Fine Wine in the Carolinas

The unique diversity of North Carolina’s Wine & Grape Producers

When the conversation turns to wine and wine makers, North Carolina is probably not first, second, or even last on the list. Well, maybe not just yet. Places like France’s Bordeaux region or the Pyrenees, the fertile plateau of Spain’s La Mancha, and even California’s Sonoma or Napa Valley, all have their place. But it remains safe to say, North Carolina will not likely make the list, or will it?

North Carolina may be poised to claim a place at the table along side these famed vintners and pierce the barrier to recognition on the world stage.

Glass of wine, a taste of elegance

Plan your North Carolina Winery Tour

You may ask; why would you make such a bold proclamation?

Silly wabbit, tricks are for kids!

I beg your indulgence while I present my case and then let you decide if it has merit…

The geography of North Carolina ranges from the sand covered dunes of the Outer Banks and coastal islands to the Great Smokey Mountains rising to 6,000 feet, and we, like no other region in the world, grow every major type of grape. With this vast array of soils, climate and altitudes; grape varieties grown here include the Mediterranean Vinifera, French-American hybrids, Labruscas, and Muscadines just to mention a few.

Higher elevations in the Western North Carolina Mountains have a climate similar to that found in the wine producing regions of southern France and Italy. While the plateau of the Piedmont area is full and fertile, the sands of the southern coastline to Wilmington are warm, arid and well drained.

Grapes on the Vine

Grapes on the Vine

Success in winemaking may only come with struggle but, the wine makers of North Carolina have adapted well and thrive on the varied conditions creating exclusive, rare, world class wines, rich in depth and character.

In North Carolina, wine and grape producers are separated by 3 major geographically diverse regions:

* Mountain

* Piedmont

* Sandhill/Coastal

We also boast of 3 federally-recognized growing regions called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). These wine appellations of origin are:

* Yadkin Valley

* Swan Creek

* Haw River Valley


The Western North Carolina Mountain Region

Western North Carolina’s majestic landscape is possibly the oldest mountain range in the United States and home to Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi River

This wine region extends from the southern border of Virginia to the northern border of Georgia, and west from the low lying foothills to the lofty mountain peaks bordering Tennessee and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

The Mountain Region of North Carolina is home to vineyards and wineries that grow grape varieties that do well at higher elevations. Wines produced here include Chardonnay, Riesling, White Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. From family-owned farms operating for more than two hundred yeas that produces southern traditional Muscadine and fruit wines (Apple, Blackberry, Plum), to a world famous state-of-the-art winery directed by a French winemaker that yields about 15 wine varieties and 75,000 cases of wine each year, this region is unrivaled in the world of wine making.

The Central North Carolina Piedmont Region

Piedmont is a French word meaning “foot of the mountain,” and is most likely why North Carolina’s Piedmont region is sometimes referred to as “the foothills.” The rolling hills of this region range in elevation from just 300 feet in the east to 1,500 feet near the mountains. The Piedmont is sometimes referred to as a plateau because it is high and mostly flat.

The Carolina Piedmont is both inviting and enchanting while unsurpassed as one of the most vibrant and fastest growing areas of North Carolina’s wine country. East of Winston-Salem and extending to the foothills, the piedmont area is bordered by Virginia to the north and by neighboring South Carolina to the south. This region boasts of specialty wines including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Rosé, and Bordeaux-style blends. You can even find and sample the exotic local creations like the semi-sweet fruit-infused Sweet Carolina wines like: Blackberry, Peach, Pomegranate, Blueberry, Raspberry, and Cherry Berry.

The Eastern Sandhill-Coastal Region

The Sandhills region of North Carolina is a strip of ancient beach dunes which generally divides the Piedmont from the coastal plain. The low, flat land of North Carolina’s eastern region stretches as sandy farmland of the Inner Coastal Plain to the state’s Outer Banks. The Sand Hills and Coastal Region of North Carolina offers some of the most varied growing conditions in the state. The well-drained Sandhills provides an environment much like the soils of the California Napa Valley for grape vines.

