Monday, May 9, 2011

Biddenden Vineyards.

Finding myself wandering through the town of Kent, I decided to stop by the oldest continually producing vineyard in the area. Biddenden’s former life as an apple orchard lives on in its production of ciders alongside its current line of wines. This 22-acre estate grows Ortega (a hybrid invented in 1948), Pinot Noir, Dornfelder, Gamay, Scheurebe, and Huxelrebe among other experimental varietals. No more apple trees can be found here, but Biddenden buys apples from local orchards and does cider production on-site.

Here’s a little history of the estate: Biddenden was established in 1969 by Sally and Julian Barnes. They invested in a sole acre of land after an article appeared claiming vines were the next big cash crop in the Kent area. They slowly expanded, planting land they bought with German varietals as they went. After three years of perfecting their training and pruning methods, Biddenden had its first official harvest in 1973.

Ortega vines outside Biddenden's tasting room

The Barnes’ turned to mainly German varietals due to the availability of information regarding the adaptation of these grapes to the unique Kent terroir. The cool climate is similar in some ways to the grapes’ native terrain; Kent, however, is much wetter, often being enveloped in fog. This humidity brings the area’s major problem: powdery (oidium) and downy mildew. Luckily the weather dries out a bit in the crucial months of March through August, but mildew and rot are challenging enough to require numerous copper sulfate sprays.

This estate’s philosophy is to express their winemaking skill in the wines they offer. Terroir is not the focus here; rather, the ability of the winemaker to turn a difficult area for grape growing into a prime winemaking opportunity is the highlight. It’s quite interesting to taste these unique wines, especially if one knows the history behind the wine region here.

cider tanks at the Biddenden estate

Ciders, on the other hand, are really what this estate makes to perfection. In fact, Biddenden’s ciders are so good that the local pubs will only sell them by the half-pint… they are crafted in such a delicious manner that the alcohol lurking underneath is rarely even sensed, making these delectable drinks quite dangerous on a hot day.

I was welcomed pleasantly by my hostess Vikki Wright and offered a taste of both lines of wines (Gribble Bridge and Biddenden) and the line of ciders. Here’s what I tasted:

2009 Gribble Bridge Ortega

A simple but nice display of Ortega grapes grown in a rather warm year. Crisp and mild with medium acidity. Full of soft apples and white peaches. Nothing remarkable, but pleasing nonetheless.

2009 Biddenden Ortega

Similar aromatic and flavor profiles to the Gribble Bridge version: Red Delicious apples and white peach, but with a little more acidity. Again, nothing spectacular, but a nice example of Ortega.

2009 Gribble Bridge Dornfelder/Acalon Rose

Probably two grapes most people have never encountered. Acalon, by the way, is not a certified fine wine grape, but is a French varietal used typically for making jam or eating. Here it acts as an experimental varietal. This rose was truly interesting… full of funky, earthy cherries, with a gamey aroma that would make it pair nicely with rabbit. A hint of sourness in the background; I’m not sure if that is from the Acalon or Dornfelder, or from a natural wild yeast in the area.

2009 Gribble Bridge Dornfelder

Again loaded with sour cherries. This wine would be a great replacement for a Beaujolais Villages, or a Gamay from the Loire. I would serve it slightly chilled. This one was pretty good.

2004 Gribble Bridge Sparkling White

A blend of Reicht, Sheurebe, and Ortega. This wine is not intended to be Champagne-style, though it is made by the Champagne method. In this area the people have developed a taste for aged sparkling wines. This one exemplifies the creamy style preferred here. Aging on the lees for over 9 months gives a yeasty character; fruity apples and a clayey minerality give it character.

2007 Gribble Bridge Sparkling Rose

This 100% Gamay sparkler was the most impressive wine I encountered in the lineup. Sweet cherries and rose petals make this one a delicious, easy drinking summer wine.

The 2009 Biddenden Gamay was unfortunately not available for tasting, but Jancis Robinson covers it well here

And on to the ciders. I tasted through the line of ciders and loved every one of them. However, use caution: the dry Strong Kentish Cider tastes exactly like the best apple juice you could ever imagine, but packs a powerful 8.4% alcohol. The medium Strong Kentish Cider tops out at over 9% alcohol (though the label says 8%), and again, you would never even guess it had been fermented. Also on the menu are a sparkling cider with hints of licorice and refreshing fine bubbles (unfortunately only available in the tasting room), a “Special Reserve” cider fermented in whiskey casks weighing in at 13% alcohol (absolutely phenomenal), and the “Monk’s Delight” spiced cider. I recommend every single one of these if you have the opportunity to taste them!

If you’d like to visit Biddenden, or for more information, check out their website or email Vikki Wright.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The history of English winemaking.

