Part one of our journey in the heart of North Carolina’s wine country.
It’s a state of majestic mountains, scenic seashores, and lush pine forests. It’s also one of the top wine-producing states. No, we’re not talking about California, but rather North Carolina. North Carolina has approximately 200 wineries and 400 vineyards, ranking number 11 in state production of wine.
Not long after English settlers landed at Roanoke Island in present day North Carolina, the grapevine was first cultivated in the New World. Wine growers in North Carolina cultivated a native grape variety, Scuppernong, which produces a sweet wine. Winemaking flourished. In fact, by the dawn of the 20th century, North Carolina was the leading wine-producing region in the nation.
Prohibition changed all that, with the state becoming better known for moonshine and those moonshine runners helped to start the NASCAR sport. Now North Carolina wine is back in a big way. The heart of North Carolina Wine Country is Yadkin Valley. It recently experienced what some have called a “Judgement of Paris” moment for the Yadkin Valley when JOLO winery recently won “Best Rosé on the Planet” at The 10th Annual Rosé Competition.
JOLO is part of the Surry County Wine Trail in Yadkin Valley which includes 18 wineries in and around Surry County. The trail flows through the towns of Dobson, Elkin, Mount Airy, and Pilot Mountain. Surry County could be considered the birthplace of North Carolina wine. Charlie and Ed Shelton of Shelton Vineyards in Dobson oversaw the effort to get the Yadkin Valley its official status as a federally recognized American Viticultural Area in 2003. It was North Carolina's first AVA. An area formerly known for tobacco farming; Yadkin Valley is now celebrated as a premier wine-producing area with over 40 wineries.
During a recent visit, we toured seven wineries that are part of the Surry County Wine Trail. We came away impressed with the quality and variety of the wine. Here’s the first half of our report.
NC Center for Viticulture and Enology at Surry Community College
Nothing demonstrates North Carolina’s commitment to producing premium wine more than the Shelton-Badgett NC Center for Viticulture and Enology. The center, located at Surry Community College in Dobson, was completed in 2009 and features a state-of-the-art commercial winery. Courses offered are targeted to those interested in becoming winery managers, tasting room managers, vineyard managers, winemakers, and wine marketers.
Program Assistant Matthew Wilson provided a tour of Surry Cellars and its vineyard. Since the center receives many donations, they are blessed with an array of winemaking equipment that would be the envy of many in-state wineries. Surry Cellars produces a sought-after traditional method sparkling wine, Lot 154, made with 70% Petit Manseng, 20% Chardonnay, and 10% Traminette.
The program provides authentic hands-on experience including planting and tending the vineyard, making and bottling the wine, and marketing the final product. Even the eye-catching Surry Cellars label was designed by a student.
I’m a fan of Surry Cellar’s Barrel Fermented Chardonnay and their Chambourcin. Their Chambo is a Chambourcin that is made in a natural wine style. Kudzu flowers are used to isolate yeast used in its natural fermentation. Hard to believe that pesky kudzu can be used to produce such a beautiful wine, rich with raspberry and plum flavors and a touch of spice.
Chambo is part of the Surry Labs label produced by Surry Cellars. Surry Labs allows students to test ideas and winemaking methods in low-production runs. The Chambo is made with malolactic fermentation and micro oxygenation was used with French oak chips. This process gives the wine the character of more than a year of barrel aging in only two months.
There are eleven grape varieties in the vineyard including Petit Verdot, Tannat, Albariño, Traminette, Chardonnay, and Chardonel. Muscadine grapes will be added as part of a vineyard redevelopment project over the next two years.
Favorite Wine: 2022 “Chambo” Chambourcin
Before our next winery visit, we stopped for lunch at the Central Café in Dobson. The café is just the sort of place to enjoy a great homestyle meal. We got that plus a nice surprise. Dobson tourism coordinator Travis Frye introduced us to a historic treat: the ground steak sandwich.
Ground steak is a tasty variation of the hamburger with its origin in the Great Depression when local cooks devised a way to stretch the amount of food that could be made from a pound of ground beef or ground chuck.
Don’t confuse this with a sloppy joe, which is spicier and typically has ketchup or Worcestershire sauce. Ground steak can also be served on thick bread or entrée-style on a plate without the bun. Some restaurants in the area have been serving this favorite for more than 50 years. Each has its special recipe. The beef can be browned or boiled, spices include salt and pepper and in some cases hot sauce, was or milk is used to get the perfect consistency.
My sandwich was melt-in-your-mouth good. Explore this heritage food on the Surry Ground Steak Trail which includes 11 restaurants in Mt. Airy, Pilot Mountain, Dobson, and Elkin that serve this treat on their everyday menu.
