Wine Country Showdown
Long before Prohibition, when the rollicking-good party was forced to run dry (theoretically, of course — hello, speakeasies), brandy-lovers and wine-drinkers faced an entirely different threat. Unlike the law of the land, the laws of nature are a lot harder to ignore. In this case, nature came in the form of near-microscopic insects, phylloxera, that feed on the roots and leaves of grapevines, ultimately killing the plant. In the late 19th century, phylloxera, which had originated in North America, made their way to Europe, and the continent faced the total devastation of their centuries-long wine-making tradition.
Cue the cavalry! Americans came to the aid of their European brothers; by grafting phylloxera-resistant American grape vines to the roots of their European counterparts, the European strains could be saved. To this day, European wine is oft-hailed as the best in the world. It’s thanks to American intervention, however, that the continent can still enjoy this distinction. And, surprise of all surprises, it wasn’t a Californian grape-grower who supplied the expertise: it was a Texan, Mr. T.V. Munson.
The American South’s wine-making tradition stretches further back than most people realize, and now, after the waves following Prohibition have finally calmed, three southern states in particular stand out for their incredible vines and wines. They also stand out for their notable devotion to collaboration and to cooperation. Vineyard owners and viticulturists in Virginia, Georgia and Texas are as dedicated to the collective survival and thriving of southern winemaking as a whole as they are to their own vines.
The viticulturists who raise their grapevines in the southern vineyards take pains to grow superior fruit and craft ‘farm-to-glass’ wines using mostly their own grapes. This hands on approach produces a more complex expression of terroir and represents a remarkable and beautiful labor of love.
The first grapes ever planted for American wine production were planted in Virginia. Twelve years after colonists settled Jamestown in the first years of the 17th century, each male colonist was required by law to tend to at least 10 grapevines. Not only are the types of soil, hilly terrain and climate all conducive to viticulture — Virginia lies halfway between France and California — Norton grapes native to the state produce a surprisingly delicious stand-alone wine. Two devoted Italian vintners pioneered the reemergence of the state’s wine tradition in the mid-1970’s, and Virginia’s now sophisticated vineyards and wineries have benefitted from this early, enterprising push.
Jefferson Vineyards | South of Monticello, ten minutes from Charlottesville | Average Elevation: 575 ft
Named for the president who gained fame not only for helping to found his nascent country, but for his love of French vintages, Jefferson Vineyards traces its roots to 1773, when the land was part of Jefferson’s Monticello estate. In 1981, the Woodward family planted vines on the property once again, with assistance from an Italian viticulturist who helped to establish Virginia’s first vineyard [Barboursville Vineyards] in the 1970’s. Since then, the estate’s four distinct vineyards (about 22 total acres) and winery along the Blue Ridge Mountains have flourished, growing and bottling primarily French varieties.
Linden Vineyards | An hour west of Washington, DC | Average Elevation: 1,066 ft
Directly in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Linden Vineyards is notable for its misty beauty, its small, farm-to-table production, and for its adherence to making wines only from grapes grown within its three vineyards. Specializing in wines requiring significant aging — current owner and obsessive viticulturist Jim Law first planted vines on the long-abandoned apple orchard in 1985 — the vineyard produces mineral rather than fruit-forward wines.
RdV Vineyards | An hour west of Washington, DC | Average Elevation: 750 ft
Established in 2004 on a stony hillside in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it took until 2008 for RdV Vineyards to produce its first vintage. After years of research into the granite-rich soil of this small, hand-cultivated 16-acre vineyard, the estate specializes now in creating blends in the Bordeaux tradition in its state-of-the-art winery.
Glen Manor Vineyards | 70 miles west of Washington, DC | Average Elevation: 1,200 ft
Named for the glen in which it rests, this small, 17-acre vineyard plants its vines on high rocky mountain slopes. The elevation allows the grapes to ripen slowly — ideal for wine production — and the hillside sites allow the soil to drain rapidly. The terroir lends itself to growing French varietals, and the White family, who has cultivated the land for five generations (more than a century), has done so since 1995.
Relatively new to the American viticulture scene, winemaking in Georgia makes the most of the gorgeous mountainous regions in the northernmost regions of the state. Vineyards remain quite small, tucked onto mountainsides and nestled into craggy valleys. The nights are cool and the days are largely temperate and breezy; the state’s soil is similar to that found in Italy’s Piedmont region, renowned world-wide for its Barolo and Nebbiolo wines. The vineyards listed below have a few things in common: their high altitude and their well-draining soils work extraordinarily well for growing less common French and Eurpean varietals.
