vineyards wine is originally from Hermitage, and he did his graduate research on straw wine, so that’s his inspiration. With the Petit Manseng that grows here, you get this intense acidity, but you also get tropical character and this deep, rich fruitiness. It’s unbelievable. And it costs so much more to make than all the other wines, but it’s a labor of love… just like the Cuvée des Monstres is a labor of love. However, instead of that tropical, fruity, high acid-ness, it’s more the dark side of what Monbazillac wines can be — think maple and brown sugar. They’re both super unique for what they are.”

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