IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

North Carolina embraces the vine, again

Once it had a healthy industry making native wines. Now, writes Jon Bonné, it's proving its worth with classic varieties.

The preferred local catchphrase is “Chianti in the Carolinas,” and it may or may not be that, but you'll find no clearer evidence of North Carolina's winemaking ambitions than the rows of sangiovese vines at Raffaldini Vineyards, here on the lower slopes of the Brushy Mountains.

Not just sangiovese, either. Raffaldini has committed itself to attempting a range of Italian varieties in the granitic clay-mica soil — everything from vermentino native to Sardinia (and grown only by two other American vintners, both in California) to barbera. Ever-fickle nebbiolo is being yanked out; food-friendly montepulciano is going in. The goal, clearly: to hunt down the perfect match of Italian grape and Southern soil in this, a far more domestic Piedmont.

While most North Carolina winegrowers have less ambitious goals — healthy plantings of chardonnay, viognier and cabernet sauvignon — what emerges is a clear determination to put the state on the forefront of East Coast wine production. And while there's plenty of distance still to cover, many vintners are achieving enjoyable, sometimes impressive, results.

“One phrase I hear around here that disturbs me greatly is that we're going to be the Napa Valley of the East,” says enologist Bob McRitchie, who worked for nearly 30 years as a winemaker in California and Oregon before being hired to run North Carolina's first modern viticulture program. “We're not. We're going to be our own unique entity.”

By no means is North Carolina the only Southern state placing a bet on its terroir. Virginia is a strong contender, too, though the South has lagged behind its northern counterparts in eyeing wine as a homegrown industry.

But few states have as notable a wine history as North Carolina, one that stretches back to the 17th century, when the native scuppernong, a variety of muscadine grape, grew bountifully and supplied raw material for local wine. The first commercial endeavor, Medoc Vineyard, opened in 1835 and by the mid-19th century, North Carolina was the leading state in the union for wine production.

Still, California's potential was lurking, and Prohibition later intervened. Its impact in the South was particularly striking, as politicians urged counties to go dry and wine was seen not as an agricultural boon but, often enough, as a vice to be eradicated. Even today, some North Carolina wineries operate in dry counties, thanks to a state law that grants them a dispensation for wine sold on their premises.

For many North Carolinians, the sweet, fresh wines made from scuppernong and other muscadine grapes were part of local culture, and some wineries bottle both European varieties and the native wines. Others produce a second line of sweeter wines — including reds — tailored to the palates of local travelers who might enjoy visiting a winery more than drinking the drier wines made from European grapes. As vintners and culinarians alike will tell you, Southerners like their sugar, and these bottlings are designed, as one local wine booster put it, to be “sweet tea with a kick.”

From tobacco to vinesThe state's modern industry is modest, but certainly growing with a bang. With 52 wineries, it ranked 10th in the nation for wine production last year, up from 25 wineries in 2002. Its first federal appellation, the Yadkin Valley AVA, was approved in February 2003, the seeds of an effort to establish itself as a serious winemaking region.

To that end, the highways of the Yadkin Valley, located about an hour north of Charlotte, are well-marked with winery names, and a wine bar serves local wines in Charlotte's airport terminal. (Travelers hoping for a last-minute wine purchase are, however, out of luck for the moment.) Money set aside from settlements of lawsuits against the region's tobacco industry gave a modest boost to grapegrowing. Throughout the valley, fields of soybeans and tobacco are increasingly sharing space in the ubiquitous red clay soil with tidy patches of grapevines as landowners do the math and see the potential revenue not only from wine grapes but from a steady stream of thirsty visitors.

“Grapes are just a little drop in the bucket,” says Margo Knight, executive director of the state's Wine & Grape Council. “But nobody wants to take a tour of a hog farm, so we have that going for us.”

There's star power, too. In these parts that means NASCAR, so it should come as no surprise that racing magnate Richard Childress got into wine big-time in 2004, opening a lavish Tuscan-style villa in Lexington and wooing winemaker Mark Friszolowski down from Pindar Vineyards on Long Island.

