Exploring an Utter Mystery in the Yadkin Valley

From the first moment that I saw the name of the winery, “Cellar 4201,” on the North Carolina map, I was intrigued. The name reminded me, strangely, of the vaults from Fallout, and I half-expected to come across some sort of bomb-shelteresque hole in the ground a la Vault 101:

Fallout Vault 101 Door

Instead, you’re greeted by an elegant wooden door surrounded by sub-tropical plants and set in a cottage-like tasting room that seems yanked directly from Italy’s Piedmont countryside:

Cellar 4201 Entrance

Words cannot convey how intrigued I was by this winery simply because of the name. Mysterious, entirely non-descriptive, and surrounded geographically by quirky names like Divine Llama and Rag Apple Lassie and old standbys like Shelton Vineyards and Flint Hill, Cellar 4201 provoked every curious bone I had in my body (206 I believe is the current scientific count). Looking at the pictures from their website only made me even more intrigued.

Oh, and by the way, that pour they put in the montage on the home page? That’s actually about the pour you get if you pay for a glass of wine. All their wines are only $5 by the glass, and you get to keep the glass as a souvenir every single glass you buy. They, uh, they take care of their customers.

The owner, Greg, was out straightening up the patio when we arrived; he gave us a friendly welcoming, and we started conversing. He gave us a rundown of the history of the vineyard, about how he and his wife, Donna, developed their passion for wine through traveling and decided to bring their favorite varietals from France and Italy to North Carolina. While they’ve been growing the grapes since 2003, their tasting room has only been open for a year. They took plenty of time to ensure their wines were top quality before they invited the public in. He also explained the name and the label; rather than gussy up the winery’s name, they wanted to quite simply describe what they were, a wine cellar located at 4201 Apperson Road. All their labels feature an arrowhead, an homage to Donna’s Cherokee heritage. The vibrant orange that runs through their label, their logo, and the flora on-site stems from Donna’s affinity for that color.

The expansive lawn of Cellar 4201 (yes that's a cornhole set out there)

While we talked, Greg began to pour a tasting for us. He described the intent behind each wine, each vintage, explaining why things tasted the way they did. Far from a hands-off owner, Greg planted himself firmly in the winemaking, though he defers to the knowledge of Sean McRitchie, a second-generation winemaker from McRitchie Winery and Ciderworks, whom he recruited to lead the process.

Halfway through the tasting, Greg had to leave to attend to his other business, but his tasting room partner and best friend Aaron continued the customer service. With a sleeveless shirt, tribal bicep tattoo, and a deep tan, Aaron struck me more as a rugged, outdoorsy type than a tasting room attendant, but he quickly demonstrated his passion for and knowledge of Cellar 4201′s wares as he poured the last wines. Aaron described how, after a long friendship spanning decades (“We’ve never had cross words for each other,” he proudly told us), Greg recruited him to help follow his dream and create the vineyard. They attended classes together, conducted blind tastings, and otherwise educated themselves on the varieties they planted. Now, they harvest the grapes, make the wine, and pour the wines together as a seamless duo.

Gotta stop before I write too much again. How about the wines? None are over $15, and all are absolutely fantastic. Small lots are maintained from 5 total acres of vines, and their wines are 100% estate-grown, meaning all the wine gets plenty of attention throughout the process.

Cellar 4201 is a winery after my girlfriend’s heart. She’s a big red drinker, lover of Bordeaux, and very particular about her white wines. Completely flying in the face of the typical North Carolinian palate, Cellar 4201 offers only two whites (neither of them sweet), and the rest of their wines are classic left-bank Bordeaux reds and an Italian red and off-dry Rosé, both single varietal Sangiovese.

