As a child, I loved to visit my grandmother.
She was a member of her local Homemakers’ Club and could pretty much take home a blue ribbon with any baked good she entered in a county fair. I devoured the cobblers she made from the tiny, tart green apples that grew on the tree in the back yard. And some years, she would make jelly from the grapes that managed to survive the summer heat on the trellis behind the garage.
I remember her telling me that some folks made wine from their grapes, but I didn’t ever get to taste any. After all, we were Baptist, and I was nowhere close to 21. I distinctly recall how the names of those wines sounded foreign and a little funny to me: Muscadine and Scuppernong. Apparently, it wasn’t “real” wine that they were making, and I got the impression that it took a lot of work to get a few bottles put up.
Of course, as an adult, my general impression was that wine was mostly a European thing, and that California was the only place in America where good wine was made. I watched all the television shows where people drinking wine were very sophisticated and knew how to swirl the glass and sniff the bouquet. They said things that only people in the inner circle could understand about the wine having subtle notes of this or that and how they could discern the exact vintage of the bottle while drinking blindfolded.
Understandably, the great world of wine remained alien to me. I knew that my palette was uneducated, and I never wanted to let my ignorance show. I accepted the occasional glass offered to me at a party, and felt somehow that my preference for a White Zinfandel to a big, bold red wine marked me as a wine wimp. Then I was asked to write an article on the Alabama Wine Trail, and my journey to a fresh understanding of wine began.
In a state where farming is predominantly cotton, soybeans and peanuts, I definitely never expected to find anybody growing grapes for winemaking, much less to find three full-blown wineries operating within Shelby County. But if you point your internet browser to www.AlabamaWineTrail.net, you’ll see a list of eleven Alabama wineries staring back at you, with three right here in Shelby County.
So off I went to drop in at each of the three local stops on the trail. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I figured I wouldn’t be the only person who had no real experience to ever show up, especially if I took my husband along for the ride. What I found was surprisingly enjoyable and definitely eye-opening…
Vizzini Farms Winery
Traditional Wines and Restaurant
The first stop was at Vizzini Farms Winery. It was very easy to find, just off the Shelby County Airport exit of Interstate-65. It was late afternoon when we walked into the building, a long rack of wine bottles divided the large space into restaurant seating and a wine counter. We introduced ourselves to the owner, Tom Vizzini, a second-generation wine maker who planted his vineyard in Calera seven years ago.
He gave us the tour, which started in the small hallway just past the counter and a deli case filled with scrumptious-looking cakes and chilled chicken salad. On the walls were family photos of his grandparents who immigrated from Italy in 1878. “My grandfather was a wine maker and a police chief in Sicily,” Vizzini recounts. “When their ship arrived at Ellis Island, there were five other ships ahead of them. So they were re-routed to New Orleans, which is how we wound up in the South.”
Then we stepped through the door into the winemaking area which was filled with several imposing stainless steel tanks and plenty of interesting gizmos for bottling and labeling. Vizzini considers himself a traditional vintner of Vinifera wines. He often purchases grapes and other fruit
from larger growers. “Basically, anything we get our hands on, we make wine out of it,” he smiles.
Vizzini patiently described how the wine is made from the crushed grapes, including the difference between making white and red wines. “The red wine comes from leaving the skins in contact with the juice. White wines don’t use the skins. We take about eight days to transfer the color of the skin to the juice. Then we add yeast and leave it about 95 degrees to turn the sugar into alcohol,” he explained. Eventually, they remove the skins and cool the temperature down to create a product that will rest in the tanks for about 13 months before it’s ready to bottle.
Once the education was done, we walked back to the front counter and Vizzini poured us a complimentary taste of several different kinds of wine. I was hesitant to try the Pinot Noir, but found that his claim that it would be “smooth as silk” was true. Not surprisingly, I also enjoyed the Blush he served, and was duly impressed with his Chilton County Peach wine as well.
Vizzini also made sure to introduce us to his newest labels, a part of his Collegiate Collection. They were launched at the beginning of football season, with a Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay custom-made for both Alabama and Auburn fans. The labels feature paintings by Birmingham artist Jennifer Harwell of the Elephant and the Tiger. “When you buy these bottles, you’re not just buying wine, you’re buying art,” Vizzini comments. As we departed, I was certain he’d find a market for these special bottles (both what’s inside and outside) in no time.
Morgan Creek Vineyards
Muscadine Specialty Wines
The next day, we headed out toward Harpersville with our sights set on Morgan Creek Vineyards. Just about 20 miles East on Highway 280 and couple of right turns and we found ourselves driving through rows and rows of grape vines burgeoning with fruit. The drive led up to a beautiful building with a wide front porch that was so inviting I could easily imagine just sitting a spell to enjoy a glass of something refreshing.
We walked through the front door to a gift shop overflowing with wine and related accessories and saw an ample countertop set atop beautiful wine barrels. Just in time for tasting. One of the owners, Mary Brammer, and her associate Lynn Florey addressed us like we’d come to their home for a party, quickly setting a glass in front of us along with a list of the varieties of wines Morgan Creek is bottling.
