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New N.C. wine region straddles the Georgia border

By Catherine Rabb
Catherine Rabb
Catherine Rabb is co-owner of Fenwick's and an associate instructor at Johnson & Wales University.

Wine, like real estate, is all about location, location, location. As easy as it might be to think of North Carolina as one region, the state actually has three distinct locations for wine.

The area near the coast, with its sandier soils, is terrific for growing American grapes like muscadine and scuppernong. The Piedmont region in the center of the state is where European grapes like chardonnay and merlot thrive. The western mountain area is home to grapes that do well at higher altitudes, often hybrids of native American and European grapes.

Pretty much every wine-producing country has some way of recognizing wine regions. In the U.S., producers can indicate that wines come from a state, a county, or in some cases, a specific growing area called an American Viticultural Area, or AVA.

Administered by the Alcohol, Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau, an AVA is a grape-growing region that has distinguishing features, a geographical boundary and a name. This allows winemakers and consumers to associate certain characteristics and potential for quality with wine produced in these areas. This system of registering growing regions began in the 1980s, and today there are just over 200 in the U.S.

North Carolina has three AVAs, and it’s about to get a fourth. The first was the Yadkin Valley AVA in the Piedmont region. Charlie and Ed Shelton of Shelton Vineyards spearheaded the effort to create the AVA, which was awarded in 2003, covering over 1 million acres.

The Swan Creek AVA, also in the northwest and partially within the borders of the Yadkin Valley AVA, was established in 2008. Growers there highlight the proximity of the Brushy Mountains to create soils unique to the area.

The Haw River Valley AVA was awarded in 2009, and boasts a long stretch of warm days and deep, well-drained soils, both excellent for grapes.

The new AVA that’s being proposed straddles the North Carolina/Georgia borders. Called the Upper Hiwassee Highlands AVA, it would be Georgia’s first AVA and the first mountain-region AVA.

Located in the southern Appalachian Mountains in the southwest part of the state, the AVA is approximately 700 square miles. It includes Cherokee and Clay counties in North Carolina, and Towns, Union and Fannin counties in Georgia.

Eric Carlson spearheaded the petition and has been working on the project for four years. Carlson owns the charming Calaboose Cellars, which has the distinction of being the smallest freestanding winery in America. Located about 95 miles southwest of Asheville, it’s one of the few wineries in the state that also houses a brewery.

Carlson says an AVA is important because it allows visitors to become familiar with the wines of a particular area. Wines in that area are made in a slightly sweet or off-dry style. By having Upper Hiwassee Highlands on the label, wine drinkers will be able to recognize that style.

And just for fun, it’s spelled Hiawassee in Georgia, but since Carlson is in North Carolina, he chose the North Carolina spelling for the AVA.

Catherine Rabb is co-owner of Fenwick’s and a senior instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte. Email: Catherine.rabb@jwu.edu.
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