Saturday, February 12, 2011

An introduction to North Carolina.

current wineries in North Carolina 

North Carolina has come quite a long way since the discovery and cultivation of the infamous Scuppernong grape here in 1524. I decided to investigate this state’s AVAs a bit not just to discover the unique wines the region has to offer, but also to pay homage to what was once the largest wine producing area in the United States. Production levels dwindled post-Prohibition, but a comeback is on its way. There are now 99 wineries located throughout the state of North Carolina with the 100th currently being built. Here’s a little history of the wine industry in North Carolina:

Giovanni de Verrazano and Scuppernong grapes, courtesy of

As mentioned above, the Scuppernong grape was discovered here in 1524 in the Cape Fear River Valley. The Florentine navigator Giovanni de Verrazano named the grape after the Scuppernong River. According to him and Sir Walter Raleigh’s explorers a few years later, the land was virtually a sea of these large green Vitis rotundifolia (muscadine) grapes. In 1585 a governor described the grapes of the area to Raleigh thus: "We have discovered the main to be the goodliest soil under the cope of heaven, so abounding with sweet trees that bring rich and pleasant, grapes of such greatness, yet wild, as France, Spain, nor Italy hath no greater..."

Sidney Weller, founder of Medoc Mountain winery

In 1835 the first commercial winery was established in the state. Sidney Weller, an educator and farmer, bought 300 acres of farmland in Halifax County, North Carolina for $1.50 per acre to practice his somewhat revolutionary agricultural methods. He used crop rotation, plant propagation, and organic soil enrichment to maintain the health of his estate; he is furthermore credited with introducing the “American system” of grape cultivation. By 1840 the vineyard, then known as Medoc Mountain, was the largest in the state and led production in the entire country, hosting over 200 varietals. Its main concentration however was the omnipresent Scuppernong.

A decade later 20 wineries had developed in the state. A thriving wine industry was well underway. This was halted in the 1860s by the unfortunate timing of the Civil War. But the foresight of the brothers Garrett would prove to be the impetus for the industry’s salvation: in 1867 the brothers purchased Weller’s estate and continued its winegrowing tradition, producing still and sparkling wines. One of the brothers’ sons, Paul Garrett, soon emerged as a fantastic salesman and distributed the winery’s products far and wide along the Atlantic coast. In fact he sold more than could be produced, and bulk California wine had to be added to the precious Scuppernong to boost quantity.

By the 1890s the wine industry had regained its health and was seen as a boon for North Carolina, given the state of the economy. The wines’ fame spread attracting well educated and experienced viticulturists and winemakers who perfected production techniques. In 1900 wines from North Carolina even won a few prestigious medals at the Paris Exposition. And in 1904, Paul Garrett’s Virginia Dare wine (named for the first child born to English settlers in the colonies) earned the grand prize in the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition and became the top selling wine in the country. (A side note: sales far outweighed production of this popular wine; Garrett had to blend California bulk wine with the Scuppernong wine which was Virginia Dare’s base, and in the end there was only enough Scuppernong in a bottle to give it a hint of the character of the grape.)

Pau Garret's Norfolk, Virginia facility

It is here that Prohibition enters the scene. In 1909 a ban was placed on all alcohol in North Carolina. Paul Garrett fled to Virginia to escape the laws of Prohibition and reestablished his headquarters there, continuing to sell his famed Virginia Dare. He was forced to escape again to New York a decade later due to Prohibition sentiments in Virginia. But Virginia Dare remained the top seller in the country even post-Prohibition.

the Biltmore Estate

The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 led to a brief freedom for the remaining 13 wineries in North Carolina. A dry vote in 1947 finally killed the wine industry in the state, making the production and selling of all alcohol illegal. Vineyards continued to produce grapes and winemakers hoped that the dry initiative would be short-lived; in the 1960s Senator Carl Vitners passed a bill for funding of wine and viticulture research much to the relief of those in the wine industry. Over the next two decades more and more funding and tax incentives led wineries to try their luck once again, and the grand Biltmore Estate opened the doors of its $6.5 million winery to the public in 1985 to encourage wine tourism.

old tobacco plantations have transformed into vineyards in NC 

By 1999 the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council had been established to encourage expansion and experimentation and the Golden LEAF Foundation was teaching tobacco farmers how to transition their plantations to the more profitable vineyards the state wanted. Money was poured into tourism and festivals, with the North Carolina Wine Festival bringing 11,000 people to the wine country in 2002. And to further validate the state as an official and serious wine producer, Yadkin Valley was declared an AVA in 2003 followed by Swan Creek in 2008.

Now a bit of technical information:

deep cecil soil

Muscadine grapes are grown in the fine wine producing regions of the state still, but comprise only about 5% of the vineyards. The remaining 95% are all Vitis vinifera. Many varietals are experimentally planted as the regions are still determining which are best suited to the terrior here. Soil in Yadkin is mostly deep cecil (a bright red clay) and very nutrient-rich… this was once all tobacco land. Swan Creek, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has shallower loamy topsoil with gravel underneath and low organic content.

Four distinct seasons occur in these areas offering vines good growing and ripening conditions with large temperature variations between day and night. Average rainfall sits around 40 inches per year necessitating heavy copper spraying year-round. Heavy pruning and hedging must be done to keep vigor to a minimum. Other than the threat of downy and powdery mildew, Pierce’s disease and Japanese beetles cause some problems for the vines. Organic farming, unfortunately, is not much of an option here.

Varietals grown are too numerous to list at the moment. Sangiovese and Nebbiolo have not fared too well so far, but Bordeaux varietals and other Italian varietals are thriving. A few hybrids are also favored in Yadkin and Swan Creek. Look for the preferred varietals discussed in the summaries of the wineries I will visit next...

Currently North Carolina is the 7th largest wine producer in the US. Most vineyards have less than 10 years of production under their belts. Vitis vinifera is the focus everywhere but the coast, and the wine (though sometimes a little rough) is shockingly good considering the limited number of vintages thus far. Given a decade or two more, top-quality wines will be pouring out of this state and possibly preparing to challenge the Napa Valleys and Willamette Valleys of the country. But we as consumers must be open to this fairly new region… instead of encouraging bias against upcoming wine producing areas such as this, I urge those who are doubtful to try a bottle first, or even pay a visit to the charming wine country of North Carolina. You may end up happily surprised…

For a list of Yadkin Valley wineries:
For a list of wine related events in North Carolina:
For more information about visiting the wine regions of North Carolina:

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