Stomping Grapes with the Tar Heels: Regional Spotlight on North Carolina

As recently as the mid-1980s, North Carolina had merely three wineries. Today, the state has over 120 wineries producing more than 880,000 cases per year.

That might seem like a vineyardsunset_biltmoreestate__largepittance compared to the output of America’s big-dog wine state, California, with its 3,500 wineries and 313 million annual case production.

But—surprise!—a North Carolina property currently holds a record California will likely never touch: The Biltmore Estate, in Asheville, is America’s most visited winery, with over one million visitors per year.

Visiting North Carolina wine country will expose you to familiar grape favorites and also give you the opportunity to try bottles made from fruits you’ve never previously associated with wine. You’ll also be able to hear enthusiasm in the voices of the winemakers working in a scene that’s expanded rapidly over the last thirty years. And the Southern hospitality doesn’t hurt, either.

A Mix of Grapes and Growing Zones

Much of North Carolina’s grape wine production has historically focused on the Scuppernong grape, an indigenous American variety of Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia). NCwinemuscadineThis wild grape is a distant genetic cousin of the European vinifera grapes, but immune to many of the pests that cause problems for winemakers here in the United States. While finicky grapes like Pinot Noir must be carefully tended to to produce useful fruit, Muscadines growing wild on chain link fences can be viciously attacked with weed-eaters and herbicides and still come back strong every year.

But aside from small local and individual production, Muscadine wines have little retail or distribution presence in the modern American market, a similar problem experienced by the French-American hybrids that grow particularly well in the Southeast. Muscadine wines aren’t subtle; their pronounced foxy, earthy aromas and syrupy flavor can be a rustic shock to a palates trained on traditional European grape varieties.

Fruit wines have another key place in North Carolina’s wine history, including a long and rich folk tradition of individual (and hidden) production by private families. At small wineries in the South you’ll now commonly find wines made from peaches, blackberries, and blueberries.

Many North Carolina winemakers pine for grapes they’d love to grow but can’t due to climate, geography, and disease pressure. These include key international varieties, and—no surprise—Pinot Noir tops many lists.  Also unsurprisingly, there’s a long tradition of using purchased grapes from California, too.

North Carolina is broken into three main wine regions, with three smaller designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within them:

  • The Mountain Region in the west is nestled in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains.
  • The Piedmont Region occupies the central portion of the state and contains three subzones: Yadkin Valley AVA, Swan Creek AVA, and Haw River Valley AVA.
  • The Sandhills-Coastal region hugs the coast, with both oceanfront and island vineyards.

NCWineAVAs

Both the Yadkin and Haw River valleys are traditional tobacco producing regions, but some farmers are now turning to wine production. Swan Creek AVA is a tiny growing zone with merely five wineries—all within five miles of one another.

Drinking Local Wine in North Carolina

The South is not historically known for its wine consumption, but culturally a change is happening. Wineries throughout the state host visitors year-round and regional wineries often have the honor (and challenge) of serving someone their first sip of North Carolina wine, perhaps a couple getting married on vineyard grounds or a retired couple touring the countryside.

Those one million annual visitors to the Biltmore Estate are a case in point. The first serious commercial production of Vitis vinifera wines in North Carolina began at this historic Vanderbilt family mansion in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Jerry Douglas, current president of Biltmore Wine Company, started working with the estate in 1981 in a marketing capacity before the winery was bonded in 1983.

The winery now produces 150,000 cases per year—17% of North Carolina’s total NCWineBiltmoreCorkproduction—but yields from their own western North Carolina vineyards can’t keep up with strong customer demand. Only about 10 percent of their grapes are estate grown, while the rest is sourced from the West Coast, primarily California.

Biltmore is well known for its Christmas bottlings as well as a range of sparkling wines made in the méthode traditionnelle. The sparklers are majority blends of North Carolina fruit, and their popular Château Reserve Blanc de Blancs shows crisp tropical fruit notes with a burst of lemony acidity.

With nearly 50 individual bottlings, Biltmore is in a good position to allow visitors to sample a wide range. “The mission is to find wines they like,” says Douglas, “tasting from dry to sweet to dial in the taste.” Biltmore’s wines are also available in limited distribution throughout the country, and are likely to be the first North Carolina wines tasted by someone outside of the state, too.

John Wright of Sanctuary Vineyards produces wine in North Carolina’s Outer Banks—hence his nautical label artwork. The maritime theme comes into play in the vineyard, too, although not as decorously; Wright cites bunch rot caused by humidity and excess rainfall as particular challenges of his growing region.

His production includes a couple of fruit wines, and Wright says many of his older visitors are fond of his Blackberry Wine. But his main line of wines are European in style and feature Rhône grapes like Viognier, Rousanne, and Marsanne, all grown in North Carolina. Wright offers tips for visitors who may want to source local wines wrightbrosfor their vineyard weddings: “White wines are great, but don’t show up well in wedding photos. Red wines look black, so we recommend the White Syrah blush, which looks great in pictures.”

Tempranillo and Tannat are grown near Sanctuary, too, and made into a wine he’s dedicated to the Wright brothers—not the famous first fliers, but the five original Wright brothers of lower Currituck County, descendants of Jacob Francis Wright, who shipwrecked in the Outer Banks in the mid-1800s.

Chad AndrewsChad Andrews founded Uwharrie Vineyards in Central North Carolina in the early 2000s after 13 years in the banking industry, during which frequent business travel spawned a love of wine. He established the vineyard on property neighboring the Uwharrie National Forest. Pronounced you-WAHR-ee, the name means “rocky field” and also refers to the Native American tribe that once lived in the area. Andrews’s first harvest came in 2004.

His diverse mix of wines is sourced from North Carolina-grown vinifera grapes, as well as pure Muscadine varieties such as Noble, Magnolia, and Carlos. Visitors are welcome to try any of his fifteen different wines, and he sees increased traffic during NASCAR race days at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, just half an hour away. Uwharrie also makes limited-run bottles for the graduating classes of the Special Forces at nearby Fort Bragg.

Andrews offered this advice for those new to North Carolina wines: “One of the wines that has a trace of residual sugar would be a nice start—possibly the Wild Pony White or Morton”—both eclectic blends of multiple grapes. Proceeds from Wild Pony support the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, which manages the herd of wild Colonial Spanish Mustangs that still live on the Outer Banks. It’s a great way for customers to drink local wine while supporting a piece of North Carolina history.

About the Author

A lifelong resident of Memphis, Tennessee, Ben Carter has been writing about wine and food online since 2005. Starting at his blog, Benito’s Wine Reviews, he has also written for Serious Eats, Snooth, Palate Press, and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal. During the day, he works in quality assurance for a major corporation.

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