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/

Virginia Wine Tour: Breaux Vineyards

It’s not often that a place I’ve never been to before makes me homesick.

Breaux Vineyard

The Vineyards at Breaux

Not that I’m homesick for Northern Virginia, but for Virginia in general. I spent pretty much my entire life (other than a few months in Northern Europe) in the state, and I left rather abruptly last year in the name of my career, leaving behind all of my life-long friendships and my comfort zone for a brand new area. It was a passing sensation, missing where I used to live, but the fact that it even happened, considering the amazing circle of friends I’ve already developed in North Carolina, speaks volumes.

More than anything that I want to drive home with this post is that these wineries made me feel like I was home. I never felt like I was sitting on the deck of a business. I felt like I was sitting in someone’s home, someone’s life, somewhere that I had been invited.

Every winery I visited this week was both beautiful and hospitable. It was the perfect combination of gorgeous landscapes, friendly people, and fine wine. I’ve got tasting notes from three of the vineyards, and accompanying each one will be photos and a little bit of background. I don’t need to rehash the history of each one… I can link to their website, and each winery can tell it better in their own words than I. I simply want to give you my experience as a first-time visitor to the wineries, to explain what makes this area the next big thing in wine.

Today’s post is on my first stop on my trip: Breaux Vineyards.

Breaux Vineyards tasting room and winery

At the Entrance to Breaux Vineyards

I actually attended Breaux on two separate trips with fellow wine Tweeters/bloggers, once with @TLColson (of Southern Wine Trails) and the other with @SuzieLin (Running Wine Girl).

The first time was a late afternoon visit, merely an opportunity to taste their wines for the first time. We showed up after most of the crowd had left, waiting for a spot to open up at the tasting counter. I lucked out on this trip because @TLColson and I had been tweeting with Jen, the Tasting Room Manager and social media mind behind @BreauxVineyards, so when we arrived she came out to the tasting room to meet us. This was a fantastic opportunity to chat with her about the wines, about the winery, the history, everything that I would have wanted to know about the facilities.

In fact, before she closed up, I got a brief tour of the winery as well some great info about current and future wines and events. Jen’s one-of-a-kind when it comes to customer service; she thrives in the social role, inviting people to follow her on Twitter and Facebook so she can keep up with them after they leave the winery.

Breaux barrel room

Inside the Winery at Breaux Vineyards

The second time I visited, with @SuzieLin, was for a Face to Facebook event hosted in the outdoor pavilion. It was a much less official visit marked mostly by just sipping a Reserve Cab, conversing, and taking in the atmosphere. Later in the afternoon we met a friendly couple from D.C. who offered to share a picnic and some wine with us. I meant to head out by 4 for another event, but I think we ended up heading out sometime around 7:30. It’s easy to lose track of time there.

Before I get too long-winded, let’s do a rundown of their wine, shall we?

White / Rosé

2007 Jolie Blond – Made from Seyval Blanc. It’s citrusy, with a high acidity, dry, slightly hot on the alcohol. Stark flavor of grapefruit. For $14.00, it’s a good entry-level Virginia white. 6/10.

2008 Viognier – Very ripe, exotic tropical nose. My tasting notes say “fantastically dry,” to the point but perfectly accurate. Flavors of passionfruit and honey with a beautiful sweet pineapple finish and a lush, full mouthfeel. At $23.00, this easily rates an 8/10.

2009 Madeleines Chardonnay – An unoaked Chard is a way to my heart. It has a very unusual dark floral nose and flavors as well as tangerine, and the finish has a very clean kiwi flavor. Great balance. For $19.00, I’d say it’s a 7/10.

2008 Syrah Rosé – Strong nose and palate of cranberry with a strawberry candy finish. A little bit thin, but the finish is great and clean. 6/10

Dessert

2008 Jen’s Jambalaya – Ripe tropical nose and flavors, hints of honeysuckle and peach. It’s fairly sweet, and it honestly reminds me of a Moscato. It’s a blend of 7 grapes that I neglected to write down. Sorry about that. I wasn’t crazy about it in the tasting room when I first had it, but the second time I was around, I thoroughly enjoyed it. For $18.00, it rates a 7/10.