Three Sisters Vineyards | An hour and a half north of Atlanta | Average Elevation: 1,800 ft
This small, family-owned vineyard and winery emphasizes its laidback, welcoming spirit, and its dedication to making wines only from Georgia-grown grapes. Many of their vintages use only grapes grown in their own vineyards (planted in 2000) and some emphasize or only include varieties native to North America.
Sharp Mountain Vineyards | An hour north of Atlanta | Average Elevation: 1,500 ft
Since 1995, this tiny, five-acre vineyard only bottles wine made from the grapes it grows, and believes that its relatively small size gives it a singular ability to focus on small-batch, old-world production and on unique hospitality. The vineyard sits among rolling hills on rocky soil left particularly fertile by ancient river deposits, and grows only 12 European varietals.
Tiger Mountain Vineyards | In the Chattahoochee National Forest; Georgia’s northeastern corner | Average Elevation: 2,000 ft
Popular among visitors, the award-winning Tiger Mountain Vineyards on the southern Blue Ridge started with nine acres of hand-planted vines in 1995. For five generations prior, the land had been farmed by the owner’s family; he, Dr. John Ezzard, was born on the farm. After initial help from Virginia winemakers, due to the areas’ similar climates —high altitude, rich soil and well-drained hills — the vineyard now fruitfully grows six more-uncommon European varietals (no Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon here) and Norton vines native to Virginia.
Stonewall Creek Vineyards | In the Chattahoochee National Forest; Georgia’s northeastern corner | Average Elevation: 2,200 ft
Five-acre Stonewall Creek Vineyards owes its name to its location just east of the start of the Appalachian Mountains. Set in a misty, rainy valley, but still dauntingly elevated, the old apple orchard’s soil combines mountain granite and mica with clay loam. The family owners started small in 2005, planting just a half-acre of Malbec vines at the suggestion Dr. Ezzard (see above). In 2011, after slowly adding to these initial plantings, they bottled their first wines, and continue to harvest and sell their French varietals.
Texas makes up for its sometimes desert-like, dazzlingly bright and sunny climate with altitude, and presents a dizzying array of vineyards scattered throughout the state. Most vineyards lie within the High Plains area — marked by remarkably high elevations, the region’s nighttime temperatures are perfect for retaining the grapes’ acidity — or the Hill Country, among the rolling hills west of Austin. Texas is of course notable for its role in supplying vines and knowledge to European viticulturists struggling to save their vines during the phylloxera outbreak of the 1850’s. That spirit of collaboration continues to today; dramatic environments in Texas mean that even the wineries most dedicated to using their own grapes for wine production acquire grapes from vineyards across the state. (For this reason, elevations for the highlighted vineyards below are not listed; statewide, elevation ranges from about 1,000 feet up to 4,000 feet.)
Fall Creek Vineyards | Driftwood — 40 minutes south of Austin | Tow — An hour and a half north of Austin
Considered one of the ‘founding families’ of Texas winemaking, the Aulers have been growing vines on their land since 1975. Inspired by a wine-and-food-filled trip to France (undertaken to look at cattle), they experimented with European vines, building a winery in 1980. Their award-winning wines are made only from Texas grapes grown on their own two vineyards or locally; the area’s great range in climate and soil allows for a variety of French and Spanish vintages.
Spicewood Vineyards | 45 minutes northwest of Austin
Founded in 1992, Spicewood Vineyards dedicated itself to making wines from estate-grown grapes only; as business and the Texas wine industry have grown, the winery has incorporated grapes from other in-state vineyards, but strives to primarily use grapes from their own 32 acres. Their hands-on, science-first approach has won them international and domestic rewards for their Spanish-inspired Texas vintages.
William Chris Vineyards | An hour east of Fredericksburg
As the name hints, William Chris Vineyards represents the partnership of two experienced Texan winemakers who sought to characterize Texas as a respected wine region by emphasizing the unique terroir of the state. Since 2008 they have planted their own vines and bought or partnered with estates and family farms throughout Texas to create wines made from Lone Star grapes only. The duo specializes in Italian and French varietals, and, increasingly, in blended vintages.
1851 Vineyards | In Fredericksburg
Named for the year a still-standing barn was built on the property, 1851 Vineyards represents the recent conversion of family-owned farming land to wine production. Three years of planting eventually grew the wine-producing area to 16 acres, and the family produced its first vintages in 2016. The vineyard focuses on using sustainable farming practices, and the winery produces bottles that represent a full tour of European varietals.