Monday, October 1, 2012

Winemaking in North Carolina

Winemaking has been a cultural tradition for centuries. Thought to have originated in the Middle East, winemaking has a rich history dating back to 6000 B.C. The value of winemaking to culture was observed as early as the fifth century B.C. by noted Greek historian Thucydides, who wrote that people “began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate ... the vine.”

North Carolina thoroughly appreciates the connection that wine has with culture and has been a winemaking state for much of its history. Although the first commercial winery in North Carolina did not open until 1835, at least 25 wineries were in production by the early 1900s. However, because Prohibition effectively shut down winemaking, land once used to grow grapes was allocated to legal – as well as lucrative -- crops such as tobacco. Thus, the winemaking tradition felt dormant until recently.

The state has three American Viticultural Areas.
Now home to more than 90 wineries, North Carolina also has three American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) — Yadkin Valley, Swan Creek and Haw River Valley. All three reside in the state’s piedmont region, where rolling hills offer the slope (a topographical characteristic desired for a vineyard because it permits better drainage of water) preferred over flatter terrain. Receiving an AVA designation is a significant honor. To receive one, a region needs a distinguishing combination of climate and soil. In addition, to be judged an identifiable regional wine character (also known as an appellation or district), 85 percent of the grapes have to be grown in the region.

Distinguishing Characteristics

The climate and soil of North Carolina more than adequately permit it to be the home for an increasing number of vineyards, although the summer heat of the state can interfere because grapevines may shut down when temperatures regularly exceed 95 degrees Fahrenheit. To grow grapes successfully, a vineyard needs an annual mean temperature range between 50 and 68 degree Fahrenheit. In addition, according to Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia, at least 1,300 hours of sunshine during the growing season is needed to produce grapes suitable for winemaking. Daily sunshine helps to develop a grape’s sugar and flavor, and cool nights preserve a grape’s acidity. For example, the Haw River Valley AVA (in Alamance, Caswell, Chatham, Guilford, Orange and Rockingham counties) has a long growing season with the desired temperatures -- and 214 frost-free days.

Frost can be a serious problem for some vineyards, particularly in the western parts of the state. Although dormant buds can usually avoid harm caused by an early frost, a late frost may affect the yield by reducing the number of grape clusters. Nevertheless, the beneficial rainfall of the state also serves a vineyard quite well. Little irrigation is needed even in drought conditions because a vine’s roots can travel as deep as 50 feet in search of water.

In addition, soil is another important consideration in selecting the location to plant grapevines. For example, the Swan Creek AVA compasses less than 200 square miles in only three counties -- Wilkes, Yadkin and Iredell. Because this AVA is close to the Brushy Mountains, its soil has a distinct, loamy quality and consists of schist, mica and other minerals. As a result, five vineyards take advantage of this special location.

State Support

North Carolina has been a winemaking state for much of its history. However, only recently did organizations form in the state to support growing grapes and making wine, and the demand for “local” wine has furthered the interest in winemaking. The first state group to organize was the North Carolina Muscadine Grape Growers Association. In fact, the muscadine has been celebrated extensively in North Carolina because it is the home of the 400-year-old scuppernong “mother vine,” and the N.C. Muscadine Festival in Kenansville far surpasses similar festivals in other parts of the American South.

However, interest in growing vinifera, or European-style bunch grapes, led to a major change by the early 1980s. The Piedmont Grape Growers Association was formed to champion production of vinifera grapes in the state, and this group’s effort led to the formation of North Carolina Winegrowers Association in 1993. In addition to supporting the commercial businesses, the state government through its Department of Commerce has also promoted winemaking at home.

N.C. Tourism Sign
The state’s support for wine is affected by the annual appropriation process and pressures to reduce government spending. However, even in the climate of reduced expenditures, the state government still allocates $500,000 to support the work of grape growers and winemakers. The benefits of this support are quite significant. For example, the number of overnight visitors to North Carolina who went on winetasting or winery tours in 2011 increased by 122,000 (or 24%) compared to the previous year, which itself had been a record. The state’s Agricultural Tourism Highway Signs Program guides the way and enrolls most wineries and vineyards.

The business and hobby of winemaking in North Carolina continues to build on a long-standing tradition. Some even think that wine made in North Carolina is better than that produced elsewhere in the country as well as overseas. “Tasting is believing,” says Margo Knight Metzger, former executive director of the North Carolina Wine and Grape Council.