09 Stainless Steel Chardonnay – Offers a bright nose of citrus, primarily pineapple, with a surprisingly full flavor of citrus and tropical notes and a very light perceived sweetness balanced by a superb, soft acidity. Finish is medium-long and tastes like lemons. 7/10

06 Barrel-aged Chardonnay - Spent 9 months in older French and American oak, imparting a very light oak on the nose and flavor. Tropical notes still come through on the nose, and the flavor introduces a slightly buttery characteristic as well as tropical and spices. The wine has a beautiful mouth-soaking texture, incredibly smooth and firm. 7/10

Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

NV Sangiovese – A quick note about the non-vintageness of this wine, straight from Greg: in 2007, frost killed almost all of their Sangiovese, leaving them with just 100 gallons after winemaking. Rather than bottle this as is, Greg decided to barrel-age the whole lot for an additional year, 2 years total, blending it with the 2008 Sangiovese after it had aged for a year.

The result is, in my opinion, the best wine they currently offer. A deep reddish-purple color like the skin of a black cherry, offering a light pepper and smoke that gives way to a rich black cherry flavor. The oak provides an incredibly nuanced, velvety texture while hardly encroaching on the pure flavor of the grapes. The tannins are chalky and delicate, offering a surprisingly smooth red wine that was perfect for sipping out in the sun. 8/10

Also, why Sangiovese? From the about us section: “After traveling to Italy, Donna developed a passion for Sangiovese. While admitting it is difficult to grow, it is currently our signature wine.” Simple.

2006 Merlot - With a nose of brisk cherry and black pepper, the Merlot hardly exhibits the 10 months it spent in French oak. It has a great structure, perhaps a bit lighter than a typical Merlot, but the flavors and texture are simply delightful. 7/10

2006 Reserve Merlot - With their Merlot, they split the vintage, oaking one twice as long as the other. Thus, the Reserve Merlot has all the characteristics of its purer brother, but with a palpable, pleasant oak characteristic. The flavor is fuller, darker, with cherries and pepper just bursting onto the palate. The texture is fuller as well, coating the mouth very nicely. Both styles are equally delicious and affordable, so choosing a Merlot is as simple as figuring out how full you prefer your reds to be. 7/10

2006 Cabernet Sauvignon - Very smoky nose. Complex flavor of dark fruits, tobacco, and wood with a smoky finish. Beautiful full flavor and texture. 10 months in French oak softened it without masking the flavor. 7/10

2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon - With a fuller dark fruit flavor, light oak on the nose and palate, remnants of the smoky and woody character of its lighter brother, and a raisin quality on the finish, the 2006 Reserve Cabernet takes 20 months in French oak in stride. Great texture on this one. 7/10

2006 Sweet Native - The one concession Cellar 4201 has made to the sweet-drinking crowd, the Sweet Native is an off-dry Rosé from 100% Sangiovese with 3% sugar. The flavor is an array of citrus and red fruits, with a pleasantly crisp acidity and a decidedly non-syrupy texture. As Mr. Drink Pink, I approve. 7/10

This post accompanied by a bottle of the Cellar 4201 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I made it almost 4 days without opening it.

No, Seriously, North Carolina Wine Pt. 2: RayLen Vineyards

Though I would love to flesh out a detailed post on RayLen Vineyards this week, I feel like I have a lot more to learn about the winery and its owners. Instead, I’d like to highlight some of the wines that I tasted and hammer home the word of the day: “potential.” This winery is poised for some fantastic things, and it’s only a matter of time before these guys start getting national recognition.

Let’s start with the whites.

Fine, let’s.

2009 Chardonnay (naked): Very good acidity and dry flavors on this wine. Apple, pear, and a bit of tropical fruit make it a fairly conventional but wholly enjoyable Chardonnay that’s well worth its $13 price tag. 6/10

2008 Chardonnay (oaked): Very, very buttery. I underlined buttery, that’s how much butter there is. Absolutely beautiful, clear butterscotch flavor, very smooth. The oak is fairly obvious but not overwhelming. I honestly think winemakers in Virginia and North Carolina understand oak better than California right now. $14 gets you a serious winner. 7/10

2008 SMV Chardonnay (oaked): Grown in a more distant vineyard at an elevation of 1200-1500 feet, this Chardonnay offers a slightly different oak as well. A decent creamy texture, softer than the on-site Chardonnay, accompanies a buttery, toasty flavor. Definitely a different flavor, still very worth it at $15, though I prefer the other barrel Chardonnay. 6/10

2008 Yadkin Gold: A blend of Riesling, Viognier, and Pinot Grigio. A very subdued tropical nose and palate. Slightly sweet at .81% residual sugar, and it drinks beautifully at a bargain-level price tag of $13. 6/10

And now the Reds?

