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/

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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