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Virginia reds finally come into their own at the 2000 Virginia Governor's Cup wine competition. 

Red, Red Wine

I was floored! Of the 13 wines on the table in front of me at the recent media tasting announcing the gold medalists and the sole winner of the 2000 Virginia Governor's Cup wine competition, 10 of them were red. Yes, red. From Virginia. Last year, there were only three. The year before that, three as well.

While Virginia whites — chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier, seyval — have done well in both vineyard and winery, the reds have been a different story. Thin color, an unusual geranium aroma and flavor on the nose and finish, and occasionally stewed flavors, among other flaws, have kept even the better reds from advancing beyond parochial status.

But if the Governor's Cup is any measure of progress, Virginia vintners and winemakers may have emerged from their barrel rooms and chemistry labs with reds that consistently show a complexity and sophistication not present five years ago — or even last year.

Among the gold medalists, we were especially impressed with the 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon from Breaux Vineyards' winemaker David Collins. Produced from remarkably young vines — only three years old at harvest — and aged for 18 months in mostly new American oak, this wine offers a lush, chocolate aroma with a hint of raspberry and coffee, and toast on the finish.

We also were very pleased by two offerings from White Hall Vineyards outside Charlottesville, whose winemaker, Brad McCarthy, seems to be a regular in the winner's circle. We especially like the 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, which our notes describe as "Delicious! Ready now," and the 1998 Merlot: "Supple. Very nice."

The judges awarded the Cup to Roanoke's Valhalla Vineyards for its 1998 Syrah. Increasingly popular in the United States, syrah is well-known in the Rhone valley where it produces very deep, fruity, long-lasting wines. But syrah can be difficult if not brought to full ripeness, producing some odd aromas and flavors such as burnt rubber, particularly in its youth.

All judgments about wine being subjective, we preferred the 1998 Syrah from Horton and were surprised that it took only a silver medal. We tasted it at home several days after the competition and were pleased. The grapes were ripe, yet the wine has a fairly light body with a thin veil of peppery activity on the palate over the core fruit flavors. Incidentally, we decanted it and it was still drinking well, even a little better, almost two days later. We eagerly await a year or two of aging for our other bottles to see what flavors develop.

Speaking of silver medals, we had heard from a number of winemakers that night that the real competition was in the silver category. In fact, one of the judges predicted that next year's Governor's Cup would go to one of this year's silver medalists.

So, tasting glasses and notepads in hand, we elbowed our way from table to table, searching for next year's cup winner among the hundred or so wines available for tasting during the post-awards ceremony all-pour in the Library of Virginia lobby.

Though we didn't discern a clear victor, we predict it will be a red and, more particularly, a Bordeaux-style blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot or another red grape. Our list of front-runners includes the Jefferson 1998 Estate Reserve, a smoothly tannic and spicy-feeling wine; and the approachable but shy Jefferson Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, which is all dry and cedary upfront and reveals its fruit flavors only on the finish.

Barboursville, which had six silver medals, might walk away with the cup for their non-vintage Octagon, a blend of merlot, cabernet franc and nebbiolo. Balanced with soft tannins this is a big wine for big food and may take as much as two years in bottle to really settle down. We also liked the Barboursville 1998 Barbera, a varietal, which we brought to a recent party to the general acclaim of the many California-wine lovers there.

In spite of all the advances in the industry, however, we still find, generally, that giving Virginia reds a little swirl time in the glass, or laying them down to age, is beneficial. But we have to say, after this promising showing of new red wine, we are more eager than ever to get on with our
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