In the Swan Creek region of the Yadkin Valley, wine enthusiasts can sip a dry, tannic Italian red — rich in minerality from the schist and mica in the soil.
In the Swan Creek region of the Yadkin Valley, wine enthusiasts can sip a dry, tannic Italian red — rich in minerality from the schist and mica in the soil. In the Upper Hiwassee Highlands of far-western North Carolina, they might get a French-American hybrid with a strong flavor profile — a healthy amount of acidity and sugar — due to the climate. From the tall, steep mountains of the Appalachian High Country to the gentle hills of the Piedmont’s Haw River Valley, our state’s distinct American Viticultural Areas produce a wide array of award-winning wines.
An American Viticultural Area is a federally recognized region that has distinguishing geographic or climatic features that affect the way that grapes are grown, and therefore the flavor of the wine produced there. There are six established AVAs in North Carolina, with a seventh awaiting approval.
The first to be approved, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, was the Yadkin Valley. Charlie and Ed Shelton, founders of Shelton Vineyards, were instrumental in getting the region approved as an AVA. “They felt like this would be a great way to enhance the North Carolina wine industry as a whole,” says Mandy Houser, who now owns the vineyard along with her brother, Chip Shelton, and mother, Sandy Shelton.
When an AVA develops a positive reputation, it benefits all of the wineries in the region — which is one of the reasons why North Carolina wineries are more collaborative than competitive. “That’s what the beauty of our industry is; we all work together,” Houser says. “We like to send [customers] to each other’s wineries so that people can get the full depth and the breadth of the North Carolina wine industry.”
By the early 20th century, the rich soils of the Yadkin Valley were producing an abundance of tobacco. As the century drew to a close, however, the prevalence of the crop diminished, and a shift toward viticulture — the cultivation of grapes — began. Jack Kroustalis is believed to have planted the state’s first vinifera grapes — the varietals commonly grown in Europe — at Westbend Vineyards in 1972, and other vineyards soon followed.
The soil, depleted of nutrients after decades of tobacco farming, was ripe for grapes. The soil’s poor fertility is actually good for vineyards, according to Sarah Bowman, viticulture instructor at Surry Community College. Bowman explains that low soil fertility helps keep vines “in balance,” allowing them to produce enough leaves to perform photosynthesis but not so many that the leaves overly shade the fruit, which causes humidity that makes the plants more susceptible to disease. She describes the soil in the valley as generally clay or clay loam with good drainage, which is important because grapes do best under a bit of drought stress.
What’s more, the climate in the Yadkin Valley is warm and the growing season is fairly long. This allows vineyards to grow varietals that take longer to ripen, like cabernet franc, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. The elevated sites also allow cold air to drain down off of the vineyards, protecting the vines from late spring or early fall frosts.
Taste it: Jones von Drehle Vineyards & Winery in Thurmond focuses on French wines like Viognier. This white varietal from the Rhone Valley is known for being a “fussy grape,” says Diana Jones, who owns the vineyard with family members Chuck Jones and Ronnie and Raymond von Drehle. Even so, the wine, which has flavors of honeysuckle, peach, and pear, has won numerous awards, including Best in Show at the 2021 North Carolina Fine Wines Competition.
Did you know? Surry Community College offers programs in the science of winemaking. The college has its own vineyard and winery, providing students with hands-on training through the Shelton-Badgett North Carolina Center for Viticulture and Enology. — Rebecca Woltz
At a high elevation in the Yadkin Valley, Serre Vineyards sits at 1,320 feet. The silty soil, dense with granite, earned the area the nickname “Granite City.” Melissa Hayes and Christian Krobisch and their three children spent much of the pandemic shutdown picking rocks out of their recently bought property before planting their vines in 2020. They chose the native Norton varietal, which does well in the Southeast, and if the weather cooperates, the vines will reach full maturity around 2024, meaning the Serre Vineyards crew can harvest their first grapes for production.
Currently, they make and serve wine in their Mount Airy tasting room using grapes sourced from neighboring winery Round Peak Winery, a common practice in the wine-making world. “The great thing with Serre,” explains Ken Guilian, the owner and winemaker at Round Peak, “is that their growing conditions are exactly like we have here. We’re very similar in terroir — we even face the same side of the mountain — and using our grapes to make something for them is exactly like their wines should taste.”