Sure, why not.

2007 Shiraz: Consider this the single biggest surprise of the trip. I did not like it at first, probably because I was a) not expecting much of anything from it and b) it’s not exactly a typical Shiraz. My second taste of it, though, I was convinced. This wine went down very smooth, with a beautiful blackberry flavor accompanied by an interesting mix of spices and herbs. This is definitely a red meat pairing waiting to happen. Oh, and it’s only $14. 7/10

2007 Cabernet Franc: From what I can tell, 2007 was a good year in a lot of places, both New World and Old (there’s a breaking statement for you). The difference between the 2006 and 2007 Cab Franc at RayLen is staggering… the 2007 is much, much smoother, with a beautiful coffee and black cherry flavor and a fantastic structure. For $14, this is a serious bargain. 7/10

2007 Category 5: A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, this wine packs a serious punch. Though the structure is just a tad harsh, the oak is just enough to tame the wine while not overwhelming a very good, bright cherry flavor. It’s $18, which is a bit more than their other basic reds, but still very reasonable. 6/10

NV Pale Red: A blush wine blended with about 2% Concord to give it a slightly sweet, grape-y flavor on top of the bright red fruits the rest of the blend provides. 2.78% residual sugar makes for a very interesting and not at all overwhelming off-dry red wine, and it’s only $10. 6/10

2006 Eagle’s Select: This wine, right here, is the mother of all reds at RayLen. A Meritage blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, with 18 months in oak, this takes all the best aspects of their various grapes and really showcases the winemaker’s skill. Black cherry, mint, and spice all provide a beautiful flavor accompanied by incredibly nuanced tannins. This wine is ready to drink now, but it could lay down for years, and I’d really be interested to see what it would do. Best of all, this finely crafted wine is only $25. 8/10

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon: Remember when I said the word of the day is “potential”? That’s exactly the case with this wine. While it is a delicious specimen now, with red fruits, cherry, slight spice, and a hint of tobacco, I feel like laying it down for 5 to 10 years would soften it into a truly sublime drinking experience. This wine is actually a pretty good metaphor for the rest of the winery… they’re on the cusp of great things. This might turn out to be a serious bargain down the road if purchased now, as it’s only $16. 6/10

And the sparkling?

Right, right.

NV Sparkling Wine: So, funny story… RayLen isn’t actually equipped to create sparkling wines. They have to send their product to Biltmore Estate in the far west of North Carolina for secondary fermentation. It’s definitely a worthy enterprise, though, because this actually surprised me. It’s very dry and crisp, with apple and lemon flavors. Though the flavor is fairly plain, it’s not at all disappointing. I would go so far as to say it’s almost worth the $24 price tag. Actually, considering the dreck that you would get charged $10 to $15 for at Food Lion , I’d say this is comparatively worth the cost. 6/10

No, Seriously, North Carolina Wine Pt.1: Westbend Vineyards

I just realized that it has been almost a month since I’ve focused a piece on North Carolina wine. That is entirely unacceptable. Luckily, I went on a wine tour this weekend, hitting two of the hottest vineyards in the state, and I’ve got the pictures and tasting notes to prove it.

I might have the tasting notes, but they've got the medals

You might remember the Westbend Vineyards Riesling from an earlier review on my blog (you can check it here). There, I quote a mini-raving by Robert Parker about Westbend’s wines:

One of the South’s best kept wine secrets is Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville, North Carolina. Westbend produces two excellent Chardonnay cuvées; a tasty, rich Seyval, a good Sauvignon, and a surprisingly spicy, herbal, cassis and chocolate scented and flavored Cabernet Sauvignon. As fine as these wines are, I am surprised they are not better known outside of North Carolina.

