Let’s take a trip back in time. Close your eyes and imagine yourself an English explorer, a shipmate of Sir Walter Raleigh’s, writes Kevin Chandler. You’ve just braved the Atlantic crossing and are rowing to shore towards a strange island on a forbidding coast. Yet immediately on landing, you see a very familiar site: grapes. Lots of them.
Coastal North Carolina at that time was teeming with native grapes — big, plump muscadines cultivated by local Native Americans. The first permanent settlers would also grow these grapes, and today Roanoke Island remains home to The Mother Vine, a 400+ year-old gnarled vine occupying nearly an acre of land and believed to be the oldest cultivated vine in the New World. A tourist attraction, to be sure.
From those beginnings, North Carolina would become one of the nation’s leading wine producers, thriving throughout the 1800s and hampered only by the devastation of the Civil War. By the early 1900s, North Carolina wines were winning medals at the Paris Exhibition and thriving in popularity back home. But in 1909, North Carolina, a few years ahead of the national curve, enacted a state Prohibition law. Alcohol production went underground, from rolling vineyards to small mountain stills. Moonshine took hold, making bootleggers rich and birthing NASCAR in the process.
Sometime in the 1970s and 1980s, interest in wine returned, and producers, most notably William Cecil, grandson of William Vanderbilt, began to think about how to shift from native grapes to European-style wines. Experts were brought in, new vineyards were planted, and state winemakers left their comfort zone. From those first grapes to today, North Carolina wine has evolved and matured. The state now competes with the best wine of the South and is earning respect nationwide.
The climates and soils of North Carolina make for a varied terroir. The eastern and southern parts of the state are characterized by hot, humid growing seasons, and their flat, sandy landscapes have traditionally nurtured native grapes like the Scuppernong, a local Muscadine. The northern and western portions of North Carolina are characterized by cooler temperatures and hilly, rocky soils, and it is here where the vinifera and hybrid grapes are grown. The higher elevations in Western North Carolina allow the grapes a break from the heat at night, whereas the southeast sees little nighttime cooling.
The area that receives the bulk of attention is the Yadkin Valley, the state’s first American Viticultural Area. Characterized by rolling hills and loamy red clay soil, the Yadkin Valley is home to nearly 40 wineries, and many of the state’s trailblazers are located here. Rent a nearby cabin for the weekend (there are plenty available) and explore. Within the Yadkin is the Swan Creek AVA, which distinguishes itself from the greater Yadkin through its looser, more mineral-y soil. Swan Creek wines are characterized by acidity and balance and new grapes, such as Montepulciano, are being tested here.
Today, North Carolina has over 100 wineries — the industry is growing so quickly that even the state Department of Agriculture admits it has a hard time keeping count. The state ranks 10th in the nation in terms of production, and the wine tourism industry is thriving thanks to a combined push by the state tourism agency, local visitors bureaus, and the growers themselves. Prices are still affordable, as the beauty of this terrain is still flying under the radar. The wine experience here can lean toward casual, with wines just as likely to be paired with local pork barbecue as with a duck pate.
But though the atmosphere is relaxed, the winemakers’ ambitions are not. Mother Vine aside, most of the vines here are young. As the vines age and winemakers become one with the terroir, producers see no reason why the state can’t compete with the best of the United States. No longer just muscadine wine, North Carolina now boasts more than 40 varietals, and winemakers are excelling with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Sangiovese. Expect great things in the coming years, and a trip down a North Carolina wine trail is already an excellent way to spend a weekend.