Saluting Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia A wine tour through emerging wine regions in the southeast
Considering that a mere 30 years ago the Napa Valley was thought to be a rustic frontier to many well-versed in wines, it is wise to keep our eyes on the horizons. Grapes can be grown, harvested, and fermented anywhere where the soil, air, sun, and breeze give their blessing. In the emerging regions we explore here, rugged mountain ranges, rocky plateaus, rolling hills, coursing rivers, and gentle streams have made their mark on the diverse soils--and their magnificent wines.
From Savannah, Statesboro, and Albany in the south to Dahlonega, Young Harris, and Ringgold in the north, Georgia is emerging as a producer, of excellent wines. It is the United States' top Muscadine producer and the state's vineyard acreage has more than tripled in the past five years. The majority of the state's wineries are currently found in the north around Dahlonega, just about an hour from Atlanta.
The Dahlonega Mountains of North Georgia, once mined for gold, are now cultivated for a wide variety of European and American wine grapes. Visitors to Dahlonega's vineyards are rewarded with the area's breathtaking beauty, unique things to do, memorable restaurants, and snug places to stay. Start in the historic preserved downtown of Dahlonega. Here the tasting rooms and quaint shops around the Square are intriguing enough to consume at least a couple hours of your day. Be sure to stop at the Dahlonega Gold Museum, housed in Georgia's oldest remaining courthouse building, and don't miss the gold-speckled bricks in the walls. They were made with clay from the surrounding hills, proving that there was "gold in them thar hills." There is lodging in and around Dahlonega to suit every budget, from cozy inns and bed and breakfasts to mountain cabins and even yurts. On your first morning of wine touring, treat yourself to a hearty breakfast complete with feather-light biscuits at The Crimson Moon Cafï¿½. If it's Sunday, hold that appetite for Frogtown Winery, where a three-course Sunday brunch with wine pairings and homemade desserts await; or try Le Vigne Ristorante at Monteluce, where many of the seasonal recipes begin with ingredients from the winery's own organic gardens.
Beyond wine, visitors can also enjoy the lakes and streams for canoeing and fishing. More than 30 waterfalls are located in the area, including Amicolola, the highest waterfall in the Eastern United States. Hiking trails are plentiful and there's even a place to pan for gold at Crisson Gold Mine. Guided tours of Consolidated Mine are offered too, where you can learn the history of gold mining and walk through underground tunnels. Back in Dahlonega, the Holly Theater, a true community effort, is usually about to raise the curtain. There is nightlife in the town of Dahlonega--and plenty of undiscovered gold for wine tourers to discover in the hills the next day.
North Carolina is the home of the nation's first cultivated grape, the Scuppernong, a Muscadine variety that is still used to make wine today. Since the year 2000, North Carolina's wine industry has grown from 21 to more than 70 wineries and has more than doubled the amount of land used to grow grapes, allowing the state to become the tenth largest producer of both grapes and wine in the United States.
Just west of Winston-Salem lies North Carolina's sweet spot for wine production and a sweet place to tour and taste. The one-and-one-half-million-acre boomerang-shaped Yadkin Valley, officially christened as an AVA in 2003, is now home to around two dozen wineries. About 85 percent of the grapes grown to produce the region's European varietals are grown right here, in vineyards blessed by a nurturing microclimate of the front range of the Blue Ridge Mountains and Yadkin River. The area boasts a number of charming bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and places to explore, including the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, often listed among the most beautiful drives in America. One charming starting point is the historic town of Elkin, which is filled with unique shops selling art, Appalachian quilts, jewelry, and books. Elkin is also the site of the Yadkin Valley Wine Festival held on the third Saturday of May, and the Yadkin Valley Grape and Annual Pumpkin Festivals held each fall.
If you start your wine touring day early enough, head for Dobson and Strudel's Bakery, a real German bakery run by a German family, for the coffeecake, or grab a cookie. If it's anywhere close to lunchtime, stop at The Harvest Grill at Shelton Vineyards. Take in the fabulous view of the vineyards backed by the Blue Ridge Mountains while enjoying local favorites ï¿½ la Chef Paul Lange, including Buttermilk Dipped Crispy Catfish or a Harvest Grill Roasted Turkey Club Sandwich. At the southern tip of the Yadkin Valley, just west of Lexington, there's The Bistro at Childress Vineyards, where each menu item offers a suggested pairing from the Childress wine portfolio and a sumptuous Sunday brunch is served. Beyond the impressive list of European grapes that thrive in North Carolina, several vineyards in the state still cultivate and make wines from many varieties of the native Muscadine grape. When a winery is pouring this varietal, be sure to taste it and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
The state of Virginia is taking its wine industry seriously. Recently Governor Mark Warner, a grape grower himself, signed a bill allowing Virginia's more than 130 wineries to ship directly to out-of-state customers. Like other eastern regions, Virginia mimics the climates that grow the wines of Europe. "Virginia is just like France," explains Annette Boyd of the Virginia Wine Board. "We get phenomenal wine in terms of acidity because of the climates. Our vintners are experimenting with lots of grapes, but Chardonnay, Cab Franc, Viognier, and Petite Verdot seem to do particularly well."
Thirty plus wineries are waiting to be discovered in the rolling hills of Fauquier and Loudoun Counties, located just west of Washington D.C. The quaint town of Middleburg has long been known for its delightful inns, shops, and restaurants located downtown. If you're in the mood for a picnic, head for The Market Salamander with gourmet goods and many foods and sundries made locally. The French Hound is a pleasing bistro. Whether you're there for lunch or dinner, don't leave without eating at least one piece of the flourless chocolate torte. For a more refined dining experience, make a reservation at Hilltoppers at the luxurious Goodstone Inn. This is an excellent spot to spend the night as well. Once fortified, take time to poke your head into the boutiques before you head for the wineries.
It's only fitting that Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned a thriving native wine industry, currently has the highest concentration of wineries in the state. About 20 of them are located within a 25-mile radius of Charlottesville, the cosmopolitan home of the former President's University of Virginia. Be sure to put the romantic Boars Head Inn on your itinerary, whether you plan to sleep, eat, or just walk the grounds to admire the old mill there. Other historic sites and a downtown pedestrian-only mall offer plenty to do when you're not touring the compelling roads of the Virginia countryside, discovering yet another great wine.