Well, I finally got to try the rest of their wines. Want to know what I thought of them? First, a bit more about the vineyard.

Westbend Vineyards began its life as a hobbyist’s farm back in 1972. Originally designating his land a weekend getaway for experimenting with new crops, Jack Kroustalis decided to go against the grain and plant vinifera. He started with the standard French varietals and French/American hybrids, found some early success, and rolled with it from there.

Oh, and the original 150 year-old homestead still stands on one of the vineyards, and they’re currently restoring it to use for events. You’ll recognize it immediately from their labels, which have featured artwork of the homestead pretty much every year since their first official vintage back in 1988.

Recently, they’ve been revamping the vineyard, which was a sprawling mix of various varietals. Old growths of vines that had fallen out of favor were torn out and replaced to homogenize the sections of the vineyard. You can see the results in the picture below, with thick, old vines sharing space with grow tubes.

old and new growth side by side, a sign of changing for the better

The vineyard overall has been growing steadily ever since that first vintage. They’re now up to 300 oak barrels, a mix of American, French, and Hungarian, in addition to their sizable stainless-steel fermentation tanks, recently retrofitted with cooling jackets. They also brought in a winemaker from Long Island, Mark Terry, to take the winery in a new direction. I have to say, based on what I tasted today, that was one savvy business decision.

We got to chat with Mark for awhile, discussing some of his experiments, future plans, and past decisions. I especially liked learning his thought process behind ideas such as fermenting Chambourcin in all three kinds of oak and blending them together. He’s got a bit of a mad scientist kind of mentality about his wines, which is big help when you’re trying to make your winery stand out.

But about those wines…

note: all vintages are what were poured in the tasting room as of June 19th

Let’s start with the reds, and begin with my least favorite wine of theirs, which is something like being the least warm spot on the sun.

Pinot Noir: Yes, a Pinot Noir, that finicky, cruel, flighty varietal, grown in North Carolina. And you know what? It’s on par with many Pinot Noirs I’ve had. Chocolate, coffee, and nutty aromas and flavors lead to a medium chalky finish accompanied by espresso. The mouthfeel is a bit thin, the acidity maybe a tad high but the tannins are pleasantly chalky. 5/10

Chambourcin: One of the most blueberry-heavy wines I’ve experienced in awhile, this is yet another great example of how well Chambourcin does in North Carolina. A dusty, earthy flavor accompanies blackfruits and blackberries on a decent finish. 7/10

Cabernet Sauvignon (’06): Beautiful nose of coffee, slight chocolate flavor, bright cherries, and the oak is nuanced and surprisingly tasty. Bordeaux varietals do very, very well in the Yadkin Valley, and this one is no exception. 7/10

Cabernet Franc: A blend of 85% Cab Franc, 10% Chambourcin, and 5% Merlot. Tobacco on the nose, which is light enough to not overwhelm my senses. Black fruits, raspberry, and heavy cinnamon flavors, and a medium finish with a very stark black pepper flavor, which I actually enjoyed. Beautifully full mouth feel. 7/10

Vintner’s Signature: 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Cabernet Franc, and 10% Merlot. A very interesting aroma of raisins, mocha, and cedar. An equally interesting array of flavors: woody, cloves, red fruits, leather… with a velvety mouth feel and a good finish. All I can say is this wine is unusual, and I rather like it. 7/10

“Les Soeurs” Cabernet Sauvignon (’07): A pungent, woody nose of smoke, sawdust, and cigar box. Flavors of espresso, cedar, and ripe black cherry combine with extremely fine, powdery tannins to create a beautifully complex experience. The finish is long and woody. 8/10

So what about the whites?

Viognier: Nose of hot house strawberries, oddly enough. Flavor is pear and minerals. Rather simple, but very pleasant, with a brilliant acidity. 7/10

Barrel Fermented Chardonnay: Heavy nose and flavor of oak, though it pairs fairly well with the coconut flavor. A little overdone, but still enjoyable and smooth. 6/10

Chardonnay: I scribbled in the margins “surprisingly full-bodied.” That it was… that it was. Citrusy and tropical, with pineapple really standing out on the nose. Bright flavor of lemon-lime that matches a crisp acidity and perceived sweetness rather well. 6/10

Watching Chardonnay ferment: more or less exciting than watching paint dry?

