It's called the Mother Vine, and it is absolutely enormous. It has a trunk that's two feet thick, and is canopy trained over almost an acre of land. At over 400 years old, it is reputedly the oldest cultivated grapevine in the world. This Mother Vine is located on the northern end of North Carolina's Roanoke Island, and produces exotic-sounding Scuppernong grapes.
A little Wine 101: almost all commercial wines are made from Vitis vinifera grapes. These are grapes that originated in Europe and Southwestern Asia (Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are all vinifera grapes), but have been transplanted around the world. Columbus brought the first vinifera plants to the Americas.
Scuppernongs, on the other hand, are a kind of Muscadine, Vitis rotundifolia, a native American grape found in abundance by early Carolina colonists. Explorers Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, upon reaching the Outer Banks in 1584, wrote that the area was "...so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea overflowed them...in all the world, the like abundance is not to be found."
Scuppernong grape vines at Duplin Winery in Rose Hill, NC. — Photo courtesy of Carmen Lucas
Roanoke Island may have the mother vine, but the mother of North Carolina's recent viticultural renaissance - there are now over a hundred wineries in the state, five times more than there were just a decade ago - is Yadkin Valley, the first of the state's three AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). Yadkin Valley has a well-earned reputation for quality red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, and European-style vinifera grapes predominate in this northwestern wine region, known for its loamy red clay soils.
Shelton Vineyards and Westbend Vineyards are two of Yadkin's standout wine producers, with the latter having drawn the attention of renowned wine critic Robert Parker, who called it "one of the South's best kept wine secrets." Yadkin Valley's best whites are typically from Chardonnay and Riesling.
There aren't many wineries in the Swan Creek AVA, and at 170 square miles, this is the smallest of the three major growing regions. Located southwest of Yadkin Valley AVA, Swan Creek features plenty of gently rolling hills planted primarily with traditional French and Italian grapes. Raffaldini Vineyards is one of Swan Creek's signature producers. Self-styled as "Chianti in the Carolinas," this family-owned winery specializes in Italian varietals like Pinot Grigio and Sangiovese, grown at elevation on hillside slopes.
Duplin's wine from the Mother Vine — Photo courtesy of Southern Foodways Alliance
Haw River Valley may not be as well known as its western neighbors, but North Carolina's newest AVA is also home to a number of quality wineries. Known primarily for its mineral-rich soil and wines from both vinifera and Muscadine grapes, the state's third officially recognized region is situated in the central part of the state, between Greensboro and Durham, and covers better than half a million acres. Grove Winery & Vineyards merits particular notice, with estate-grown wines from 44 acres planted to Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc, as well as other traditional European grapes.
There are a number of North Carolina producers, particularly in the coastal regions, that are still making sweet wines from Muscadine grapes. Nowadays, these wines are something of a curiosity, although they remain prized for their extremely high levels of resveratrol, the antioxidant commonly credited for wine's health-related benefits.
Duplin Winery, the world's largest producer of such wines, made news several years ago when they released the first vintage of Mother Vine Scuppernong. Duplin's offering was the first wine available from the original Mother Vine in over a century - the grapes were from replanted cuttings, to be precise - and seemed to evoke the grandeur of years gone by, before Prohibition, when Scuppernong was the country's most popular type of wine.
So, what are you waiting for? Start planning a unique and unexpected tasting trip to the North Carolina wine region, and get back to nature at the home of the Mother Vine.