Winning wine: Horton claims Governor’s Cup

Sharon Horton, center, and her daughter Shannon, left, celebrate with the trophy after their wine, Horton Vineyards 2016 Petit Manseng, was awarded the Governor’s Cup last Tuesday night at a gala at Richmond’s Main Street Station before a gathering of who’s who in the state’s wine industry.

In a record-setting year in which red wines still dominated, a white wine wowed the smell and taste senses of those who judged the 2019 Virginia Governor’s Cup competition.

Horton Vineyards’ 2016 Petit Manseng was awarded the Governor’s Cup last Tuesday night at a Main Street Station gala featuring a who’s who in the state’s wine industry.

Fittingly, the award punctuated the legacy of Horton Vineyards’ innovative owner, Dennis Horton, who died 13 months ago.

“Overwhelmed and overjoyed,” said Sharon Horton, Dennis’ widow.

“My initial reaction was to just cry, and I kept thinking, ‘We did it,’” daughter Sharon Horton said.

Sharon and Shannon, who now oversee the Horton operation in Gordonsville, accepted the award that came after a stringent judging process over a four-week period.

This year’s competition drew a record 510 wines, up from previous high of 494 in 2017. The highest-scoring wine was named the Governor’s Cup winner, and it was joined by the next 11 best-scoring wines to form the Governor’s Cup Case. Gold medals were awarded to 68 wines, all of which had to be made from 100 percent Virginia fruit.

The Governor’s Cup was presented by Gov. Ralph Northam in one of his few public appearances since his Feb. 2 news conference about his 1984 yearbook photo featuring blackface and a KKK costume.

Red wines dominated the case with six blends, a tannat and a cabernet franc. Another petit manseng, a petit manseng-based dessert wine and a vermentino represented the whites.

That a white wine won the competition was a surprise. Since 2012, when the revamped competition reverted to a single winner rather than naming a red and a white winner for the year, no white wine had finished at the top. In fact, few white wines even made the case during that period, and most were dessert-style (sweet) wines.

In 2019, Horton’s petit manseng changed that dynamic.

“The Horton petit manseng impressed the judges with its incredible concentration, weight, balance and length,” said Jay Youmans, master of wine and head of the Governor’s Cup judging. “Several judges mentioned fruit characteristics of papaya, dried pineapple and ripe apricot and peach.

“Comments such as ‘stunning,’ ‘rich,’ ‘great balance of fruit and acidity’ and ‘beautiful texture’ were common descriptors. It was universally liked by all 18 judges, both in the preliminary and final rounds of the competition.”

A Horton 2014 petit manseng made the Case in 2016, but the style was different than that of this year’s winner.

“We totally changed the profile to make it dry with no residual sugar,” said Shannon, who along with her mother in 2016, “started taking a much more active role in the winemaking process and began steering the wines.”

That direction led to a changed petit manseng with zero percent residual sugar compared to the 2014, which was 3.7 percent and appealed to those who liked sweeter wines. Why the change?

“Petit manseng has a lot of acidity; we decided we wanted to embrace that acidity, showcase it,” Shannon said. “Our goal was to make a complex dry white wine. We are proud of what our team was able to accomplish. From the vineyard workers to the winemakers, we treated the product with respect.

“When Mom and I tried the first blending trial, we agreed, ‘that’s it — bottle it.’ It was what we had envisioned.”

Longtime Horton winemaker Mike Heny started making the 2016 petit manseng before leaving in late 2017 for another venture. Andy Reagan then conducted the finishing trials and bottling.

Included with the 90 percent petit manseng are 5 percent rkatsiteli and 5 percent early-pick viognier.

Suggested retail price is $25, and only 395 cases of PM were made. (out of the approximately 35,000 cases annually produced by Horton). Each year, Horton Vineyards produces more than 40 different wines, many unique.

Dennis Horton was a pacesetter in Virginia’s early modern wine history. Starting in the early 1980s, he brought such grape varieties as viognier, norton, marsanne, mourvedre, cabernet franc, syrah and, of course, petit manseng to a state that was on the cusp of becoming a viable wine region.

To honor Dennis and his legacy, Shannon said she and her mother have one thought: “Keep making good wine.”

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