Taste it: Clay-rich soil characterizes much of the Yadkin Valley, but in the northernmost point where Serre Vineyards and Round Peak Vineyards grow their grapes, the soil features a high-silt composition due to run-off from the mountain. “It gives wine that leathery, tobacco-y, mineral flavor,” Hayes explains. Additionally, the higher elevation allows for medium-bodied wines with more restrained alcohol levels than counterparts grown in other parts of the valley. — Hannah Lee Leidy
Although much of the Swan Creek AVA overlaps with a portion of the preexisting Yadkin Valley AVA, the smaller Swan Creek area has distinct conditions that justified its designation. In contrast to the varied soil types of the larger Yadkin Valley viticultural area, Swan Creek has homogenous soil characteristics resulting from the weathering process of the Brushy Mountains. Predominantly mica and schist, the soil imparts a minerality and complexity to wine made from grapes grown here. “You pick [the soil] up and it’s got those shiny bits in it that kind of look like crystals,” says Jay Raffaldini, owner of Raffaldini Vineyards. “And then you hold it in your hand and it kind of breaks apart. It’s so soft and pliable. That, to a vineyard, is gold.”
Taste it: Raffaldini recognized that the schist in the Swan Creek area made the soil similar to that of Tuscany, so he planted his Wilkes County vineyard with Italian varietals. He specializes in dry, tannic reds, like the oak-fermented Grande Riserva, one of the winery’s flagship blends that uses Sagrantino grapes — a varietal that Raffaldini describes as one of the rarest grapes in the world.
Composing a portion of the Haw River Watershed and featuring the rolling hills of the Piedmont, the Haw River Valley AVA is the easternmost AVA in the state. The predominant soil type is red clay, which imparts mineral flavors to wines produced here, and the low fertility of the soils is beneficial for growing grapes. The climate consists of more moderate temperatures and greater precipitation than the surrounding areas. The long growing season — from April 1 to November 1 — is suitable for cultivating a wide variety of grapes, from vinifera to hybrids to muscadines.
Taste it: FireClay Cellars in Siler City was named for the fiery red clay in which the vineyard was planted. Visitors can sit on the covered front porch and sip a glass of the dry, full-bodied Chambourcin — aged at least 18 months in oak barrels — while enjoying a view of the hand-planted, hand-picked vineyard.
The Upper Hiwassee Highlands have cool nights and warm days, a difference in temperature that helps the grapes retain acidity. Meanwhile, the shallower slopes and valleys of the AVA allow for greater sun exposure on the vines, promoting fruit maturation and sugar production. The result is strong flavor profiles. “A lot of people are amazed at the amount of fruit flavor that we get out of the grapes,” says Jan Olson, co-owner of FernCrest Winery in Andrews. The moderately warm climate makes the area suitable for growing French American hybrids like Chambourcin, Traminette, Seyval Blanc, and Vidal Blanc, as well as American varietals like Norton, Catawba, and Concord.
Taste it: Jan and Kurt Olson don’t rush their wines into the bottle at FernCrest Winery. Instead, they use as few settling agents as possible, allowing the grape solids and yeast particles to settle out naturally. Their Appalachian Pink Rosé, made with Catawba grapes, takes advantage of the environment of the Upper Hiwassee Highlands, developing a rich flavor profile with notes of tropical fruit, green apple, and citrus.
The steep slopes of the Appalachian High Country AVA require many of its vineyards to be terraced to prevent erosion. As a result, work in these vineyards is done by hand, as machines are often too large to be used on the narrow terraces. The high elevations of the Appalachian Mountains contribute to a cool climate and short growing season, so cold-hardy grape varietals like Marquette and Vidal Blanc are most suitable for cultivation here. These varietals fruit later — after the late spring frost — and mature more quickly — before the early fall frost. The high elevations also mean that the leaves are exposed to more sun, which helps the grapes mature within the shorter growing seasons.
