Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Few New Wineries

So I've been in the Outer Banks for the last week, but on the way we attended a few tastings at some wineries that I wanted to share.

The first was a return visit to the Williamsbug Winery, where our wedding reception was held. Williamsburg has a great selection of wines at very good prices. It was startling for us to go there and remember that a high quality, Virginia winery has bottles for sale at $7, $8, and $9. I think Williamsburg is especially notable for some wonderful blends and table wines. "Two Shilling Red" is still one of my favorite reds, and we got some "Governor's White" as a nice, crisp, fruity white to have at the beach. These are all on the lower end of the price range, but taste great. Kate and I picked up a Henings Statute Cabernet Sauvingon - named after the 1769 law passed by the House of Burgesses, authorizing 100 acres of public land in Williamsburg to be used for growing grapes for wine. We've been really attracted to the Cabernet's lately, and I think you'll notice that throughout the post.

The next stop was Sanctuary Vineyards, in Currituck County, NC. Sanctuary was a real treat, because they also had wines from two other North Carolina wineries (Martin's Vineyards and Moonrise Bay) for tasting and purchase. These two wineries are located on Knott's Island, which we would have had to take a ferry to get to.

The wines at Sanctuary were classic North Carolina - with the muscadine grape front and center. Muscadine wines are a singular experience, scoffed at by European wine aficionados who think that only dry wines should be taken seriously, and ignored by California vinters who are secretly just jealous that they can't grow the grape. The Muscadine grape thrives in the hot, humid climate of the Carolinas. The wine-maker (who also gave us our tasting) at Sanctuary told me that they won't grow north of Norfolk, VA. Another interesting factoid is that the Muscadine grape is a grape that is native to America, like the Norton grape. If it is growing at all in Europe (which seems doubtful), it is because it was transported there from the United States. These wines are exceptionally sweet, but they have an interesting honey/tangy sweetness to them. There is no way to confuse a muscadine wine with a sweet Riesling or Petit Manseng. It's very hard to describe for me, but its hard to forget after you've tried one. Normally I don't like wines that are too sweet either, but I do like fruity wines, and I had to appreciate these for their uniqueness. However, we didn't pick up any Muscadines here. There was a Cabernet we liked, and two different red blends (one was called "Atlantis", and the other "Coastal Collage").

After a couple days at the beach, we visited Native Vine Cellars and Tasting Room, which was just off of Caratoke Highway, which runs down the Outer Banks. Native Vine also provided tastes of wines from all of North Carolina. Some of the most impressive wines came from Biltmore Estates, the winery on the Vanderbilt property in western North Carolina. These were classic wines: a lusciously buttery Chardonnay; a dry, surprisingly smooth Cabernet; a fruitful, peppery Syrah. Excellent, excellent fines wines. These were clearly not the products of a small, start-up winery.

We did end up buying a Muscadine wine at Native Vines, specifically a Scuppernong wine. I'm no expert in the Muscadine family of grapes yet, so I couldn't tell you the difference between a Scuppernong and another type of grape, but this particular white was delicious and sweet - with enough fruitiness so that the sweetness wasn't overpowering. An interesting bit of trivia is that the oldest continuously producing grape vine in the world is actually a Scuppernong vine, growing at the site of the oldest (non-continuously existing) English settlement in North America: Roanoke Island, North Carolina (a picture of this vine heads this post). We learned that from our tasting, but from the Scuppernong Wikipedia page I also came across a nice little poem dedicated to the grape:

"The winter will be short, the summer long,
The autumn amber-hued, sunny and hot,
Tasting of cider and of scuppernong;"

by Elinor Wylie

There were also several fruit wines at this tasting: Blackberry, Strawberry, Peach, and Raspberry. Now, once again - while I like fruity wines made from grapes, I'm usually not too big a fan of deserty fruit wines. The same holds here - we didn't end up getting any of these. But lets face it - a glass full of blackberries is incredible to drink, however you cut it. It just wasn't what made it into our collection.

Before we leave Native Vine, I also want mention a beer that I got there. I asked the winemaker what of the many North Carolina beers he carried he would suggest, and eventually I settled on Fest Beer from Weeping Radish Farm Brewery, in Jarvisburg North Carolina (just north of Sanctuary Vineyard). This beer was really great - it was a hoppy ale with a really full malty/yeast character to it. It almost tasted a little sour from the yeast - but I mean that in a good way. It was interesting. I'm trying to think of a beer that it's comparable to so I can communicate that better - I'll update this if I think of one.

