SPONSORED BY North Carolina Wine and Grape Council
As an educator for NC Wines who runs a blind tasting group and teaches wine certification classes, Brianna Burns knows all about what a lot of people think to be the elephant in the room: North Carolina may not be the first place people think of when they think about wine.
Burns gets their hint. “But I gotta tell ya, I believe in North Carolina wine,” she says. “I was drawn to North Carolina and North Carolina wine because no matter your taste, you can have the experience you want.”
Winegrowing fits perfectly into North Carolina’s agricultural legacy. “I love going to the farmer’s market. I love eating fresh produce grown locally. And there’s nothing more local than going to a winery in your own state,” she says.
With a climate-soil combination ideal for growing grapes and almost 180 wineries across the state, even the most discriminating North Carolina oenophile can toast with a glass half full. Read on for a few reasons why.
1. We grow a lot of varietals.
A “varietal” is just a fancy name for a type of grape, explains Burns. More than 88 distinct grape varieties cling and drip from vines across our state. “It’s crazy and super cool because you are sure to like the flavor of at least one of those 88 grapes.”
That’s not to mention blends that add even more flavors, like a Bordeaux blend, for example, which combines Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot.
For people who find the variety dizzying, Burns says to think about North Carolina’s apples — Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Galas, and Pink Ladies, just to name a few. If you grew up only eating just one type, you might think you don’t like apples. But if you try a different kind, it could completely change your mind about apples.
That happens a lot around here, partly because we’re a relatively young wine producer. “In France, red Burgundy is only Pinot Noir. They have the perfect soil type and the perfect climate for that grape and wine, and they’ve had 1,000 years to make it,” Burns says. “Here, we’re still deciding which grapes are right for us.” Plus, she adds, as the climate changes, growers continue to experiment with new, exciting varieties.
“It makes a fun consumer game out of it — trying them and seeing what you like,” she says.
Stardust Cellars in Wilkesboro produces traditional mead using ancestral techniques. Photography courtesy of NORTH CAROLINA WINE AND GRAPE COUNCIL
2. Cider and mead count, too.
When it comes to what we mean by “wine,” each state has its own definition. In North Carolina, cider and mead are included in that definition. While cider starts with apples and mead starts with honey, they’re both fermented in a similar way as wine and often yield fruity alcoholic beverages, Burns explains.
That equates to an abundance of choices and variety, not only in taste but also with other factors like the amount of sugar and sparkle. “The basic process of making wine hasn’t changed,” Burns says. “But there are lots of innovative techniques that make it more approachable and available and fun. The same goes for cider and mead.”
Scuppernong was the first cultivar of muscadine and was named after the area of Tyrrell County where it was first recorded in the 18th century. Photography courtesy of NORTH CAROLINA WINE AND GRAPE COUNCIL
3. The country’s oldest vine grows on our coast.
Many eastern North Carolina children passed hot summer afternoons under a scuppernong vine, savoring the fruit and spitting the seeds and thick skins. “The scuppernong grape is a variety of muscadine, which is our native grape,” Burns says.
On the northern end of Roanoke Island, the scuppernong “Mother Vine” likely was first cultivated by the Croatoans. It’s also believed those grapes were among the varieties eyed by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe during the expedition Sir Walter Raleigh sponsored in 1584. The two wrote that North Carolina was “so full of grapes, as the very beating and surge of the seas overflowed them.”
While the Mother Vine’s production has slowed over the years, North Carolina’s hot weather and sandy soils support plenty of muscadine vineyards filled with the sweet and hearty fruit.
Junius Lindsay Vineyard in Lexington is part of North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley American Viticulture Area. Photography courtesy of NORTH CAROLINA WINE AND GRAPE COUNCIL
4. North Carolina has six unique AVAs.
Across the United States, distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) help our country’s wine compete on an international scale. “That’s because the terroir — in other words, the all-encompassing qualities of the area, like soil type and amount of rain — has all it takes to grow grapes,” Burns explains. Each AVA’s grapes have their own flavors and qualities.
North Carolina’s AVAs span the Piedmont and mountains. A seventh is currently in review. “This designation really speaks to the greatness of our land, and that we have specific areas that produce wonderful fruit,” Burns says.
Pair muscadine wine with dishes like herb shrimp. Photography courtesy of NORTH CAROLINA WINE AND GRAPE COUNCIL
5. Natural pairings spring from the earth.
“You’ve heard the old adage ‘what grows together goes together,’” Burns says. “Usually, we think about Italy and France producing food and wine that naturally taste good together.”
After years of sampling food and wine pairings in North Carolina, Burns has determined that adage applies here, too.
“We did a muscadine wine dinner for the North Carolina grape month last August, and it was eye-opening for so many people,” Burns says. Many of the participants had tasted muscadine wine before and thought it was OK, but when they had it with food, they had a completely different experience. “The muscadine wines were so good with an herb shrimp and a slow-braised beef — as well as traditional barbecue dishes served in the eastern part of the state.”
Likewise, white and sparkling wines made from Vinifera grapes grown in the Piedmont and mountains pair well with the region’s goat and cows’ milk cheeses on a charcuterie board.
At Serre Vineyards in Mount Airy, you can sip with a view of the Blue Ridge. Photography courtesy of NORTH CAROLINA WINE AND GRAPE COUNCIL
6. The state’s “typical” wine drinker isn’t so typical anymore.
Over the years, Burns noticed the demographics changing. “For a long time, we had a fixed idea of who the average wine drinker was,” she says. “But now, there are more women, more young people, and more people of color enjoying wine.”
Even on the business end, things are changing. “There’s a limited amount of farmland — and there are only certain places you should really grow a vineyard,” Burns says. “That makes it difficult to break into the growing side, but I love that anybody can come in and be a négociant.”
The French word for “merchant,” négociants might buy fruit or wine, and then the sky is the limit. Burns points to Lashonda Fort-Modest, who founded her company, Melanated Wine and Spirits, with the goal of de-complicating the complexities of wine for buyers of color.
Whether you prefer red or white, there’s a wine for everyone in North Carolina. Photography courtesy of NORTH CAROLINA WINE AND GRAPE COUNCIL
7. You can sip at your own speed.
For Burns, there’s nothing better than spending time at a winery on a perfect day and sharing a bottle with friends. “In our state, we have small winemakers who love for people to come hang out and sample their wine,” she says. “We also have medium-sized wineries with food trucks and music on the weekends. You can participate in educational events or classes. And then we have the larger ones with wonderful restaurants and alfresco patios and barrel tastings.”
Wine lovers and their families can celebrate North Carolina’s viticulture diversity at festivals across the state. Plus, there’s North Carolina Wine Month in May and North Carolina Grape Month in August, each of which comes with its own revelries.
But any season, any day, wine is a delight, Burns says. “I know some people get finicky about wine as this mystical whatever. But we drink wine for pleasure — not for any other purpose. I think that’s wonderful.”
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