When it comes to European-caliber winemaking, North Carolina may not be the first place most people think of. But, it should be! The first grapevine in North America was the Scuppernong (Vitis rotundifolia) brought to Roanoke Island in North Carolina over 400 years ago. That “mother vine” still exists and is producing grapes today.
Winemaking thrived in North Carolina at the turn of the century. In fact, North Carolina was the leading state in wine production until the onset of Prohibition in 1920. Of course, we all know what happened then: moonshine. And that may well be the alcoholic beverage North Carolina is best known for. But things are changing.
Since 2000, the state’s wine industry has grown to 200 wineries and over 400 grape-growing vineyards. Scuppernog and sweet, fruity wines are still very popular, but many wineries now produce top-notch, award-winning European-style reds and dry white wines.
North Carolina grows grapes for wine in three regions — the mountains of western North Carolina, the Piedmont or central region, and the coastal plains. Within these three regions are six designated AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Yadkin Valley AVA is North Carolina’s first federally designated grape-growing region.
I am still making my way through all the North Carolina wineries (and enjoying every minute of it), but after exploring our immediate area for the past 5 years, here are my top picks for fabulous European-caliber wineries within 2 hours of Charlotte.
1. Raffaldini Vineyards & Winery
Do you ever dream of visiting the Italian countryside, sitting on the veranda of a villa overlooking a bountiful vineyard, sipping delicious local wines? (I can’t be the only one!) Well, in just over an hour from Charlotte, you can drive there.
The minute you set eyes on “the villa” tasting room at Raffaldini Vineyards in Ronda, you are transported to northern Italy, specifically Mantua, where the Raffaldini family has lived for generations.
The estate boasts 27 acres of vineyards — classic Italian and some French varietals. Over the years, central and southern Italian varietals were planted. Some, like Vermentino, are so unique that the Raffaldini family was the first in the United States to plant them. The stunning tasting room was inspired by the villas in Tuscany and Mantua.
Winemaker Chris Nelson is proud of his innovations at Raffaldini (such as appassimento, the ancient Italian method of incorporating dehydrated grapes into the production of wine) and the wine he produces. “I like when my wines are confused with Italian wines,” he told us on a recent visit. “That means we’re on the right track.”
Pro Tip: Be sure to take in the gardens as you walk from the parking lot to the tasting room. The National Wildlife Federation has given recognition to Raffaldini as an official Certified Wildlife Habitat site.
2. Davesté Vineyards
Probably the shortest day trip from Charlotte (a mere 46 minutes), Davesté Vineyards is a pleasant, quiet escape to the “Old World.” With vines in hand from his homeland in the country of Georgia — one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world — Dave DeFehr and his wife Este settled in and planted their vines in Troutman, near Lake Norman, becoming the first winery in Iredell County.
Estate-grown grapes include Rkatsiteli, traminette, and Chambourcin. Other grapes are sourced from vineyards in the Yadkin Valley. Davesté produces red and white wines for every palette, including their award-winning merlot, Chambourcin, malbec, cabernet franc, viognier, and dry riesling.
On a recent trip, we had the pleasure of meeting the DeFehrs’ granddaughter Jasmine. “My grandparents are pouring their heart and soul into Davesté,” she told us. “They want it to be a place where everyone can come and enjoy the country setting, music, food, and of course, great wine.”
3. Shelton Vineyards
Driving through the massive stone walls and iron gates of Shelton Vineyards in Yadkin Valley transports you to another time and place. The grounds, reminiscent of the European countryside, are beautiful, filled with willow trees, ponds, and wooden footbridges. Everything about Shelton Vineyards in Dobson — 90 minutes from Charlotte — is impressive. I think perhaps the most impressive visual aesthetic is the underground, European-style barrel cave with a real waterfall on the back wall.
Established by brothers Ed and Charlie Shelton in 1994, it is one of the oldest and largest (406 acres) vineyards in North Carolina. Shelton Vineyards’ wines have won numerous national and international awards, including their sauvignon cabernet franc, merlot, riesling, chardonnay, and port.
Pro Tip: Make a weekend trip to Shelton Vineyards. The on-site Harvest Grill is described as “upscale dining with a bistro-style atmosphere.” The Hampton Inn and Suites at Shelton Vineyards is the only hotel in the chain that features a wine bar.
