Barren Ridge Vineyards has done it again. Its 2008 Meritage, a magnificent blend of merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot, has been judged the best of the best in the annual State Fair of Virginia wine competition.

Barren Ridge in Fishersville repeated its victory of 2009 when its 2007 Meritage achieved the same high accolade. This year's competition drew 193 wines from 43 wineries. Forty-one gold ribbons were awarded. The best in show was announced Thursday at the Black Tie & Boots gala at The Meadow Event Park.

The 2008 version of this blend has rich aromas of red fruits and spice followed by a well-balanced mouthfeel, nice tannins and a velvet finish that will have you begging for a second glass.

What sets this Meritage, a trademark name used by wineries in this country for Bordeaux blends, apart from many others? Barren Ridge winemaker and owner (with wife Shelby) John Higgs tackled the question with enthusiasm.

"There are a lot of good Meritage wines out there," he said. "What makes ours different is that the grapes are from a unique and relatively undiscovered viticultural area of the world — the Central Shenandoah Valley predominately and the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"I think our terrior is uniquely suited for the production of superior wine grapes. As we develop our wine-growing and winemaking skills to take advantage of the assets nature has given us, we should produce some spectacular wines. Perhaps we have gotten a good start with the 2007 and 2008 Meritages."

Merlot is the dominant grape in this blend (50 percent) and came from Mountain View Farm in Troutville, north of Roanoke. Merlot from Mountain View was used in the 2007 Meritage as well. The cabernet franc also was from the same vineyard as 2007, Mulberry Farm in Rockbridge County, just south of Staunton. The petit verdot for this vintage came from Pollak Vineyards.

Barren Ridge's 2007 Meritage was a complex wine highlighted by dark cherry flavors, soft tannins and a velvety finish, not totally unlike the 2008 version.

Higgs' take: "To my mind, the 2007 vintage was all about richness with deep aromas of chocolate, leather and dark fruit. The 2008 version, while still full-bodied, has a more subtle portfolio of aromas, such as bright berry flavors — cherry, black currant, raspberry — with hints of anise, leather and some floral notes.

"The tannins are mature and soft, and it has a kind of refinement more similar to my taste in a good Burgundy."

What do the three grapes bring to the wine?

"Merlot is noted for its complexity of aromas from red berries, deep earthy plum, violet, black currant and, when mature, velvety tannins," Higgs said. "The maturity adds a heartiness and weight to the blend.

"Cab Franc brings a spiciness to the mix of red berry aromas, blueberry, coffee and jam. It has a peppery mid-palate, along with other spices. It tends to be less bold than merlot and petit verdot.

"Petit verdot, when mature, is rich in complex and intense flavors. Along with the flavors found in the other two grapes, you can find a family of aromas similar to eucalyptus and vanilla. It is a very expressive grape given the right conditions."

But there's more.

"The trick is to find the right balance in the combination of these similar, but in many ways different, varieties that have been uniquely affected by the terrior and growing conditions of a particular year. This is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of the art of winemaking. You are trying to create a masterpiece from the many influences of your medium. It can be agonizing and time-consuming, but ultimately a fulfilling experience."

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