We went out for drinks after dinner on Wednesday night to the Outer Banks Brew Station, in Kill Devil Hills. I got a sampler of four of their beers - I liked the Mutiny Pale Ale best, but I also liked the Olsch (their signature Pilsner). They had an interesting oatmeal stout too - and I also like their wheat ale. The wheat ale reminded me a lot of Sam Adam's Summer Ale. It didn't have the lemon zest of the summer ale, but the wheat flavor was relatively muted much like that classic Sam Adams brew, which I appreciated.

FINALLY - on the return trip, after stopping for lunch in Colonial Williamsburg, we went to the brand new New Kent Winery, off of interstate 64, right before you hit Richmond. This place is younger than my new niece Sophia (although obviously it has been gestating a little longer than she has). You heard it first here - New Kent will be a powerhouse in the Virginia wine industry. These guys were on the mark. First of all, they had a gorgeous tasting room and winery, "built from materials reclaimed from buildings and structures well over a century old", according to their website. Their wines reminded me more of the wines from the Williamsburg Winery or Biltmore Estates, rather than the other wineries we've tasted that opened in the last decade or so. They produce only six wines right now - all of which we tried. The Chardonnay and Chardonnay Reserve (2004) were smooth and buttery - like a good Chardonnay should be. The Vidal Blanc was a little sweet for my tastes, but it wasn't overpowering. It tasted just like a Riesling, and had that crisp, green apple taste at the front that made it more drinkable than other wines of that sweetness. The Merlot was good, but not exceptional. I was very impressed with the Meritage (a Meritage is a blend - basically an American Bordeaux, because the damned French wouldn't let us use that word... just like they won't let us use "Champagne" anymore). Strong, bold, smooth - fruit forward. And finally, their "White Norton". It looks like a rose, but oh no - don't be fooled by its appearance. When the taster described it as a "bold, lighter wine" I didn't have very high hopes. Everyone that makes a rose wants to try to tell you that it's "bolder" than other roses... and who can blame them? You don't want to just make another white wine that has a pink color to it. Usually, in my mind, they fail to live up to their talk. This was different. The Norton grapes, which are big, flavorful, earthy grapes, really gave it a grape-jam kick. It was also surprisingly peppery - sort of like a Cabernet. This taste doesn't stand out as much for Nortons, which made the White Norton notable. Most of all, I think this rose had body - it coated your mouth and really hammered back at the white bread we offered with the tasting. It is not just a sipping/brunch wine. It can stand up to a lot of substantial food.

WOW - that was a marathon post. It must seem like we went on a wine tour rather than a beach vacation. But that brings me to the final point that I want to make: if you live in a wine growing region, get outside and do some wine tastings. As glamorous as these excursions were, they cost five bucks a pop in most cases (Sanctuary was free), and didn't take up too much of our beach time. We came home with six free wine glasses on top of that. It supports small, local businesses and it also contributes to an industry that is millenia old, and that has been practiced on these shores since settlements first started sprouting up. You aren't throwing away money on some stupid item that's mass produced in China, or some pop sensation that we won't even remember a year from now. In a year, the reserve Cabernet we picked up might still be in our wine rack, and it will be even better than when we got it. The simple Two Shilling Red or Governor's White of Williamsburg Winery will never go out of style because they're classic blends for that establishment, and for us because they were featured at our wedding reception.

And if you have the time, money, and inclination I also encourage you to start a wine collection. Think of it as an investment - these wines are an appreciating asset because they get better with time. Even if they're not a wine that's meant to age - and you only open it a month or two later, they appreciate in value simply because when you pop that cork you relive the memory of visiting that winery, or the first time you tried that wine (if you didn't get it from a winery).

OK - I'm going to stop here, but I'm serious about this. Support the place that you call home - there are wineries all over the country. Support these farmer-manufacturers and the winery tradition. Don't forfeit your tastes to what is in vogue in the south of France right now. If you're in Virginia - try to fall in love with the Norton, or the Muscadine if you're south of here. Learn to appreciate our own wine heritage.

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