UK vineyard locations today

Many are surprised to hear of wine production in England. Very little of the wine ever makes it out of the UK. Sommeliers around the world typically have no opportunity to taste these wines unless they pay a visit to the regions themselves. So when people read about the wines of England they naturally think this is a relatively new development. But a reading of the history of English winemaking below will definitely surprise most and change opinions…
Roman amphora discovered in Kent, England

The first wine production in what is now England occurred during Roman times, about 2000 years ago. Oxford Archaeology has discovered many artifacts telling of the consumption of wine throughout the Roman era, including an amphora from BC times (see above). The small-scale winemaking enterprise was welcomed among the conquered: they had developed an appreciation for wine due to the importation of the beverage from the Belgae before Roman occupation. But some historians believe that the production was, in fact, so small-scale that hardly any wine was produced at all, and that the ceremonial tending of the vineyards and making of the wine was more a remnant of the homesickness of the Romans than an actual productive business.

Conquest of the Normans

The departure of the Romans and the subsequent Dark Ages mostly resulted in these small vineyards falling into disuse and disrepair. The adoption of Christianity under King Alfred encouraged a bit of winemaking to produce wine for the church, but more widespread interest didn’t begin until the entrance of the Normans in 1066.

By the time of the Norman conquest vines were certainly grown in quantities that allowed a significant amount of wine production. Evidence abounds throughout cities in England of the importance of wines (street names such as Vine Street, for example). The Normans were heavy drinkers who enjoyed wine in particular, and their skills as winemakers were finely honed. The Domesday Book reported 46 vineyards in the south of England in 1085-1086, and English production nearly matched imports in volume. Of these only 12 were tended by monasteries. The rest were property of noblemen, producing wine for their personal pleasure. At this time wine was being produced in the coastal area in the southeast and in an area including present-day Somerset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, and Worcestershire.

Thereafter the number of vineyards suddenly declined. There is a popular debate regarding a potential climate change that may have taken place during the Norman times that might explain this demise. Some say that the summers became colder and winters became warmer, and that the climate in general became wetter, making grape growing a much more difficult task. Others attribute the change in vineyard land to the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1536. Still others point to the change in agriculture following the Black Plague due to a dramatic drop in population. Importation of the wines of Bordeaux, Champagne, Germany, and Portugal may have had an effect as well. By the late 1300s more than half of all the wine in Bordeaux was loaded onto British ships and sold within England. Unfortunately we have very few records to help us figure out the exact reason or combination of events that led to the fall in vineyard acreage.

A tavern frequented by wine drinkers in 18th century England

In the 17th century and onward there was once again a rise in wine production, mostly due to private enterprise. A few influential figures were key in boosting the home industry such as the Hon. Charles Hamilton in 1740, who developed the vineyards at Painshill Park in Surrey which has been recently restored. John Tradescant planted 20,000 vines on the estate of Lord Salisbury in Hartfordshire. The Marquis of Bute planted vines at Castell Coch in South Wales in the late 19th century, considered to be the last great experiment in viticulture prior to the modern period. His wine was not thought of as the finest: a joke existed about it, posing the question “How many men does it take to drink a glass of the Marquis’ wine?” The answer is 3: one to drink the wine, and two more to hold him down while he does. After World War I a labor shortage hit the wine industry heavily, leaving many vineyards untended for years.

Wrotham Pinot Noir, discovered by Edward Hyams

The modern revival can be traced to a couple of influential figures. Ray Barrington Brock, a research chemist, developed a research lab in Surrey where he experimentally planted over 600 grape varietals to study their growth in the English soils and climate over a period of 25 years. He introduced the relatively well-faring Muller-Thurgau (Riesling Sylvaner) and Seyval Blanc (Seyve Villard) to the English countryside. Edward Hyams, a writer and journalist, used his skills to popularize viticulture, winemaking, and wine consumption. He collaborated with Brock in Surrey and discovered a number of “native” vines still growing in England, including Wrotham Pinot (an interesting clone of Pinot Noir, cultivated a little now in California). George Ortish, another who impacted England’s wine industry, studied horticulture in Champagne and upon returning to his native Kent realized the similarity of the region to Champagne. He planted a vineyard in 1938 and proved himself to be an excellent winemaker.

Major General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones in his vineyard

The first modern 100% commercial vineyard was planted by Major-General Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones in 1951. A few others slowly followed suit, planting mostly Seyval Blanc and Muller-Thurgau after the recommendations of Brock’s research. The period immediately after 1976 saw a huge boom in vineyard land for winemaking. Currently the growth has slowed, and there are 1,215 hectares planted today.

During the last couple decades sparkling wines, roses, and oak-aged reds have become the norm of English production. Germanic-style fruity, easy to drink quaffers are slowly being replaced by more serious examples, though grapes such as Huxelrebe and Scheurebe still constitute a large amount of production. Beside those, Chardonnay, Ortega, and Optima constitute most of the white blends. As for red varietals, Rondo, Dornfelder, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier are favorites. A comprehensive list of varietals grown commonly can be found here. In addition, the Quality Wine Scheme (England’s AOC, DOC, or AVA setup) can be found here.

I visited Kent recently to do a bit of wine tasting myself. I'll post a couple of writeups of some Kentish vineyards over the next week.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


It’s a strange feeling to drive along through the countryside of Yadkin Valley in North Carolina and encounter Raffaldini’s villa that appears to be straight out of Tuscany. It certainly brings one’s attention to the similarity of the rolling hills and picturesque vistas of this region to the Italian countryside itself. And this is exactly why the Raffaldini family chose to establish their winery here, in the seemingly unlikely AVA of Swan Creek.

