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Try Before You Die: A New Twist on the Old List
By Linda Murphy
Aug 12, 2014
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The “wines to try before you die” article has been written numerous times and in myriad ways.

Most of the stories take a global view, recommending iconic wines such as Bordeaux First Growths and Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes, Burgundy Grand Crus Domaine de la Romanee-Conte and Leroy, Krug Champagne and Penfolds Grange.  Others target specific regions:  wines to try before you die from Willamette Valley/Santa Barbara County/Napa Valley/fill in any region.

This is all great, and such lists are often interesting and thought-provoking.  Yet one rarely sees U.S. wines on international “before you die” stories, and when they do appear, they’re from California, Oregon and/or Washington.  Yet there numerous outstanding wine in the “other 47” that get little, if any, attention outside state lines and deserve it.

A trait shared by most wine lovers and aficionados is their desire to taste something new, to explore emerging wine regions, grape varieties and winemakers.  Discovering pleasure and intrigue in previously unfamiliar wines is the motivation for many -- particularly wine critics and sommeliers -- with intellectual stimulation as rewarding as the aroma and taste stimulation. 

With that in mind, here is my list of non-West Coast wines for which I’m thankful to have tried before I die.  They are worth seeking out by anyone with the curiosity and drive to drink outside the California-Oregon-Washington box.  And seek you must, unfortunately, because most of these wines are low in production and not widely distributed.  Purchasing at the source is the best advice; depending on the state in which a winery is located and where the bottles will be shipped, these wines can also be purchased online.  Also look for them on restaurant lists and fine-wine shops in the regions where the wines were produced.

You’re in for a treat -- many times a surprising one -- if you try these wines, one each from Georgia, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.  In alphabetical order:

1.  Barboursville Vineyards Octagon 2010 Virginia ($55): Luca Paschina, sent by Italy’s Zonin family to Virginia in 1991 to produce the Barboursville wines, is still there and a leading figure in the state’s wine industry.  The flagship wine, the Bordeaux-style Octagon blend, is European in style, intense and lively, with savory cigar box and leafy herb notes adding interest to the cassis and black cherry fruit.  Ripe yet firm tannins and refreshing acidity promise a long life in the cellar.

2.  Duchman Family Winery Bayer Family Vineyard Tempranillo 2011 Texas ($34): The Texas High Plains AVA in the westernmost part of the state is growing fabulous Tempranillo, which is quickly becoming (arguably) Texas’ best red wine grape.  The high elevation (3,000 to 4,000 feet and hot conditions of West Texas are well-suited to Tempranillo, and Duchman’s version from the Bayer vineyard near Lubbock is rich and full-bodied, with vibrant blackberry and blueberry fruit enhanced by an earthy truffle character and vanillin oak spice.  It’s a mouthfilling, substantial wine yet with a moderate 13.5 percent alcohol content.

3.  Frogtown Cellars Bravado 2010 Georgia ($41): Yes, Georgia.  Specifically Lumpkin County, where Frogtown winegrower/maker Craig Kritzer works some magic with blended wines such as Audacity, Intensity and Touche.  Bravado, a platinum medalist at the 2014 Critics Challenge competition, is a Super Tuscan mix of Sangiovese, Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s bright and fresh-tasting, with a Chianti-like sour cherry and tomato leaf quality from the Sangiovese, solid tannins from the Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon, and subtle toast and vanilla hints from barrel aging.  The finish is long and satisfying. 

4.  Galen Glen Vineyard & Winery Stone Cellar 2012 Gruner Veltliner Lehigh Valley Pennsylvania ($17): Galen and Sarah Troxell are committed to producing Austrian-style Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Zweigelt in Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, a state known more for hybrid grapes.  This Gruner is one of the best in the States, with a gentle fresh-herb and white pepper aromas and bright, almost Sauvignon Blanc-like grapefruit and Mandarin orange flavors plus hints of pear and honey.  It’s structure and balance make it a perfect partner for seafood of any kind and roast chicken. 

5.  Gruet Blanc de Noirs NV, New Mexico ($17): The wine, thankfully, is both nationally available and a great bargain for traditional-method sparkling wine (often discounted).  The Gruet family, from Champagne, purchased 350 acres near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, in the mid-1980s and planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir at 4,300-foot elevation.  Their bubblies from these grapes, which include brut and rose in addition to this blanc de noirs, are precise and properly yeasty, with the blanc de noirs particularly memorable for its creamy cherry liqueur essence. 

6.  Heritage Vineyards BDX Estate Reserve 2010 Outer Coastal Plaines New Jersey ($70): Even many New Jerseyans don’t know fine wine is made in their state.  True, many producers are more dedicated to tourism and cheap and cheerful hybrid and fruit wines, yet a dozen or so of New Jersey’s 50-plus wineries are doing remarkable work, among them Bill and Penni Heritage in Mullica Hill.  New Jersey naysayers should try their Bordeaux-style (BDX) blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Petit Verdot for its complexity, polished tannins, ripe berry and cherry fruit and elegant structure.

7.  Miletta Vista Winery Brianna 2013 Nebraska ($15): Lush tropical, pear and citrus flavors and a gentle touch of sweetness make this an excellent warm-weather sipper with refreshing acidity and brightness.  That it’s from Nebraska and made from a hybrid grape developed by the University of Minnesota for cold-hardiness is a bonus, a real conversation starter.  Who knew Nebraskans produced outstanding wine? Mick and Loretta McDowell opened the winery in St. Paul, Neb., in 2007.  It was destroyed by fire in June 2012, but the McDowells rebuilt and reopened less than a year later.
8.  Raffaldini Vineyards Vermentino Riserva 2012 Swan Creek, North Carolina ($19): From the state of tobacco and stock-car racing comes this gorgeous white Italian-variety wine with juicy peach and citrus fruit, racy, mouthwatering acidity and a gentle creaminess in the mid-palate, which comes from aging in neutral oak barrels and stirring of the lees.  Flat-out delicious.  The Swan Creek AVA is a subset of the larger Yadkin Valley AVA, near the Brushy Mountains.  The schist and mica in the soil contribute to a sense of minerality of Raffaldini’s wines, which include Sangiovese and Montepulciano.