If you’d asked an Oenophile–aka wine buff— about North Carolina wines three years ago, you would likely have received a bemused reaction followed by… “you mean wine with real corks and actual grape varietals— Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay? Um yeah, not-quite-Napa.”
But here’s the thing—it’s a new day. A vigneron renaissance, if you will. While many of us have been quaffing Napa, Tar Heel wines have been growing increasingly interesting. If you choose to ignore this, then you’re missing out on a new wave of boutique wineries, passionate wine makers, delicious wines and unique destinations.
No state has as notable a wine history as North Carolina. When captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe led Sir Walter Raleigh’s first expedition to the New World in 1584, they discovered an island “so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the seas overflowed them.”
Today the Mothervine, an almost 500-year-old scuppernong vine on Roanoke Island, is regarded as the oldest cultivated grapevine in the nation. More than 20 varieties of muscadine have come from this single vine; little wonder the scuppernong is North Carolina’s official fruit. In 1835 Medoc Vineyards became the first winery, and by the mid 19th century North Carolina was the largest wine producing state–until prohibition intervened.
The amendment crippled the Southern wine business as counties were urged to go dry. Today a few wineries still operate in dry counties, with grants allowing a dispensation for wine to be sold. Fast forward through the syrupy muscadine-only era and into 2019. There are now over 200 wineries in North Carolina, more than quadrupling in less than a decade, producing over 1.1 million cases annually with five designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs): Yadkin Valley, Swan Creek, Haw River, Upper Hiwassee Highlands and Appalachian High County. For an AVA designation to be granted, 85% of the grapes must be grown within the area and there must be a distinctive and particular terroir (soil and climate combination).
“In the past few years, we’ve seen a whole new group of people discovering local, crafted wines in North Carolina,” says Dan McLaughlin, Secretary for the NC Fine Wines Society. “Millennials have a keen awareness of local food quality and a passion to know the story behind it. More mature adults–the age category I’m in–tried North Carolina wines 15 to 20 years ago, and the wines just hadn’t hit their stride yet—nothing like they are now. I like to compare it to a conversation that you have with a toddler; come back in 15 to 20 years, and that conversation is completely different.”
Good wine always reflects and showcases the strengths of where it comes from. Paying close attention to the topography, from the mountains in the west to the Piedmont and eastward to the coast, a new breed of vintners is producing wines, embracing the unique combination of soil, microclimate and grape varietals that thrive in each region.
“We now have talented winemakers with years of local experience,” says McLaughlin.
“Vineyard management teams have years of accumulated knowledge on how to work with the crazy weather we’ve seen lately. That experience shows in the quality of the grapes and what ends up in the glass,” he says. “The tasting rooms and event centers that have been created also help people understand the amount of work going into each bottle. These three key components have come together to create a wine experience akin to anywhere in the world. We’re building a world class wine destination.”
A range of varietals from Vermentino to Barbera is taking root in these Southern soils. The goal for the winemakers is to put North Carolina wines at the forefront of East Coast wines.
“There are some great varietals out there that are exciting,” McLaughlin explains. “White varietals like Petit Manseng, Vermentino and Albarino will stand up to all kinds of great foods. Don’t be afraid to try something new like a Traminette or a Vidal Blanc. For reds, Cabernet Franc does really well, along with Tannat, Montepulciano, Petit Verdot and Cynthiana. “I think North Carolina may be recognized for its Petit Verdot in 10 years, like Oregon and Washington are for Pinot Noir.”
On the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, The Yadkin Valley is just shy of a four hour drive from Wilmington. Named for the river that marks its northern and eastern boundaries, the once tobacco fields have largely been replaced with rows of vineyards, with wineries working tirelessly to establish it as a serious wine appellation. The wineries are small and intimate, providing access to the winemakers and owners (often one and the same).
“Our first AVA, Yadkin Valley, is simply extraordinary,” says Jenn Norris of Jenn’s Vin in Wilmington. “Customers are impressed with the number of vineyards and wineries we have just west of Winston-Salem. I picked up my last wine tour group from Raleigh for a tour of the Yadkin Valley. Everyone had a fantastic time and are already planning more visits to other vineyards.”
A strong proponent and ambassador of North Carolina wines, Norris is quick to add that she cannot change the minds of people who are not open to experience what the NC wine industry has to offer.
“The majority of people I meet and encourage to taste NC wine fall in love immediately and are excited about what our state is now producing. That sweet stereotype is exactly why I launched Jenn’s Vin North Carolina Wines,” says Norris.
“We have unbelievable dry wines that rival other wine destinations. We have so many folks now that have relocated to Wilmington from other U.S. wine territories, and they are excited to learn about what we offer in the western part of our state with higher elevations and a thriving wine tourism opportunity.”
In a region entwined with food culture and its history and people seeking out authentic, small-batch handcrafted food and drink, the timing couldn’t be better for farmers, grape growers and vignerons.
“People need to trust that their money will buy them a quality product. So we built a competition that people can trust, not just a medal factory,” says McLaughlin.
The NC Fine Wines Society board calls it, “More than just a competition; it’s a campaign.”
“James Suckling, one of the world’s best known wine reviewers, is now tasting North Carolina wines and rating them in the 90s.That’s something he wasn’t doing 3 years ago. We have seven Advanced Level Sommeliers from the Court of Master Sommeliers judge a competition each year, and it is the toughest wine competition in the country,” says McLaughlin.
All of the wines judged have to be 100% grown and vinified (made into wine) in North Carolina. The judging is both blind and mute. The judges know nothing about the wine producers and can’t discuss the wines until they’ve scored them and written their tasting notes.
“Having NC wines paired at wine dinners at The Umstead in Cary, Posana Restaurant in Asheville, or at the Pinehurst Resort, lets people trust that the quality is there in the bottle,” says McLaughlin. “We are also thrilled to be back at The City Club of Wilmington on June 21. We’re so glad to see them open for business again after the hurricane in 2018. We also have dinners at Nobles in Winston-Salem, GIA in Greensboro and Barrington’s in Charlotte. Each one of these restaurants is synonymous with quality, and we appreciate them inviting us into their homes. Great wines and food are what it’s all about.”
There’s been a real renaissance in North Carolina as a place that’s proud of who it is, reconnecting to its rural past, and proud of its farmers and its makers. If you haven’t tried North Carolina wine lately, give it another go. You might be pleasantly surprised.
If you can make the trip out to one of the wineries, nothing quite beats sipping a glass of wine, made by the hands of your host, from the land on which you sit.