North Carolina Wine Country

*I love visiting new wine regions, and had been hearing a lot about the burgeoning wine scene going on in North Carolina, so off I went. About 75 miles north of Charlotte sits the Yadkin Valley, the heart of North Carolina’s wine country and a beautiful, hilly valley packed with streams and rivers and just the perfect setting for vineyards. At one time, North Carolina was the #1 volume wine producing state in the United States right after prohibition because of one wine: Virginia Dare, a sherry-like wine made from Muscadine. That died out by the 1960s, as did the NC wine industry. *

Today’s iteration is barely 25 years old, with a lot of big money coming in and building lavish, beautiful estates. And with big brother helping little brother with the development of oenology classes at the local colleges and crop/varietal development, we now have a wonderful, growing wine industry here. I had heard that Italian grapes grew well here, but I was a little disappointed in most of them. What blew my mind at what they are excelling with was Petit Manseng, Petit Verdot and the hybrid Chambourcin. And a couple wineries were knocking it out of the park with Bordeaux varietals. For the most part, I think some of the more highly regarded wineries are leaving their wines in wood way too long, but it’s a young industry and it will be very interesting to see how things develop. I visited the top 15 or so wineries there, and here are my quicky notes. I normally don’t “score” wines, but when visiting estates, I always do assign a score for reference purposes.

SHELTON VINEYARDS: Dobson, North Carolina
This beautiful estate was founded in 1999 by Ed and Charlie Shelton, who were in the construction business. They made some pretty inventive decisions early in the winery’s career; donating funds to the local Surrey Community College to start an agricultural program for wineries, starting with a school for winemakers and another program to determine what grapes would grow best here. Today, a large portion of the Yadkin Valley’s winemakers have gone through these programs, and the College is the main source of information for North Carolina’s vintners. I spent a couple hours with head winemaker Ethan Brown, who was a wealth of information. The estate produces 25,000 cases a year, and are the 4th biggest winery in the State. All the wines are from estate fruit, of which they have some really interesting fruit planted (including a remarkable Petit Manseng and a very promising Tannat). The reds see a minimum of 18 months in oak, with mainly French oak barriques.

2021 PETIT MANSENG Yadkin Valley AVA -
Straw/citrus on the nose. Quite fat with nice acidity. just lovely. 88-90
20001 SAUVIGNON BLANC Yadkin Valley AVA -
Citrus/closet dust on the nose. Crisp, clean and very well balanced. Very little herb/grassy notes. 87-88
2020 CHARDONNAY “17” NO OAK Yadkin Valley AVA -
Apples/lemon, medium acidity. Well made but a bit short. 84-86
2020 CHARDONNAY - OAK AGED Yadkin Valley AVA -
100% French oak, barrel fermented with full malolactic fermentation. Nice balance, a touch simple. 84-86
2018 CABERNET FRANC Yadkin Valley AVA -
18 months in oak. Brawny, and already browning. Lots of wood in the nose. Very little varietal character. 81-84
2018 MERLOT Yadkin Valley AVA -
18 months in oak. Again, lots of wood on the nose, soft on the palate with (again) very little varietal character. 81-84
18 months in oak. The oldest vines are the property. Black fruits on the nose, little oak on the palate, showing spicy (cedar) black fruits. I like it a lot, but can’t see it getting any better than it is now. 87-88
2018 TANNAT Yadkin Valley AVA -
18 months in oak. Loved seeing this grape planted in the valley. Classic Tannat on the nose with it’s typical toughness. More “Uruguay” in style than the French Sud, nice fruit that could really develop over time. 86-

