Care for a refreshing Chardonnay? Or maybe a marvelous Merlot? Want to stay with tradition…then a Muscadine might be your choice. Whatever your taste, you will find plenty to sample in the ever expanding and innovative wineries of South Carolina. The public views of South Carolina wines are swiftly changing as a group of energetic wine makers and vineyard owners are challenging the status quo and investing in infrastructure to create beautiful settings in which to enjoy wines of improving quality.
“Compared to other regions, South Carolina’s wine industry is relatively young.”
Compared to other regions, South Carolina’s wine industry is relatively young. There was a developing business in the 1880’s and 1890’s but the passage of Prohibition put an end to commercial production and the industry never recovered. Interest in commercial winemaking had a rebirth about thirty-five years ago and there’s been steady growth since. The relative youth of the industry means that winemakers are still experimenting with which variety of grapes grow best in the state…as all South Carolina wineries must contend with the state’s difficult and challenging growing conditions. High temperatures, high humidity, high precipitation, hurricanes and wildlife are causes of constant concern for the South Carolina winegrower. Above-average rainfall increases the risk of rot and mildew to the crop and is another challenge to winegrowers, and hurricanes, especially in the coastal regions, can destroy an entire vineyard. Wildlife – deer munching on new shoots, birds eating the grapes, the odd rabbit and bear wreaking havoc – can all contribute to the difficulties.
“Over the years, I have found that when a region is in it’s experimental phase, that’s when those involved are abundantly passionate and proud.”
The tough challenges to winegrowers in South Carolina has resulted in various approaches to wine production and tweaked innovative experimentation. Some vineyards import grapes and juice from Europe and the West Coast. Many grow and make wine from disease and climate resistant French hybrids. Some have embraced muscadine grapes which flourish in the Southern climate and grow wild in South Carolina. A few have moved to higher elevation to ease the climatic stress and are planting vinifera vines from Europe. All of this experimentation and “finding their way” is the perfect storm for the consumer. Over the years, I have found that when a region is in it’s experimental phase, that’s when those involved are abundantly passionate and proud. With everyone trying to make a unique expression, this usually results in some great leaps as to quality and taste.
“Exploring South Carolina wineries is perfect for the experienced, the novice and the curious.”
A perk of exploring a developing area is that you are not confronted with arbitrary rules and mores that sometimes come with the prestige of wine epicenters like Napa Valley, Sonoma County and the Bordeaux region of France. It frees me from any preconceived notions of what a winery should look like, what the wines should taste like, what wines I should drink and even how I should act! Thus, exploring South Carolina wineries is perfect for the experienced, the novice and the curious. The intimacy of the South Carolina experience opens the door to a deeper appreciation of what’s in your glass by walking among the vines, feeling the soil, talking directly to the owners. A personal, hands-on encounter is rarely possible in wine destinations like California.
Now it’s time to taste some of South Carolina’s bounty. I have selected wineries that offer a singular experience and are representative of the different approaches to winemaking in the state. The order of presentation is not to be construed in any way as a ranking. To this writer, all have worked hard to enhance the reputation of South Carolina wines and thus are to be commended.
La Belle Amie Vineyard
The name derives from a French origin “the good friend” and this aptly describes this friendly winery. Located on 40 acres of a former tobacco farm and family owned since the 1800’s this winery utilizes native grapes and those sourced from other parts of the country. Their philosophy is simple – wine should be enjoyed! If you like your red wine chilled and your white wine at room temperature then that’s how you should enjoy them! To that end, they offer a wide range of varieties from dry to very sweet with the emphasis on the sweet. From my experience, this is a wonderful spot to relax, enjoy live music, browse the gift shop and drink well made country wine. If you are visiting the Grand Strand this is a great place to escape the bustling tourist area. Wine tastings every weekend, Wine Down Friday and events throughout the year.
“Located on 40 acres of a former tobacco farm and family owned since the 1800’s this winery utilizes native grapes and those sourced from other parts of the country.”
