Growing good wine grapes can be challenging anywhere, but it’s particularly hard in the mountains.
In the European Union, an organization called CERVIM, roughly translated as the Center for Research, Environmental Sustainability and Advancement of Mountain Viticulture, protects and promotes what it calls “heroic winemaking,” or the challenges unique to growing wine grapes in mountainous terrain.
These wineries are at altitudes over 1,600 feet, at slopes more than 30 percent, and are found in places like France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland – and North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains.
CERVIM holds a wine competition in Aosta, Italy. Last summer, Grandfather Vineyard and Winery in Banner Elk, a pretty vineyard within sight of Grandfather Mountain, became the first American winery to enter.
Mountain growers face challenges of climate, from extreme winter cold to summer humidity, which makes ripening difficult. Every inch of land has its own challenges and may be completely different from the plot right next door. Maintaining vineyards on steep slopes is labor intensive too.
The grapes that do well often aren’t the popular varieties that many wine drinkers know. Heroic winemaking, indeed.
The Grandfather Winery and Vineyards’ submission, called Terraced Gold, is a blend of chardonnay, viognier, and pinot gris grapes. The wine faced challenges just getting to the competition: Six bottles had to be shipped (not easy for any wine), clear customs and the Italian Health Department, and travel from the port in Genoa to Aosta.
European winemakers were anxious to taste the American mountain wine, which showed very well despite the obstacles. It ended up just an eyelash away from medaling in the prestigious competition.
Norm Oches, a longtime advocate for mountain grape-growing in North Carolina, is enthusiastic about the possibilities for wineries and wine tourism in the mountains.
“It’s a fledgling industry, but an exciting one,” says Oches. He notes that the wines coming from this climate don’t taste like big fruity Napa Valley wines, but are restrained and elegant.
Oches also notes that European countries have a developed mountain wine culture. They’ve found varieties that are successful in the climate, while we are just beginning to discover varieties and growing techniques that work best here.
It’s going to be exciting to watch the mountain wine culture develop, and even more exciting to taste the finished product.
And congratulations to the Tatum family, owners of Grandfather Vineyards and Winery, for their success with Terraced Gold.