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.

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