Dennis Horton liked to tinker with vines. After he moved to Virginia in 1969, he planted some vines behind his house. First came the native grapes (Concord and Catawba), then French-American hybrids (Chambourcin and Seyval Blanc). Finally, he forged on to prime time, planting vinifera grapes.
In 1988 Horton and a business partner decided to start a commercial winery. With his love of experimentation, and attraction to exotic grape varieties, he knew that Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon were not for him. But what to grow?
A first consideration was to choose varieties that would withstand Virginia's hot and humid summers. Grapes with loose bunches and thick skins would better withstand rot and mildew. Of course commercial considerations came into play too. Horton knew that his wines would compete in a tough national and international market. Virginia Chardonnay would probably not cut the mustard.
Remarkably, after looking through Jancis Robinson's book of wine grapes, he chose Viognier. At the time, Viognier was virtually unknown, having nearly disappeared from France. There were a mere 20 acres of Viognier planted in California in 1989.
Insight and a bit of luck were on Horton's side. His Viognier grapes ripened well in the Virginia sun, were much less susceptible to mildew than other varieties, and maintained a good level of acidity. He had found his "acidic, rot-resistant, little sugar machine." Horton's 1993 Viognier created a splash, "becoming the first wine from Virginia to win serious acclaim outside the state." (The Great Wines of America, by Paul Lukacs)
Even late summer hurricanes and excessive fall rain do not seem to ruin the harvest. The 2011 vintage was plagued by hurricane Irene and rain, yet the wines produced in Virginia are certainly good, if not up to their full potential. Viognier has been so successful in Virginia that it was named the official state grape in 2011.
The Horton Viognier (Orange County, Virginia) 2011 $17 [Very Good+] manages to be simultaneously rich and creamy, as well as light and lip-smacking, a very good trick. This is the kind of wine that works well as a sipper and with food too. Medium bright yellow in color, the nose is very creamy, with oaky spice, butter cream and subtle notes of peach and citrus. The barrel fermentation shows. It is not a fruity nose. Medium to full bodied, the Horton is a very plush and satiny mouthful. Yet, good acidity and a streak of salty mineral keep it from being heavy. Flavors of buttercream, oaky spice, peach, and subtle citrus notes remind me of a baked peach pie. The finish is very good, with lots of lip-smacking acidity and a lingering salty/fruity quality. The magic here is that you keep reaching for another glass, the sign of a well made wine. November 2012.