[caption id="attachment_175370" align="alignright" width="300"] Joseph Geller is the vineyard manager at Dynamis Estate Wines in Jonesville.[/caption] Joseph Geller plucks a grape from a fat, nearly ripe cluster and pops it
Joseph Geller plucks a grape from a fat, nearly ripe cluster and pops it into his mouth. He worries it for a moment, freeing the fruit from its skin. Then he chews — “Mmm. The sugars are up, and the character is really starting to show,” he says — and spits the seeds into his hand. Geller, the vineyard manager at Dynamis Estate Wines in Jonesville, is standing at the high point of Prometheus, a three-acre block of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc vines. The vines are taller than he is, green tendrils spiraling sunward while the roots hide in the earth underfoot. “They’re almost totally brown, just a little green on them,” he says, squinting at the BB-size seed he holds between his thumb and forefinger. “That’s one of the ways we determine ripeness.”
Scuffing the toe of his boot through the grass, Geller overturns a stone in the bare strip of dirt near the vine’s gnarled trunk. Red earth sticks to the rock. Miniscule flakes of mica glint from the hole that Geller’s boot made. “If we’re talking terroir, it all starts here,” he says.
Terroir, a French term denoting the sense of place where grapes grow, is best experienced by tasting the wine. Take a sip and pay attention to that mineral note, the way the sweetness rises and then falls off, the play of acid across the palate — those are all derived from terroir, as if these flavor components have been sucked into the fruit via some biological straw. Which, by some measures, they have. Terroir is the culmination of the soil, the regional and local climate, and the terrain and topography of the vineyard.
In Dynamis’s tasting lodge — a former apple packinghouse hidden two rolling ridges away from Prometheus — winemaker Katy Kidd swirls her glass, eyes it in the afternoon light, and sips. “The vineyard and the wine, they create a connection between us and the land,” she says. “Each harvest, every vintage, is unique, but each bottle of wine tells a story about that land.”
To tell the story of Dynamis is to tell of a thriving apple orchard that rose from cut-to-bald timberland. But it’s more than that. It’s also a story about the Yadkin Valley, North Carolina’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA): how it birthed a thriving industry that has spread far beyond the borders of that AVA, and how it’s telling the larger story of North Carolina wine, bottle by bottle.
• • •
As day breaks over the Yadkin Valley and sends the iconic Pilot Mountain’s shadow west toward the Blue Ridge, mist rises in pockets, revealing hollows hidden in the folds of the foothills, the shapes of rivers and streams, and low ridgelines blanketed by earthbound clouds. In the places where rock lies exposed, tendrils of streams reach and curl through the forest like fiddleheads waiting to unfurl. All around are fertile fields and prized bottomland, where generations of farmers have raised tobacco, corn, and children.
In 1999, brothers Charles and Ed Shelton, natives of Mount Airy, had a new idea for the Yadkin Valley. The terroir here — soil similar to that in northern Italy; climate akin to Bordeaux, France; and scenery rivaling Napa Valley — told them that this land was destined for grapes. So they planted their first vines with dreams of an AVA. Four years later, the Yadkin Valley became one.
The brothers’ work — planting vines in ’99, opening a tasting room in 2000, developing the AVA in 2003 — has paid off. Shelton Vineyards is one of the largest and most-lauded wineries in North Carolina. But nowadays, there are more than 200 other wineries and wine producers, and six recognized AVAs across the state: Yadkin Valley, Swan Creek, Crest of the Blue Ridge, Appalachian High Country, Haw River, and Upper Hiwassee Highlands. “Each site has its own advantages and challenges,” says Ethan Brown, Shelton Vineyards’ winemaker. “It’s up to the vineyard — the vineyard manager and the winemaker — to coax the best possible fruit from the site, then hopefully produce outstanding wines from that fruit.”
Standing at the highest point in the vineyard, Brown gestures toward the Blue Ridge Mountains a dozen miles to the west. Last night, clouds gathered over the range, becoming flat-bottomed and still surging skyward, with flashes of heat lightning. Before sunset, the first drops of rain fell to quench the thirsty earth and vines. Yet Brown stands on a dry knob, and you’d struggle to find the ingredients for even a mud pie among the vineyard’s rows.
By way of explanation, he follows a row of vines to its end and traces a rolling ridge until it tucks behind a thicket of trees. The slopes, the makeup of the soil — clay and loam — and the stream hidden at the foot of the rise carry water away. He points to a ridge that climbs lazily to a cornfield a little higher than where he stands now. “With terroir, we take all the climate conditions into consideration,” he says. “Frost, which can devastate a crop, won’t settle on the high points, like here” — he stamps his foot — “or there” — and then gestures to the cornfield-topped knob. “But it will settle in the low places,” he explains, nodding toward the hidden stream and low-lying dips in the fields nearby. “We have totally different conditions from one end of the Yadkin Valley to the other.”
That’s because the region is huge — 1.4 million acres. “Naturally, the terroir varies from one end to the other,” says David Bower, an instructor at Surry Community College’s Shelton-Badgett North Carolina Center for Viticulture and Enology. That variance — caused by elevation, temperature and humidity, sun and wind, and other factors — causes grapes to ripen at different rates, develop different sugar levels, and grow deeper in color.
Wineries and vineyards elsewhere in the state face other terroir-based challenges and see the influence of terroir in novel ways. “Sanctuary Vineyards, on the coast, produces a wine with a distinct salinity,” Bower says. “That’s terroir. It could be the salt air leaving a trace deposit on the fruit.” Here in the Yadkin Valley, it’s the frost that keeps winemakers up at night; on the coast, it’s the sea breeze and wetter weather.