Wine history is rich throughout the region where you’ll find the oldest operating winery in North Carolina and a family that cultivates their vineyard and produces wine on the same land granted to their family by King Charles II in the 1700′s.

To complement the long history is another center of pride found in the naturally fermented wine created from the soon to be certified organic vineyard.

The Muscadine-Scuppernong grapes grown in the area are native to this region since the time of the early Native American Indians and are renowned for the quality and full-bodied Burgundy, ports, and blush wines they produce. The region also produces Strawberry, Blackberry, Peach, Alcohol Free Wines, Sparkling Scuppernong Juice, Sparkling Red Muscadine Juice.

The Yadkin Valley American Viticultural Area

When a US winery wants to tell you the geographic pedigree of its wine, it uses a tag on its label called an Appellation of Origin. Appellations are defined either by political boundaries, such as the name of a county or state, or by federally-recognized growing regions called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).

Yadkin Valley is home to North Carolina’s first federally-recognized American Viticultural Area, the Yadkin Valley AVA. This 1.4 million acre AVA is destined to delight wine makers and wine aficionados alike as it claims its rightful place in the world of wine making by cultivars of grape varieties like:

Petit Mansang : small, thick-skinned berries naturally high in acidity that
yield very high quality white wines.

Tannat: distinguished for their generous tannins, tannat grapes contribute color and backbone to robust red blends.

Traminette: produces white wines with varietal characteristics similar to its
parent grape Gewürztraminer; high quality, fragrant wines with distinctively spicy flavors.

Merlot: loose bunches of large, blue-violet berries, often blended with
cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and/or petit verdot.

Petit Verdot: a blending grape due to its intense color, acidity, and “spice box” flavoring elements; also used to produce very high quality varietal wines in warmer climates.

Swan Creek Appellation

When a wine region begins to define and separate smaller appellations within larger ones you know the wine region is “coming-of-age”. That is exactly what is happening in the Yadkin Valley AVA.

Swan Creek was officially designated on May 27, 2008.

Named for the creek system that is a tributary to the Yadkin River, which forms its northern boundary, the Swan Creek region is situated some 40 minutes west of Winston-Salem.

Nestled in the shadow of the Brushy Mountains and the Blue Ridge, the Swan Creek vineyards enjoy a unique climate of cooling breezes and rising mists from the distant Yadkin River’s flow.

A distinctive soil composition of loamy, fertile, schist-like soil, replete with mica and abounding with minerals that feed and nourish outstanding Vinifera wine grapes conspire to make the Swan Creek wines unique.

The Vineyards of Swan Creek offer both French and Italian wine varieties along with a few unique local blends.

Haw River Valley AVA

On March 30, 2009 the Haw River Valley was recognized as an official AVA with a distinctive grape growing and wine producing area. The area is rapidly gaining a reputation for its unique microclimate, long growing season and mineral-rich soils that produce superior red vinifera winegrapes.

The Haw River Valley AVA covers the northern, central portion of the state with approximately 868 sq. miles (555,508 acres). About half a dozen small commercial wineries currently operate in the area and have formed the 50-mile-long Haw River Wine Trail. This inland area has a longer growing season than the better known Yadkin Valley and has been successful growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Chardonnay, in addition to some hybrids.

Well, that’s my case.

I made one daring proclamation…

“North Carolina may be poised to claim a place at the table along side these famed vintners and pierce the barrier to recognition on the world stage”.

And now it’s for you to declare the verdict, so in closing let me leave you with one more thought:

Many had doubts that any winery in California or the US could produce wines to compete with the wines of Europe. Some forty years ago, California wines were relatively unknown even in the United States, and were considered as “cheap”, novel, or inferior by the international community.

Today however, California wines are respected, sought after, and enjoyed world wide. They are winning major awards in international competitions and are recognized as some of the best wine produced in the world.

I must admit, North Carolina is a relatively new region for commercial winery development, but it remains exciting to watch the new kid grow and mature.

Yadkin Valley, Swan River, and Haw River Valley may be names to rival Napa and Sonoma Valley.

Time will tell.


photos courtesy of wineglass by jhenryrose grape on the vine by Zest-pk


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