The Southern United States has its signature delights – think sweet tea, bourbon, pralines, and fried chicken. But amidst these iconic flavors, fine wine doesn’t often grab the spotlight. In the past, when you talked about Southern wines, you’d likely think of those muscadine and scuppernong sweet wines. But that’s changing. Thanks to hard work, creativity, and determination, the South is stepping into the limelight, producing award-winning wines from international varieties like Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, and even Blaufrankisch.
No conversation about wine in the Southern United States is complete without mentioning the unlikely Texan hero, T.V. Munson. In the 1880s, scientists sought to understand why European grape vines struggled on American soil, initially blaming it on unfavorable terroir. As they experimented by cultivating American varieties on European landscapes, this inadvertently introduced the phylloxera bug from America, nearly wiping out Vitis Vinifera grapes globally. This included treasured varieties like pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, and chardonnay. The solution emerged in grafting Vitis vinifera vines onto phylloxera-resistant North American rootstocks, a breakthrough pioneered by T.V. Munson, forever changing viticulture and saving the global fine wine industry.
Fast forward to modern-day Texas, and T.V. Munson’s legacy is evident in its thriving vineyards Among them is Valley Mills Vineyards. They are nestled in the heart of the Lone Star State just north of Waco. I recently got to experience their casual and friendly Texan spirit in person during a road trip spanning the entire Southern U.S.
After traveling quite a ways from the nearest town I turned off at their sign and began ascending their drive. I was greeted with a picturesque winery set atop a hill, offering panoramic views of hillside vineyards that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Family-owned since 2006, Valley Mills Vineyards boasts grapevines specially adapted to the Texan climate. Their portfolio of red grape varieties includes Tempranillo, Grenache, Mourvedre, and Cabernet Sauvignon, and their white wine varieties consist of Viognier, Vermentino, Albarino, and Muscat Canelli.
Valley Vineyards boasts an array of recent accolades including the impressive win of Best of Class title at the 2022 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. From a field of 5800 entries, a panel of 50 judges gave a unanimous nod to Valley Vineyards’ Tempranillo.
Reminiscent of a building out of the Old World, the tasting room was gorgeously built with an imposing Texas-sized wooden door that opens to a long staircase to the elegantly decorated tasting room. Sitting on the upstairs terrace sipping on wine produced from the vineyard laid out below during a perfect sunset was an experience I will never forget.
Venturing east from Waco on I-20, you’ll find a hidden gem nestled in the heart of Alabama – Jules J. Berta Vineyards. Famous among locals for their delectable wine slushies and wood-fired pizza. However, this unassuming vineyard lured me in with its lineup of austere wines.
This is a family affair, where they don’t just own the winery, they work it hands-on, even picking the grapes themselves. In 1959, the family’s journey started when a young Hungarian refugee came to America by the name of Jules Berta who was convinced that northern Alabama could be wine country. He began planting vines in 1987. The oldest vines hold Blaufrankisch, a sentimental favorite of Mr. Berta, and what originally piqued my interest in this vineyard. Unfortunately, Mr. Berta passed away before the winery’s inception. In 2008 his son Jules and his wife who opened the winery’s doors.
What I encountered at Jules J. Berta exceeded my expectations. They’re not only engaged in traditional winemaking, but they’re also producing a rather off-the-beaten-path wine with a Red Chardonnay, a whitewine that has been allowed to “bruise” (oxidize). This gives the wine complexity and it acquires an orange-reddish hue. This establishment teaches a lesson in not judging a book by its cover as this vineyard produces exquisite wines in an unpretentious Heart of Dixie environment.
Moving northeastward up I-65, and into the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, where the Baker Bird Winery and Distillery stands as a living testament to perseverance. Hailed as the oldest commercial winery in America that still has its original vineyard land. Built in the 1850s, Baker Bird has the oldest and largest wine cellar in North America and the only cellar to survive a Civil War battle.
A unique touch was the addition of award-winning bourbon to their offerings, and then using those bourbon barrels to age some of their highly acclaimed wines. Cabernet Franc and Vidal Blanc are the base varieties for their red and white wines respectively.
This winery holds a special place in my heart, as the ancestral lands of my Hamilton family once butted up against it, and my grandmother was raised just a mile from Baker Bird on Hamilton Ave. in Augusta, KY.
Finally, this winery tour took us across the Appalachians on I-64 culminating on the Historic Eastern Shore of Maryland at the Bordeleau Vineyards (Bordeleau is French for water’s edge). Focusing mainly on French grape varieties their diversity encompasses Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Old-vine Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, and Muscat. if you like a Bordeaux-style red wine, they offer an American version known as Meritage. Their commitment to excellence is reflected in the recent honor of the 2023 Best of Showin the 18th annual Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association (ASWA) Competition for their Petit Verdot wine.
When I visited Bordeleau Vineyards I was instantly impressed driving past the large and immaculately maintained rows of vines opening up to the large Southern Colonial-style building that houses the store and tasting room. They also have an expansive outdoor event venue hosting numerous concerts and wine festivities.
The attention to detail was evident in every aspect of this establishment. The small tasting glasses were filled and then hung on a unique spiral carrying rack which we could either enjoy in the cozy tasting bar area or outside with the vineyards on one side and the Chesapeake Bay on the other.
There are a couple of hotspots in the Southern U.S. that I haven’t visited yet but would like to mention. First is Virginia whose reputation forpremium Viognier is becoming world-renowned. It is also credited with America’s oldest grape variety, Norton, which lost favor in the wine industry but a growing inspiration exists to revive its prominence.
Another hotspot is the Blue Ridge Mountains of Northern Georgia where a robust wine scene is emerging with the Dahlonega Plateau AVA asthe center. With its elevation and well-draining soils, it has become an ideal location for Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay to thrive.
From the Texan hero who defied the odds to save the wine industry to the hidden viticultural treasures within Southern vineyards, this journey unveiled the resilience, passion, and unyielding spirit of the South. New wineries and vineyards are sprouting up all over this region and I urge you to relax and take a weekend to explore the Southern Wine Trails one sip at a time.