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Elaine Chukan Brown: ‘For an emerging region, success with a grape like Chardonnay proves tricky’

Varietal diversity proves much harder to market. The most famous regions in the world illustrate this model: Napa Valley Cabernet or Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc; Chablis is Chardonnay, and red Burgundy is Pinot. But wine regions are usually slow to identify a signature grape – often wisely. It takes time to know a place – its gifts and its challenges. For an emerging region such as Virginia, in the US east, it’s likely too soon to identify a dominant grape.

The first vines at Linden Vineyards were planted in 1985 on the rocky slopes of northern Virginia’s Blue Ridge mountains. Early settlers struggling to grow food in the shallow soils called the area Hardscrabble, a name owner Jim Law adopted for the vineyard. But, considering Law’s more-than-40-years in Virginia wine, it also (perhaps inadvertently) pays tribute to the challenge of making fine wine in an emerging region. Linden wines – its Chardonnay in particular – have helped bring international recognition. But Law also mentored many of the next generation of Virginia winemakers. He worked with agricultural researchers to create pest management solutions.

Law’s top Chardonnay, named Hardscrabble, includes fruit from Linden’s 1985 vines. The site’s eastern-facing slopes sit at 370m-470m, making it cooler than parts of the state further south. That, and the well-drained soils plus Law’s preferred style, mean a focus on structure can consistently be found in the vineyard’s wines, and the quality in recent vintages means it can stand alongside other Chardonnays of the world.

Yet for an emerging region, success with a grape such as Chardonnay – the most planted white in the world – proves tricky. Winemaker Ben Jordan, in his tenure at Early Mountain Vineyards (up to summer 2022), brought subtlety and a succulent sophistication to Chardonnay. The Early Mountain 2017 from Quaker Run Vineyard still impresses.

But today, Jordan has shifted focus. He’s partner and lead winemaker at Common Wealth Crush, a cooperative-style winery in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia. Like Law before him, he mentors newer winemakers. The reduced expense of a shared winery space means smaller-production projects can test-drive new styles with less risk. For Jordan, the freedom afforded by his own winery reignited his passion for experimentation and a willingness to invest in the unknown varieties and blends of Virginia.

Petit Manseng, almost unheard of outside the sweet wines of southwest France, plays a background role in many of his blends. Though it often makes disjointed wines on its own, Jordan has found that, with its naturally elevated acidity, just a splash brings energy and freshness to a better-known variety, even some reds. Similarly, hybrid grapes bring greater resilience to Virginia’s humidity and variable weather, and can add lift to an otherwise classic vinifera-based wine. Jordan recently launched Lightwell Survey, a collection of flavourful, mineral-driven wines blending vinifera, hybrids and his beloved Petit Manseng.

Wine expert Lee Campbell moved to Virginia from New York in 2022 to help build Common Wealth Crush and has already inspired new brands through the space. Reggie Leonard’s Parallax makes a white blend and a red blend, both for early consumption. Ben Jordan’s wine-grower brother Tim oversees growing for the brand Star Party, delivering wines with a focus on texture. Jahdé Marley is making fruit wines.

Distinctive blends, fruits and hybrids are also free of weighty comparisons associated with traditional wine grapes. For a new generation of winemakers, they offer the opportunity to create a new legacy for American wine through new styles.

Even so, the Jordan brothers continue their passion for Chardonnay through the family project Midland Wines. The best of Virginia’s classic wines, like Linden or Early Mountain, will continue to contribute to the quality of the state’s wine industry. Just as a new generation helps to chart a new future for Virginia wine.

In my glass this month

Over dinner with friends, I had the great fortune to enjoy a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild, Pauillac 1973, with the Pablo Picasso label in honour of the artist’s then-recent passing. The ullage was just below the bottle’s shoulder, yet the wine retained a beautiful crimson colour and impressively fresh acidity. It gained in complexity and life over the course of our dinner, opening to reveal beautiful mushroom, earth and cinnamon notes through a long finish. It’s a testament to the occasional beauty of drinking history.

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