Florey had no shortage of good ideas for things to pair with the wines we were sampling. She suggested that Magnolia should be served with shrimp at the beach and that the peach wine was superb when blended with fresh peaches and ice on a hot day. We overheard lots of exclamations of, “Oh, that’s good!” as others were tasting with us.
It was obvious these ladies really love what they do. I was relieved by how friendly they were and their reassurance that wine tasting wasn’t something reserved for an elite few. “We call a connoisseur someone who knows what they like,” Florey stated firmly.
Then Charles Brammer, Jr. was enlisted to talk to us about the winery and their production process. He shared how Morgan Creek had begun as more of a hobby farm with apple trees and U-Pick blueberry bushes. “We’d freeze what we could, and make wine on the side,” Brammer related. Eventually, his father retired and turned wine-making into a full time family business.
Brammer guided us to his production facility, with plenty of enormous stainless steel tanks, some that held as much as 6,000 gallons of wine at a time. He discussed the process of “racking” the wine, transferring it from tank to tank to eliminate the sediment. Then he showed us how they bottled the wine, explaining how they could produce 1,500 bottles per hour with a three-person team.
Morgan Creek wines are made using muscadines, a grape vine native to the Southeast. Carlos (a sweet white wine) leads the pack as their star performer. “In a land of Coca-Cola and sweet tea, people love their sweet wines,” Brammer grins. They’ve also given a nod to a local landmark with Vulcan Red, a wine that is close to Brammer’s heart since his grandfather painted Vulcan. “Not like an artist,” Brammer clarifies. “He actually painted Vulcan, which was a feat because he had lost an arm in a cotton gin accident.”
As we left, we were invited to return to visit the Vineyard again soon for the annual Grape Stomp event with tastings, tours, live music and and a Lucy look-alike contest. I began thinking about who I might invite to go back with me to enjoy the festivities.
Ozan Vineyard & Cellars
Traditional & Dessert Wines and Scenic Vineyard
We left Morgan Creek and set out for Ozan, traveling down State Road 25 through Columbiana to Calera. We were grateful for the Wine Trail signs pointing us in the right direction, leading us to a beautiful tasting room atop a hill overlooking the vineyard.
We arrived just as a group of folks were walking down the hill to catch the train as a part of a Saturday excursion package. Saturdays in May through mid-November, guests can enjoy wine tasting and a gourmet box lunch on the patio at the winery, then take the train for a scenic tour of Shelby County on the Heart of Dixie Railroad. It’s a terrific way to entertain a group for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, which is what many of the people were there to celebrate.
As we crested the hill, we saw the harvest had begun early and grapes were being pressed outside. Buckets of grapes were being dumped into a hopper, which would spit the stems out the side and crush the grapes into juice. At Ozan, the primary type of vine is the Norton grape (also known as Cynthiana) a native American variety that was isolated from early Virginia vines in the early 1800s.
The Road Home
When it was all said and done, my husband and I headed home with a brand new perspective on wine. We had learned quite a bit by touring these local wineries and were ready to recommend the experience to others. Whether you’re brand new to wine, or an old hand, it’s easy to find something to like everywhere you visit. But our biggest takeaway was probably that Southern wine is just as accessible as the fine folks who make it. After all, as they say, the best wine is one that is shared with friends.
Most types of white wines are lighter (have less body) than red wines. White wines are usually sipped chilled, with more delicate foods such as poultry and fish.
Red wines typically have a more robust flavor and pair well with food that is similarly robust, such as red meats (beef, lamb), hearty pasta dishes, etc. They are usually sipped at or just below room temperature.
A rosé is made by abbreviating the time spent in contact with the red grape skins or by blending white and red wine. The light color can range from a pale orange to near-purple, depending on the grapes and wine making techniques. Rosé is commonly called Blush wine in North America.
Sparkling refers to a “celebration” wine with effervescence. The bubbly result comes from a second fermentation which produces significant levels of carbon dioxide in the wine.
Typically, dessert wines are sweeter than most other wines and are often enjoyed after dinner. Some well known dessert wines include: Sauternes from France. Made from grapes that are partially dried or “raisined” on the vine by a benevolent strain of fungus, resulting in concentrated and distinctively flavored wines. Eiswein from Germany. The name means “ice wine” refers to the fact that it is made from grapes that have been frozen on the vine and pressed before they thaw. Vin Santo, meaning ‘Holy Wine’, the amber-hued straw wine traditionally from Tuscany, central Italy. Straw or “raisin” wine is made from grapes that have been dried, often on straw mats, to concentrate their juice.
Fortified wine has a higher alcohol content than other table wines. Those most well-known are: Madeira Wine (from the Madeira Island, Portugal)
Marsala Wine (from Sicily, Italy) Port Wines (from Portugal).
Wine Resources on the Web
- Basic-Wine-Knowledge.com – A comprehensive introduction to oenology (the study of wine) Easy to read and understand.
- PleasureIsAllWine.com – A Pelham retail location that can help you become acquainted with wine.
- AlabamaWineTrail.net – A listing of Alabama wineries, with locations and links for directions.