Jones von Drehle
Jones von Drehle is a 130-acre estate winery and, according to co-founder Chuck Jones, everything about it is a fluke. In 2007 while driving through Yadkin Valley after his daughter’s soccer game, they passed a beautiful pasture and he exclaimed to his wife (and co-founder) Diana that this hillside would be perfect for a vineyard. Continuing to drive slowly past the property they spotted a ‘for sale” sign. Two weeks later they bought the land.
Another case of serendipity is the lovely Jones von Drehle 2022 Estate Viognier. When Chuck was looking to plant the vineyard, he wanted to plant Albariño but the nursery didn’t have any vines. Instead, he planted Viognier. It would be hard for Albariño to surpass the wonderful Viognier. The 2022 vintage has a floral aroma leading to lush peach flavors and a soft finish.
Chuck describes growing grapes and making wine as a “slow-motion game.” Indeed, the winery is known for its long aging of wine. On the tasting menu are a 2017 Cabernet Franc and a reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from 2015.
The wines are fruit focused, from the rich cherry and plum notes of the 2015 Merlot to the 2020 Petit Manseng, a white with bold flavors of stone fruit and balanced crispness. Also crisp and delightful is the 2021 Blanc de Blanc, a gorgeous sparkling wine from Chardonnay made in the time-consuming traditional method.
Jones von Drehle offers a summer concert series in their scenic amphitheater and music follows you throughout your visit to the winery. In the tasting room and on the grounds music is featured from groups that have performed at the winery.
Favorite wine: 2018 Steel & Stone, a blend of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon
At the end of Beast Trail in Mt. Airy lies not a haunted house, but a winery boasting scenic views and flavorful wines. Serre Vineyards is the passion project of Christian Krobisch and Melissa Hayes. The husband and wife team chose the name “Serre” which is pronounced like “share” and means greenhouse in French.
Serre opened in September 2020 and so at this point, the grapes and winemaking come from outside sources, specifically Round Peak and Childress wineries. The vines are now in the ground for the estate vineyard and as they bear fruit, the winery will transition to its own grapes.
The property is 70 acres of farmland at more than 1,300 feet in elevation with a stellar view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The 3,000-square-foot tasting room is open and airy. It’s built in the modern farmhouse style with European accents.
The best spot to enjoy Serre is outside from the comfort of an Adirondack chair taking in the view of the mountains, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Cumberland Knob. With a glass of wine in your hand, of course.
“Flavor is why we’re in the business,” said Melissa. The wines we sampled certainly lived up to that billing. The 2022 Rêvasser, a carbonated Vidal Blanc, is the quintessential pick for a sultry summer day. The name is French for daydream, it’s crisp, bubbly, and bright.
New since our last visit is the 2019 Port Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is aged for 17 months in Port barrels, which conveys depth and a delectable sweetness not normally found in a North Carolina Cabernet. The 2019 “The Blend” is a Super Tuscan-style bottle that charmingly blends Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Montepulciano.
Favorite wine: 2019 The Blend, a Super Tuscan blend
Our first full day in Yadkin Valley was capped with a visit to Shelton Vineyards and their celebrated restaurant Harvest Grill. Shelton, with a 400-acre estate and one of the largest vineyards on the East Coast, is a leader in North Carolina wine.
We’ve been to Shelton on several occasions but this was a remarkable evening. Executive Chef Mark Thrower prepared an assortment of mouth-watering small plates based on the restaurant menu to accompany our wine selections. We savored the dishes in a prime location in the restaurant as we watched dusk fall on the vineyard and grounds.
In a creative twist on shrimp and grits, our first course was Shrimp & Middlins. Middlins are the broken and smaller pieces of rice from the hulling process. The dish was jumbo shrimp, wild boar sausage, blistered grape tomatoes, butter and spring onions on creamy Carolina Gold Rice “grits.” This was paired with the 2021 Sauvignon Blanc. The wine’s tropical fruit notes and light acidity were a pleasing pairing.
The strawberry bibb salad featured goat cheese from a local farm and aeroponically-grown lettuce. Aeroponics is the technique of growing plants without soil, quite a trick. This summery dish was matched with the 2021 Two-Five-Nine Dry Rosé, which has flowing strawberry and citrus flavors.
The Two Five Nine Tannat was paired with seared duck breast and blackberry-Malbec reduction. This Tannat recently received top honors in a tasting of Tannat from around the world conducted by sommelier and friend merlot2muscadine.
Big entrées call for big wines and so 2017 Two Five Nine Franklin was paired with the center-cut filet mignon. This was served with duck fat cipollini onion and cremini mushroom confit, scratch bordelaise, parsley truffle butter, and roasted fingerlings. Wow!
This limited reserve wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tannat. The Tannat provides the heft for this wine which features dark fruit, chocolate, and leather. This is a substantial and beautiful wine.
Shelton is a shining example of North Carolina wine, fine food, and hospitality.
Favorite wine: 2017 Two Five Nine Franklin