The Raffaldini family hails from Lombardy, from a town just south of Verona. In the 1950s they began exploring sites in the United States to start a vineyard. An exhaustive search was undertaken through the whole country including the now booming wine regions of California and Oregon. But the similarity of the land in Swan Creek to southern Italy (indeed, the latitude of this region is shared by Sicily: 36.14 N for Yadkin, 36.53 N for the middle of Sicily) was enough to anchor the family here.

The Raffaldini family bought their vineyards in Swan Creek in 2001. Since then, they have experimented with more than 30 different varietals. Their most successful thus far seem to be Montepulciano and Vermentino, but experimental planting is still being undertaken.

The soil quality is excellent in Swan Creek: vineyards lying in the mountainous areas are planted on rocky, schist-based soils with northeast exposure. A pretty much continuous breeze slightly lessens the fear of downy and powdery mildew, the region’s worst plights. The climate is a little cooler and drier here than in the rest of Yadkin Valley necessitating a separate AVA and allowing central and southern Italian varietals a chance to flourish. Yields are kept around 5 tons per hectare. Clusters are turned by hand to induce an even exposure. When sprays must be used, the choice at Raffaldini is organic and natural spray whenever possible. Time consuming multiple pass hand harvesting is done every year to ensure optimal ripeness of every bunch.

Raffaldini's Thomas Salley

A recent article of mine appeared on Terroirist (, “Rediscovering North Carolina’s Wines”) discussing the difficulty of getting people to think of North Carolina as a serious wine producing region, including an interview of RagApple Lassie's Linda King. Thomas Salley, the tasting room manager at Raffaldini, had a bit to say about the hardships of being an up-and-coming region as well:

Q: What is the typical response to the idea of North Carolina as a wine producing region?
A: Most people are pleasantly surprised. North Carolina was once the top producer of wine in the United States prior to prohibition.

Q: What particular difficulties have you had in marketing/promoting your wines?
A: One overall challenge has been education. As stated in the previous question, we have to explain why NC is a good wine region and then help people tell the difference between the variety of wines that we have here (e.g. muscadine, vinifera, scuppernong).

Q: What measures do you undertake to try to overcome the stigmas associated with this region? Or do you have interest in doing so?
A: We work hard to stay true to our focus and passion which is producing the best possible central to southern-style Italian wines. Therefore we shy away from trying to produce a wide variety of wines to suit every palate.

Q: Are you looking to expand distribution when the wines begin to be well-received outside the state?
A: We are currently producing around 6,000 cases annually with an eventual goal of producing 10,000 cases. Most of our sales are direct to consumer and while many of our clients reside in NC, we have many others who pass through on interstate trips or also have our wine shipped to them based on the referral of a friend or relative or a past experience here at the winery. This has led us to some expanded distribution, but as our sales are mainly DTC, this is simply a function of our business model.

Here are the wines we tasted in the villa's tasting room with Thomas:

2009 Raffaldini Pinot Grigio
Minerally and citrusy on the nose. Excellent acidity with a medium finish. Nothing spectacular, but pleasant and drinkable.

2009 Raffaldini Vermentino
Again, very noticeable clayey minerality. All citrus and peaches on the finish. Simple but refreshing, and probably very good for pairing.

2008 Raffaldini Bellamisto
This Bordeaux blend showed heightened minerality again. On the palate, bright ripe cherries, rich dark fruit, and a hint of a complex earthiness.

2008 Raffaldini Oenotroia
A little jammy but delicious! Dark purple fruit and an interesting note of slate. A very long finish. Excellent acidity adds to this wine’s elegance.

Winemaker Stephen Rigby giving us excellent information as well as some fantastic wines

After tasting in the tasting room, we moved to the cellar to do some tank and barrel sampling with the winemaker Stephen Rigby (who unfortunately left Raffaldini shortly after our visit to move to Pennsylvania). This was the real treat… some of the wines that have yet to be bottled are absolutely fantastic.

From the tanks:

2010 Raffaldini Vermentino
Rich peaches and Meyer lemon. This is one of the best Vermentinos I have EVER tasted. I was completely shocked! I will certainly buy a case of this when it’s bottled, and I recommend the same to anyone!

2010 Raffaldini Pinot Gris
This is a wild ferment. Excellent acidity, hints of wet rocks and baking spices. Another astonishing wine.

From the barrels:

2009 Raffaldini Merlot
Candy cherries and peppery spice! Medium velvety tannins finish this wine off nicely. A long soft finish adds to the enticement. An excellent wine.

2009 Raffaldini Sangiovese, Brunello clone
Red cherry and strawberry fruit on the nose. This is an amazingly reserved wine that opens up explosively on the palate. I recommend this one highly.