2007 Chère Marie – Created from Vidal Blanc, the Chére Marie is a simple, sweet, basic tropical wine. Fairly non-descript, but there’s nothing wrong with it. For $12.00, it’s a 5/10.

2008 Nebbbiolo Ice – Color me surprised. This wine has ridiculously clean flavors of pineapple, banana, and orange. I wrote “lush fruit,” and every positive thing that can mean should be implied here. It’s only the slightest bit syrupy, at 10% sugar, but damn if it isn’t satisfying. $24.00 for a half bottle, and I’m giving it an 8/10.

Breaux wine line-up

The victims of the evening's after-hours wine consumption

Red

NV Equation – Thin but sharp tannins, a medium finish of spice and redfruits. Notes of blackberry and plum. A very good under $20 Merlot. 6/10

2005 Marquis De Lafayette – I had more than my fair share of this that first night. 100% Cabernet Franc, which is my regional guilty pleasure. Plummy and peppery, a fairly light structure with pleasant, subdued tannins. A fantastic summer red, especially at $19.00. 7/10

2006 Meritage – Blend of 38% Merlot, 24% Petit Verdot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Malbec, and 6% Cabernet Franc. Aggressively tannic, with flavors of coffee, red fruit, and dark chocolate. Very luxurious, with a long chocolate finish. You better believe I brought a bottle of this back with me. At $28.00, it’s a good bargain that could cellar for a decade. 8/10

2004 Merlot – Flavors of tart cherry and baking spices, with a ripe plum on the finish. Fairly simple, medium-bodied, not terribly tannic. Like the Meritage, a great value at $28.00. 7/10

2005 Nebbiolo – A very light red in the glass, Strong tobacco and smoke. I personally have a problem getting past strong tobacco and smoke in any wine, so I can’t give a good estimate of this wine’s flavor components beyond red fruits and floral. The balance, texture, mouthfeel, everything was well rounded. It was a fantastic wine to sip on in the sun. Well worth it at $48.00. (no rating)

2007 Double Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – A rare treat that I got to sample, it has a fantastic balance. Deep ruby color. Very complex with red fruits, spices, tobacco, and a bit of smoke. Long black cherry finish. 7/10

Essentially, this is one of the best all-around line-ups I’ve ever been able to taste through. If you ever find yourself in Virginia northwest of D.C., you owe it to yourself to make the detour out to this countryside winery. Even if they’ve got a crowd (and they often do), you’ll have a phenomenal time.

How NASCAR Drivers Do Cabernet Franc

The Back Story:

I’m going to say this straight: I am not a NASCAR fan. I’ve grown up in NASCAR country, lived near a speedway of one kind or another most of my life, and it’s just never rubbed off on me. A former NASCAR driver worked on my car once in Alabama.

He had a trophy up from Watkins Glen in his auto shop. I couldn’t tell you in which state he won that.

Checkered flag imageChildress Vineyards was founded by former NASCAR driver Richard Childress. His career in racing took him near the major wine-producing regions of the country, coast to coast. He developed a passion for wine as he traveled, and when his career came to a close, he researched the wine-growing conditions in the area and decided to pursue this new passion in the North Carolina piedmont.

Some of his wines have a checkered flag pattern on the label. I didn’t know why until today. I just thought it was a cool stylistic thing, like a tablecloth pattern to designate a table wine. I’m kind of dense like that sometimes.

I want to point out that I knew none of this history until I checked out the Childress Vineyards website. The only Childress I ever knew before today was my second-grade teacher. And that coach for the Vikings. That dude’s alright.

So what’s the deal with this wine? It’s made from grapes grown in North Carolina’s own Yadkin Valley and pressed and bottled on site. It contains 77% Cabernet Franc and 23% Syrah, and it spent 15 months in French oak. Thanks for springing for the French, Mr. Childress.

The Results:

Childress Cabernet FrancThe appearance of the wine is a fairly deep ruby color. The swirl suggests a fairly light viscosity and a smooth texture. It has a very beautiful, very rich depth.

The nose of the wine is just as inviting. It’s very aromatic with black cherry, cloves, and chocolate all coming forward. It has a hint of red apple, and there’s a cool alcohol scent, but it doesn’t overwhelm or otherwise negatively impact the nose.

The mouth feel of the wine is very soft, with a milky, silky texture and a medium body.

