The election is over and the commentariat’s verdict is in: It is those of us in the blue states who are narrow-minded and ignorant. In at least one important respect, this is true. Few blue-state wine buffs are aware that Middle America includes some fairly dynamic wine regions. It is, of course, considered obligatory to serve American wines at Thanksgiving, and in the spirit of national reconciliation, we at Slate thought this holiday would be an appropriate moment to reach out to our red-state neighbors by tasting their wines.
As it happens, several red states—Texas, Virginia, Missouri, and Ohio—have long and noble winemaking traditions. In Virginia, for instance, winemaking dates back to the early 17th century and the settlement at Jamestown. Virginia can also claim as its own the greatest oenophile this country has yet produced, Thomas Jefferson, who expended enormous effort trying, mostly in vain, to cultivate world-class wines on his native soil.
But Texas can claim a figure of perhaps even greater consequence to the wine world: T.V. Munson, the renowned horticulturist who rescued the French wine industry in its bleakest hour. In the mid to late 19th century, the phylloxera root louse was decimating the great vineyards of France. It was Munson who conceived the idea of exporting phylloxera-resistant American rootstock to Europe and grafting it onto local grapevines, which proved to be the silver bullet that brought a halt to the devastation. For his efforts, Munson was awarded the Chevalier du Mérité.
For all his heroics on behalf of the French, Munson was powerless to reverse the damage inflicted on American viticulture by the Civil War and, later, the prohibitionists. But over the last three decades or so, winemaking has enjoyed an impressive revival in the flyover states, and there are now dozens of growers in Ohio, Texas, Missouri, and Virginia. Even more impressive than the number of wineries is the diversity of grapes and styles. French, Italian, Portuguese, and native varietals, along with quite a few hybrids, are being used to craft a dizzying array of dry, off-dry, and sweet wines.
So how are the wines? I sampled more than 40 reds and whites. Most were clunkers, but that was to be expected. Amid all the mediocrity, however, there were several very creditable wines and a few that truly grabbed me. The Virginia contingent acquitted itself particularly well; the whites and reds from Horton, Barboursville, and Linden all demonstrated real character, complexity, and finesse. Jefferson, I suspect, would have been pleased.
Below are tasting notes for the wines I can recommend. Ordinarily, I would include notes for all the wines I tried, but given that this tasting was undertaken as a form of outreach, an attempt to bridge the red state-blue state divide, it would be unsporting to include notes for wines I didn’t like. The only exception I’ve made is to include tasting notes for the two wines I sampled from Becker Vineyards in Texas. The Becker wines were of particular interest to me because they are evidently among First Lady Laura Bush’s favorites and have been served at White House functions. The Becker Cabernet and Viognier were both fairly disappointing; I found several wines from another Texas producer, Llano Estacado, much more convincing. But maybe its proprietor is a Democrat.
Stone Hill Winery Chardonel 2003, $9.99 (Missouri)
No, that’s not a typo; the grape is actually called chardonel. It’s a hybrid of chardonnay and an obscure varietal called Seyval. Lean, lemony, and refreshingly crisp. A nice wine; consider it compensation of sorts from the state that gave us John Ashcroft (I’m allowed one cheap shot here).
Debonné Vineyards Pinot Gris 2002, $10.99 (Ohio)
Pinot gris is nothing if not adaptable, but northern Ohio? On the shores of Lake Erie? Apparently so. You catch the scent of apples, pears, flowers, and vanilla, along with a hint of Earl Gray tea. It’s pleasantly austere, with a slight bitter edge to the fruit. (The bitterness is perhaps a bit more pronounced if you’re a Democrat.)
Horton Vineyards Viognier 2001, $20 (Virginia)
This wine lets off an unmistakable whiff of peanut brittle—a Virginia thing, perhaps—along with more classic Viognier aromas: peach, melon, and acacia flowers. Tastes of peaches and apricots, supported by excellent acidity. The turkey could do a lot worse than this wine.
Horton Vineyards Petit Manseng 2002, $20 (Virginia)
Petit Manseng is one of the grapes used in Jurançon, the great white wine of Southwestern France. It hasn’t yielded a great wine here, but an exotic and very satisfying one. This wine smells of beeswax, honey, melon, figs, and minerals. It’s exuberantly fruity, with a rich, oily texture, but also an excellent underlying crispness. A lot going on here, and a lot to enjoy. My favorite of the tasting, in fact.
Becker Vineyards Viognier 2003, $17.95 (Texas)
Very inviting apricot, peach, floral, and smoky aromas. But don’t let the perfume fool you: The wine is bitterly acidic and spicy in the mouth, with not an iota of charm, and charm is what Viognier is all about. All hat, no cattle.
Becker Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2002, $22 (Texas)
Some good flavors here—sweet cherries, cassis, and tobacco—but they are overwhelmed by a strong medicinal note and the brusque tannins and acidity. A wine that throws a lot of sharp elbows in the mouth.
Llano Estacado Winery Newsom Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, $22 (Texas)
Smells like what it is: a cabernet, with currants, chocolate, coffee grinds, and a suggestion of vanilla. It’s full-bodied and quite dense—you chew this wine almost as much as you drink it—but the fruit, acidity, and tannins are reasonably balanced, and there is a certain restraint that stands the wine in admirable contrast to most similarly priced California cabs.
Llano Estacado Winery Viviano Noble Cepage 2000, $39 (Texas)
A Texan Super Tuscan. A blend of cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, Syrah, and merlot. Stick your nose in the glass and you get strawberry, dill, and a touch of sweet oak. A little plump (it could use more acidity) and the tannins are a bit dry, but goes down nicely and earns high marks for the novelty factor.
Barboursville Vineyards Barbera Reserve 2002, $21.99 (Virginia)
Barbera is a varietal from Italy’s Piedmont region. Sadly, the grape is enduring much abuse on its home turf these days—too much extraction, too much new oak (the usual crimes). Barboursville has done right by Barbera, producing a medium-bodied wine with smoky red fruit, anise, and tobacco flavors and a very agreeable spiciness.
Linden Vineyards Avenius 2001, $29 (Virginia)
An unusual blend, this wine is 80 percent petit verdot and 20 percent cabernet sauvignon. (It is usually cabernet that’s the star and petit verdot that plays the supporting role.) Currants, cedar, black pepper, and mint. Full-bodied with smoky black fruit and smooth tannins. Not sure about the name, but I like the wine.