Do you ever have that moment of guilt about not knowing something or seeing something you feel you should have? When you finally do learn of that "thing", it is as if it has always been there like a snake in the garden. That snake finally sunk its fangs deep into me on a recent trip home for the holidays. I'm no stranger to North Carolina wines. From the Italian inspired villas of Raffaldini & Picchone to the award-winning Jones Von Drehle, I've been able to experience the breadth of Yadkin Valley (NC American Viticultural Area) fruit through these producers. The wineries inside of the Yadkin Valley had been my only real purview into North Carolina's potential up until now. Remember that snake I mentioned earlier? Say hello to Sanctuary Vineyards, a winery in my hometown of Currituck County.
The Wright family has called the coastal county of Currituck home since settler Jacob Wright shipwrecked on the shores of Duck. Centuries of farming tradition have been kept alive since the 1860s. Potatoes, cabbage & corn were among the original cash crops that the family produced, but there was a single Muscadine vine that existed solely for juice & jams. John Wright, current owner & vineyard manager, continued with the tradition until those veggies became unsustainable as primary crops. He introduced more plots of grape vines with the intention of producing world class wines true to the unique terroir of Currituck.
Speaking of, let's chat about the terroir because it goes CRAZY. Sanctuary is, at the moment, the only NC winery I'm aware of that is in close proximity to the ocean. The climate isn't meditteranean by any means. The seaside influence causes it to live somewhere between that and a continental climate. Fogs & cool breezes from the Atlantic roll in to cool off the vineyards even during the height of summer in the Outer Banks. Intense winds would normally present a detriment to a vineyard, but here it actually strengthens the grapes; thickens their skins so to speak. The soil type is an interesting mix of clay & loose marine sediment. The broken seashells of former sea life add an additional layer of minerality to the wines as noted by George (head winemaker). Those are aspects to the terroir I already suspected, having lived in the area for several years. What took me by surprise was the fact that the vineyards were sitting only at an elevation of about 15ft above sea level. Elevation allows for deeper concentration of flavor in the grapes and is seen as one of the primary advantages of growing wine in the New World regions. Here it isn't really a key player in the life cycle of the vine before harvest. John says the elements of this unique landscape are really unlike any other wine region, and that's what makes his choice of what grape varietals to grow all the more interesting.
WINO's 2 Cents: I didn't even mention the constant threat of hurricane weather in the terroir overview because that just gives me anxiety. It is worth noting though as that particular weather anomaly is far more common here than it is over on the West Coast. John & I had a discussion on how climate change is rearing her ugly head, and rapidly changing the already tricky terroir of the area. When you consider how yields on crops like potatoes and corn became smaller and smaller in this area after hundreds of years, it paints the picture that maybe there is a ticking clock on the sustainability of the vineyards as well. Add the recurring threat of tropical storms to the mix and it's truly living life on the edge....
The uninformed have a preconceived notion that NC only has the capacity to produce Muscadine grapes & subsequent sweeter styles that varietal is known for. Sanctuary Vineyards plays with a range of grapes: Albarino, Tempranillo, Cabernet Franc, Viognier & Syrah to name a few. The Yadkin Valley has the advantage of possessing certain terroir characteristics that are easily comparable to that of more well-established wine growing areas. That often allows us to understand why certain varietals will thrive and others will barely survive. Yes, I spit some bars there, so you can add rapper to my list of hobbies, ha! Though the grape varietals produced at Sanctuary are a mixed bag, it is intentionally mixed to accommodate the unique growing area. John made it a point that they don't bottle experimental wines, nor do they expect EVERY varietal they want to play with to yield a bountiful crop in their vineyard. For example, John has produced a Pinot Noir & a Sangiovese in the past, but those varietals don't do well enough year after year to dedicate regular plantings to. The Spanish varietals like Tempranillo & Albarino on the other hand, are natural born seafarers here! It was the 2021 Pearl Albarino that stood out the most in my tasting of their wines. It is also the frequent award winner for the winery. The palate had that quintessential sea spray salinity I enjoy from Albarino, and this juicy, roasted peach character that kept me coming back to the glass---delish! It was familiar yet different in all the right ways.
Sense of place doesn't just play into the grapes produced by Sanctuary Vineyards, but also the packaging. This is a coastal town known for its storied history with pirates, swashbucklers & surfers. The labels are commissioned pieces of artwork that celebrate the winery's connection to life at sea. I feel like these labels could have easily been representing a California wine brand due to how modern, chic & humourous they were. One of the labels for the Chardonnay is "Jarvisburg(undy) vin de Currituck" with a sigil/family crest that includes a surfboard. It's the perfect collision of Old World & New World labels. I'm making note of the packaging and whismical names because most NC wineries have a very standard approach in comparison. John Wright could have just slapped his family name, the grape varietal and fanciful title on the label. But he didn't & I'm completely here for that.
I'm rather sad that this winery didn't show up on my radar earlier. I likely rode past this winery many times on high school field trips or family excursions to the beach and caught wind that a winery existed under my nose for years. Seems like I've got to make up for lost time now! The often-understated capability of this constantly growing wine region is allowed to really shine here at Sanctuary Vineyards. The winemakers refuse to bottle anything that isn't stellar in quality and respect the capabilities of the land they operate in. I want to continue to proudly share what this producer has to offer with all my fellow wine lovers. From the gorgeous, thoughtful labels to the team's dedication to quality, this is now one of my benchmarks for North Carolina wines.
SPECIAL NOTE: Sanctuary Vineyards has a mix of additional programming including a NO-FEE wine club called "the Bunch", tasting events like Chowder & Chill(i), and is now open as a wedding & events venue. Each year life begins anew on the estate, and now yours can start here too with the love of your life! Or if you're just looking for a reason to curl up next to a bowl of chowder while sloshing some Chardonnay, you've got that option too. Check out the website highlights for more details below! Thank you, John, George, Craig & Emily for the wonderful experience at Sanctuary!