STONY KNOLL VINEYARDS: Dobson, North Carolina
A quiet, unassuming property producing 1,500 cases of wine a year. Founded in 2003, the estate has just 10 acres of vineyards, with Viognier, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and their thrilling up and coming superstar; Chambourcin.
Chambourcin is a hybrid grape, but what sets it apart is, its also a ‘Teinturier’ grape (a rare grape with red juice inside instead of white). So it needs very little skin contact to reach it’s rich, red color and body. Ethan Hoosier is married to owner Van Coe’s daughter, and is a 100% self taught winemaker. Hoosier has already pulled out his Cabernet Franc vines, and soon will pull out his Syrah vines to plant more Chambourcin. Ethan has also planted two more very highly regarded French hybrid grapes on the property (that were developed at Cornell University); Arandale and Corot Noir that are showing great potential for being bug and weather resistent. If Hoosier can produce rich red wines from these grapes like his monumental Chambourcins, he is going to get a lot of recognition. I was really, really impressed with Ethan’s wines.

2019 CHARDONNAY - NO OAK Yadkin Valley AVA
Crisp, nice acid, showing lots of apple/citrus fruits. Nice. 86-87
2019 CHARDONNAY - OAK AGED Yadkin Valley AVA
Hoosier used older French oak barriques with very little toast, and this is just lovely. Quite fresh, showing lots of varietal fruit intertwined with vanilla from the oak. 87-88
Wow. Just wow. Zero skin contact (the juice is already pink), Raspberry/rhubarb on the nose that follows through on the palate nicely. Great balance with a lovely dance of acidity. Loved it. 88-90
2018 CHAMBOURCIN Yadkin Valley AVA
Aged 18 months in old, neutral French oak barriques. 100% malolactic fermentation. Bright red fruits with surprising depth. It’s softness reminded me of an aged Cru Beaujolais. 87-89
Hoosier blended three barrels of 2018 Chambourcin (18 months in neutral French oak) and one barrel of 2019 Chambourcin that was aged for 24 months in neutral French oak barriques. A revelation indeed. A tad spicier than the 2018 Chambourcin, with the bright red fruits layered like a x-mas cake. 88-90.
A monster. Again it’s old French barrels, the grapes were picked at 26 Brix, with an alcohol level of 14.4% (unheard of in North Carolina), The black and red fruits are just gushing. 5 barrels produced. 90-92.
2019 CABERNET FRANC Yadkin Valley AVA
Bright fruit, very little varietal character. No way would I have picked this out as a Cabernet Franc. A lovely wine with big fruit, but I can see why Ethan pulled these vines for more Chambourcin.
N.V. SYRAH Yadkin Valley AVA
A blend of 2017 and 2018. Again, very little varietal character, and these Syrah vines are soon to be on Hoosier’s chopping block as well. 82-84
2017 MERLOT Yadkin Valley AVA
This was quite surprising. Old French oak barrels, but mocha/chocolate notes typical of a classic Merlot stick out well. Ethan has a lot of confidence in Merlot in the Yadkin Valley, and this shows promise. 86-87
I’ve always heard that Cabernet Sauvignon grows well just about anywhere it gets enough sun, and here is rock solid proof. 2019 is considered one of the top three vintages over the last 10 years in the Yadkin Valley, and this shows nice cedary black fruits. The grapes came in at 25 brix, so its a serious Cabernet with a lot of charm. 88-89
Gorgeous, and a legitimate blockbuster. The black fruits sit nicely with the oak, and it’s juicy ripeness is very engaging. Beautiful balance. 90-92.

Jim and Cynthia Douthit have a cute little place outside of Elkin in the Yadkin Valley AVA, and produce close to 2,000 cases a year from 18 acres of planted vines. They founded the property in 2002 and are another of the “founding families” of the AVA. Cynthia runs the tasting room, and Jim makes the wine. While we were tasting through the wines, and I was starting to get specific with my questions, Jim pretty much admitted that he just couldn’t remember what type of oak barrel he used on a certain wine, nor remember anything else about specific wines. “I’m just a good ole’ Southern winemaker who just kind of goes with the moment.”
When he needs a couple of barrels to put a certain wine in, whatever happens to be closest to him at the time get’s the nod. Could be American, could be French, could be Hungarian. He picks when the fruit “looks” ripe, and who knows what the residual sugars are. But none of that seems to matter, because the wines are surprisingly good. Every single damn one of them.

