An Evening with the Winemaker: a Barrel Tasting at RayLen Vineyards

This past week, we had the opportunity to visit RayLen Vineyards and spend an evening with their winemaker, Steve Shepard. The purpose of the evening was to offer a barrel tasting of several samples and to give us a sneak peek at what’s coming in the next few years.

The evening started out like any event at a winery should, with a glass of wine and something to eat. We selected our wines, the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon for me and the 2013 Eagle Select for Joe, and sipped while we waited as other guests arrived.

With wine in hand, we wandered through the tasting room and eventually made our way into one of the barrel rooms. As the guests were settling in, building their plates of cheeses and finger sandwiches, Steve was making his rounds and greeting everyone.

The tables and buffet waiting for us as we entered.

We finished our snacking and Steve began the program. His storyline started with an overview of the evening ahead, highlighting the barrel samples and a vertical of the 2010 and 2014 Merlots. He also gave a brief summary of the 2016 growing season.

While 2016 wasn’t as bad as the 2007 or 2010 seasons, this one was still tough. A warm March lead to the vines waking up a little early. An early April freeze hit damaging vines. It caused major losses in Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Riesling (the Cabernet Franc also suffered, but not as bad). Steve noted there was a bright side though. Even with the loss, he remarked the fruit that made it through was more complex with more to offer.

Years like 2016 give Steve a perfect opportunity to do something he really enjoys, blending. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, it usually means that the winemaker has to gear up and get ready to do some majorly creative work.

As he was finishing up his talk, our guided tasting had started. In our glasses we found a sample of the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc. The wine is still in tank going through cold stabilization. It had more raw tropical flavors and a firm, creamed lemon acidity. When released, it’ll be one to look for.

A massive vine hanging on the wall at RayLen.

The Barrel Room

Steve wrapped up his welcome address and he took us into the primary barrel room. We lined up along the wall and stood beneath the massive vine decoration that hung on the wall. Steve called for our attention so he could continue his talk and get on with the barrel tasting. We listened to his philosophies on wine making, the different grapes in the vineyard and his approach to blending.

Steve pulling out a barrel tasting and handing it off to David.

All the while, Steve pulled out wine after wine for us to try.  He filled a decanter and handed it off to David to share with guests. Much of what we learned happened between sips and pours of the great reds that lie in waiting in their wooden vessels. Waiting for when  the right amount of exchange between the oak and air to make a truly exceptional wine.

Steve chatting it up with the guests.

Read on for our reviews of the wines we sampled. Please note, these wines are still unfinished. Anything we tasted in Barrel still has more time before it’s truly ready. We make predictions solely based off how we believe the oak will influence the wines as they age and mellow over time.

– the tastings –

Two Blocks of 2016 Cabernet Franc: East and West

East Block Cabernet Franc – Most often this block is used for producing the rosé of Cabernet Franc. This vintage, Steve decided to make a red wine for use in blending. Out of the Barrel it was raw and unyielding. Still young and sharp, it had a wonderful fruit balance to it.

West Block Cabernet Franc – A better representation of what Cabernet Franc in North Carolina is like. It had a slight green pepper nose but also had bigger, more voluptuous tannins. All in all it was much deeper.

Additional Barrel Tasting Samples

2016 Cabernet Sauvignon – Compared to the 2015 vintage, this sample still had a bit longer to go. The bold tannins of the wine needs more oak contact to round out the profile and highlight the fruity profile of this wine.

Cabernet Sauvignon waiting in a bourbon barrel to impart more flavor.

2016 Bourbon Barrel Cabernet Sauvignon – Rich vanilla on the nose and flavor. Still big tannins and big fruit. A touch of tar or charred wood is present on the finish which will definitely smooth out with time.

2015 Eagle Select – This blend is 50% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Petit Verdot. This wine is quickly approaching it’s time to shine. The nose was smoky and the palate filled with fruit. Rich berries and a nice vanilla came through as well. The finished product will only be more refined and exceptionally smooth.

2014 Port – This fortified wine is Cabernet Franc for the base and fortified with brandy to stop fermentation. Rich and fruity, it had a decadent texture to it. Normally Steve tries for three years in the Barrel, so this one should be bottled by the end of the year.

Vertical Tasting of Merlot

2010 Merlot – A treat in the glass. The color was holding up nicely and not showing signs of fading. The nose was predominately dried cherries with an underlying earthy note. The profile was silky and smooth with soft floral notes and refined fruits.

2014 Merlot – The current vintage of Merlot,  much more traditional. Cherry was present on the nose and palate with a touch of vanilla and a modest oak finish.


RayLen Vineyards is located at 3577 US 158 in Mocksville, NC.

Posted by Matt Kemberling

1 comment

It was my pleasure to host at RayLen. Each year our sneak preview draws larger crowds of RayLen family and friends. Seeing the NC Wine guys there was worth the price of admission. We look forward to seeing you again at RayLen Vineyards.

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