2009 brings ice wine, awards to area winery
Banner Elk Winery's been keeping cool this season, producing a
banner batch of ice wine and netting four medals from the N.C. State Fair Wine
Ice wine is typically a dessert wine, made from grapes frozen while still on the vine. Though water in the grape freezes, sugars and solids do not, resulting in a wine sweeter than average.
When Banner Elk was blanketed with snow on Oct. 17, vintner and co-owner Dick Wolfe donned his winter coat, grabbed his pruning scissors and went to work, picking enough grapes for two barrels - or 100 gallons - of ice wine. The wine is available in limited quantity for $59.95 per bottle.
Ice wine is a niche product unique to the area's high elevations, Wolfe said, and he hopes it will separate the High Country from your typical wine country.
Nestled at 4,000 feet above sea level, the Banner Elk area is what Wolfe referred to as a micro-climate similar to European wine countries.
"The climate of the High Country is similar to that in Europe in both temperature and rainfall," he said. "As a result, our wines produced are much closer to the quality of the French and Italian wines than those wines produced in the lower elevations with hotter temperatures, such as California or even the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina."
In fact, Wolfe feels safe calling the 2009 harvest a banner year, thanks to the wet weather. Banner Elk Winery purchased 50 tons of local mountain-grown grapes from 11 area farmers, paying approximately $1,400 per ton, amounting to roughly $70,000 in revenue for the farmers.
"We are truly starting a new agricultural product of wine grapes and establishing the High Country of North Carolina, including Ashe, Watauga and Avery counties, as a premier area for growing quantity of wine grapes," Wolfe said, adding that more than 33 farmers in the area are now growing grapes, with about 40 acres in production.
"I doubt we'll ever attain the production per acre of the Yadkin Valley or other hotter areas of North Carolina, but I believe we will produce the higher quality of wine grapes."
Various competitions help confirm this, including the N.C. State Fair's annual wine competition. In the 2009 contest, the winery received a silver medal for its North Carolina Blueberry, a bronze for its Marechal Foch, a bronze for its 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, and an honorable mention for its 2006 Chardonnay.
"I'm pretty pleased with the results," Wolfe said. "I would've liked to get the gold, but I'll just work harder next time."
Nonetheless, the winery, established in 2005, has a backlog of awards to its name. In 2006, Wolfe submitted his 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon (from grapes grown at his Abingdon, Va., vineyard), to the State Fair competition, from which it received the prestigious double-gold medal.
In 2007, the Banner Elk White, High Country Rose, Seyval Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon left the fair with a bronze medal each.
The 2008 contest saw silver medals awarded to Banner Elk's Chardonnay, Foch and Banner Elk Red, and bronze medals to its Seyval Blanc, Banner Elk White and Cabernet Sauvignon.
"We've now established the true feasibility of growing quality wine grapes of award-winning character," said Wolfe, who started investigating the plausibility of vineyards in the High Country in 2001.
At the time, there were plenty of naysayers who thought it impossible. Wolfe's pleased to report they can now put a cork in it.
The Banner Elk Winery & Inn is located at 60 Deer Run Road in Banner Elk. For more information, call (828) 260-1790 or visit http://www.bannerelkwinery.com.