By: Hanifa Sekandi
When most people think about Tennessee, they think about whiskey. There is no disagreement that people are talking about the best bourbon in town or the best whiskey they ever had. The dispute of who makes it better can last hours. But what about wine? Does viticulture have a place among the crown spirit of the south and the best whiskey? It seems it does, and it is just as good as your taste buds can imagine. There is more to southern wine than strawberry wine, and for North American wine enthusiasts supporting local and imbibing in something homegrown is a palate-pleasing dalliance.
Viticulture in the South
In comparison to other wine regions across the world, winemaking in Tennessee is in its infancy. The lineage does not run deep and is not riddled with the same political turmoil and unpredictable weather fluctuations that one would find in South Africa or Germany. There is no sad story to tell. Perhaps a few good stories about hidden wine that bootleggers used to sell during Prohibi-tion. Wine, just like the music in this state, is the birth of something new. It becomes something you never stop hearing about when done right and given a little patience.
Tennessee winemaking is a new, lucrative frontier, thanks to settlers from Europe who migrated to the region in the mid 19th century and brought their winemaking skills. During this time, it was a burgeoning wine industry with only approximately 1,128 acres of grapes planted, but it proved to be quite lucrative. A yield of over 64,000 gallons of wine was valued at $90,000. If you consider currency during this period, a golden price tag and limited supply marked these Tennessee wines a rare Southern find.
Although a promising beginning saw wines made in this Southern region as a possible competitor of those produced in California, this potential Napa Valley of the south experienced slow growth due to the impediment of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing total alcohol prohibition throughout the nation. Even when Prohibition ended 13 years later with the 21st Amendment, a hold on wine production in the region lasted more than 50 years. This hold meant that Tennessee winemakers who entered an already booming wine industry were decades away from gaining recognition among wine connoisseurs.
With the changing times of the 1970s, when archaic production laws were finally put to bed, wine cultivation in Tennessee experienced its freedom and led to the slowly growing industry now seen today. The West Tennessee Experiment Station, the Plateau Experiment Station and Middle Tennessee Station spearheaded research on grapes and how to best cultivate them in the region. This endeavor in the mid-1970s opened the door for establishing vineyards and creating signature Tennessee wine blends. By the end of that decade, Tennessee had 125 acres of planted grapes.
Easing Into Ripe Times
It has been a slow start for Tennessee winemakers, simply because it was not until 1980 that grape cultivation licensing to produce wine for sale was available in the state. Forty years in an industry with a long, diverse lineage allows Southern winemakers to see what has been done be-fore, make it better and add their own flair to stand out amongst the best. With that said, it also puts them a step behind since making a name for their brand and enticing local and international acclaim is not easy, as winemakers around the world know. For a wine to truly become a mem-ber of the elite, it must be something special.
What winemakers have done for centuries is work with what they have. Whether it be the scarci-ty of materials or challenging terrains, they made it work. Even with small but mighty vineyards, the Tennessean winemaker’s hard work is apparent. Wineries span the state from east to west, and to date, there are approximately 40 wineries. The wine produced here ranges from a smooth Merlot, rich flavored Cabernet Sauvignon and refreshing Chardonnay to popular signature homegrown blends Muscadine, Traminette, Catawba and Chambourcin. Muscadine is a well-known wine made from the oldest grapevine planted in the U.S., and its grapes are also used to make jams and jelly.
Tennessee Wineries — a Southern Blend
Highland Manor Winery
If you are going to Tennessee to experience Southern-made wine, you must start at the first li-censed winery in this wine region, Highland Manor Winery, near Jamestown. The array of wine produced at this winery is due to the variation in microclimates and nutrient-dense soils that al-low vines to grow with ease. It is family-owned by Rhonda and Frederick Moody, who acquired it from Frederick’s aunt and uncle Gertie and Butch Campbell, who devoted a fortuitous 17 years to this historic vineyard.
For a mid sized winery that has only been running for 40 years, there is a vast selection of wines to enjoy. Their best seller, Muscadine, is made from the white Muscadine grape grown through-out Southern vineyards. Another unique sweet blend is the Cab Berry, a beautiful marriage of red wine and blackberry wine. It is also worth mentioning the combination of flavor profiles found in each signature wine. For example, the Southern Blush, a dessert wine, is delicately infused with peach. The wines produced at this winery imbue a relaxed sophistication that complements the easy going Southern sensibility.
Grinders Switch Winery
Sometimes a hobby can become more than you could have imagined. Grinders Switch owners Gail and Joey Chesser describe their decade long success at their 7 acre vineyard as “a hobby out of control.” The winery is located in Hickman County in middle Tennessee, a quaint and serene countryside. The winery holds up to 15,000 gallons of wine. If you cannot make it out to the country, the Chesser’s opened up a location in Marathon Village amongst all the live music in downtown Nashville. Here you can enjoy wine in between a few live shows while exploring this vibrant city.
Aged for three years in an oak barrel, their 2015 Sintra, a silky sweet ruby wine with notes of smokey caramel, will have you singing high notes. The 2020 Vidal Blanc is a citrusy dry white wine with notes of tangerine and grapefruit. It is an excellent accompaniment for fresh caught grilled fish. Grinder’s Switch also makes a Muscadine called General I.
If you are looking for the Napa Valley experience with a sophisticated yet laidback Southern flair, make your way to Arrington Vineyards, a winery with expertly crafted, award-winning wines. This middle Tennessee winery, owned by country music icon Kix Brooks, entrepreneur John Russell and pro-vintner Kip Summer, opened in the summer of 2007. The winery merges two different properties: a 25 acre hog farm bought by Summer and adjoining vineyards purchased by Brooks. Russell’s addition in 2008 allowed for larger distribution via the Lipman Brothers.
Appreciating a glass of their award winning 2004 Syrah vintage while taking in the breathtaking views and listening to music at the Music in the Vines venue sounds like the perfect way to es-cape from your worries. Add that missing spark with one of their refreshing sparkling wines, Sparkle, a light fruit-infused dry white wine with floral aromas. The 2020 Chardonnay aged with French oak provides a perfect balance for those who like a buttery vanilla oak texture and finish along with a bright and sweet burst of flavor. Lastly, if you can get your hands on a bottle of their 2020 Honeysuckle, a dessert wine that is a blend of Riesling and Gewurztraminer grapes, be sure to pair it with lemon pound cake.