I was much more impressed by the wines yet to be bottled than those I tasted in the tasting room. When I asked the winemaker about this, he reminded me that winemaking here has really only been underway for 7 years. Each year as their knowledge of the land and the grapes improves, they are able to produce more elegant, terroir-driven wines. Keep your eyes on this winery… Raffaldini’s wines will only improve, and may turn out to be some of the best examples of Italian varietals in the US…

To set up a visit or inquire about ordering and shipping wines, go to Raffaldini’s website or email Thomas Salley.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

RagApple Lassie Vineyards.

The first stop in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley was RagApple Lassie, a 150-year-old estate with a curious namesake. We were warmly welcomed by Lenna Hobson, wife of vineyard manager and owner Frank. Lenna took us through the fascinating story of the development of RagApple Lassie and showed us around a bit, then introduced us to Frank and the estate’s winemaker, Linda King.

Frank and Lenna Hobson

The estate was once a tobacco plantation farmed by Frank Hobson. As public opinion of tobacco soured throughout the 80s and 90s, profits declined sharply and many farmers in the area began looking for alternative crops; the Hobsons decided on grapes after witnessing the founding of a large winery nearby. Initially their idea was to grow grapes for sale but soon winemaking became the focus. In September 2002 the 9,600 square foot winery was finished, complete with a 4,000 square foot underground aging cellar and a large tasting room open to visitation. Recently voted one of the finalists for “Best New Winery in the US” by The Wine Appreciation Guild of San Francisco, this is a must-see for anyone venturing through the North Carolina wine country.

Frank and RagApple Lassie

And the curious namesake? Frank Hobson’s prize calf of his childhood. When he was a young boy Frank adopted a newborn calf on the farm and named it RagApple Lassie. The two were fast friends and went everywhere together. After winning first prize at the Yadkin County Fair RagApple Lassie went on to take first at the North Carolina State Fair (the biggest fair in the state). Many years later, when it came time to come up with a name for the winery, RagApple Lassie was immortalized in reverence to his influence in Frank’s childhood.

Grape growing at the estate is fairly easy. The land is still fertile, active farmland; nutrients are reintroduced to the soil each year by intelligent row cropping and crop rotation. The vines thus are kept disease-free and nutrient depletion is not much of a concern. So rich is the soil in organic content, in fact, that the first harvest was done after only 18 months albeit with green harvesting and bunch dropping to avoid high yields. This land challenges the idea that good wine grapes can only be grown in areas that force the vines to struggle… Frank Hobson equates the land to a spa for the grapes, insisting that the easy way of life here for vines does not inhibit serious wine production.

The Hobsons are experimenting with many different varietals as Yadkin Valley is still in the process of determining what its characteristic grapes will be. They are testing not only different varietals, but different clones and rootstocks as well. Among the varietals currently grown on 35 acres at the estate are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier, Syrah, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, Marsanne, Semillon, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Mourvedre, and Symphony. Powdery and downy mildew can be a problem in this area, as can Pierce’s disease. For more information on soil and climate see the introduction to North Carolina’s wine regions here.

A side note: Symphony is a vinifera grape known for its Muscat-like aromatics, slow oxidation, and ageworthiness. It was developed by Harold P. Olmo at UC Davis to provide the character of a Muscat wine without the associated bitterness that frequently accompanies grapes of the Muscat family.It is a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris developed on May 21, 1940 and tested in California over the next few decades. During trials in the 1970s an interesting attribute was discovered: after aging 10 years, wines made from Symphony maintained their Muscat character. According to the US patent application #301,910 filed December 21, 1981, “… persistence of the Muscat aroma and flavor is not a common event in aged table wines of varieties with Muscat character…”

Linda King

Winemaking began in earnest at RagApple Lassie about 10 years ago. Linda King has been the winemaker since 2002. With 38 vintages under her belt in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina and decades of self-training, Ms. King provides an unsurpassed level of knowledge and technical ability that shines through in RagApple Lassie’s young but promising wines. Average production is 6,500 cases, and Hungarian and French oak is used judiciously. Here are the wines we tasted with Frank, Lenna, and Linda:

2009 Pinot Gris

25% of this Pinot Gris was barrel fermented and underwent malolactic fermentation, then was blended in with 75% steel fermented wine. This gives a spicier Gris style as opposed to a fruitier Grigio style to the finished product. On the nose, this wine offered great baking spice and oak spice aromas along with candied lemons. I felt the wine could use a little softening on the palate and would benefit from a year or two in the bottle. Overall a really enjoyable wine. Great for a soft, creamy cheese like a Camembert.

2009 Viognier

Characteristic honeysuckle and sweet honey aromas. Spicy in the mouth with a rich lanolin mouthfeel. A long, cool stainless steel fermentation highlights the Rhone style captured by this wine.

2009 Kaleidoscope Gold

6 white varietals comprise this blend: Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Marsanne, Semillon, Viognier, and Traminette. There’s an interesting funkiness to this wine as well as a significant minerality, floral notes, and spice. It’s mouth-coating, with a long creamy finish of lemons and peaches. We thought it was delicious and took a bottle home!

2006 Chardonnay

Barrel fermented and aged sur lie with battonage twice a week for 3 months. This is considered the flagship wine of RagApple Lassie. And honestly, this Chardonnay could easily hold its own against many buttery, oaky California Chardonnays. Lemon cream and spice on the palate with a very long finish. Excellent!

