Either give me more wine or leave me alone. ~ Rumi
We recently returned from Germany where we had the opportunity to experience the wines of the Rhine (Rhein) where Riesling is king. Last year we toured Friuli in northeastern Italy where Friulano and Pinot Grigio are the stars of the region. When we travel to France, we enjoy Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Syrah which have achieved noble status. It seems that wherever we travel there are vineyards and each with a unique character. As a matter of fact, in the United States, all 50 states are now producing wine; yes, even Alaska has two vineyards.
Now, lets be honest, all grapes are not equal in terms of producing quality wine and all soil and sun will not support every grape to noble rule. So, each vineyard must search for the grape that works best in the terroir (soil and sun) where it’s to be grown.
Earlier this year we led a culinary adventure to Virginia where we served a number of the Virginia wines to our guests, including several varieties from award-winning Barboursville Vineyards, and two different Viogniers from renowned winemakers Gabriele Rausse and Michael Shaps (Virginia Wineworks). Thomas Jefferson was enthusiastic to introduce wine to Virginia and would be elated at the quality of wine that is produced there today: beautiful wines with depth and a character all their own.
Just a canon shot away from Jefferson’s Virginia begins North Carolina’s wine country. With a terroir similar, but not the same, as Charlottesville, Virginia, ambitious winemakers are converting Appalachian hillsides and former tobacco fields into vineyards.
During a recent trip to Winston-Salem, we traveled to the Yadkin Valley of the Piedmont region (central North Carolina) to learn more about this emerging wine region. Visiting and touring Raffaldini Vineyards and Childress Vineyards, we spent some time with their winemakers to understand the challenges and opportunities inherent in producing quality wine in the Tar Heel State.
Raffaldini Vineyards and Winery is situated on a beautiful 40-acre vineyard reminiscent of a Tuscan farm. Owner Jay Raffaldini initially planted more than thirty different grape varieties and clones to understand what varieties would thrive in this unique macro and micro-climate. Vines not capable of expressing their true character were replanted with other varieties. Ultimately, it was the Sangiovese grape, the same grape that the Rafalldini family cultivates in Italy, that has evolved in to their premier wine. Still a young vineyard with vines mostly 5 to 10 years old, other varietals are sure to evolve.
As with any vineyard, finding the best grape for the soil and environment takes testing with trial and error. Winemaker B. Kiley Evans, who came to Raffaldini from Southern Oregon in July, 2011, continues to refine the technique to extract the best from this vineyard. (Wine notes to follow.)
Childress Vineyards is the passion of NASCAR owner Richard Childress. A long time wine enthusiast, Childress hired award-winning winemaker Mark Friszolowski from Long Island, N.Y. to oversee the winemaking at this pictorial vineyard. Mark planted a large variety of grapes, beginning in 2004, most of which mirror the noble grapes of France ( Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Viognier) and the jewels of Italy (Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio, Vermentino and Barbera). (Wine notes to follow.)
A few notes about the wines and the vineyards. These are young vineyards. It took more than twenty years for winemakers like Lucca Paschinia at Barboursville wines in Virginia to nurture the grapes, experiment with the location and varieties, and squeeze the best wine from the maturing vines. The vineyards of North Carolina are still juvenile in comparison. Rough on some edges and missing the elegance of older vines, there is no denying that these vineyards are maturing and have a bright future ahead.
The biggest challenge is balancing the tannins and acidity of the wines. The hillsides of the Piedmont experience warm days and somewhat cool nights. The grapes are harvested when the pH and sugars achieve optimal level at the vineyard. For North Carolina, this means lower acidity which creates a different flavor profile for the finished wine than the wine growing regions of France, Italy or California. The key, as these winemakers know, is to work with the terroir and allow it to shine through, not try to create a California, French or Italian wine, but an expressive North Carolina wine.
To my palate, for both vineyards, Sangiovese is the grape to watch. While different in style and taste from its Tuscan heritage, each vineyard has produced a wonderful wine with the Sangiovese grape that offers up the unique nature of this climate and soil. Don’t drink these wines to compare them to your favorite Super Tuscan, instead enjoy them for their own natural style.
Both of these vineyards are picturesque, situated in the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the owners have invested in the facilities to showcase the natural beauty of the property. Each property has tasting rooms and stores that sell associated items, including food and with a full dining room at Childress Vineyards.
North Carolina has been growing grapes for centuries prior to the efforts of the new age winemakers. As old world grape varieties continue to evolve in the hills of Appalachia, the Muscadine grape has been cultivated for wine since the 16th century. It is often thought of as a sweet wine or dessert wine, primarily because sugar is added during the winemaking process.
Today, winemakers like Raffaldini and Childress are creating interesting and flavorful dessert wines and sparkling wines using noble grape varieties from Europe: like Raffaldini’s La Dolce Vita made in a Moscato d’Asti style that is smooth and sweet; while Childress incorporates the South’s grape of note, Muscadine, to produce wines that many will find interesting and enjoyable. While these sparkling and sweet wines have a strong following, it is the dry wines that represent the future of North Carolina vineyards.
The passion and commitment of these vineyard owners and the skill of the winemakers make you believe that it is just a matter of time before North Carolina will join the ranks as an important wine making region in the United States.
* The top photo was taken at Raffaldini Vineyards.
This was a guest post written by Mr. B since he is our resident wine expert.
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