Photo courtesy Morgan Ridge Vineyards & Brewhouse.
It isn’t often you can pair Syrah and NASCAR together, but that’s what happens when you talk about North Carolina wine country. This beautiful area, encompassing mountains, valleys and the coast, is full of surprises.
In the past 15 years, the number of wineries in the state has quadrupled. NASCAR team owner Richard Childress is just one of the 180 winery owners in the area and there are 400 vineyards. North Carolina ranks tenth in wine production in the US.
North Carolina’s wine country is divided into five parts: mountains, Piedmont, Yadkin Valley, the coast and Haw River Valley. The largest, both in area and number of wineries, is Piedmont, dominating the center portion of the state.
The soil in these hills, famous for growing tobacco, produces native Muscadine grapes and European-style vinifera grapes. Commonly planted vinifera varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and Viognier, planted in both the western and Piedmont regions of the state.
Scuppernongs and other native Muscadine grapes, which produce sweet wine, grow in the hot, sandy conditions of the coastal region.
Wine travelers often use American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) as the starting point for planning trips, according to Will Tuttell, executive director of Visit North Carolina, the state’s tourism office. The Yadkin Valley is the oldest and best-known of the five recognized wine regions, and with three dozen wineries, it’s the biggest wine producer.
“New AVAs in our mountain areas are adding excitement to the North Carolina wine journey, which extends beyond the recognized terroir,” Tuttell says. “For those with a sense of adventure, wineries outside the defined AVAs offer quality wines and memorable experiences as well.”
If you’re planning a trip to North Carolina this summer, you’ll find plenty of wine events and sights. “The months between bud break and harvest invite strolls through the vineyards to heighten appreciation of the grape,” Tuttell says. “Those are also the months when wineries stage concerts and other activities to add to the fun of a visit.”
Here’s a tasting-size menu of places to visit in the vast Piedmont area:
Fair Game Beverage Co., Pittsboro
Tuttell cites Fair Game as one of his personal favorites. As a producer of fortified wines and spirits, “it’s way out of the ordinary in terms of drink, and the experience makes it more so,” Tuttell says. Fair Game is part of a dynamic lineup of businesses in an eco-industrial park known as The Plant, on Lorax Lane. Fair Game makes fruit-based wines using locally grown vinifera and Muscadine grapes, mountain apples and Southern peaches, then cuts the sweetness with an infusion of brandy.
The best time to visit this family-friendly spot is Sunday afternoon, when a tasting can be combined with a plant tour that includes the new Farm & Forest Trail. Fair Game is a 45-minute drive from Raleigh.
Morgan Ridge Vineyards & Brewhouse, Gold Hill
Celebrating the 10th anniversary of its inaugural vintage, Morgan Ridge Vineyards offers wine lovers seven varietals and a couple of blends made from European-style vinifera and French-American hybrids. Along with a brew house, Morgan Ridge has a restaurant that showcases the culinary art of Cajun-inspired chef Jason Nain. Enjoy the beauty of the private pond and views of the Uwharrie Mountains in the heart of North Carolina gold country, where the nation’s first Gold Rush took place.
The winery is about an hour’s drive northeast of Charlotte.
Baker Buffalo Creek Vineyard & Winery, Lawndale
Home of the restored red mule barn in a popular 2013 Hillshire Farms commercial, the farm, owned by the Baker family for more than a century, is set in the rolling Blue Ridge Mountain foothills. The owners grow European-style vinifera and French-American hybrids. “For anyone curious about wines made from native North Carolina Muscadines, this would be a good place to try them,” Tuttell says.
Baker Buffalo Creek Vineyard is about an hour’s drive west of Charlotte.
Check Out the Yadkin Valley
North Carolina’s wine tradition put down roots in Yadkin Valley. Yadkin continues to grow, with two new wineries introduced to the 40 wineries and about 400 acres of vineyards in the northwestern region of the state. Two of the newer wineries in the valley are Herrera Vineyards in Dobson and Adagio in Elkin.
Formerly Black Wolf Vineyards, the Herrera family owns this 54-acre site, which has a waterfall and two 75-foot porches. Owner Javier Herrara’s winery was inspired by his childhood in San Pedro, Coahuila, Mexico, where his mother shared her love of food and wine, and he had a job working at a local vineyard. An over-planting of grapes in his backyard in the US was also a catalyst. Some of the more popular wines produced here are dry Riesling, Solera and Tannat in the villa-style tasting room and restaurant. Sangria is also on the menu. (Get their white sangria recipe online
About 25 minutes from Herrera Vineyards is Adagio Vineyards, owned by the husband-wife team Jan and Tim Wahl; Jan is a classically-trained musician and Tim is a certified sommelier. The Italian word “adagio” is a musical directive that means to perform slowly, with passion, which is also how they approach their winery, reflected in the hand-crafted violins adorning the walls and in the wines themselves.
Tim earned a certificate in winemaking from the University of California-Davis and is a member of the Guild of Sommeliers. Jan is a classical violinist, having played for Brevard Symphony Orchestra in Melbourne, Florida for 25 years. She is also a violin maker who studied under the late Karl Roy, a German master, at the University of New Hampshire. “We have violin making, winemaking, beautiful music and wonderful wines, all in the same place,” Tim Wahl says. “Adagio applies deeply to both winemaking and music, a perfect pair, which is why we used the name. That is the dream.”