2008 Merlot

Aged 18 months in Hungarian and French oak. Bright ruby red with purple tinges; plums, prunes, and cherries on the nose. The mouthfeel is a little lighter than I had expected based on the aromas. Quite a good effort.

2008 Cabernet Sauvignon

Also aged 18 months in the same blend of oaks as the Merlot. Great minerality and soft, plumy notes. A bright acidity gives a spark on the finish.

2008 Syrah

Made in a Rhone style, the typical white pepper and blackberry fruit shine through perfectly. Great minerality. A long toasty oak finish.

2007 Zinfandel

This was my favorite red of all. Fruit leather, cherries, and dark berries highlighted with excellent minerality. At only 12.5% (low in my opinion for a Zin!) it maintains a bit of elegance that caught my attention. I’d happily share a bottle of this Zin with any of my sommelier friends.

2008 Kaleidoscope Red

A blend of finished wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Mourvedre. There’s a slight residual sugar that many would appreciate (though I’m not one of them). Oozing with jammy plums and soft tannins, I could imagine this with pulled pork or a tomato based pasta sauce.

First Blush

Made with Traminette, Marsanne, Semillon, and Malbec in the style of a white Zinfandel. Spicy with notes of cola and 3% residual sugar. For those who like white Zin, this is a great replacement with much more complexity.

Rockford Red

A sweeter wine: 4% residual sugar. This Bordeaux blend can be sipped as an off-dry table wine. Its sweet candy cherries and purple fruits with a hint of cinnamon serve as a great accompaniment to anything with blue cheese or chocolate. This is not a wine I’d drink on its own, but with the appropriate food it would be delicious!

Boonville Blanc

A blend of Viognier and Traminette with 5% residual sugar. Honey and peach syrup with a weighty palate and great acidity. But here’s the incredible thing: pair it with white chocolate and coconut and the result is an amazing piña colada flavor that won me over instantly! I would encourage everyone to get ahold of this bottle…

Evening Sunset

A whopping 8% residual sugar. Symphony, Muscat, and Traminette come together in this wine to offer candied orange peel, honey, guava, and mango notes. No need to pair this with anything… just sip a glass after dinner (or actually any time…)

Hobson’s Choice

This wine has a story behind it. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina led to dry weather in Yadkin Valley. During the harvest the unripe grape bunches were left on the vines and by chance matured to 25 Brix. They were all picked as a field blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Gris and fermented together. After 30 months in used barrels the wine emerged, delicious. The name “Hobson’s Choice” traces its roots to a common 16th century English phrase: George Hobson had opened a livery in London with horses and buggies; he would offer customers whichever horse and buggy he chose. This developed into a saying… “Hobsons Choice” was given to customers who had no option of selecting for themselves. Hence the name. When a vintage is particularly good, a field blend will be picked after a long hang time and fermented as Hobson’s Choice!

Though I was not a fan of every wine offered by RagApple Lassie, a few were astonishingly good. And this is after only less than a decade of winemaking and grape growing. Over the next 10 years I believe these wines will continue to develop toward a unique expression of terroir and begin to make their mark on the wine world. And I urge anyone who finds themselves within the vicinity to stop by and judge for themselves!

To set up a visit or for further information, go to RagApple Lassie’s website or email Lenna Hobson.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

An introduction to North Carolina.

current wineries in North Carolina 

North Carolina has come quite a long way since the discovery and cultivation of the infamous Scuppernong grape here in 1524. I decided to investigate this state’s AVAs a bit not just to discover the unique wines the region has to offer, but also to pay homage to what was once the largest wine producing area in the United States. Production levels dwindled post-Prohibition, but a comeback is on its way. There are now 99 wineries located throughout the state of North Carolina with the 100th currently being built. Here’s a little history of the wine industry in North Carolina:

Giovanni de Verrazano and Scuppernong grapes, courtesy of

As mentioned above, the Scuppernong grape was discovered here in 1524 in the Cape Fear River Valley. The Florentine navigator Giovanni de Verrazano named the grape after the Scuppernong River. According to him and Sir Walter Raleigh’s explorers a few years later, the land was virtually a sea of these large green Vitis rotundifolia (muscadine) grapes. In 1585 a governor described the grapes of the area to Raleigh thus: "We have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven, so abounding with sweet trees that bring rich and pleasant, grapes of such greatness, yet wild, as France, Spain, nor Italy hath no greater..."

Sidney Weller, founder of Medoc Mountain winery

In 1835 the first commercial winery was established in the state. Sidney Weller, an educator and farmer, bought 300 acres of farmland in Halifax County, North Carolina for $1.50 per acre to practice his somewhat revolutionary agricultural methods. He used crop rotation, plant propagation, and organic soil enrichment to maintain the health of his estate; he is furthermore credited with introducing the “American system” of grape cultivation. By 1840 the vineyard, then known as Medoc Mountain, was the largest in the state and led production in the entire country, hosting over 200 varietals. Its main concentration however was the omnipresent Scuppernong.

