When sommeliers, restaurateurs, and wine aficionados discuss the wines of the United States, the focus tends toward California, Oregon, Washington, and sometimes New York. It is not likely to hear any mention of, say, North Carolina in such a conversation.
But this was not always the case. In 1904, the top selling wine in the US was produced in the state of North Carolina. Virginia Dare, named for the first child to be born to English settlers, soon had demand far outweighing its supply. To appease the public’s thirst, California bulk wine was added to increase volume much to the dismay of Americans.
The wines of California were seen in the early 1900s as rough peasant fare, thought to taint the delicate complexity of North Carolina’s fine wines. Yet presently, most people — including those in the wine industry — have no idea that states like North Carolina gave rise to wine production in the U.S. and still produce excellent wines.
This article is intended to debunk a few myths regarding the wine industry in North Carolina, and to introduce a winemaker currently dealing with the difficulty of overcoming the biases of today’s wine world.
First and foremost, not all wine in the state is Scuppernong. In fact 95% of wine grapes grown are European Vitis vinifera varietals, from classics like Cabernet and Syrah to the less expected Sangiovese and Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. These varietals are grown in clay and loam soils in the interior of the state, where one could easily mistake the scenery for the rolling hills of Tuscany. The Muscadines offering the “foxy” aromatics and heady sweetness imagined when most conjure up images of wines from this region actually constitute 5% of wines produced, mostly grown in the sandy soils along the coast.
As for the quality of the wines, a recent resurgence in the desire to make finely crafted wines has resulted in a dedication to continuous improvement in the vineyards and the cellars. Many wineries have sprung up only in the past decade but are producing wines that can hold up to California and Italy just fine. Given another few decades these wines could surpass the expectations of wine professionals worldwide.
On a recent visit to Yadkin Valley and Swan Creek, two of North Carolina’s AVAs, a couple of wineries stood out: Raffaldini and RagApple Lassie. Raffaldini’s Montepulcianos and Vermentinos were incredible, and RagApple Lassie’s Bordeaux blends and oaky, buttery Chardonnay caught me completely off guard.
A chat with Linda King, winemaker at RagApple Lassie since 2002 with 38 vintages under her belt, summed up the hardships of the North Carolina wineries’ quest for recognition. When asked about the typical response to her wines, she said: “The most common response is ‘I didn’t know there were wineries in North Carolina!’”
And promotion of her wines is not easy. One of the biggest hurdles according to Linda is “getting people to understand regional differences. Our wines don’t taste like California or Oregon or France. And we don’t want them to. Our terrior is different, our food is different. I tell people that when you come to North Carolina, you expect to eat regional cuisine… great barbecue, exceptional biscuits, all manner of deliciously flavored grits, southern fried chicken. People don’t come here to taste California cuisine. They should not expect to be tasting California wines.”
But the producers in NC are actively fighting biases with education. Ms. King explains, “We try to help people understand the region. We also explain to people that the wines here have held their own in international competitions… North Carolina wineries have hundreds of medals from these competitions to prove that we are as good as the competition. Considering the youth of the vines, this bodes very well for the future. We are creating history here. And it will be a wonderful history.”
For those who have never tasted a wine from North Carolina, I urge you to seek some out. Many NC wineries ship throughout the country. You’ll be surprised at the quality of what you taste… and you’ll be tasting a bit of history too! For more information about the wines and producers of North Carolina, check out my recent blog post here.