La Belle Amie Vineyard
1120 St Joseph Rd
Little River, SC
Enoree River Winery
An 8-acre winery providing a local wine tasting experience surrounded by beautiful vineyard views 30 minutes northeast of Columbia. Wine tastings by the glass, bottle and wine slushies in summer. A picturesque venue for weddings, bridal shoots, birthdays and reunions. This is a quaint vineyard highlighting the local muscadine grape by plantings of the Noble red and Carlos white. They also have some very interesting fruit wines produced from blackberries, raspberries and cranberries. This is a true native muscadine experience and something not to be missed to understand the roots of South Carolina wine culture. They also import some juice from Italy which allows them to make a refreshing, dry Pinot Grigio. Imported from Washington State is a rich tasting merlot. Don’t miss the “Pack the Porch” wine events and the Harvest Festival. This is a true local experience with very well crafted sweet wines.
“This is a quaint vineyard highlighting the local muscadine grape by plantings of the Noble red and Carlos white.”
Enoree River Winery
1650 Dusty Rd
Mercer House Estate Winery
A 12-acre estate with something always blooming or wandering about. Mercer House uses only the grapes and fruits grown on it’s property free of any chemicals or preservatives to produce their wine. They are amongst a handful of organic wineries in the US. They have a vast selection of wines from dry, off-dry, off-sweet, rose, amber, white to wines made with tea leaves from the Charleston Tea Plantation. Wines are vinted from grapes, peaches, figs, nectarines, strawberries, pumpkins, blueberries, mangoes, kale and on and on. Speaking to co-owner Shannon Mercer, he relayed to me, “We develop and produce wine from what nature allows us to do.” This only touches the surface.
Mercer House is a unique example of the excitement that can be generated in a newly developing wine region. Utilizing natural yeast to the exclusion of artificial sulfite, the winery is producing nearly identical wines to those styles developed by the indigenous people of South Carolina 500-600 years ago. Right here in South Carolina, there is a winemaker using old techniques and practices to produce a product arguably unmatched for variety in the United States. Mercer House’s choosing of the best adaptable grape varieties, defining their growing conditions and then refining vinification and aging techniques are as well thought out and meticulous as I have experienced in numerous winery visits throughout the country.
Schedule a Mercer House vine wine tour – wine cart, 1 mile path, 5 vineyards, 5 ponds, 2 creeks and wine. This tour will totally enhance your understanding of a working vineyard. If you are a novice or a connoisseur, the Mercer House winery is not to be missed. Extraordinary production, vast selection, delicious satisfying wine and knowledgeable, helpful staff. Shannon Mercer is as unique as his wines. Need I say any more?
“Right here in South Carolina, there is a winemaker using old techniques and practices to produce a product arguably unmatched for variety in the United States.”
Mercer House Estate Winery
397 Walter Rawl Rd
City Scape Winery
A muscadine vineyard was established on this property about 15 years ago. Josh and Deb Jones purchased the property in 2015 and are working creatively and diligently to expand their offerings. The winery is located a mere 30 minutes from downtown Greenville. The winery produces four homegrown wines from the muscadine grapes planted by the previous owners. These wines can also be blended with locally produced fruits to create unique tasting wines. Other wines bottled on the premises are from grapes sourced from other areas and range from sweet to dry.
A new offering is the Winemaker Reserve Line. Super premium grapes and 100% new oak barrels are producing maximum flavor. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines are moving the winery in the direction of premium brands. In writing this article I had the pleasure of speaking with co-owner and winemaker, Josh Jones. Over the years, I have spoken to many winemakers and it never ceases to amaze me as to their commitment to quality and dedication to the craft. After speaking to Josh, I can easily attest that he is cut from the same cloth.
The goal at City Scape is to bottle wine only from grapes grown on the property and to produce wine made from European grapes (vinifera). To that end, vines from Europe have been planted about two years ago and, if all goes well, should produce sufficient grapes for wine production in the near future. Josh acknowledged the challenge of using European vines adding, “Deb and I always had a dream of producing wine from European vines planted on our vineyard.