A decade later 20 wineries had developed in the state. A thriving wine industry was well underway. This was halted in the 1860s by the unfortunate timing of the Civil War. But the foresight of the brothers Garrett would prove to be the impetus for the industry’s salvation: in 1867 the brothers purchased Weller’s estate and continued its winegrowing tradition, producing still and sparkling wines. One of the brothers’ sons, Paul Garrett, soon emerged as a fantastic salesman and distributed the winery’s products far and wide along the Atlantic coast. In fact he sold more than could be produced, and bulk California wine had to be added to the precious Scuppernong to boost quantity.

By the 1890s the wine industry had regained its health and was seen as a boon for North Carolina, given the state of the economy. The wines’ fame spread attracting well educated and experienced viticulturists and winemakers who perfected production techniques. In 1900 wines from North Carolina even won a few prestigious medals at the Paris Exposition. And in 1904, Paul Garrett’s Virginia Dare wine (named for the first child born to English settlers in the colonies) earned the grand prize in the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition and became the top selling wine in the country. (A side note: sales far outweighed production of this popular wine; Garrett had to blend California bulk wine with the Scuppernong wine which was Virginia Dare’s base, and in the end there was only enough Scuppernong in a bottle to give it a hint of the character of the grape.)

Pau Garret's Norfolk, Virginia facility

It is here that Prohibition enters the scene. In 1909 a ban was placed on all alcohol in North Carolina. Paul Garrett fled to Virginia to escape the laws of Prohibition and reestablished his headquarters there, continuing to sell his famed Virginia Dare. He was forced to escape again to New York a decade later due to Prohibition sentiments in Virginia. But Virginia Dare remained the top seller in the country even post-Prohibition.

the Biltmore Estate

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 led to a brief freedom for the remaining 13 wineries in North Carolina. A dry vote in 1947 finally killed the wine industry in the state, making the production and selling of all alcohol illegal. Vineyards continued to produce grapes and winemakers hoped that the dry initiative would be short-lived; in the 1960s Senator Carl Vitners passed a bill for funding of wine and viticulture research much to the relief of those in the wine industry. Over the next two decades more and more funding and tax incentives led wineries to try their luck once again, and the grand Biltmore Estate opened the doors of its $6.5 million winery to the public in 1985 to encourage wine tourism.

old tobacco plantations have transformed into vineyards in NC 

By 1999 the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council had been established to encourage expansion and experimentation and the Golden LEAF Foundation was teaching tobacco farmers how to transition their plantations to the more profitable vineyards the state wanted. Money was poured into tourism and festivals, with the North Carolina Wine Festival bringing 11,000 people to the wine country in 2002. And to further validate the state as an official and serious wine producer, Yadkin Valley was declared an AVA in 2003 followed by Swan Creek in 2008.

Now a bit of technical information:

deep cecil soil

Muscadine grapes are grown in the fine wine producing regions of the state still, but comprise only about 5% of the vineyards. The remaining 95% are all Vitis vinifera. Many varietals are experimentally planted as the regions are still determining which are best suited to the terrior here. Soil in Yadkin is mostly deep cecil (a bright red clay) and very nutrient-rich… this was once all tobacco land. Swan Creek, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has shallower loamy topsoil with gravel underneath and low organic content.

Four distinct seasons occur in these areas offering vines good growing and ripening conditions with large temperature variations between day and night. Average rainfall sits around 40 inches per year necessitating heavy copper spraying year-round. Heavy pruning and hedging must be done to keep vigor to a minimum. Other than the threat of downy and powdery mildew, Pierce’s disease and Japanese beetles cause some problems for the vines. Organic farming, unfortunately, is not much of an option here.

Varietals grown are too numerous to list at the moment. Sangiovese and Nebbiolo have not fared too well so far, but Bordeaux varietals and other Italian varietals are thriving. A few hybrids are also favored in Yadkin and Swan Creek. Look for the preferred varietals discussed in the summaries of the wineries I will visit next...

Currently North Carolina is the 7th largest wine producer in the US. Most vineyards have less than 10 years of production under their belts. Vitis vinifera is the focus everywhere but the coast, and the wine (though sometimes a little rough) is shockingly good considering the limited number of vintages thus far. Given a decade or two more, top-quality wines will be pouring out of this state and possibly preparing to challenge the Napa Valleys and Willamette Valleys of the country. But we as consumers must be open to this fairly new region… instead of encouraging bias against upcoming wine producing areas such as this, I urge those who are doubtful to try a bottle first, or even pay a visit to the charming wine country of North Carolina. You may end up happily surprised…

For a list of Yadkin Valley wineries:
For a list of wine related events in North Carolina:
For more information about visiting the wine regions of North Carolina:

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A history of Mexico's wine regions.

This post is meant only to give a brief history of winemaking in Mexico. And for those whose interest is piqued, a book introducing the wines and wine regions of Mexico, pairing them with Mexican cuisine, and offering traditional step-by-step recipes will be published later this year. I will announce the release of the book when it is available; feel free to contact me with any questions about content or availability.