Sauvignon Blanc: Rather acidic, with a flavor that’s more nuanced than aggressive. Notes of lemon-lime and melon really match the acidity well, and there’s an herbal overtone that feels right at home with the Sauv Blanc experience. 7/10

First in Flight (NV): Based on the blend, 68% Seyval Blanc, 30% Chardonnay, and 2% Riesling, and the lack of vintage, my initial reaction was lacking in anticipation. Boy, was I wrong. Beautiful pear on the nose, with lemon-lime (seeing a pattern in the whites yet?) matching a light sweetness and strong acidity, and a beautifully clear tart granny smith apple on the finish. 7/10

Do they have good dessert wines?

Hell yes, they do.

Lilly B: A citrusy, floral nose with orange peel and marmalade accompanying a honeyed scent. Very pleasantly sweet, not at all syrupy, with apricot and honey really standing out in the flavors and an explosively active acidity providing a serious backbone to a deliciously pungent wine. 7/10

Lillmark Blanc de Noir: Sparkling wine with a beautiful peach-orange color and a very active carbonation. Absolutely dazzling flavor of sour apple candy. I’ve rarely tasted a flavor as pure and aggressive as this one. We tried it on a whim, and 5 minutes later I was spending $35 on a bottle. Totally, completely worth every penny. 8/10

note:: you can purchase all of these wines at their current vintage on their website at http://www.westbendvineyards.com/

Along for the Ride: United Slurps of America

Today, I have the distinct honor of joining Swirl Smell Slurp for their United Slurps of America tour. Representing the great state of North Carolina is McRitchie Vineyard, a winery from Yadkin Valley AVA. Come to think of it, I should have just called this Yadkin Valley Week. If nothing else, I hope this week on Wine(Explored) and this collaboration proves that North Carolina is capable of producing a premiere wine-growing region.

Make sure you head to check out the full post at Swirl Smell Slurp. They’re the ones who conceived and organized the idea; I’m just along for the ride.

Onto the wines!

McRitchie 2009 Yadkin Valley Fallingwater

The Fallingwater has a very light yellow color, with just a tinge of green, and it has a lower viscosity than I would have expected. The nose consists of overly ripe tropical notes, apricot and a sweetness like honey, and a bit of vinyl. Rather dry, with a detectable alcohol flavor and a hot scent. Flavor of apricot preserves, pineapple, and there is that slight vinyl flavor. It’s got a very luxurious, tropical medley on the finish that’s hard to pin down but still very enjoyable.  Has a very strong acidity that becomes prominent on the finish. Balance isn’t quite there for me. 5/10.

McRitchie Apple Cider

McRitchie North Carolina Dry Hard Cider

It’s much, much lighter than most hard ciders I’ve seen. I cheered inwardly a bit when I noticed the carbonation in the glass. It’s very fine, frizzante, not aggressive like the more common hard ciders. It has a musty, Champagne-like nose with a very subdued apple scent. I honestly don’t know what to expect just from the smell. The flavor is very subtle, and, as the name states, very dry. The apple flavor is pure, but not sweet, like apple juice. If it weren’t for the warming sensation in my throat and stomach, I wouldn’t even be sure there was alcohol here. It barely comes through on the finish, but there’s just enough there to give it a bite. Its got a great balance. 7/10.

McRitchie 2008 Yadkin Valley Merlot

Before I even get to the color, I can smell the chocolate. My exact words: “mmmm, chocolatey.” Anyway, the color is a wonderful, deep, rich red with a very, very light purple tint that becomes noticeable on the swirl.  In addition to the chocolate on the nose, there’s a jammy cherry scent. I also, and I think I’m a bit crazy, get a hint of both burlap and maple syrup. Was this aged in French oak? I can definitely detect the oak influence in the flavor, contributing a powdery vanilla-sugar flavor. I also get a tart cherry and coffee and a bit of chocolate on the finish, which is long and clean. There’s also a certain sort of baking spice flavor like cloves or cinnamon. Mouthfeel is a bit stringy and the alcohol/acidity balance is a bit harsh, but the overall experience is a clean, medium-bodied, classic Merlot flavor. 6/10.

