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Celebrating Wine In North Carolina

A study in pleasant surprises

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When I woke up on a recent Saturday morning, I never dreamed my wine snobby ass would find good wine at the North Carolina Wine Festival. Yeah, yeah, I've heard the hype about NC wines being drinkable these days, but promptly dismissed it as bunk. I was proved wrong.

With 19 out of 22 NC wineries in attendance, and thousands of people enjoying the wine scene in Tanglewood Park in Clemmons, NC, the June 8 fest was a blessed affair. It featured idyllic weather, a well-orchestrated entertainment schedule, a quaint craft "village," and plenty of wine sales. You could buy wine on the spot when your heart -- and your drunken soul -- desired. The wines ranged in price from $5 to $25 and all were available to taste.

In previous years, North Carolina winemakers only had native Muscadine grapes to play with, which produced aromatic, sweet wines. But agricultural advancements in the early 1970s encouraged the proliferation of Vitis Vinifera (VI tis VEN if ER a) grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, bringing NC winemaking into a whole new realm. Apparently, these European-based grapes love the Piedmont's cooler climate, and are thriving at wineries across the state. Last year, grape growing reached more than 900 acres.

Another variety of grape that thrives is French-American hybrids. Although they sound like something cooked up in Dr. Jekyll's lab, hybrids breeds combine the disease resistance and winter hardiness of our native grapes with Europe's classic subtle flavors. Examples are Seyval Blanc, Chambourcin, and Vidal Blanc. They sound so...French, don't they? Hard to imagine there's some American tough-guy in there anywhere.

But the years of experimentation and cultivation of North Carolina grapes have yielded some quality stuff. Here are some highlights of the second Annual North Carolina West Festival.Shelton Vineyards, Dobson: The most consistent winery at the festival for quality. Although on the pricey side, their 2001 North Carolina Chardonnay ($18) won best of show. Also try the 2000 North Carolina Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). This is a perfect winery to visit -- a big, gorgeous estate.

RayLen Vineyards, Mocksville: Their name reminds me of a barefoot southern mother yelling out the door, "RayLen, git your butt in here!" But their wines are subtler. Their Viognier (an up-and-coming white wine varietal) is perfumey and clean. Great for summer. But their 2001 Carolinius Bordeaux Blend ($14) deserves the most praise. A blend of several red grapes, it tastes like a Beaujolais Nouveau -- fruity, grapey and smooth.

Rockhouse Vineyards, Tryon: This winery wins the prize for coolest label. Their 2000 Chardonnay ($15.50) is really nice, sporting a clean finish. No overwhelming oak taste, a problem plaguing most of the other Chardonnays. Also check out their 2000 Merlot ($15.50).

Biltmore Estate Winery, Asheville: The best-known winery outside of NC, their wine quality doesn't merit their exorbitant prices. Yes, the 2000 Chateau Reserve Cabernet Franc is okay, but not worth $18.

Windy Gap Vineyards, Ronda: Their 2000 Cabernet Franc ($13) is absolutely yummy. It's the kind of red wine you can drink by the pool and not get bowled over. 2000 Chambourcin ($14) is tasty as well.

Chatham Hill Winery, Morrisville: These guys do a mean 2001 Riesling ($12), as well as a 2001 Unoaked Chardonnay ($12). Just outside of Raleigh in an office park, visiting is kind of an esthetic disappointment, but worth the drive for a taste.

Black Wolf Vineyards, Dobson: The best Pinot Noir of the day was here ($16). It was earthy, balanced and very surprising. Also check out the 2000 Charbourcin. Simple, fruity and enjoyable.

Most of the wineries fall within easy driving distance from major cities in the state -- perfect for a weekend jaunt. Find details about each winery at http://www.ncwine.org/.

Comments? Questions? Great wine experience to share? Talk to us! We'll feature your comments in our Mailbag. E-mail corkscrew@ creativeloafing.com or snail mail to Corkscrew, 1310 E. Ninth Avenue, Tampa, FL 33605.

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