Mexico has a much more extensive history of wine than most would imagine. In fact, the first Vitis vinifera grapes brought to the Americas from Europe were planted in Mexico by the Spanish in the 1500s, long before they arrived in any other country in the New World. After unsuccessful attempts by Spanish conquistadors to grow vinifera wine grapes in the tropical areas of Mexico, cuttings were planted alongside the native varietals which grew profusely in the Parras Valley in Coahuila. Soon afterward grapes were introduced to other regions such as Puebla and Zacatecas.

There is some debate over what the initial grape varietal was that first crossed the Atlantic in the early colonial era. What is known for sure was that the grape was referred to as the “common black grape” of Spain, and that it gave rise to the Mission grape of California, the Criolla (Criolla Grande) grape of Argentina, and the Pais (Criolla Chica) grape of Chile. A side note: Pais and Criolla are now known to have a common ancestor that was a crossing between Muscat of Alexandria and Mission.

Casa Madero
The planting of vinifera grapes was ordered by Hernán Cortés in the 1520s after the supply he had brought dwindled. During the next century and a half wine production in Mexico skyrocketed. Casa Madero, the first commercial winery, was established by Lorenzo Garcia in Santa Maria de las Parras (Coahuila) in 1597 and still exists today.

remains of the Santo Tomas Mission

Eventually the demand for Spanish wine imports dissipated; this resulted in a 1699 ban on wine production in the country save for Church requirements. This ban was not officially lifted until Mexico’s independence. The ban, however, did not faze the Mexican wine producers. Juan Ugarte, a Jesuit priest, was one of the many who continued making wine despite the ban. He introduced the first vines to Baja California upon his relocation in 1701 to Loreto. The vines were transported from Loreto to the Santo Tomas Mission in 1791 by the Jesuits, then to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe del Norte Mission in Guadalupe Valley in 1843 by Dominicans.

Bodegas Santo Tomas

During the next 50 years the Reform War had a drastic effect on winemaking in Mexico. Vineyard land was seized by the state and redistributed; in 1888 the Santo Tomas Mission was revived as a commercial winery by private investors and now operates as Bodegas Santo Tomas. From this period until 1910 winemaking spread once again.

a view of Guadalupe Valley, which currently produces 90% of Mexican wines

A group of Russian immigrants (the Molokans) fled the Czar’s army and relocated to Guadalupe Valley and its surrounding areas. There they began making good quality wines, only to be stifled by the Mexican Revolution. Since the 1980s there has been a small revival of winemaking especially in Guadalupe Valley, but foreign competition and a general lack of viticultural and vinicultural knowledge make this a difficult struggle. Nevertheless some excellent small wineries have sprung up since the 1990s and some are prophesying a new Napa Valley’s birth in Guadalupe. This is definitely an area to keep an eye on during the next few decades…

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Some traditional Argentine dishes.

More specifically, the dishes here are very typical of the central region of Argentina, from Buenos Aires across to the Cuyo region. In the north and south of the country there are a few fundamentally different dishes found on the table. The cuisine of Argentina in general is heavily influenced by its Spanish and Italian ancestry. But the dishes resembling their European counterparts have been transformed in one way or another into traditionally Argentine creations.

I have skipped the parrillas here... grilled meats are very popular in Argentina, and the keys to a truly Argentine parrilla are to avoid seasoning the meat prior to grilling, to make sure the embers are glowing evenly to ensure even heating, and to choose meats that will maintain their juiciness even when well done (as the Argentines like to serve them). I have also skipped the everpresent pizzas and pastas. The recipes below are other dishes I especially liked during my Argentine adventures.

Puchero con chorizos y repollo. (Chorizo and cabbage pot)

There are many versions of the puchero throughout Argentina. The heritage of this dish is traceable to Spain, where a type of chickpea-based stew (cocido) bears the same name. In the area of the Rio de la Plata, the lack of chickpeas necessitates the use of another ingredient; as beef is quite the local favorite, it serves as a substitute.

This recipe will serve 4.

2 pieces of beef shank (marrow included)
2 pounds beef for boiling
½ pound bacon
4 chorizo sausages
1 sprig parsley
garlic (slightly bruised) to taste… typically 2 or 3 cloves
3 medium or 4 small peeled potatoes
4 small carrots, peeled
2 medium onions
4 leeks
1 2 to 2½ pound cabbage, cut in quarters
1 sprig oregano
salt and pepper to taste

You will need 2 pots for this preparation. In one, put beef bones, beef, half the bacon, half the garlic, parsley, salt, and pepper; cover with water. Simmer for at least an hour. After an hour, put in the second pot the chorizo, the rest of the bacon and garlic, and the cabbage and cover with water; boil gently until the cabbage is done. When the second pot reaches a boil add the rest of the vegetables to the beef pot and cook until the potatoes are done.
Make some rice with the broth from the beef pot. This is used to make the soup, which is served separately from the meats. Serve the soup as a starter, followed by separate dishes of meats and vegetables. Pair this with a lighter wine like Altos las Hormigas’ Bonarda, or Argento’s Malbec.

