Two weeks ago en route to visit a friend in Boone, NC I made a point to stop at as many Yadkin Valley (and a High Country) wineries as I could, taste wines and report the results to you.
The Grand Estate The winner for this award, despite North Carolina also being home to both the Biltmore (the most visited winery in the entire nation) and Childress Vineyards, was the elegant Tuscan-style estate and winery of Raffaldini Vineyards, in the Swan Quarter sub-appellation of the Yadkin Valley. Some forty-plus acres of gently sloping vineyards roll north from a the tasteful yet grand winery. The walk to the tasting room wends through gardens with rose bushes, willows and a pond, for maximum effect of the “dolce vita,” with the grand view of the winery and vineyards as the climax. Raffaldini only grows and produces Italian grapes and wines, and all are done with style and elegance, echoing the track record of Barboursville Vineyards some 300 miles northeast in Virginia. Whites include a most excellent pinot grigio, a regular and reserve vermentino (also being grown successfully by Barboursville), an outstanding dry rose (“Girasole”) and a fun fruity moscato (called “La Dolce Vita”). Reds include a sangiovese, sangiovese riserva, montepulciano, and montepulciano riserva, the last made by drying the grapes in the appassimento style to create a high alcohol, richly concentrated but smooth sipping wine. Highlights:
- 2013 pinot grigio: Usually a pinot grigio is either correct or not, and there isn’t much else to say since it’s a subtle wine. In this case, it’s not only correct, it’s wonderful, with vibrant apple and citrus on the nose, and the same on a dry but full-bodied palate; a great food wine.
- 2013 Girasole: Complex nose of strawberry and watermelon with hints of parmesan. On the palate, it is dry with fresh watermelon flavors, finishing with strawberry notes; impossible not to think of prosciutto and mozzerala with basil.
- 2011 Sangiovese Riserva: includes some malbec and petit verdot, accounting for the dark color. Nose: spicy black fruits with a bit of lift. On the palate, rich black cherry and spice. Fruit-driven, complex.
- 2011 Montepulciano Riserva: I reported on this wine in my post of Feb. 5th of this year. Since then it has opened up and fleshed out nicely. On the nose, it has dried black fruits and spice. On the palate, alcohol is noticeably high but well-integrated with rich, dense fruit of dried cherries, and a long complex finish. Will age well, a decade or more.
I call McRitchie Winery & Ciderworks “Hidden” because you can (or I did) drive past their road several times because 1) they don’t have the state winery sign with an arrow and 2) their road has the same name as another road 2 miles away that your googlemaps will take you to; don’t believe it! They are on the Thurmond “Post Office” Road, NOT the Thurmond Road. They tell me they’re getting a state road sign, so that should help but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
North Carolina veteran winemaker Sean McRitchie and his wife have been vineyard and winery consultants to many newcomers to the local industry, and their cozy but lovely inlaid wood tasting room is an appropriate set for their eclectic but also consistently high-quality product line.
2012 Fallingwater, inspired by the Frank Lloyd Wright house of that name near Ohiopyle, PA is fresh, fruity but surprisingly dry blend of traminette, vidal and chardonnay. Very aromatic on the nose but crisp, dry and with nervy acid on the palate; refreshing and stylish.
2013 muscat blanc has a classic muscat nose; bright fresh floral and citrus. On the palate it is fruity and freshly dry with fine acid balancing the forward fruit.
2011 Ring of Fire is an original blend of merlot, syrah and petit verdot that is stylish and rich but still refreshing. On the nose, there are fun spicy cherry and black fruits. On the palate, the wine is smooth and round then tannins kick in (14 mos. in French oak).Good now, will improve for another year.
Semi-Sweet Cider: Despite the name and 1.5% residual sugar, this fruity and delightfully crisp cider (made from 100% Pink Lady apples) tastes almost completely dry, but has that fun riesling-like flavor that Pink Ladies give.
Banner Elk Winery is high in the Blue Ridge Mountains west of Boone, and the area has the look and feel of Boulder, CO or the Sierra Foothills of California. Banner Elk’s vineyard is at nearly 4,000 ft, and they grow only cold-hardy hybrids like seyval blanc, foch, and steuben. The winery tasting room sits in front of carefully landscaped grounds that include a pond and firepit. The tasting room is an upscale log vacation-style house and is tastefully and elegantly appointed. The wines are in sync with the appearances. Due to its high elevation, the vineyard gives grapes high acidity and fresh, vibrant fruit. They buy in fruit from other NC growers and cabernet sauvignon from Virginia, but all the wines show the same style of clean, fresh, vibrant fruit and minimal oak.
Seyval blanc 2013: loads of green apple, citrus and crisp minerality; a perfect very dry white for a hot Carolina summer and very food-friendly.
High Country Rose 2013: a dark rose from Steuben, also dry but nicely fruity with lots of strawberry and some red cherry, one could either enjoy sipping alone or with food.
Marechal Foch 2012: Light ruby color, nice fragrant red and black cherry on the nose and like flavors on the palate. Short finish typical of the grape but not as tart as most northern versions, with more full fruit. Very much like a light Beaujolais, fresh, juicy, dry and crisp.
A few miles from each other are Rag Apple Lassie and Sanders Ridge wineries.
Rag Apple Lassie was running low on product ahead of a bottling of the 2013 vintage later that same week, but the pinot gris and barrel-fermented chardonnay (2012) were both impressive and stylish. the Pinot Gris had a deep gold color, a clean nose with a palate of fine spicy pineapple, racy acidity, a full dry texture and firm acid in the finish. The chardonnay also had rich, spicy pineapple on the palate, and the sur-lie aging gave yeasty hints well-integrated with the fruit and a fine representation of the style.
Sanders Ridge offered two whites and three reds to taste, yet the wine I was most impressed by was the least sustainable for them to grow year to year; the muscat canelli 2013. From nose to finish, the wine is a perfect expression of the grape. The nose gives a zesty orange and citrus aroma, with melon and tangerine on the palate which is juicy and fresh, finishing with well-balanced acid (r.s. 0.5%)
I was impressed with the dedication to fine wine and sustainable agriculture at Carolina Heritage Vineyards. They only farm organically, and so they grow natives, cynthiana (a k a norton), hardy hybrids like traminette, and blueberry bushes. Even so, when I drove in, I noted how healthy and flourishing their vines were, even as so many others had been half-denuded by Japanese beetles. The tasting room is very cute, the wines all clean and honestly made (even vegan-friendly as well as organic!) and the prices are very reasonable.
The wines are also thoughtfully original, with blends of chambourcin and blueberry, chambourcin and cynthiana, and a wonderfully juicy Jimmy Buffet-meets-Dolly Parton blend of red and white muscadine grapes making a natural sangria-like wine that needed nothing but some yukeleles and lampshades for a pretty fun party.
My favorite wine was their Chambourcin-Cynthiana Nose was faint, but the palate was clean, juicy, fresh and dry, with great finesse of texture and black cherry flavors with long crisp finish.