McRitchie Ring of Fire

McRitchie 2008 Yadkin Valley Ring of Fire

Color’s a very deep, almost opaque reddish purple. Rich scent of redcurrant and coffee. It has a very smooth, very full texture, evidence of a very good amount of time in oak. Flavor is a very rich mocha with a bit of cherry. Tannins are chalky, not quite chewy, and the sensation lingers on the finish. Good balance on the alcohol here; it contributes to the structure without coming forward. This one is my favorite of their wines. 7/10.

If you’re looking to get your hands on some of their wine, just drop by http://www.mcritchiewine.com. They’ve got all the info you need to start experiencing their wines for yourself!

Note, these wines were provided by the winery as a sample for review.

Westbend Riesling, More Fine Wine from Yadkin Valley

Because I neglected to ask for permission to use Westbend's winery photos, here's a picture of a Panda playing a tabla.

Westbend, like Childress, is a winery that I’ve heard quite a lot about since I moved to the area but never got around to tasting. Also like Childress, it is situated in the Yadkin Valley, the fertile wine-growing region southwest of Greensboro. Its name is derived from its situation near a particular part of the Yadkin River that briefly bends back towards the west before meeting the South Yadkin River and continuing on towards South Carolina.

There’s a pretty good reason why I’ve heard quite a bit about Westbend, and it’s spelled out rather clearly on their website: “Wine Spectator has scored Westbend wines the highest of any other North Carolina wines.” Pretty high praise you’re heaping on yourselves, there, Westbend. I kid, I kid. There are only 50 wineries that can claim that outright in their particular state. I’m no statistician, but my money’s on that being fairly good company.

For more on Westbend Vineyards, here’s Robert Parker: “One of the South’s best kept wine secrets is Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville, North Carolina. Westbend produces two excellent Chardonnay cuvées; a tasty, rich Seyval, a good Sauvignon, and a surprisingly spicy, herbal, cassis and chocolate scented and flavored Cabernet Sauvignon. As fine as these wines are, I am surprised they are not better known outside of North Carolina.”

You forgot one, Mr. Parker: the Riesling. Facepalm yourself, good sir. As for me, here’s what I thought of their 2008 Riesling.

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is a deep yellow with a green tint. It has a moderately high viscosity.

The nose of the wine is very floral and perfume-y, with an orchard fruit smell of apple and pear. There is a very slight alcohol scent.

The mouth feel of the wine is rather full-bodied with a creamy, tangy texture. It feels very active on the tongue.

The flavor of the wine is, like the nose, extremely reminiscent of an orchard. There’s a rich, ripe pear attack with hints of citrus, apricot and minerals, and a long floral finish, sweet and full. The balance is phenomenal. A decent sweetness matches a rich acidity, and the alcohol, at 12.5%, accents the flavors very well.

The wine was paired with a cajun dish of chicken and potatoes, and the pungent flavors and sweetness counteracted the spice supremely well.

For the Casual Consumer:

This wine is aggressive and beautifully flavored, but not a dessert wine, an eye-opening combination for someone expecting a sweet, fruity wine or a drier, lighter one. This wine is great on its own, maybe a little too full to be a summer sipper, but it’s really built for spicier meals. Like the aforementioned chicken dish, a white meat pairing does this wine justice.

The Conclusion:

I’ve had few white wines that would justify a $20 price tag, considering how many fantastic whites you can get at a value price. This wine fully justifies its suggested retail of $17, and even if you see it for over $20, I’d recommend picking it up. This is what North Carolina is capable of. 8/10

This review was cross-posted at NC Vine.

For a review of the 2009 Westbend Riesling, check out Cork’d.

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