Raffaldini winemaker Kiley Evans knew he had something special when he stood atop a slope in the vineyard and tasted a handful of Montepulciano grapes one sunny October day in 2011.
Not all of the Yadkin Valley vineyard’s 2011 Montepulciano yield was this good, but the top 12 rows of one block had that certain something. Evans could taste a density and concentration in the fruit, flavors of blackberry and licorice developing. It needed a few more weeks on the vine, if Mother Nature would cooperate, to let the fruit ripen more.
The weather in North Carolina’s wine country that fall had been kind to the grapes – not too hot, not too cold, and the heavy autumn rains that so often make a soggy mess of winemakers’ dreams had held off. This particular block of vines got good sun, and the elevation and grade allowed for optimum soil drainage, Evans said.
“We let it hang on until that black fruit stage,” Evans said. Then, they kept that batch of juice separate from the rest.
The first vines in the Raffaldini vineyard went into the ground in 2004. The first vintages of the wine came to market in 2007. Owing to owner Jay Raffaldini’s heritage and the proclivities of climate and soil in North Carolina’s foothills region, all of the estate’s vines are Italian varietals – sangiovese, Montepulciano, sagrantino, nero d’Avola, malbec, petit verdot, vermentino and pinot grigio. The winery has long turned out some of the best wines in the state, and has come home from California competitions with medals to show. But Evans and Raffaldini feel that the 2011 vintage is a high-water mark.
Raffaldini said he tasted the difference in the first sip.
“Before this year, our wines were not quite there yet,” he said.
To illustrate his confidence in this wine, Raffaldini organized the estate’s first salon tastings, held on two Saturdays this month. In a blind tasting, he poured Montepulciano alongside three other well-respected reds from around the world. The vineyard invited Fearrington House Wine Director Maximilian Kast, an internationally known wine expert who is studying to complete his certification as a Master Sommelier, to assist Evans in guiding tasters through the event.
Pours of each wine sat on tables in a chilly storeroom in the winemaking facility. We settled in and sipped each wine in turn, listening as Evans and Kast talked about the aroma, appearance and palate. We made our own notes, no doubt enhanced by having access to Evans and Kast’s superior knowledge. All of us were tasting blind.
Once we had written our thoughts down, we flipped our note cards over and ranked the wine in order of preference. My pick was No. 3. It was dark purple, and the aroma recalled a late summer afternoon. The mouth feel was sturdy, and it skillfully balanced its tannins and acid, leaving behind a smooth, peppery finish. Our group of about 20 exchanged questions and comments with the winemakers and Raffaldini, and the event took on the jovial feel of dinner with friends. As I rated the wines, I found myself hoping that I had liked the Raffaldini best, but there was no way for me to know.
After we rated them, we matched each one with the price we would expect to pay for a bottle, from $29 to $57.99.
Then, Raffaldini revealed the names of the wines we had tried, and we had to guess which was which. We had tasted 2010 Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Calif.; 2008 Camigliano Brunello di Montalcino from Tuscany, Italy; 2009 Barboursville Octagon from Barboursville, Va., and the Raffaldini Montelpulciano.
Once we had the names to match our ratings, we raised our hands to show which wine was our favorite. In this group, the Montepulciano bested the rest, rating as the preferred wine for the majority of tasters. It turned out to be my favorite as well. We discovered that some of us would have expected to pay $57.99 per bottle for it, though it sells for $29, the least expensive of the four.
“Buy it now,” Raffaldini joked, “because the price is going up tomorrow.”
The salon tasting was a fun opportunity to listen to people who know wine talk about it in an intimate setting. But it wasn’t about showing that Raffaldini’s 2011 Montepulciano Riserva is better than any other of the wines we had, Raffaldini said. His wine was not the top pick of the first group that tasted on Saturday, in fact.
It was about showing that Raffaldini is ready to play in a bigger league, that it can hold its own against serious competition.
“I’m happy just not to be finishing last,” Raffaldini said with a smile.