16 May 2011

DelMonaco Wines

Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance". The term is best known for its association with the trippy art film of the same name, but it's a concept that I often think about when sampling wines from The Other 46, the lesser-known wine regions of the United States. Some of the world's finest wines are sweet, but bumping up the sugar content is also a way to hide some rougher flavors in bad wine. Lots of factors go into winemaking, from the ripeness of the fruit to the type of oak or lack thereof, to the adjustable levels of sweetness or alcohol content or acidity. There's no one perfect way to make wine, but great ones in every style category are marked by exceptional balance above all else.

To be honest, most of the wines that I've tried from my home state of Tennessee as well as other parts of the south and midwest have fared poorly on the balance metric. Sometimes it's because of using a lot of the wrong kind of plastic that imparts a chemical aroma, sometimes it's an effort to make everything tooth-achingly sweet, and sometimes it's an attempt to force a certain variety of grape to grow in a place that God never intended. But I was pleasantly surprised with a recent selection of wines from DelMonaco Winery of Baxter, Tennessee, a town halfway between Nashville and Knoxville. While there was some wine production here in the 19th century, Prohibition and a general favoritism for whiskey and beer meant that wineries weren't legalized until 1977. Our state's wine industry has more in common with countries like Lebanon than it does with California, in terms of recent rebuilding of an agricultural tradition from scratch.

While DelMonaco does produce several sweet grape wines and other fruit wines that are popular in this part of the country, the samples sent to me by winemaker Jesse Pender mostly represented their dry offerings, with both European and American hybrid grapes. It's really the first example I've seen of a serious winemaking culture taking hold in the Volunteer State. I was impressed by the lighter style of many of the wines, both in body and in alcohol content.

2009 DelMonaco Vivance
70% Traminette, 30% Chardonel
$14, 11.5% abv.
Grass and grapefruit with a firm bitter peel aroma. Dry but fruity with a light grapefruit flavor and bright acidity. There's no foxiness in these hybrid grapes, and the wine has various similarities to Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc. Great pairing with seafood. (Side note: because not everyone accepts blue glass for recycling, consider reusing this bottle for olive oil, vinegar, as a flower vase, or some other function in the kitchen.)

NV DelMonaco Espirtitu de Oro
50% Cayuga, 50% Riesling
$15, 11.5% abv.
This "spirit of gold" wine is made in conjunction with nearby Tennessee Tech University, with part of the proceeds going to the school. Cayuga is a hybrid popular in the northeast, with a complicated pedigree. Winchell and Moore's Diamond were crossed to create Ontario. Ontario and Zinfandel were crossed to create Schuyler. Schuyler and Seyval Blanc gave birth to Cayuga. Peach and apricot with a little honey underneath. The flavor is dry with nectarine and white plum flavors. Balanced acidity with a smooth finish. I'd love to see this with quail or wild duck.

2009 DelMonaco Cabernet Sauvignon
75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec
$19, 11.5% abv.
This blend seems to be in the spirit of a lot of Washington and California blends these days, with the Bordeaux+Syrah combination. Black cherry, touch of licorice, a nutty aftertaste. Light body with low tannins. This was the first of the wines that I tried, and I was truly surprised. It's not Napa or Bordeaux, but it's possibly the best Cab Sav that I've had from a non-traditional wine region. The problem I've noticed in the past generally revolves around over-oaking or going for a tannic bomb that's never going to age properly. Since this one is so mild, it's definitely a drink now wine, and should go well with lots of pork dishes.

2008 DelMonaco Shiraz
93% Syrah, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Malbec
$19, 11.5% abv.
Powerful nose of blackberry jam and black pepper, but a very restrained mouth profile. Again, a lighter hand was involved to keep the grapes from smacking you upside the head. This one is stronger than the Cab Sav, and would work well with steak or other red meat dishes. Curious use of "Shiraz" for an American wine, but it's possible that fans of Yellow Tail and the like are better acquainted with that name.

NV DelMonaco Blackberry
100% Blackberry
$17, 11.5% abv.
I'm glad this one was sent, because fruit wines are a traditional part of our state's terroir. Yes, it wasn't legal to make wine until 1977, but there's a long history of preserving fruit in a way that's a bit more fun than jelly. I've had several blackberry wines over the years, and they all taste pretty much the same: sweet and with a strong blackberry flavor and aroma. There's just not a lot of complexity that you get from sweet fruit. This one follows that profile, although it gets a bit of a darker, muskier flavor that you get from eating blackberries off the vine versus the ones in little plastic trays at the grocery store. I think this would be good with cheesecake or goat cheese during a dessert course, but I can also see using a splash of it in sparkling wine for an ersatz Kir cocktail.

Note: These wines were received as samples.


Paul Knipple said...

We have been visiting the Tennessee wineries as part of our research for Farm Fresh Tennessee. Most of the people love what they are doing and use local grapes, so we give them a thumbs up even if they're not grand cru.

DelMonaco was a nice place. We picked up a bottle of the Espiritu de Oro and the gewurztraminer.

Two other places are doing decent stuff, but they have lots of cash backing them. Arrington south of Nashville is co-owned by Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn. There is a group of four wineries around Pigeon Forge that was decent as well.

We have about two cases of Tennessee wine now. We want to have a tasting with folks.

Benito said...


Looking forward to the books, and so happy that the two of you are getting to do some great writing in dead tree form with real money and all that.

I've visited a few Tennessee wineries, but I've tasted wines from two dozen throughout the state. To this day my absolute favorite is an apple wine from Apple Barn Winery in east TN. It's one of those magical ones that I dream about from time to time.


Thomas said...

Funny you should mention Chenin Blanc. Ever since I first tasted Finger Lakes Cayuga wines, I've referred to he grape as the Chenin Blanc of the Northeast.

It was developed at Cornell University, I believe in the 1950s.

Benito said...


Glad to hear I wasn't imagining things! I've had some hybrid grapes that were really bizarre, but Cayuga seems to have a great structure and some real potential. Plus, I like the idea of giving such grapes Iroquois-derived names like Niagara and Catawba. It sort of adds to the terroir when the name reflects the home soil.


Thomas said...


Remember Rod Serling?

His production company was named Cayuga Productions. He came from Ithaca, NY.

I suppose naming his company that way was homage to both his place and the mystical/mythical nature of its stories.