Why drink wine from North Carolina when it's easier today to find interesting and affordable bottles from more established wine regions around the world? North Carolina wine is growing up, with new producers turning less-heralded grape varieties into fascinating products. Some local restaurants, like Angus Barn, carry a wide range of Tar Heel wines, but your best option for jumping into the most interesting growers is at independent wine and beer shops in the area. Here's your five-course wine tasting, North Carolina-style.
Sanctuary Vineyards Pearl
When Tommy and Jerry Wright—the new Wright Brothers on the Outer Banks—decided to make wine in the sand dunes between the Albemarle and Currituck sounds, they looked east to Spain, where coastal vineyards have produced crisp, unique whites from Albariño grapes for centuries. Turns out, it works in Currituck, too. Sanctuary's Pearl is 100 percent Albariño, packed with lemon and melon notes. North Carolina's climate often zaps white grapes of all their zest and minerality, but with Pearl, Sanctuary has figured out how to do it right. Find the 2014 vintage at Southern Season (201 South Estes Drive, Chapel Hill).
Jones Von Drehle Petit Manseng
(Thurmond, Yadkin Valley AVA)
The future of good wine in North Carolina may be in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where cooler temperatures and steeper slopes let grapes like this lesser-known white from southwest France flourish. This wine is heavy, with a 14 percent ABV and peach, pineapple, and mango flavors that are balanced by a tart finish. Don't turn your nose up at the screwtop in place of the traditional cork. Great wine comes in all shapes and sizes now, and Jones von Drehle's Petit Manseng would be worth drinking even if it came in an unlabeled canning jar. Find the 2014 vintage at Southern Season.
Grove Winery Nebbiolo
(Gibsonville, Haw River Valley AVA)
From the Piedmont to the Piedmont: Nebbiolo is an Italian grape that makes stunning, expensive red wines in Italy's hilly Piedmont region. But while other European reds have struggled under our Piedmont's heat and humidity, this one shines on Grove's Guilford County estate. The 2013 vintage carries classic Nebbiolo trademarks: a light body and rose perfume give way to cherry and licorice flavors. If you want to prove to someone that North Carolina wine isn't all oversugared Welch's, pour this. Plus, it's easily half the price of its Italian counterparts. Find it at Wine Authorities (2501 University Drive, Durham; 211 East Franklin Street, Raleigh).
Flint Hill Vineyards Chambourcin
(East Bend, Yadkin Valley AVA)
Flint Hill's story is what North Carolina wants its wineries to be: a hundred-year-old family farm in a region searching for something to replace the tobacco industry finds new life in wine. Flint Hill undoubtedly sells more chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, but its most interesting wine is 100 percent Chambourcin, a hybrid red variety born from a cross between French and American grapes. Traditionalists often denigrate it, but you shouldn't, because it makes complex, spicy reds on the eastern seaboard where French grapes struggle. Flint Hill's Chambourcin is dark red, with blackberry and clove dominating the palate. If you can't find Flint Hill's, try another Chambourcin, one of the most consistently reliable vines in the state.
Fair Game Beverage Company
(Pittsboro, Haw River Valley AVA)
Much of the muscadine wine in North Carolina is terrifying, a likely cause of cavities and hangovers. Thankfully, Fair Game exists. The Scuppernong Tipper is a brandy-infused muscadine wine that should be the state's official dessert beverage. Its deep gold color and distinct muscadine aroma are unmistakably traditional, but the flavors of caramel and orange peel that stand out with each sip put it in line with fine Madeira. Fair Game suggests using its Scuppernong Tipper in spritzers and gin cocktails, but a small glass after dinner is perfect. It's found widely in the Triangle.