North Carolina’s wine industry continues to creep up on California and Virginia, as terroir, technique and taste come together to produce some award-winning vino.
At the dawn of the 2oth century, North Carolina was the leading wine-producing region in the nation. While California leads the country today, it was North Carolina that made an early name for itself in the world of vino. As Prohibition put a damper on the process and moonshine moved into the spotlight as the libation of choice in the 1920s, it would be more than 60 years before wine would start to flow in the state again.
North Carolina experienced the largest growth of winemakers and wineries from 2000 to 2010 and today estimates the opening of one new winery a month. Vintner Steve Shepard is known as the “godfather of the North Carolina wine industry” and has been working to make great wine in the state since 1989. “When someone tells me I can’t make wine, it drives me,” he says.
Shepard has worked with RayLen Vineyards since 2000 and has also served as president of the North Carolina Wine Grower’s Association. It’s safe to say he knows the Yadkin Valley terroir inside and out. Considered the best soil in the state, Yadkin Valley is North Carolina’s first federally recognized American Viticulture Area with nearly 40 wineries. RayLen opened at a time when just four other wineries in the valley existed. Today, their production includes more than 10,000 cases of 16 different wines.
“There’s an assumption that North Carolina wine is very sweet or poorly made,” says Shepard. “It’s not the wine, it’s the image.” And it doesn’t take accolades like “Best in Show” in the Mid-Atlantic Wine Competition to prove wines from RayLen and other state vineyards can stand up to those from California and Europe. Award-winning Category 5 is RayLen’s most popular red, a full-bodied, fruit-forward Cabernet blend. The lighter-bodied Carolinius serves as a drinkable table wine, while semisweet white blend Yadkin Gold (compare it to Napa Valley’s Conundrum) is a favorite for picnics.
The city of Winston-Salem serves as a gateway to the Yadkin Valley much like San Francisco does for Napa and Sonoma. According to the state’s tourism bureau, North Carolina is now home to more than 160 wineries, ranks tenth in U.S. wine production and third in wine tourism. Viticultural areas in addition to Yadkin Valley include Swan Creek and Haw River Valley, but the state’s wineries stretch from the mountains of Asheville all the way to Wilmington on the coast.
Silver Fork Vineyard & Winery in Morganton is an example of a classic tasting experience set to views of the South Mountains. Drive up among the grapevines to a rustic tasting room and prepare to become a North Carolina wine convert after a sip of their Cabernet Franc. A traditional Bordeaux grape varietal, this 2013 red offers up smoky tobacco and pepper flavors with hints of herbs, spices and violets. Silver Fork’s signature blend Four Dog Red is another favorite, along with its golden Chardonnay.
Of course all of Silver Fork’s wines taste better on the open patio with a mountain and vineyard view. On weekends, FARM to Fork Eatery serves an assortment of salads, sandwiches and paninis, all paired with wine — quite possibly the perfect way to spend a crisp fall day.
Further north in Ronda, Raffaldini is another idyllic spot that might make you forget what state or even country you’re in. Owner and first-generation Italian American Jay Raffaldini chose Swan Creek for his Tuscan-style villa tasting room and vineyard. Forty-two of his 132 acres are planted with 36 acres of reds and six acres of Vermentino. In true Italian style, Jay says he loves big reds, and his Montepulciano, Sangiovese and Bella Misto blend are a testament to his winemaking heritage.
He is also leading the way on a drying technique that harkens back to the state’s days of tobacco farming. He quadrupled an outdoor drying area last year that serves as a means of raisinating grapes and concentrating the fruit to result in increased flavor. An Italian partner helped him to perfect the weeklong process, mostly used for white wines like Raffaldini’s Vermentino, a noble white grape from the island of Sardinia.
Jay describes what he’s doing as agritourism. The fourth largest vineyard in the state, Raffaldini estimates 35,000 visitors annually for tours and tastings six days a week. Although Jay travels the world for business, he’s always ready to come home to his piece of the “Tuscan South.” “Ninety-five percent of our distribution is here, because I want people to come here,” he says. “When I’m here, I’m just so happy.”
View a map of North Carolina wineries by region here, and one of the Yadkin Valley Wine Trail here. A great way to taste a sample of the state’s wines is during Salute! NC Wine Celebration, but many wineries have music series, fall harvests, grape stomps and other events scheduled throughout the fall. View the full calendar here.
All photos by Deep South.