Steely with prominent Granny Smith notes. A touch of mint (that actually added to the flavor interest). Nice acidity. 86-87
French oak, creamy vanilla with crisp apple notes and a touch of citrus. Quite lovely. 86-87
New and used French oak barrels (from what he remembers). Light, rustic and brawny. 84-86
2017 CHAMBOURCIN Yadkin Valley AVA
Used French oak, big, woodsy nose, very pretty fruit, light, but quite lovely. 85-86
2018 RED BARN RED Yadkin Valley AVA
60% Merlot, 30% Syrah and 10% Sangiovese. Soft, easy with lots of wood on the nose. Pretty fruit structure with a very nice balance. 86-87
2017 TO THE MAX RED Yadkin Valley AVA
Max was the winery dog that passed away a couple years ago. He was with them from the beginning, One third Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. Medium bodied, nice fruit structure, woodsy and rustic. A super fun wine. 86-87
2019 BARBERA Yadkin Valley AVA
Ok, now we are getting much more serious. Big, bright fruit with layers of red and black berries. A nice, prominent acidity, 14.4% alcohol. A very serious new world Barbera. 88-90

PICCIONE VINEYARDS Ronda, North Carolina
This ambitious estate was founded by Chicago’s Dr. William Piccione and family in 2009. Piccione’s family heritage is Sicilian, hence his choice of concentration on Italian varietals. The property covers over 100 acres, with 30 acres under vine right now (and more to come). The domaine is still a work in progress, with the wines being made at the Yadkin Valley Wine Company, all from Piccione’s estate fruit. Murphy Moore is the winemaker with a decided European slant, particularly with the reds, which are lean and balanced for aging. Construction has started with a large tasting room, and the winery will follow. The vines are still quite young here (90% of them were lost to a devastating frost a couple years ago).
Production is around 2,500 cases at the moment, with high ambitions to bring that to over 10,000 cases a year after the winery is built. The reds here are light and sleek, and all receive a minimum of 2 years in French oak exclusively (Hungarian oak is being integrated into the system this year with the 2022 reds). Barbera, Montepulciano, Sangiovese, Negro Amaro, Nero d’Avola, Sagrentino, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are planted with Vermentino, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay planted with the whites. This is going to be an interesting property to follow -

2021 PINOT GRIGIO Swan Valley AVA
75% Residual sugar. Minerals and melon dominate the palate. The wet stone notes come from the Mica/Shale soils and are in nice balance with the melony fruit. Very nice. 87-89
2021 VERMENTINO Swan Valley AVA
0.0% Residual sugar. Bone dry (and I mean, bone dry) Clean and balance, but a bit young to pick out any floral notes - it’s an extremely tight, unyielding wine at the moment. Would love to taste this in another year. 85-87.
0.5% Residual sugar. These vines are just a couple years old, so Piccione has been produced a rose out of the fruit. And what a Rose it is. Strawberries in the nose that follow through on the crisp palate. Bone dry and just lovely. 88-90
2018 SANGIOVESE Swan Valley AVA
Aged for 24 months in French oak (new and used). Tobacco, red fruits, lean, focused and nicely balanced. 84-86.
A blend of 2018 and 2019 vintages, aged for two years in French and Hungarian oak. Soft, light-bodied, pretty with nice acidity. This is an entirely different grape in the North Carolina soils and climate. 84-85.
N.V. L’OTTIMO Swan Valley AVA
A blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Montepulciano and Petit Verdot. 2 years in French oak. The final blend came after each varietal was aged in oak separately. Lean, tight and needs time. Little fruit showing now - 84-86
2019 TRAMONTO Swan Valley AVA
A blend of Montepulciano and Sangiovese. 2 years in French oak. Clean, crisp, brambly red berries, a lovely fruit balance. 87-88
2 years in French oak. Sawdust/oak in the nose, nice (but again, lean) black fruits with a lovely dance of acidity. Could be nice down the road. 86-87
A blend of the 2017 and 2019 vintages. 2 years in French oak. The biggest red of the lot, ripe berry fruit that’s balanced well with the wood. Tobacco, some brawniness. 150 cases produced. 87-88
100% Chardonnay. Three years minimum on the lees, disgorged upon order, 40 cases at a time. Aged and produced at Childress Vineyards. Crisp apples, nice, creamy palate, very little dosage. 88-90.