4. Parker-Binns Vineyard
Parker-Binns Vineyard is an award-winning boutique winery and vineyard located in Polk County (just over 90 minutes from Charlotte), an area of western North Carolina rich in viticulture history dating back to the mid-1860s. Owners Bob and Karen Binns, who come from the food and beverage industry, knew they wanted to be part of the emerging North Carolina wine scene. Since grape growing in the Tryon region foothills dates back over 200 years, they knew this was the place.
The Parker-Binns Vineyard’s winery and tasting room are now part of a four-generation, family-owned-and-operated estate. The tasting room is rustic and cozy but large with plenty of seating at the bar and around the room. Enjoy sipping a glass of wine outside on multi-level, terraced patios while watching the sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains. As Mr. Binns says, “Come for the wine, stay for the view!”
Pro Tip: If you’d like to extend your stay in the area, The Loft at Parker Binns Vineyard offers a pleasurable stay. The log-cabin-style loft overlooks the estate vineyards with a Blue Ridge Mountain “skyline.”
5. Burntshirt Vineyards
At the heart of Burntshirt Vineyards are two vineyards situated on both sides of the eastern Continental Divide in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Burntshirt estate (just under 2 hours west of Charlotte) boasts a 10,440-square-foot winery and a 1,700-square-foot barrel room decorated to mimic an authentic wine “cave” often found in European chateaus and wineries.
Initially a grape-growing (and selling) vineyard, Burntshirt evolved into a winery when owners Lemuel and Sandra Oates recognized the excellent quality of their grapes and decided to start production of their own estate wines. Burntshirt is nestled among beautifully landscaped gardens and overlooks 21 acres of European grapevines, including Gruner Veltliner, merlot, cab franc, and chardonnay, to name a few.
Burntshirt Vineyards’ onsite restaurant and wine bar, The Vintner’s Table, offers farm-to-table dishes emphasizing fresh ingredients with a Mediterranean flare to accompany their award-winning, vine-to-bottle wines.
6. Childress Vineyards
The Childress Vineyards story is an interesting one. Long-time NASCAR driver and team owner Richard Childress has always had a passion for good wine. It began years ago when he would go racing in California. While there, he would visit the local wineries and soon envisioned creating his own winery to rival any of those in California and Europe.
Childress Vineyards is the culmination of that dream. It is located in Lexington, less than 5 miles from Childress’s racing operation and just under an hour from Charlotte. The estate is gorgeous, with acres of rolling green hills covered with 15 varieties of European Vitis vinifera — old-world European grapes — from which a wide range of over 30 wines are produced. Since 2003, winemaker Mark Friszolowski has won over 750 awards at Childress Vineyards.
If you dream of visiting a European-caliber winery, whether you are new to wine or are a seasoned oenophile, Childress Vineyards is for you. The impressive stone “villa” houses the winery, well-appointed tasting room, delicious bistro, and gift shop.
7. Linville Falls Winery
Just at the 2-hour mark from downtown Charlotte, Linville Falls Winery had to be on our list. The family-owned-and-operated vineyard and winery is located in the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains, not far from Linville Falls. The drive alone is worth the visit.
Owner Jack Wiseman learned the art of winemaking from his grandmother and had dreamed of opening a winery for over 60 years. He spent several years in Napa Valley learning more about vineyards and winemaking.
Linville Falls Winery is part of the Appalachian High Country viticulture area, which is characterized by higher-elevation vineyards with warm days and cool evenings.
8. MenaRick Vineyard & Winery
MenaRick Vineyard & Winery, located in Ronda, is a 40-acre estate nestled in the foothills of the Yadkin Valley. Less than 90 minutes from Charlotte, this vineyard and winery is unique in that they specialize in Spanish and Portuguese varietals.
The owners of MenaRick Vineyard have winemaking in their blood. Rick grew up in California and Mena grew up in her family’s vineyards in Portugal. Together, they have planted syrah, merlot, chardonnay, albariño, grenache, tempranillo, and Touriga Nacional. Some of their mother vines were brought to North Carolina from Spain and Portugal. One unique quality of MenaRick’s wines is that they are unfiltered, which is believed to “keep the authenticity of the wine’s aroma and flavor intact,” owner Rick told us on a recent visit.
Pro Tip: Before heading out to any North Carolina winery, be sure to check their individual websites for hours of operation and amenities. Some wineries are open 7 days a week, while others have limited open days. Some have onsite food or small plates, while others encourage you to “bring your own.”
Throughout the year, many North Carolina wineries offer live music, host food trucks, and organize fun events such as wine and food pairing, yoga, and even grape stomps. No matter which North Carolina winery you visit, you’ll find that each one offers something unique.