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Five Obscure Gems
By Robert Whitley
Oct 25, 2016
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 Even those with a mere casual interest in wine know the term "wine country" applies to Napa, California, Sonoma, California, parts of California's Central Coast, parts of Oregon and parts of Washington. Beyond those well-established viticultural boundaries, however, there is a blossoming culture of winemakers who are not content with the conventional wisdom on the topic of what conditions are best suited for winegrowing.

Kim McPherson of McPherson Cellars in Lubbock, Texas, for example, produces an excellent Picpoul in the rolling hills outside of Austin, Texas. Students of the vine would likely raise an eyebrow at that, for Picpoul is a white grape grown in the south of France along the Mediterranean, which looks nothing like the Texas Hill Country.

The state of Virginia has a vibrant winemaking community that regularly turns out Cabernet Franc, Viognier and unusual red blends that rival any made elsewhere in the United States.

You haven't heard of many, or even most, of these excellent wines from throughout the United States and the world because production is generally small and the wines are typically sold and consumed locally. I have compiled a list of impressive wineries prospering in areas generally not associated with fine wine.

All of the wineries listed here have competed and excelled against some of the world's top wineries in major international wine competitions that I manage. This is only a partial list of the obscure gems from off the beaten path that have impressed me in the past year.

Barboursville Vineyards in southern Virginia specializes in Italian grape varieties as well as the star grapes of the region, Cabernet Franc and Viognier. With four medals in the recent Sommelier Challenge, including gold medals for its 2015 Viognier ($22) and its 2013 Octagon (a red Bordeaux-style blend for $55), Barboursville affirmed its record of consistent high-quality wines. Its 2013 Nebbiolo Reserve ($35) — nebbiolo is a grape indigenous to northern Italy's Piedmont district — took a silver medal.

Grape Creek Vineyards, located in the Texas Hill Country, dazzled the judges at the San Diego International Wine & Spirits Challenge with a 14-medal haul, including a platinum medal for its 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah ($37) and four gold medals. If you happen to be passing through the area, Grape Creek Vineyards has also won considerable acclaim for the restaurant on its winery property.

JOLO Winery & Vineyards produces wine from grapes grown in the Yadkin Valley area of North Carolina. It features medal-winning wines with eclectic names like Jolotage, Golden Hallows and Crimson Creek, which are all priced in the $20 to $30 range.

Jordan River has no relation to the Jordan Winery in Sonoma's Alexander Valley. In fact, it's located in the Mafraq Plateau region of the country Jordan, in the Middle East. Jordan River impressed at this year's Sommelier Challenge, winning three gold medals for its 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Limited Edition ($22), its 2013 Merlot Reserve ($15) and its 2013 Viognier Reserve ($15). Its highest-scoring wine received 93 points.

St. James Winery is the pride of Missouri wine, making exceptional vintages of the hybrid wines Vignoles and Norton, as well as excellent Riesling and Moscato, and a plethora of vibrant fruit wines. This winery is a consistent medal winner; it racked up eight medals at this year's San Diego International Wine Challenge, including one platinum, for its Friendship School White ($9), and golds for two dessert wines and its Vignoles and Moscato.

Thornton Winery is located in southern California in the relatively small and obscure Temecula Valley. Good wines are made there, but hardly anyone notices because most of it is sold out of winery tasting rooms and very little gets into the mainstream distribution channels. Winemaker David Vergari, who took the reins five years ago after several bad vintages, has turned the winery around. He had a stunning performance at the Sommelier Challenge, winning two platinum wines (for the $39 2014 Cabernet Franc and the $39 2014 Chardonnay Reserve) to go along with three golds and three silvers.