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.

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