You hear about Georgia peaches, Florida citrus and Carolina tobacco, but wine doesn't often pop up. In fact, most wine snobs wretch at the thought of drinking the juice from these parts. I was definitely a card-carrying member of Club Negative, but things have changed.
In the past three years, the Southeastern wine scene has drastically improved, making damn drinkable wine using grapes we've heard of, those we haven't, and "alternative" sources like oranges and strawberries.
Laughing, are you? Don't knock it 'til you try it. In the past two weeks, I've gorged on a refreshing poolside-worthy wine made from grapefruit, a really awesome port made from strawberries and a deliciously elegant Touriga Nacional, the principal grape in port wine. Its quality made my jaw drop.
Parts of the Georgia and North Carolina foothills have climates cool enough to ripen the famous Vitis Vinifera grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc. - and appear free from the bugs that kill vines in the South, specifically the glassy-winged sharp shooter that thrives in lower elevations.
Florida can only successfully grow Muscadine and hybrid grapes. Why? Because it's flat and just about every living thing wilts during the summer. Still, some of the funky-sounding wines in Florida are worth the sip.
Other than Virginia, North Carolina is the most active wine-growing state in the Southeast, with over 45 wineries. Yadkin Valley, the newly established AVA (American Viticultural Area) in the central part of the state, has grown ten-fold in the past three years. Dusty Rhodes, of Total Wine and More wine shop in Charlotte, said, "The new AVA has made a huge difference in the legitimacy of the area," making North Carolina wineries and wine sales grow. The state's best-selling wineries are Shelton Vineyards, Rockhouse, Childress Vineyards and Westbend - all of which grow the familiar varietals.
Georgia has a few "resort" wineries, focusing more on the luxurious lifestyle surrounding the wine rather than the juice itself. Chateau Elan, an enormous estate just north of Atlanta, has been around since 1985. They were wine before wine was cool, but unfortunately they've neglected quality.
The wine hasn't even reached "good" status. But don't judge all Georgia wineries by the fancy-pants places. Three Sisters, Habersham and Tiger Mountain wineries are making some shockingly good stuff. I'm less impressed with the whites than the reds, but put your mouth around some Tiger Mountain Vineyards Touriga Nacional, and you'll never, ever believe you're drinking Georgia juice.
Florida wineries, although many make wines from juice trucked in from California, grow "hybrid" grapes that have been specially engineered at the University of Florida, or play with the muscadine, a grape native to Florida. St. Augustine's San Sebastian Winery and Central Florida's Lakeridge Winery produce decent Muscadine grape wine, both red and white. Other Florida wineries get creative with the fruits that the state is famous for: strawberries, oranges and grapefruit. At Florida Estates Winery outside of Tampa, I tried a fantastic port made from fermented strawberries. If you visit there - the only place you can buy it - ask vintner Ron Hunt how serendipity played a part in developing the port. Other finds in this locale include a refreshing grapefruit wine from Florida Orange Grove Winery in St. Petersburg.
In addition to those mentioned above, here are some other highlights:
Tiger Mountain Tannat
Habersham Winery Cabernet Sauvignon
Habersham Winery Viognier
Shelton Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon
Childress Vineyards Cabernet Franc
To find out more: www.ncwine.org; www.georgiawine.com; www.fgga.org.