• • •
Dynamis Estate Wines — with its 30 acres of grapevines and eight acres of fruit trees — sprawls like a Rorschach inkblot across an undulating ridgeline in the Brushy Mountains. As Highland Road ascends the hill toward the vineyards, pastureland and farm fields give way to thick forest, where wildflowers nod their colorful heads, and deer and their spotted fawns browse for lunch in the shade. The road flows up and up and finally crests, revealing a sea of manicured lawn and hundreds of grapevines standing in orderly rows, soaking up the sun, leaves fluttering in the wind.
Dynamis, in the Swan Creek AVA, was once timberland, its hilltops skinned nearly bald to feed trees to Elkin’s wood veneer factories. From 1915 to 1975, it was Highland Orchards, with 125 acres of apples and peaches, and nearly 900 tons of fruit harvested each season. But after the ’70s, the land sat dormant until 2013, when Harry Crosby acquired the tract and envisioned a vineyard. Two years later, the first wine grapes went into the ground; the following year came five acres of apples, two acres of peaches, and one acre of pears, bringing the budding vineyard closer to its past as an orchard.
Inside the vineyard’s tasting lodge, winemakers Katy Kidd and Matheson Worrell sit at a table where four bottles and an equal number of empty glasses wait. Kidd’s shoes and Worrell’s shirt are splattered with a constellation of purple stains, evidence of their work in the winery this morning. As he pours a glass, Worrell reveals their strategy. “We’re minimalist winemakers,” he says, and Kidd nods in agreement. “The more we’re hands-off, the more the terroir shows in the final product.”
The terroir indeed shows. It shows on the wall, where a framed slice of the land, two feet by three feet, displays a cross section of the soil — the clay and schist, the specks of mica, the chips of quartz, and striped gneiss. And it shows in the glass, gleaming like an unpolished ruby. The Mountain, Dynamis’s bold flagship red, fills the glasses, offering both subtlety and forwardness. A violet nose evokes images of the vineyard, frosted with years of fallen blossoms, a prelude to the flavors of blackberry and plum that wash across the palate with the first sip. Balanced by the tannins and a delicate, almost mushroomy finish, The Mountain tastes every bit like this place.
• • •
Two and a half hours southwest of the Yadkin Valley sits Stone Ashe Vineyards in the Crest of the Blue Ridge AVA, surrounded by apple orchards and high peaks. Here, just northeast of Hendersonville, the average elevation is more than 1,000 feet higher than that of Swan Creek, and the slopes where the grapes grow are truly slopes — Stone Ashe’s steepest leans 35 degrees. At first glance, it seems an inhospitable place to grow wine grapes, but the soil drains well, the slopes are situated to maximize sun exposure, and the mountain across the way isn’t so high that it blocks the sun until close to evening.
“Our site is critical,” says Heath Little, a member of the family that runs Stone Ashe, as he pours glasses of pale gold liquid. “We produce place-driven, terroir-focused wines, and our particular terroir produces beautiful grapes and beautiful wines.”
Sip Stone Ashe’s chardonnay alongside the Riesling and you’ll find a controlled streak of acidity at work in both. It brightens up the Riesling, lending it an edge that sets off the floral aroma and the subdued flavors of apple and pear. In the chardonnay, it comes across as tart, like green apples, and zesty, like citrus, each keeping the inherent sweetness of this grape in check. Both wines finish with a lean minerality that leaves you wanting more.
“Merlot is merlot is merlot, but due to terroir, no two vintages are identical.”
“There’s a distinct profile to each of our wines that’s more than the difference between varietals,” says Tina Little, who owns the vineyard along with her husband, Craig. “Merlot is merlot is merlot, but due to terroir, no two vintages are identical.”
Heath explains why. “We do everything with intent,” he says. “Every block was placed where it is for a reason. Every vine is pruned to bring out the best in that particular grape.” He pauses. “Take our rosé. Some winemakers will use a blend of allocated or leftover wine to produce their rosé, but we purpose-pick our cabernet franc because it’s more reminiscent of that Provence-style rosé you find in the south of France.”
But this isn’t the south of France or Bordeaux or Napa or any place other than here. Gazing out at her vineyard, Tina says, “North Carolina produces some outstanding wines, and it’s because of terroir, because there’s something special about this place.”
Heath stands, looks to the orchard across the valley, then back at the vines. “Let’s go in the vineyard,” he says excitedly. A few minutes later, he’s at the top of a block of chardonnay, eyeing the sky as if he could will the clouds to part, and caressing a stray leaf that shades a cluster of grapes. His fingertips graze a dozen globes, giving a gentle squeeze here and there, testing for ripeness. “Here we go,” he says, pulling a few off the bunch. He holds one up to the sky and studies it against the bright background of clouds flowing east. It glows, then disappears into his mouth. “Beautiful,” he says. “You know, they say that grapes grow best in a place where they have a view.” A second grape disappears. A third. The clouds thin, and hazy rays break through, their golden spotlights playing across the land.
Maybe that’s another component of terroir: the view. Grapes indeed grow best where there’s a beautiful view. Just look around at Stone Ashe, Dynamis, Shelton, or any other winery across our state, and it’s undeniable. Where there’s beauty in the land, there’s beauty in the bottle. Just as grapes draw nourishment and character from the soil, every pop of the cork, every pour, every sip of North Carolina wine is also imbued with the beauty of the land, the place that holds our hearts fast and leaves every one of us wanting more.