North Carolina Wines

North Carolina Wines
North Carolina is home to more than 100 wineries, three-quarters of them new since the beginning of this century incentivised by grants to move from growing tobacco to grapes. Odd-fact lovers will want to know that the most visited winery in the United States is in the grounds of Biltmore Estate.

The state has a long history in wine. The first vinifera vines were planted soon after colonists landed at Roanoke Island, on the coast of what is now North Carolina, in the late 1500s but it wasn’t until 1835 that the state’s first commercial winery started operating.

North Carolina was a major producer of wine by 1900 and in 1904 the Virginia Dare brand (named after the first colonist child born in America) was the best selling wine in the United States.

But, as happens in every history of US wine, it all came to a sudden end with Prohibition in 1909 and 14 years after the end of Prohibition the few wineries then operating all closed when local ordinances made counties ‘dry’ and alcohol production illegal.

North Carolina’s main crop was tobacco but the decline in smoking over the past 30 years resulted in a series of state government measures designed to encourage farmers to grow grapes instead of tobacco and to open wineries.

TodayNorth Carolina produces wine from international varieties as well as the Muscadine grape species which is native to the state. The first non American to discover them was French explorer Giovanni Verranzo in 1524 and sixty years later the first English colonists reported the land was “so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed them.”

An ancient muscadine, first recorded in 1584 and now known as the ‘Mother Vine’, still grows on Roanoke Island. It sprawls over an acre of land from a two foot thick trunk. The grapes it produces are known as ‘Scuppernong’ from the river of the same name. Scuppernong spread with cuttings taken from the Mother Vine planted by early settlers.

Now there are more than 20 varieties of muscadine growing in North Carolina producing both red and white wines.

Muscadines have the advantages of being resistant to both phylloxera and Pierce’s disease, and they contain high levels of polyphenolic antioxidants which studies have indicated might give protection against some cancers.

Unfortunately few wine lovers consider that they make good wines. Sweetness is often used to hide poor flavour and also because sweet wines are popular with new wine drinkers. The best dry muscadines I have encountered have been white and tasted of very little.

On my recent trip I tasted a range on North Carolina wines and also visited five wineries in the Yadkin Valley and Swan Creek AVAs, two of three recognised American Viticultural Areas in the state.

Despite challenging conditions for growing vinifera, with heavy rain producing mildew and cold winters damaging vines, North Carolina has demonstrated that it can make excellent vinifera wines.

However the consumer wanting to drink North Carolina wine should read the label as some wineries also buy in grapes from outside the state: such wines are labelled ‘American Wine’, whereas wines from locally grown grapes will clearly state the AVA or North Carolina as the appellation.

North Carolina wines are hard to find outside the state so don’t miss an opportunity to sample them when you can.

Talk about wine on our forum.

Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

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Biltmore Estate, North Carolina

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