The flavor of the wine is simply a delight. There’s a dark cherry attack, with flavors of coffee and chocolate on the mid-palate accompanied by very soft tannins. I’m getting a red-fruit finish, like ripe strawberry, with a slightly bitter acidity and a subtle earthiness. As I was tasting this wine on Twitter while I wrote this review, one of my fellow Raleigh dwellers, @SeanNally, responded that it sounded like German Black Forest cake. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t! Those macerated cherries with the sour notes amplified by a sweet syrup, with milk chocolate shavings and a rich mocha cake? That’s the flavor profile for this wine. The balance is phenomenal with a relatively low acidity (3.59 pH) and alcohol at 13.3%.

For the Casual Drinker:

This is a very approachable red wine. The tannins are soft, the acidity very much in check, the flavors both straight-forward and bright. It’s a very luxurious and understated red wine, not chewy, aggressive, or overwhelming. Most people, I think, would be right at home with the chocolate-y, red-fruit characteristics. Because its flavor is a bit delicate, pairing it is trickier. Keep away from red meat, anything overly spicy or salty, anything you would describe as piquant. Pork, marinated chicken, cheese dishes seem to be the key here.

The Conclusion:

For my second big foray into North Carolina wine, this was more than I expected. In addition, 5 years was the perfect age for this wine. I would recommend this wine to anybody as an example of what North Carolina wine is capable of. For roughly $20, this wine delivers splendid value. 7/10

Everyone Deserves a Second Chance

The Back Story:

You might remember my post last week, “The Occasional Risk of Buying Local” (or if you don’t, you can find it here), where I brought down some pretty heavy criticism on a Rosé from Grove Winery, a local vineyard. I received by far my highest visitor count on this post, owing to a vigorous discussion of it both online and off, and I also prompted a response from the winemaker himself, Max Lloyd.

Since I basically purchased this wine blind, I wasn’t clear on the specifics behind it. Max explained the history of the wine and offered to ship me a bottle of one of the winery’s specialties, a 2007 Sangiovese, to “cleanse my palate,” as he put it. Rather than shipping one bottle, he sent me two, that and a 2007 Cabernet Franc, giving me a better chance to explore the wines that Grove is better known for. Since it it would be entirely unfair of me to write off a winery after one bad wine, I welcomed the opportunity to give them a fair shake. I popped the cork on the Cabernet Franc, and here’s how it went.

The Results:

The appearance of the wine was a very deep garnet with a pure red translucency when it was held to the light. The swirl suggested a good texture and a rather high viscosity.

The nose of the wine was very fruity, primarily raspberry, a little black pepper, with a slightly spicy aroma and an herbal undertone.

The mouth feel of the wine was velvety, though the initial texture was a little weak. After it hit the tongue, it coated the mouth very nicely.

The flavor of the wine matched the nose pretty well. There was an immediate and dominant raspberry, sweeter than I expected, though the alcohol came forward a little more than I would have liked. The mid-palate had an earthy undertone, maybe a bit too bitter and medicinal, with mocha and red pepper. The finish was a strong, rich cherry. It had a rather high acidity, but the wine is pretty well balanced. The flavor declined slightly after a couple of days, but it’s still entirely enjoyable after 48 hours without any preservative measures.

For the Casual Drinker:

This is a fairly easy-drinking wine. The fruitiness is certainly at the forefront here, which always sits well with the casual palate. There might be something a little bitter that doesn’t quite fit with the taste, but as long as it doesn’t surprise you, you might find it enjoyable. The acidity is also quite high, so it’s a heartburn risk if you’re not ready for it. It didn’t need decanting, and passing it through an aerator barely affected the flavor at all. This wine is ready to go. Paired pretty well with a chocolate brownie, just by the way.

The Conclusion:

While I wouldn’t call this my favorite wine, it’s certainly a good example of the potential that North Carolina wine has. I feel like this wine would have benefited from a little aging to soften the bitterness and acidity, and I’m tempted to sit on my Sangiovese for a year or so and see how kind time is to it. Depends on if I can taste it relatively soon, I guess. Regardless, the wine was leaps and bounds better than the Rosé, and if Grove’s output is more similar to their Cab Franc, I would gladly recommend them to visiting winos. At $15, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to taste the upper echelon of NC wine. 6/10

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