Climate makes things difficult, but this is a dream that we will bring to realization.” City Scape is already a cozy, well-run winery serving handcrafted wines and could easily rest on its laurels. Yet their dream and drive to improve is an example of the new, vibrant, exciting SC wine culture. I admire all that City Scape is trying to attain. Other attractions at City Scape are: wine tastings, special events, and a program in which visitors can make their own wine, stock up on wine making supplies, and make their own custom labels. It’s a perfect setting for private affairs such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, bachelorette parties, etc. Also don’t miss the winery mascot, Pinot the Pig.
“It’s a perfect setting for private affairs such as weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, bachelorette parties, etc. Also don’t miss the winery mascot, Pinot the Pig.”
City Scape Winery
589 Dunklin Bridge Rd
Victoria Valley Vineyards
A beautiful vineyard with glorious settings located on 47 acres chosen for its elevation and unique soil structure and the only winery in South Carolina currently producing wine from homegrown vinifera vines. The elevation of the vineyard eases the climatic challenges that plague many South Carolina vineyards and allows Victoria Valley to grow the European species of grape that makes classic wines like chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc. A visit to Victoria Valley is to taste a little piece of Europe. The vinifera produced wine, the French chateaux buildings and the mountain location all combine for an old-world experience.
The owners, Vicky and Les Jayne, began aging wines over 35 years ago in the basement of their home in the wine growing region of Ontario, Canada. They were determined to bring world class wine to South Carolina and concerted, diligent research brought them to a location affording the best chance of success. This attention to detail, as exhibited in the location, continues throughout the vineyard. Intricate and delicate woodwork (all done by Les) in the chateaux style buildings and the estate-groomed grounds complete this beautiful setting. A visit to the cellars with their aged white oak casks reminds me of similar cellars in the Bordeaux region of France.
In speaking to the owners, they expressed that their goal was to create a simple but elegant place to enjoy their premium wines. This is not just a place with a view, but a total wine experience. The winery also has a small cafe serving delicious salads, small plates, cheeses and appetizers. There is also jewelry and crafts from local artists. Victoria Valley has taken their own singular approach to winemaking in South Carolina. I, for one, am thankful for the atmospheric ambiance, the attention to detail and the depth and quality of the wine. This gem is truly representative of the vibrantly developing wine industry in South Carolina.
“A visit to the cellars with their aged white oak casks reminds me of similar cellars in the Bordeaux region of France.”
Victoria Valley Vineyards
1360 S Saluda Rd
Visit Their Facebook Page
I hope these small looks at different wineries motivate you to visit and have a taste of the grape. Remember though, that all of these wineries are family run. When visiting a winery, tasting room or other spaces please consider yourself a guest. The owners and staff are proud of their facility and want everyone to enjoy their visit. Also remember that not all wine drinkers like all wines – wine hosts understand this. Visitors do not need to announce that they dislike a particular wine. Remember, it is perfectly acceptable for you to dislike a wine. However, keep in mind that the person next to you may very well enjoy it. Don’t be shy to ask questions. Does this wine look like it will be a good year? What food goes best with this wine?
“Remember though, that all of these wineries are family run. When visiting a winery, tasting room or other spaces please consider yourself a guest. The owners and staff are proud of their facility and want everyone to enjoy their visit.”
When it comes to wine tourism, it’s easy to be seduced by far flung destinations or rely on the “big” players in America like Napa Valley or Sonoma. But as American viticulture becomes more and more sophisticated, underdog regions have grown increasingly interesting. Hopefully, our little expedition in South Carolina is representative of that trend.
As I was finishing this article I received a follow up phone call from Shannon Mercer of the Mercer House and what better way than to use a winemaker’s thoughts to close this article. Shannon’s believes his methodology is a product of his art. A former writer and musician, he conceptualizes his wine production as an art form. Sparked by this creativity he has built a sustainable winery that is true to its South Carolina soil and climate within the constraints of business economics. That’s some heady thinking. Now I think we should head out and sample some South Carolina wine. ENJOY!!