You could celebrate National Red Wine Day on Aug. 28 with a quick trip to the local liquor or grocery store for a bottle of merlot or cabernet sauvignon from California, Italy, France or anywhere else in the world.
But if you are looking for a way to celebrate local red wines in a region that typically uses muscadine grapes to yield sweet wines, then Georgia's first American Viticultural Area (AVA), the Upper Hiwassee Highlands, is only a two-hour drive from Chattanooga.
The Upper Hiwassee Highlands wine region covers Towns, Union and Fannin counties in Georgia and Clay and Cherokee counties in North Carolina and might be a surprise to Southerners who imbibe in drier wine. While the nine vineyards in this region include a variety of flavors for every drinker, many of them include award-winning red wines that are worth the drive — plus, vineyards are naturally great spots for social distancing.
In August 2014, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau established the roughly 690-square-mile Upper Hiwassee Highlands viticultural area to allow vintners to better describe the origin of their wines and to allow consumers to better identify wines they may purchase. The area includes vineyards located between 2,000 and 2,400 feet above sea level, an altitude that helps to temper the warm, humid climate usually associated with the southeastern United States, according to wine-searcher.com.
There's only one other AVA in Georgia, the Dahlonega Plateau, which was established in 2018 — four years after the Upper Hiwassee Highlands — and about an hour's drive from the southernmost point of the Upper Hiwassee Highlands. As the Georgia Wine Association states, the soil composition in North Georgia is similar to that of Italy's Piedmont region, which produces some of the most prestigious wines in the world.
While on a recent weekend getaway to North Georgia, I tried out a couple of the Upper Hiwassee Highlands vineyards and can vouch for the quality wines and views. Both of the vineyards listed below are located about two hours from downtown Chattanooga.
— Award-winning Hellbender Red: 100% Norton, a native grape with a perfume of dark fruit, zesty spice and toasty vanilla.
— Mountain Harvest Red: 100% Chambourcin that is crimson in color, fruit forward but not overly sweet. Light, fresh and approachable and can be enjoyed slightly chilled.
— Noiret 2018 vintage: Offering notes of raspberry, cherry and currant, this light-bodied red finishes dry, leaving a hint of black pepper on the palate. Great for pairing with pizza, barbecue and strong cheeses.
Red wine grapes from the Blue Ridge Mountains' and from Crane Creek Vineyards' own micro-climate tend to be more light- to medium-bodied in nature, delicate, with slightly higher acids, lower alcohol levels and a complex minerality, their website states.
For those unfamiliar with noiret grapes, the hybrid grape is the new kid on the block, according to Pennsylvania Wine School. Dry wines made from this grape boast a rich red color, with prominent black pepper notes, flavors of chokecherries, black raspberries, blueberries and poached plums. It's similar to petite syrah.
* Due to COVID-19: There are no winery tours at this time (although you are free to walk the vineyard), and the tasting room is operating entirely outdoors. The vineyard sits high in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Georgia and has plenty of outdoor seating and beautiful scenery to make the experience enjoyable. While most wineries in the region close around 6 p.m., Crane Creek holds Apertivo Fridays and is open 6-8 p.m. for live music on the lawn. Bring your own blanket or chairs, weather permitting.
* Pro tip: Most vineyards, including Crane Creek and Paradise Hills, provide souvenir glasses with tastings for just a few bucks more.
— Jacked Up Red: This award-winning wine, made with Norton grapes, is first aged in French oak, then for another six months in Jack Daniel's barrels.
— 521: An estate bottled and good table wine. A portion of the wine sales goes to families of fallen officers.
* Due to COVID-19: The tasting room at the 40-acre vineyard has resumed regular hours of operation seven days a week. The last tasting is at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Masks and hand washing are encouraged, and there are indoor and outdoor seating options available.
* Pro tip: Paradise Hills has a small but delicious menu of tapas good for sharing with others.
Seven other vineyards to try in the Upper Hiwassee Highlands:
— Nottely River Valley Vineyards, 1150 Old Culberson Road, Murphy, N.C. (Driving distance from downtown Chattanooga: 1 hour, 42 minutes)
— Odom Springs Vineyard, 637 Odom Road, Blairsville, Ga. (Driving distance: 1 hour, 46 minutes)
— Valley River Vineyards, 4689 Martins Creek Rd, Murphy, N.C. (Driving distance: 1 hour, 47 minutes)
— Calaboose Cellars, 565 Aquone Road, Andrews, N.C. (Driving distance: 2 hours, 6 minutes)
— Ferncrest Winery, 1060 Main St., Andrews, N.C. (Driving distance: 2 hours, 5 minutes and next to Calaboose Cellars)
— Eagle Fork Vineyards, 8 Cedar Cliff Rd, Hayesville, N.C. (Driving distance: 2 hours, 12 minutes)
— Hightower Creek Vineyards, 7150 Canaan Drive, Hiawassee, Ga. (Driving distance: 2 hours, 27 minutes from )