Taste it: Owned by husband and wife Steve and Sally Tatum, Grandfather Vineyard & Winery in Banner Elk provides a view of Grandfather Mountain’s ancient profile. Visitors can pull up a seat next to the Watauga River and enjoy a glass of the small-batch Estate Rosé — if it hasn’t sold out. The wine has aromas of hibiscus and notes of strawberry and rhubarb with a high acidity. “It’s tough to grow grapes up here,” says winemaker Will Burrow. “But when you do grow them, they’re very refreshing and very much mineral-driven.”
The Crest of the Blue Ridge is so named because it straddles the Eastern Continental Divide, separating the Blue Ridge Escarpment to the south and east from the Blue Ridge Plateau to the north and west. As a result, the Crest of the Blue Ridge has an intermediate elevation between the two. The Henderson County AVA’s elevation plays a large role in determining its climate and growing season, which is generally shorter than areas to the south and east and longer than areas to the north and west. The growing season “limits you to selecting varietals that are more cold-hardy, that are tolerant of shorter growing seasons, and that will tolerate some amount of frost without a whole lot of damage and fruit loss,” says Ken Parker, who owns Souther Williams Vineyard with his wife, Angela Adams. “Cabernet franc does really well. We’re finding that our Vidal Blanc and our Grüner Veltliner, which are both white wines, do extremely well here in the mountains.”
Taste it: Parker has traveled extensively in Central and Eastern Europe and developed a love for wines from those regions, like the white Grüner Veltliner and the red Blaufränkisch — two varietals that he now grows on the bicentennial farm where he founded Souther Williams Vineyard in Fletcher. “I wanted to be different,” he says. “I wanted to bring new varietals into the state. I wanted to have people experience something that they had not experienced before.”
Grapes have been grown in Polk County since the mid-1800s. By the late 1890s, the now-extinct Tryon grape was so popular that it was featured on the menu at the Waldorf Astoria. When tobacco farming became more prevalent, grape production died off, until a renewed interest in viticulture took hold in the county in the 1980s. Now, the proposed Tryon Foothills AVA is home to four commercial wineries that take advantage of a unique terroir created by the Blue Ridge Escarpment to the north and west, which can act as a rain shadow — a benefit to grape production. The escarpment also contributes to the isothermal belt in Polk and Rutherford counties, which protects the area from frost and lengthens the growing season. Soils are a mixture of sandy loam, clay loam, and red clay, the latter of which is particularly suited for growing the Merlot varietal. “It loves red clay,” says Cory Lillberg, the general manager and vineyard manager of Parker-Binns Vineyard in Mill Spring. “In fact, some of the most famous Merlot in the world, on the right bank of Bordeaux, is grown in red clay.”
Taste it: Parker-Binns Vineyard owners Bob Binns and Karen Parker-Binns grow 11 varietals, producing wines that appeal to a range of palates — from sweet to dry, from bold to lean. But Lillberg thinks that their best offering is their Petit Manseng, a grape known for its higher acidity. Acid forms in grapes overnight, but since Polk County doesn’t have a big shift between daytime and nighttime temperatures, grapes grown there tend to have low acidity. It’s one of the reasons that Petit Manseng is well-suited for the area. “When you’re making a wine that doesn’t have great acid to it, it can seem kind of dull and round,” Lillberg says. “You want the wine to have a little bit of backbone. A Petit Manseng is known for always having acid.” — Rebecca Woltz
After a long day of work, when the air is hot and thick, Dave Fussell Jr., president of Duplin Winery in Rose Hill, looks forward to sinking into his outdoor couch on his screened-in patio, listening to the birds, and sipping a glass of cold muscadine wine. It’s that hot and humid climate that has allowed Duplin, North Carolina’s oldest operating winery, to produce wine in eastern North Carolina using our native muscadine grapes since 1976. Though not an officially recognized AVA, eastern North Carolina has conditions that make muscadines thrive not only at Duplin but at vineyards across the region. Its dry, sandy soil, too, makes the eastern part of the state perfect for cultivating muscadines, as moisture from rainwater in other areas can contribute to fungal disease. Beyond these characteristics, Fussell says, his team is what truly makes Duplin’s grapes shine. “It’s the people who make this a special place to grow muscadine grapes and make muscadine wine.” — Isabella Reilly