It's not just all about bourbon in Kentucky -- there is more and more buzz about the fine wines that come from this growing region. That was part of what I learned from sitting in on several sessions at the 2009 Fruit and Vegetable Conference and Trade Show held in early January in Lexington Kentucky. (My thanks to my industry friends who tipped me off to this event... because, yes, wines are a fruit-based product, but who woulda thunk there'd be so much great info on Kentucky wines at this event! Hats off to the organizers!)
First, you should know that there is a wonderful map that will guide you to 34 Kentucky wineries that's available from www.kentuckywine.com ; I particularly liked the fold-out pocket size format, and the grid that shows distances between wineries which helps you plan your travel quite efficiently . The website has several useful features too, including some historical background. Here's a bit:
"Kentucky has ideal temperatures and climate for growing well-balanced grapes like those grown in the noble regions of France and Italy. The region's early settlers knew this. In 1798, a European settler named Jean Jacques du Four planted the first Kentucky Vineyard. Many European immigrants planted extensive vineyards in Kentucky. In fact, the first commercial vineyard was started in Kentucky, and backed by money from several prominent statesmen, including Henry Clay. By 1870, Kentucky was a leading wine producer, producing more than half the nation's output at that time."
The website talks about wandering through vineyards .... but in early January, you'd better have winter coats and cozy boots on! Still, visiting the wineries is fun. I visited Wight-Meyer, a bit south of Louisville, and I had a warm welcome from winemaker Jim Wight.
Wight-Meyer's wines were among those presented at the Kentucky wine tasting part of the convension, and Jim Wight is justly proud of the medals his wines have won at the 2008 and 2007 Indy Commercial Wine Competitions. We had a few bottles of our favorites shipped to us after visiting his fastidious and growing facility. Jim's personal favorite is the Kentucky Norton Reserve, which uses only Kentucky grown Norton grapes, and is barrel aged for 27 months. $18.99 at the vineyard. I agree, it's a terrific wine, with nice hint of cherries and a tone of vanilla.
To finish off a dining experience, it would be hard to equal the taste pleasureof the Wight-Miller semi-sweet wine, Vingoles, which won a Silver 2008 medal in the Indy competition. Jim's tasting notes just about wrap it up: tastes of apricot and pear with a clean citrus finish, with 2% residiual sugar. $12.99 at the vineyard.
Sadly, Wight-Miller is sold out of their Winter Solstice dessert wine. It was made from concentrated Diamond grapes from his vineyard, and fermented it super-sweet. It won a Gold at the 2008 KY competition. Try to get the next year's before it sells out. At $30 per bottle, the 2008 was no doubt worth every penny.
In talking about packaging and production (my professional interest), Jim is a big believer in using hybrid barrers, which feature American oak stays (sides) and French oak heads (top,bottom). The American oak stretches the phenols out, he believes, and the French oak contributes a great oakiness that's hard to beat. They source attractive labels from Innovative Label Solutions. Jim pays close attention to sanitation and to the technical aspects of his winemaking, as behooves a fellow with an electrical engineering degree; his day job is working in the missile systems division of Raytheon. For more info, see www.wight-meyervineyards.com
I didn't get to Elk Creek Vineyards for an on-site tasting of wines and crushpad tour at this biggest winery in Kentucky. Owner Curtis Sigretto is known for his hospitality, and he's built a beautiful facility including a lodge with spa treatments available, and a world class tasting room. Their first estate wines are an Estate Cabernet Franc and and Estate Chardonnel -- both grapes that do very well in the Kentucky terrior of the northern Kentucky river region where Elk Creek is located. The winery has an upcoming "Cooking with the Stars" event, so be on the lookout for it. For more info, see www.elkcreekvineyards.com