Empanadas de carne al horno. (Baked meat empanadas)

Empanadas in general origínate in Galicia and Portugal, where they resemble more of a meat pie cut into sections. Of course in that region of the world some of the most popular fillings are codfish and tuna, whereas in Argentina a beef filling is preferred. Empanadas can be served as an appetizer or as a main course.


3 cups flour
1 cup shortening or pork lard
1 egg, beaten
4 tbsp water
salt to taste

Mix shortening or lard with flour and add the egg. This will form a dough after a bit of kneading and gradual adding of water and salt. Let stand for 30 minutes.


1 pound lean ground beef
½ cup butter or lard
1 cup scallions, chopped
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tbsp chopped parsley
½ tsp oregano, cumin, and paprika, respectively
1tbsp seedless raisins
2 tbsp chopped green olives
2 or 3 chopped hard boiled eggs
salt and pepper to taste

Boil a small pot of water. Pour boiling water over ground beef in a bowl while stirring; let stand until beef changes color. Discard water (or save as broth). Heat butter in a skillet and fry scallions until they turn bright green. Add tomatoes, pepper, garlic, parsley, and spices. Sauté for a few minutes. Remove from heat and add raisins, olives, and eggs. When the mixture cools add the ground beef and mix well.
Roll out the dough into rounds. Place a few heaping spoonfuls of the mixture on half of the round; fold dough over and seal with fingers. Bake in a hot oven until browned.
Pair these with a sparkling wine such as Bodegas Chandon’s Rosé or Finca Flichman’s Extra Brut.

Carne adobada al horno. (Marinated beef roast)

4-5 pounds roasting beef
marinade (below)
1 cup red wine
1 tbsp cornstarch
salt to taste


2 tbsp oil
1 tsp salt
½ tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp of one of the following: parsley, oregano, or rosemary

Rub the roast well with marinade, let stand overnight. Place in oven on medium heat in a roasting pan. About 30 minutes before it’s done, pour ½ cup wine over it. When it’s done, let the roast stand while you make a gravy from the pan juices and ½ cup red wine with cornstarch diluted in it. Boil the gravy for a few minutes and pour over the roast. Preferably, slice the roast at the table.
Serve this with a spicy, rich red wine, such as Finca Flichman’s Malbec Reserva or CarinaE’s Reverva Syrah.

Conejo al horno. (Roasted rabbit)

A very popular dish in the Cuyo region. This roasted rabbit is simple and delicious!

1 rabbit
marinade, as in above recipe (bay leaves and thyme work well)
brine solution (strongly salted water with a bit of sugar added)

Rub the rabbit well with marinade and let stand overnight. Place in a roasting pan, and roast on medium heat until the meat begins to separate from the bones. Baste frequently with marinade diluted with ½ cup brine solution. Serve well done with a side of carrots and squash, and a light red such as Argento’s Bonarda or CarinaE’s Rosé.

Milanesas caseras especiales. (Breaded steaks)

The name for this simple dish comes from cotoletta alla milanese. Many different meats can be used, and different preparations can be done. This one is common:

8 thinly sliced steaks (not more than a pound in total)
2 tbsp oil
2 cups flour
3 or 4 eggs, beaten, with a pinch of salt, pepper, and oregano
bread crumbs
lemon wedges

Pound steaks flat. Rub with oil and a little salt and let stand for a few minutes. Dip in flour, then egg, then bread crumbs; fry in oil. Serve with lemon wedges and potatoes. Any fruity red wine will do, but this is also great with a buttery Chardonnay like Catena Zapata’s Angélica Zapata Chardonnay Alta.

Escabeche de pollo. (Chicken Escabeche)

This dish has an ancient relative by the name of al-sikbaj, originally a Persian word. It was brought to Spain via the Moors, and made its way to Argentina from there. Traditionally it uses fish, but now many versions such as the one below are made throughout the world.

1 small (3 pound max) chicken or game hen, cut in serving pieces
3 onions cut in rounds
3 red peppers, seeded and cut in strips
2 tomatoes, thinly sliced
3 large carrots, thinly sliced
2 bruised garlic cloves
4 bay leaves
1 tbsp peppercorns, whole
1 cup olive oil
1 cup white wine or apple cider vinegar
1 cup dry white wine
salt to taste

Cover the bottom of a casserole dish with half the onion slices and half the red pepper. Place chicken pieces on top, then cover with the rest of the vegetables. Sprinkle bay leaves, peppercorns, and salt over all. Pour the oil, vinegar, and wine into the dish until all chicken pieces are covered. Bake covered for 2 hours on medium-low heat. Let stand 48 hours before serving.
This dish pairs perfectly with a light white wine like CarinaE’s Torrontes or Argento’s Pinot Grigio.

Dulce de Leche.

This filling for pastries and cakes needs no introduction. And it’s incredibly simple to prepare…

¼ gal milk
2 ½ cups sugar
1 vanilla bean

Boil milk and sugar with the vanilla vean and a Little baking soda until the milk begins to change color. Turn the heat down to low and stir frequently to avoid burning until the milk thickens. Some prefer to add a little cornstarch to speed up the thickening process, as it can take sometimes up to 2 hours.