Drink up natural beauty with your merlot on a tour of Tennessee wineries

At DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards, a tool called a wine thief is used to test the wine as it ages in the barrel. 
Courtesy of DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards.
Caption
At DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards, a tool called a wine thief is used to test the wine as it ages in the barrel. Courtesy of DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Offerings range from Old World wines to fruit-forward varieties

Sipping a lovely vintage in a far-flung wine region like Tuscany or Burgundy may not be in the cards this year, but there are 69 wineries on seven wine trails right next door in Tennessee. So, buckle up for a road trip, and you’ll discover that the state excels at more than that famous Tennessee whiskey.

The Tennessee wine scene produces a surprising number of award-winning wines. It would take months to visit every winery, but if you do, you’ll see some of the most scenic spots in the state — everything from the moody, mist-cloaked Smoky Mountains to the rugged beauty of the Cumberland Plateau.

Here are a few standouts to consider on your odyssey through Tennessee’s viticulture regions.

Natchez Hills Vineyard & Winery in Middle Tennessee produces Old World wines. 
Courtesy of Natchez Hills.
Caption
Natchez Hills Vineyard & Winery in Middle Tennessee produces Old World wines. Courtesy of Natchez Hills.

Credit: Suzanne Lagman

Credit: Suzanne Lagman

Natchez Hills Vineyard & Winery

Wine enthusiasts at Natchez Hills Vineyard & Winery sip Old World varietals beneath the waning orange glow that marks the end of a glorious summer day while catching the laid-back vibes of a live band. Some share picnics in a scenic spot overlooking the hills of Middle Tennessee, while others dig into barbecue purchased at the winery.

Many devoted red wine drinkers have lightened up for summer with a dry riesling, the crown jewel of German wines, or a crisp sauvignon blanc.

Jim Odom, who owns the winery with his wife Karen, says they are “the dry guys” in a land of sweet wines. During his military career, the family was stationed in Europe, presenting opportunities to visit some of the world’s most venerable wine regions in Germany, France and Italy.

“That’s where we developed our palate,” Odom said, “where they produce dry, Old World wines.”

The couple only make wines they personally drink. That means a strong showing of merlot and chardonnay. They take special pride in the cabernet sauvignon that emits hints of French oak. Simultaneously robust and smooth, it features rich tannins without being the aggressive brute on the palate some cabs become.

There are many challenges to growing Old World grapes in the South — the humidity for one — so most of the fruit is sourced from California and Washington.

A small vineyard is planted with chardonnay, but those grapes will eventually be replaced with traminette, a hearty hybrid that can survive extreme temperatures. Traminette delivers an exotically perfumed wine with floral and green apple notes, just like its beguiling parent grape, gewürztraminer. The wine should prove to be will a winner when paired with that tangy barbecue visitors love.

$6 to taste five wines. Live music and barbecue on weekends. 109 Overhead Bridge Road, Hampshire, Tennessee. 931-285-2500, www.natchezhills.com

Apple Barn Winery in Sevierville, Tennessee, has won many awards for its wines. 
Courtesy of Wesley K.H. Teo
Caption
Apple Barn Winery in Sevierville, Tennessee, has won many awards for its wines. Courtesy of Wesley K.H. Teo

Credit: Wesley K.H. Teo

Credit: Wesley K.H. Teo

Apple Barn Winery

The Apple Barn Winery nestled at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains has a tasting room showcasing dozens of wine bottles draped in medals like proud Olympic athletes. They went the distance in wine competitions around the South and elsewhere, proving that sweet fruit wines can no longer be dismissed.

What sets this winery apart is that almost all the wines are made from Tennessee apples instead of grapes. Apple varieties such as Gala, McIntosh, Red Delicious and Winesap, an American heirloom apple, are used to produce aromatic wines blossoming with the fragrance of honeysuckle and citrus.

The top-selling apple strawberry wine is a beautiful translucent red, the color of strawberry gelatin before it sets. It can do double duty as an aperitif and a dessert wine.

Peek through the window to the bottling area to see how efficiently bottles are filled and zipped through the line.

For a non-alcoholic treat, apple cider can be purchased next door at the Apple Barn Cider Mill & General Store, along with unusual apple-based products such as apple butter barbecue sauce, apple gummy bears and apple salsa.

Four tastings are free; eight tastings are $5. 220 Apple Valley Road, Sevierville, Tennessee. 865-428-6850, www.applebarnwines.com

Highland Manor Winery

If you are sampling Highland Manor’s award-winning seyval blanc and suddenly feel something furry tickling your feet, don’t be alarmed. It’s likely just one of 20 or so of the winery’s friendly British labs. They love company and consider it their duty to welcome visitors to the baronial English Tudor-style tasting room that rises above the Cumberland Plateau.

The top-selling Cab Berry wine was named after a beloved Labrador retriever called Cab that has since gone to that big vineyard in the sky. A blend of Concord grapes and blackberries, the wine is a delightful poolside companion.

“The tartness of the blackberry balances the traditional Concord flavor profile for a unique, smooth mouth feel,” said Rhonda Moody, who owns the winery with her husband Frederick.

Some grapes are sourced from New York State, but the fruit that is grown in the microclimate of the Cumberland Plateau produces wines that powerfully express the region’s unique terroir.

The evocation of a sense of place comes largely from the elevation and the region’s sandy soil (most soil in Tennessee has a high clay content), which can be a blessing or a curse depending on the varietal.

Muscadine grapes thrive in most of Tennessee because the clay-based soil helps hold water and nutrients in the roots, but it’s hit or miss in this part of the state.

What Moody can count on is Concord and Catawba, a red American grape variety that’s the basis for the light, breezy Royal Rosé customers love.

Free tastings. Live music and food trucks every Saturday. 2965 S. York Highway, Jamestown, Tennessee. 931-879-9463, www.highlandmanorwinery.com

DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards is a Tuscan-style winery in Baxter, Tennessee. 
Courtesy of DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards.
Caption
DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards is a Tuscan-style winery in Baxter, Tennessee. Courtesy of DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards

Wine making is often referred to as an art, but science is behind the art. That point is made by Andy Regan, winemaker at DelMonaco Winery & Vineyard, as he leads a 30-minute guided tour.

At the wine lab, wine enthusiasts learn that quantitative analysis of acid, sugar and tannins provides the necessary data to blend all the wine’s multi-faceted components into one harmonious expression.

Reagan said many visitors are surprised by the complex chemistry behind great wine.

“I think some people have the misconception we just sit around and drink wine and eat cheese all day,” Reagan said with a laugh. “Once they see how involved winemaking is, most people are like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of work.’”

It’s a labor of love.

This time of year, the blackberry wine flies off the shelf.

“It has that summer, sunlit nostalgia of your childhood all wrapped up in a sweet and smooth wine,” Reagan said. “It reminds you of picking fresh berries, only these are spiked.”

But his heart is in producing excellent Old World vintages that are meant to age. He patiently nurtures the cabernet sauvignon, coaxing out the notes of blackcurrant and spice that will make it the life of any dinner party starring rack of lamb or beef Wellington.

He hopes wine lovers enjoy drinking it as much as he enjoys making it.

Judging from the bottles purchased in the tasting room, they do.

Taste three wines for free. 600 Lance Drive, Baxter, Tennessee. 931-858-1177, www.delmonacowinery.com