Corkscrew - In Our Own Back Yard

Some wines from the Southeast are worth a sip

You hear about Georgia peaches, Florida citrus and Carolina tobacco, but wine doesn't often pop up. In fact, most wine snobs wretch from the thought of drinking the juice from these parts. I was definitely a card-carrying member of Club Negative, but things have changed.

In the past three years, the Southeastern wine scene has drastically improved, making damned drinkable wine using grapes we've heard of, those we haven't, and "alternative" sources like oranges and strawberries.

Laughing, are you? Don't knock it till you try it. In the past two weeks, I've gorged on a refreshing poolside-worthy wine made from grapefruit, a genuinely awesome port made from strawberries and a deliciously elegant Touriga Nacional, the principal grape in port wine. Its quality made my jaw drop. I love surprises, especially of the alcoholic variety.

Parts of the Georgia and North Carolina foothills have climates cool enough to ripen the famous Vitis Vinifera grapes - Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, etc. They also appear to be free from the bugs that kill vines in the South, specifically the glassy-winged sharp shooter that thrives in lower elevations.

Florida can only successfully grow Muscadine and hybrid grapes. Why? Because it's flat and just about every living thing wilts during the summer. Still, some of the funky-sounding wines in Florida are worth a sip.

Other than Virginia, North Carolina is the most active wine-growing state in the Southeast, with more than 45 wineries. Yadkin Valley, the newly established American Viticultural Area in the central part of the state, has grown tenfold in the past three years. Dusty Rhodes, of Total Wine and More wine shop in Charlotte, said, "The new AVA has made a huge difference in the legitimacy of the area," making North Carolina wineries and wine sales grow. The state's best selling wineries are Shelton Vineyards, Rockhouse, Childress Vineyards and Westbend - all of which grow the familiar varietals.

Georgia has a few "resort" wineries, focusing more on the luxurious lifestyle surrounding the wine rather than the juice itself. Chateau Elan, an enormous estate just north of Atlanta, has been around since 1985. They were wine before wine was cool, but unfortunately they've neglected quality.

The wine hasn't even reached "good" status. But don't judge all Georgia wineries by the fancy pants places. Three Sisters, Habersham and Tiger Mountain wineries are making some shockingly good stuff. I'm less impressed with the whites than the reds, but put your mouth around Tiger Mountain Vineyard's elegant Touriga Nacional, and you'll never, ever believe you're drinking Georgia juice.

Florida wineries, although many make wines from juice trucked in from California, grow "hybrid" grapes that have been specially engineered at the University of Florida, or play with the muscadine, a grape native to Florida. St. Augustine's San Sebastian Winery and Central Florida's Lakeridge Winery produce decent Muscadine grape wine, both red and white. Other Florida wineries get creative with the fruits that the state is famous for: strawberries, oranges and grapefruit. At Florida Estates Winery outside of Tampa, I tried a fantastic port made from fermented strawberries. If you visit there - the only place you can buy it - ask vintner Ron Hunt how serendipity played a part in developing the port. Other finds in this locale include a refreshing grapefruit wine from Florida Orange Grove Winery in St. Petersburg.

Most of these bottles are available only at the winery, but the North Carolina and Georgia wine can be found at some retail shops as well. Florida, however, is limited in its statewide distribution, but a day trip shouldn't be out of the question.

Recommended Wines

In addition to those mentioned above, here are other noteworthy varietals from recent tastings of local wines:

• Tiger Mountain Tannat

• Habersham Winery Cabernet Sauvignon

• Habersham Winery Viognier

• Shelton Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

• Childress Vineyards Cabernet Franc

To find out more: www.ncwine.org, www.georgiawine.com or www.fgga.org.