Winter has to be one of my favorite times to visit wineries. There’s not much to see in the vineyards – the vines are being pruned and there’s nothing green in sight. But even the most humble winery is inviting and warm in the winter and offers a sanctuary from the cold.
Recently, I spent a crisp Sunday afternoon exploring the wineries of the southern Haw River Valley AVA, which includes a half dozen wineries in three Piedmont North Carolina counties – Orange, Alamance and Chatham. Amongst the dairy farms, rediscovered small towns like historic Hillsborough and Saxapahaw, these rural wineries offer some surprising experiences in wines.
All the wineries I visited offer the standard $5 tasting with a souvenir glass. At some wineries, the tasting fee will allow you to sample all the wines available, while others give you a choice of five or allow you to choose between reds and whites. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a fan of reds, especially in winter. So my goal was to find a few good ones, which I did.
Benjamin Vineyards and Winery
Benjamin Vineyards and Winery offers a pleasant tasting room, only minutes from Alamance County’s Saxapahaw, a quaint, former textile mill town on the Haw River. The inside space is small, but the winery offers patio seating as well as several shaded picnic tables for warm weather visitors.
The five-acre winery opened in 2003, a year after planting vines. Today, Benjamin Winery produces wines from 16 grape varieties, including native grapes such as muscadines, a native American vinifera grape known as Norton, European viniferas and Chambourcin, which is becoming a signature wine of the Haw River Valley.
In the mood for tasting wines, I tried the ’10 Norton, ’09 Merlot, ’09 Chambourcin, ’07 Cabernet Sauvignon and a winter spice wine, served warm. I enjoyed all the reds I tasted, especially the Norton, which I tasted for the first time, and the Chambourcin, which may just be my favorite North Carolina wine.
The Norton (also called Cynthiana) has a rich, earthy taste, with a surprising hint of spice. The winery describes it as offering, “a hint elderberries balanced with a crisp tartness and soft tannins.”
Just a short drive from the Haw River, Benjamin Winery appears to have forged relations with the local paddling industry. A women’s paddle and paddle dinner are on the schedule for March.
Unfortunately, I was a day late for a big event in the Haw River Valley Wine Trail Tidbit event. For the price of $18, guests could sample a different course paired with a wine from each winery. Benjamin offered the entre – a pork, veggie and fig tart. I will have to pay closer attention to events next year.
I decided to bring home a nice bottle of the ’10 Norton, and I’m glad I did. A little spicy, but smooth as velvet, it is everything I love in a good red wine. We can’t seem to stop pouring.