The town hosts not only Childress' empire, but is also home to the western North Carolina style of barbecue (pork, with a tomato-tinged sauce) and Childress Winery puts out both a “Legendary” reserve series marked with the numbers of its top drivers — notably No. 3, Dale Earnhart — as well as a limited-edition “Fine Swine Wine” blend, released each year at Lexington's barbecue festival. North Carolina's winemakers see barbecue and wine as a perfect match, and I can't disagree.

Focusing inYet there is also a desire to shed remnants of a rustic image. At Shelton Vineyards, opened in 2000 by Charlotte real estate developers Charlie and Ed Shelton, the 170 acres of vines show signs of careful tending, down to the rose bushes planted at row ends (roses can help detect vineyard diseases). The 50,000-case winery is located in Dobson, where McRitchie developed his program at local Surry Community College. Though the Sheltons lobbied hard for the 1.2-million-acre Yadkin Valley appellation, Ed Shelton now wants to focus on smaller, top-notch sites: “It's really bigger than it needs to be, but I think you'll see some subappellations that will come out of it over the years.”

To be sure, the state has its share of unappealing wines, though no more than other emerging wine regions. The shortfalls are not uncommon: too much oak on grapes not robust enough to handle it; vintners trying their hands at too many different varieties; too much focus on spendy reserve reds, at the cost of everyday wines.

But for each glitch, there is a sign of promise: Shelton's aromatic riesling and cabernet franc; a crisp-edged chardonnay from RayLen Vineyards in Mocksville that holds its own with California and Oregon; sparkling brut wines from Biltmore Estate in Asheville that make for a great toast to future vintages from the Blue Ridge foothills.

What remains, then, is for North Carolina to ferret out its strengths. “It's going to take us about 20 years, through the cycles, to figure out what works well,” Friszolowski says.

TASTING NOTESSeveral types of grapes are heralded as North Carolina's Next Big Thing, from viognier to syrah. It's too early to make a firm prediction, so here's a sampling of wines worth seeking out. Though they can be tough to find in wine shops, most vineyards will ship to states that legally allow it.

Shelton 2005 riesling Yadkin Valley ($12): Riesling can be uneven in North Carolina, but Shelton's most recent vintage is a winner. Clean, soft peach flavors mix with stony mineral. A straightforward style, with a sweet finish; more similar to Finger Lakes riesling than West Coast versions.

Raffaldini 2005 vermentino Yadkin Valley ($13): Probably the closest of the domestic vermentinos to the traditional Sardinian version. An apple note amid the citrus, with a softer opening and harder finish than you might expect, but pleasantly tart and refreshing.

RayLen 2004 viognier Yadkin Valley ($13): In its native Rhone Valley, viognier has a big floral nose but isn't weighty. Many domestic incarnations go too far on the oak, but here they get it just right. Great clarity of the honeysuckle and nectar flavors, with a tightly wound, forceful finish.

Rockhouse 2004 chardonnay “Native Yeast” ($20): Lee Griffin and Marsha Cassedy first planted this vineyard in Tryon, near the South Carolina border, in 1991. This chardonnay's name gives away its special trait (no added yeasts are used in fermentation). Pungently flinty, almost meaty, and yet edgy and bright, it has the depth of a good white Burgundy. Tart apple, dense tree fruit and a focused, deep ending.

RayLen 2004 chardonnay Yadkin Valley ($12): Reminiscent of excellent stainless-steel West Coast chardonnays like Morgan's Metallico or Chehalem's Inox. A slightly honeyed nose, with a crisp, fine ending. RayLen's riesling, with a faintly oily texture and bright tree-fruit aromas, is refreshing, too.

Shelton 2005 cabernet franc Yadkin Valley ($15): Cabernet franc has shown promise in New York vineyards, and it shows well here too. Strong scents of pencil shavings and bright red fruit, with a fine-grained finish. Light, but well-focused, not unlike a good Chinon from France's Loire.

Raffaldini 2005 sangiovese Yadkin Valley ($14): Sangiovese has proved a mixed bag on these shores, but this one — made from six different clones grown over six acres — captures much of the pleasant dustiness that so typifies the grape of Chianti. Aged in neutral oak, it's well-balanced, with a punch of sweet red berries, and a bit of toasty char at the end. If the state's proposed new Swan Creek appellation makes its name on wines like this, all the better.