Originally published in Lake & Sumter Style magazine, May 2012. Photos by Mary Ann DeSantis.
Move over, Bourbon. Kentucky wines are winning international awards as the Bluegrass State reclaims its wine-making heritage, one that began with America’s first commercial vineyard in 1798.
Bourbon has been synonymous with Kentucky for nearly two centuries, and most people say the Kentucky Derby wouldn’t be the same without its bourbon-based Mint Juleps. But as more people turn to wine for enjoyment, Kentucky varietals are edging their way into the attention of wine enthusiasts nationwide.
Wine production in Kentucky is not new. French winemaker Jean-Jacques Defour formed the Kentucky Vineyard Society in 1798 and purchased 600 acres for vineyards on the Kentucky River with backing by several prominent statesmen. His first vintage went to oenophile Thomas Jefferson. Kentucky was the third largest grape and wine producer in the nation before Prohibition forced farmers to destroy grapevines in the early 1920s. Many turned to tobacco farming, but with the decline of that industry many farmers returned to grape growing in the late 1990s.
Today, Kentucky’s cabernets, chardonnays, merlots, and other varietals are helping to make agritourism a thriving business in the central and northern parts of the state. Visitors are often surprised not only at the picturesque vineyards, but also by the rich flavors of the wines.“It’s great to see the ‘ah-ha’ moments when people taste our wines for the first time,” says Cynthia Bohn, winemaker and owner of Equus Run Vineyards, located in thoroughbred horse country west of Lexington.
A retired IBM executive, Cynthia bought the former tobacco farm in 1998 and has built it into one of the state’s best known wineries. CNN Travel voted Equus Run as a Must-See Hidden Treasure of the US, and each year Cynthia produces a much-sought after limited edition bottling for the Kentucky Derby. This year, only 138 bottles of the collectible cabernet sauvignon are available at $80 each for the 138th “run for the roses.”
“People kept asking for it, so I kept making it,” says Cynthia, who grew up on a farm in Kentucky and later studied viniculture at University of California-Davis.Kentucky’s loamy soils and deep limestone shelves have allowed many of the vineyards to craft award-winning varietals. The Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 at the Jean Farris Winery on the eastern side of Lexington won a double gold medal at the 2012 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Two other Jean Farris wines, the petite syrah and the Tempest(a blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc) both placed at the same competition. A wall in the tasting room is filled with awards, but the proof that these wines are something to write home about is the patron-packed bistro. What began as a winery has also become one of Lexington’s most popular dining spots.
Jean Farris and her husband, Ben O’Daniel, whose family owned one of Kentucky’s first wineries, met in 1997 on a University of Kentucky-sponsored tour of Missouri wineries. Jean’s family had reclaimed a strip-mined mountain top and planted vineyards. When asked where the grapes were grown for the complex Petite Syrah, Ben pointed to the window and said, “Right behind you.”
On the south side of Lexington lies Talon Winery, another picturesque and award-winning vineyard where visitors can watch the entire winemaking process from vine to bottle. Winemaker Kerry Jolliffe is a master at explaining how Kentucky’s climate and soil affect the grape-growing process.
“Because of our warm nights, we don’t always get the jammy flavors like California wines do,” he says. “Our wines are soft and smooth, and very drinkable for the average person. Many people who say they like only sweet wines find our dry reds and whites very approachable.”
Talon’s popular selling chardonnay is aged in French oak barrels and has hints of vanilla and tropical fruit. Kerry says it has to be good because his wife is a chardonnay drinker. “I have to make it to her liking,” he says with a chuckle.
Kentucky has more than 50 wineries statewide, and the harvest occurs in late August and early September. Wines can be shipped to Florida, but they are relatively expensive because most are handcrafted. Tastings, however, are reasonable and offer enjoyable experiences for wine enthusiasts looking for new wine destinations.
For more information, visit Kentuckywines.com.
Kentucky winemakers have produced several outstanding wines, and they seem to have something for every palate. Here are a few wines that I tried in Kentucky. I liked some of them so much that I had a few shipped to my Florida home:
Jean Farris “Tempest” — This blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc has won several top awards at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in recent years and quickly became one of my favorites. Apparently, a lot of other folks like it, too, because the Jean Farris web site says it has sold out. More is on the way, however, and I would definitely buy it again. The dark, rich bramble fruit comes forward with a hint of spice and tobacco. It’s light enough to enjoy without food, but is still rich enough to pair nicely with grilled meats as well. $28 to $35.
Jean Farris Petite Syrah — If I had to choose one favorite wine from Kentucky, I would have to pick the Jean Farris Petite Syrah. When I served this wine a few weeks ago to some California wine-loving friends, I didn’t tell them the varietal or its origin. No one guessed either and they said it was one of the best petite syrahs they had ever tasted. This is a very dark, intense wine with firm, ripe tannins. It has notes of dark chocolate with just a hint of clove and chicory. Excellent with pork chops and, of course, dark chocolate. $40 to $50.
Talon Chardonnay — I am not as much of a chardonnay aficionado as most wine drinkers but that could change if Talon wines were available in Florida. Winemaker Kerry Jolliffe only ages the dry white about six months so that it doesn’t get overly oaked. The wine has tropical fruit on the nose and a melon-like finish. $17.95.
Talon Monarch Cabernet Franc — I liked this one well enough to risk having wine-soaked clothes in my checked bag on my return flight. A full-bodied cabernet franc with rich tannins, Monarch features the peppery flavors of estate-grown grapes. $17.95Equus Run Passionate Kiss — I never thought I’d admit that I liked… make that love… a sweet wine. This chocolate-infused cabernet sauvignon, however, makes you forget everything you ever thought about dessert wines. This is the only sweet wine that Equus Run produces, and winemaker Cynthia Bohn certainly knows how to put passion in a bottle. It’s not overly sweet and has just enough cherry and strawberry on the finish to be the perfect ending to any meal. Call 877-905-2675 for prices.