Sunday, May 11, 2008

Wine Tourists in the Bluegrass

It may be so that the first commercial vineyard in America was established near Lexington in Kentucky in 1798, but Kentucky never became world renown for its wine. That honor belongs to its bourbon. The past weekend Nicholasville, a town just south of Lexington, KY, had its fifth annual Wine and Vine Festival and for the first time they arranged a wine tour as part of the festival. On Friday I took a day’s vacation and we joined 30-plus other wine enthusiasts to take a bus tour to four wine estates.

The 50-seater bus slowly made it way along the twists and turns of the Bluegrass’s back roads lined by Locust trees, wild Honeysuckle and other shrubs, and beyond it, on the rolling green countryside cows and horses grazed in the meadows. The morning air was crisp, the sky gray and gloomy with rumors of rain. Upfront Brenda, the tour leader was going through the bag of goodies and pamphlets we received and told us what was in store for the day. We traveled along Sulphur Well Pike and eventually turned onto Chrisman Mill Road. After only about 15 minutes of driving from Nicholasville we arrived at our first winery of the day, Chrisman Mill Vineyards & Winery. After a short tour to the vineyard and an explanation of the winemaking process it was on to the important part of the visit, the tasting.

The team at Chrisman Mill did a great job of setting the tone for a good day of views, vistas, vineyards and wine.

The vineyards of Kentucky are not as well known as those of California, Washington or Oregon. There are no existing wine routes and there are no permanent wine tours. Tours to wineries are either a special event as part of a festival or individual tours undertaken by wine lovers. This is because the wine industry in Kentucky is still in its infancy. But estate-crawling in small groups of friends is possible because several wineries are located close to one another. Just make sure you have a designated non-drinking driver.

After about an hour at Chrisman Mill we got back into the bus and we were on our way again to the next vineyard, Jean Farris Winery. The tasting has now produced a looser atmosphere among the group and more giggling was evident among some. Just what the tour needed. Any tour group is not just about people sharing something they all enjoy, but it is also about making new friends. Conversation was now flowing freely. Along the way Bart Massey from the Wine Tutoring School gave us some short lessons on the more academic aspects of wine appreciation.

At Jean Farris the tour group was seated in the estate’s bistro instead of around the tasting bar and we had to wait far too long before the tasting began. Although I found the quality of their wines rather good their prices are high. I was not planning to buy any. However, as I walked back to the bus, one of the salesladies called me back and asked if I wanted to taste the flagship wine of their estate. I am glad I did. It was not one of the five wines presented to us during the open tasting and it was one of the better wines of the day, the Jean Farris Tempest, a blend of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Even at a young age it is already smooth and complex. I immediately purchased a bottle and at home I placed it at the bottom of my wine rack. It can gather dust there for the next 4 – 5 years. (Tempranillo is a red grape cultivar originating from Spain’s Rioja region.)

When you go on a Kentucky wine tour you should not expect to see the 200-300 year old Cape Dutch homesteads of the Cape wine routes in South Africa, or the ambiance and history of the Middle Ages of Tuscany or the chateaus of Bordeaux and the Loire valley in France. The wineries we visited were all young, the vineyards less than 15 years old, but they have all came a long way in such a short time.

From Jean Farris we drove south on the I-75 to Richmond. About 10 miles outside Richmond, nestled between creeks and rolling hills is the Acres of Land vineyard-converted-from-tobacco-farm. Here we had a sumptuous lunch of prime rib/grilled chicken, scalloped potatoes and baked parmesan-basil stuffed Roma tomatoes. Excellent! We were allowed to taste 6 wines and the Russell Land Chambourcin Reserve and Marie’s Merlot is worth mentioning and worth buying. After a tour of the winemaking process and facilities, we headed back to Lexington to our last destination.

At this stage we were late, very late according to our tour schedule. At Talon Winery we took a quick walk through the vineyard, which I feel was totally unnecessary seeing the late hour and the fact that it is only spring now and the growth is still very small. We tasted 5 wines on the terrace, none which really impressed me, but it was only once we went to the tasting room in the 1790-ish farmhouse that I tasted some good wines worth mentioning and buying, their Monarch 2005 (an easy drinking red) and Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. Their flagship wine, the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 is excellent, though pricey. (BTW I think they did a terrible job of modernizing the exterior of the old farmhouse. They could have given the winery an instant old-world ambiance if they’d renovated the exterior in an 18th century fashion. )

In conclusion, the tour was certainly worth it. We enjoyed a great day as tourists in Kentucky and saw places and met people we would otherwise not have seen or met. And the wine was of a much better quality than I have previously taste from Kentucky. Congratulations to the Nicholasville Now organization for taking the bold step to organize their first wine tour and thank you to the four wineries for opening their doors to the tour.

Wineries visited and other websites worth a visit:

An idillic farmhouse nestled among the trees near Chrisman Mill Vineyards & Winery.

Tasting at Talon Winery.

The Saturday we went to Nicholasville again to attend the Kentucky Wine & Vine Fest in York Street. Above photo: inside the tent of the local producers.

Locally produced Bourbon Barbeque sauce from Blanton's at the Fest.

Present at the Festival and on the Friday's Wine tour was the grape and wine representative of Kentucky Proud, a "buy local" initiative of Kentucky's Dept. of Agriculture. A very worthy program to support local food producers.

No comments: