While North Carolina’s official beverage is milk, it is best known for its adult beverage scene including incredible craft ciders, distillers, breweries and nearly 200 wineries. There is a lot to sip in when visiting North Carolina!
The following North Carolina Wine Travel Guide shares a brief history of wine country, along with where to sip, where to stay and things to do beyond the vines. This guide will help you plan the perfect wine country vacation in North Carolina. Cheers!
The grapevines of North Carolina were first mentioned in 1524 by Florentine explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano. Soon after, North Carolina was officially discovered by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 1580s on one of his expeditions to the New World at the behalf of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1584, his explorers, Philip Amadas and Arthur Baslow landed on Roanoke and Bodie Islands. They noted that the lush coastline was studded with twisting vines loaded with musky, fat, globe-shaped grapes called Scuppernong.
The greenish-bronze hued fruit takes its Native American Algonquian Tribe name for the Scuppernong Lake and River that reaches all the way from the mountainous western region of North Carolina to the Atlantic coast. Scuppernong is a Muscadine grape from the Vitis Rotundifolia grape family. (Most wines we are familiar with, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay come from Vitis Vinferia.)
Roanoke Island, the first European settlement in North America, is home to what is considered the oldest cultivated grapevine in the world. The Mother Vine, as it is known, has been growing on the island for more than 400 years! It was first mentioned in writing in 1720, but legends go back into history much farther and into Native American historical lore.
Roanoke Island will sound familiar to history buffs because it was home to the Lost Colony of 1587. Under the governorship of John White, a group of 117 British settlers landed on Roanoke Island in August of 1587. White returned to England for supplies, and due to wars with Spain, was delayed in his return until August of 1590. To his perplexed surprise, there wasn’t any trace of the settlers or their possessions, except one carved work on a wooden post, “Croatoan.” They had vanished and the mystery of their disappearance has never been solved.
North Carolina was settled by Quaker populations strongly opposed to slavery while South Carolina embraced the practice. Both states were home to vast Antebellum plantations. South Carolina was devoted to the more labor-intensive cotton crop which thrived in its climate and landscape. North Carolina relied on tobacco as its cash crop but always had produce farms and vineyards.
Colonialists and plantation farmers raised Scuppernong / Muscadine grapes alongside more traditional European varietals, French hybrids, Vitis Labrusca, fruit orchards, and tobacco fields. The Scuppernong is particularly well suited to the warm and humid climates and are known for their sweet, musky, rustic wines.
Wine was always an important agricultural commodity to early Americans and North Carolina was a main wine-producing state in the budding new country until the mid-19th century. The Civil War, followed by Prohibition destroyed much of the successful commercial wine industry and it languished for decades after.
Prohibition shifted the imbibing population from wine to a thriving cocktail culture and bootlegging was big business in The Carolinas. Rum Runners could easily navigate the waters from the Caribbean and Cuba to the Outer Banks and North Carolina port towns like
North Carolinian wine has begun an exciting resurgence, in part, to the efforts of William A. V. Cecil and the Biltmore Estate who explored wine production as early as 1971. Around that same time, regional farmers began to devote plots of land to vines and before they knew it, North Carolinian wine was making its mark again.
North Carolina has always been an agriculture haven, when it comes to viticulture, it continues to grow. The most recent AVA in North Carolina – Crest of the Blue Ridge Henderson County – was established in 2019. When it comes to the state of wine in North Caroline, the state is literally divided into three wine regions consisting of 200 wineries and six designated AVAs.
North Carolina is known for its sweet dessert wines but wineries also produce sparkling wines alongside dry table reds, rosés, and white wines.
Most North Carolina wineries focus on commercially successful European grape varietals that are Vitis Vinifera varieties, including the usual suspects: Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir.
Some of the more interesting wines produced in North Carolina are from hybrids, native grapes from the Vitis Rotundifolia varieties, and other European grapes.
Carlos, Magnolia and Scuppernong
Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Viognier
Chambourcin, Traminette, Chardonnel
North Carolina boasts at least seven dedicated wine trails designed specifically for visitors to explore wine country by stopping in tasting rooms and sipping on wines along a predetermined, sequential trail winding through NC’s wine regions.
Wine trails are adult beverage focused but can be loads of fun for the entire family since there are several things to do in North Carolina that go beyond the vines.
With that said, the peak season for visiting NC wine country is August – October given it is harvest. This will be the most expensive and crowded time of year for a wine country vacation BUT maybe the most unique and memorable. Spring is also a perfect time to visit given the mild weather and budding vines (March-May).
Slowly uncorking due to Covid-19 closings.
North Carolina isn’t just barbecue anymore, although it’s still a must if you’re visiting. Celebrity chefs, culinary wizards and James Beard award winners can be found in Lexington, Asheville, Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem, and Greensboro.
Karen Donatelli European Bakery
If you’re visiting, Lexington there is a Barbecue Tour that can’t be missed. #SoYum! 12 spots, 3 days, deep dive into historic bbq Hickory smoked, never “pulled” pork. (There’s even a Historic Barbecue Trail to devour!!)
With nearly 200 wineries in North Carolina, you’re sure to find one a great sipping spot. Here are a few of our favorites to uncork.
In the past you didn’t always need to make a tasting reservation to visit a winery. Living Covid-style has changed how tasting rooms operate. Always call or check online to confirm how individual wineries are handling tastings.
The Biltmore, Ashville
Childress Vineyards, Lexington
Linville Falls Winery, Newland
Shelton Vineyards, Dobson
Noni Bacca Winery, Wilmington
Saint Paul Mountain Vineyards, Hendersonville
Burntshirt Vineyards, Hendersonville
JOLO Winery & Vineyards, Pilot Mountain
Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery, Ronda
Grandfather Vineyard & Winery, Banner Elk
The main two areas for visiting NC wine country include Ashville and Lexington.
Fly: Asheville has its own commercial regional airport just 9 miles from downtown.
Train: Amtrak’s closest station is in Greenville, South Carolina, on the Crescent Route and about an hour’s drive.
Car: Rental cars and car-sharing options are abundant in and around Asheville.
Fly: Lexington has its own regional airport called Davidson County Airport that serves as a flight school hub, a private charter service, and a light duty, non-commercial, regional airport.
Train: Amtrak has a hub 15 minutes from Lexington.
Car: Rental cars and car-sharing options are abundant in and around Lexington.
For 20 years, the North Carolina Wine Festival has been held with the on-going mission to educate the public on wine appreciation and the wine quality of our North Carolina vineyards. It has become the longest-running and largest wine festival in North Carolina. The festival travels to three cities throughout the year – Clemmons, Midtown Park at North Hills and Selma – bringing with it North Carolina wines, breweries, spirits, and ciders paired up with chef-inspired treats too.
Contributing Writer for the North Carolina Wine Travel Guide
Simone FM Spinner is a top-rated university wine lecturer and certified sommelier with 13 advanced wine certifications, a bachelor’s and master’s degree in wine studies, and is pursuing her doctorate studying the socioeconomic and cultural effects of climate change on wine. She is a sought-after wine consultant and judge, public speaker, and published author. She organizes edutainment wine seminars and events and international wine tours through her company Wine Rocks & Chasing Grapes™©. Her website is Wine RocksLLC.com™© & Instagram, @simonefmspinner.