CHILDRESS VINEYARDS Lexington, North Carolina
The most established, modern vineyard set up in North Carolina. Richard Childress is a NASCAR superstar and a local legend, and this is one amazing property. The estate is huge, with restaurants, cantinas, wedding suites and a large facility to simply help out the smaller wineries in the state. They produce wines for 50+ domaines in North Carolina, so they really are this industry’s “big brother”.

The estate produces over 80,000 cases of wine a year, with distribution in 6 states. Mark Friszolowski is the long time winemaker (who came from Pindar Vineyards in Long Island) and is a terrific spokesman for the North Carolina wine industry. I was there in the middle of the harvest, and Mark couldn’t have been busier, but he spent quite a bit of time with me, and it was refreshing to hear his candid remarks on the NC wine industry. He loathes hybrid grapes, and has NONE planted, and is excited about bringing in some new classic grapes. While we were talking, he takes the top off a bin off their newest creation; Saperavi, the legendary grape from the Republic of Georgia that is also a teinturier grape (red juice instead of white). When he crammed his hands into the bin, they came out red, as he explained that if he doesn’t wash his hands immediately, they would be stained for days.
This is quite the operation, with a huge restaurant (great food) an even bigger gift shop, and a lavish tasting room overlooking the vineyards. There must have been 10-15 employees there just for hospitality (I was there on a Tuesday morning, and it was packed). An absolutely amazing estate.

N.V. ANGEL’S WRATH Yadkin Valley AVA
This is one wild wine. Proprietary white blend (mainly Sauvignon Blanc) Aged in Jack Daniels Bourbon barrels. 15.9% Alcohol. Surprisingly, it has a lot of varietal fruit with believe or not, a little acid to balance this monster out. Surprisingly good. I think I could drink an entire glass of this. 86-87
100% Estate grown Sauvignon Blanc. Very clean and crisp. Little varietal character (more Semillon than Sauvignon), A lovely melon and citrus note on the palate. Quite elegant. 88-89
2021 RIESLING Yadkin Valley AVA
0.1% RS. Bone dry. Waxy, peach and citrus with crisp acids. Well-balanced. Not a fan of the Rieslings coming out of this region. 82-84
The Sangioveses coming out of this area all have this simple, rustic charm like an old fashioned Chianti. One year in French oak. Fresh, tart, woodsy crisp fruit with a nice drinkability. 85-86
One year in French oak. A touch fatter than the ‘19 Sangiovese, light with that rustic, woodsy fruit you would swear came out of an old Tuscan cellar. Charming and well balanced. 85-86
Very easy drinking with fresh, tart fruit and a touch of acid. Again, another light charmer. 85-86
The very first Montepulciano harvest for Childress. One year in French oak. Lots of toasty berries in the nose, that follows through on the palate. Not a big wine, but very pretty. 13.3% Alcohol. 87-89
N.V. PINNACLE Yadkin Valley AVA
*A blend of a couple vintages (not disclosed). Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. *
Red and black fruits on the nose, a beautiful wine, sleek and pretty. Nice. 87-88
18 month in French oak. 100% Free run juice. Spicy black fruits on the nose, a very nice blend. 88-89
Proprietary, kitchen sink red blend aged in Jack Daniels Bourbon barrels. 14 months in French oak, then finished for 6 months in the Jack Daniels barrels. Hot, big fruit with lots of smoky oak notes. 15.9% Alcohol. Interesting and well made (for the style). 86-87

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