Tennessee Wine

The hottest culinary trend these days is an increased focus on local ingredients. That’s great news in terms of freshness and quality, but it also makes travel a whole lot more interesting for your taste buds. So when contemplating what beverage to pair with a flavorful meal of Tennessee trout, mustard greens and sweet potato pie or Memphis-style barbecue, corn bread and black-eyed peas, it makes perfect sense to consider Tennessee wines.

Tennessee may be better known for its whiskey than its wine, but that wasn’t always the case. Vineyards flourished in Tennessee during the late 1800s, but the Prohibition in 1919 put an end to that. “My understanding is that before Prohibition, Tennessee was the third largest grape growing state in the nation behind California and New York,” says Kix Brooks, country music superstar and founding partner of Arrington Vineyards in Williamson County. Tennessee now ranks 25th in the nation in terms of number of wineries: The state currently houses more than 30 wineries plus 99 grape growers. And those numbers are expected to climb.

“Grape production represents a significant portion of Tennessee’s fruit industry,” says Dan Strasser, director of market development for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “In terms of land use, grapes rank only behind apples and peaches. Given that almost all Tennessee grapes are utilized in the production of a value-added product (wine), the economic value of this crop is greater than any other fruit crop in the state.”

“Because our temperatures can be especially cold in winter and warm in summer, our climate is ideal for American native grapes,” says Louisa Cooke, president of the Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Association and owner of Beachaven Vineyards & Winery. Winemakers across the state produce a variety of wines in different styles, yet native grapes such as Concord, Niagara, Cayuga, Catawba, Delaware and Muscadine (which is unique to the southeast) and Norton (which is also called Cynthiana), are most common. While wineries and vineyards routinely welcome visitors year-round, Tennessee grapevines typically are in full leaf by the end of April, grow fruit from June through September and are harvested between September and October.

“There’s nothing distinctive about Tennessee as far as a climate or soil condition that would make its grapes different from grapes grown in other parts of the Southeast,” says Don Collier, chairman of the Tennessee Viticulture Advisory Board, owner of Mountain Valley and Hillside wineries and manager of Apple Barn Winery. “It’s really the winemaker’s style that makes the difference.” Some wineries also have vineyards while others do not. For example, Collier purchases fruit from 26 different growers in 18 counties across eastern Tennessee.

A range of wine styles can be found across Tennessee. Collier’s three wineries produce very different wines: Mountain Valley Winery produces fruit wines as well as wines in the traditional French style; Apple Barn Winery offers fruit and apple blends; and Hillside Winery makes Italian-style and sparkling wines. “We deliberately did that so as not to cannibalize each others’ sales,” says Collier, “especially since the wineries are within two miles of one another. Each services a different consumer niche.”

The Beachaven portfolio boasts 22 different wines, from dry to sweet to French-method sparklers. “Hybrids do well since they’re grafted onto native rootstock,” Cooke explains, thus making it possible to grow varietals such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah and Viognier.

Stonehaus Winery produces dry and sweet wines. Red and white blends combine native and hybrid grapes. Fruit wines include blackberry, peach and raspberry.

Arrington Vineyards produces 12 different wines, including many traditional vinifera varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, plus a new port. “One unique thing about our wine is that we tend to pull more from the classic Napa Valley-style of winemaking,” says Brooks. “Our winemaker, Kip Summers, is from Texas but he learned to make California-style wine. When people think ‘Tennessee wines’ they tend to think of sweet fruit wines and that’s not what we do.”

What most surprises people about Tennessee wine? “The fact that it’s good,” says Collier. “For hundreds of years French wine was ‘it’ and people looked down their noses at anything else. But in the last 30 years California has established itself as a quality wine producer. Just recently Australia and New Zealand are recognized as good wine areas. There’s no public awareness of Tennessee wine industry, yet there’s quality product made.”

“Today’s wine connoisseurs don’t realize wine is a relatively new industry in Tennessee again,” says Strasser. “And it hasn’t had the attention it deserves, but we’re working toward that end.”

The best way to choose what wine pairs best with your meal is to trust your own taste buds. Often the widest selection of wines made by any winery is available at the winery itself—with the advantage of tasting before you buy, frequently at no charge. Visit several wineries for a comparative tasting; explore different wine varietals and winemaking techniques. Keep your mind and palate open and you’ll likely find wines to enjoy across Tennessee.

Hope S. Philbrick
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