Much of Alabama’s wine country is located in the central part of the state, where the hilly terrain is conducive to vineyards and grape growing. South of Birmingham, it’s a downhill run to Montgomery, the state capital, and Mobile, a lively port city hugging the Gulf Coast.
When you visit, you’ll navigate Interstate 65, which cuts a north/south path through the heart of Alabama. Travel is a breeze and most attractions are easily accessible off the highway. Currently, there are three wineries in the southern half of Alabama, so when you combine winery visits with the friendly cities of Montgomery and Mobile, you’ve got the makings of an ideal 3-4 day getaway.
Planning The Route: Two I-65 Wineries
Our plans called for a mid morning departure from Birmingham with an overnight stay in Montgomery. Then, a half day’s drive to Mobile and the subtropical climate of Mobile Bay and the Gulf Coast. Two Alabama wineries sit along the I-65 corridor between Birmingham and Montgomery, which are 90 miles apart. And so, after a light breakfast in Birmingham we headed south on I-65 with our sights set on Vizzini Famrs Winery. Located only 1/2 hour south of the city, Vizzini is open daily at 10 a.m. and is easy to find right off exit 234.
Vizzini offers an onsite deli and outdoor patio where you can enjoy lunch overlooking the vineyards. We arrived at 10:30, too early for lunch, although we did snack on freshly baked bread and local cheese from the deli counter.
You’ll have your choice of about a dozen Vizzini wines, made from a combination of west coast and Alabama grapes. If you’re familiar with our travelogues, you know we like to “drink local” and sample wines made with local grapes. At Vizzini Farms Winery, that means a terrific Cabernet Franc, whose smooth flavor compared favorably to Virginia or California wines of this style.
Sensing how much we liked the Cabernet Franc, our tasting guide suggested the Sangiovese, a red Italian table style wine that had us thinking of a pairing with barbeque. Among others we liked were a Pinot Noir, Blush, and a pleasantly surprising Riesling that was right in our sweet spot. We aren’t sure where the grapes originate for Vizzini Farms’ Riesling, but we recommend it as a “must try”. Crisp and a bit sweeter than many Rieslings, we wish we’d bought more than one bottle.
Less than 10 minutes away, only a mile off exit 228 near the town of Calera, is the beautiful and welcoming Ozan Vineyard and Cellars. If you’re pressed for time and can only visit one winery in Alabama, Ozan is a good choice. Situated on a 24 acre estate in the midst of Alabama wine country, this relatively new winery boasts a continually expanding vineyard with emphasis on the Norton grape.
Ozan’s Wine Train
One of Ozan Vineyard’s more interesting projects is their monthly wine train excursion, which combines wine tasting with a leisurely train ride through the countryside. Operating from April through November, each trip offers a different environmental focus, depending on the season. These Saturday journeys last three hours and include wine tasting, gourmet box lunch, and theme narration. See Ozan’s website for more details.
We settled in for a taste of Ozan’s Norton Red Label. Norton wines are fast becoming our red wine favorite, having been introduced to the style in Missouri and southern Illinois. We weren’t surprised to see it here, as the countryside reminded us of central Missouri. This wine is big and bold, with an appealing black cherry flavor and mildly oakey finish. Also try the Reserve Merlot, vinted from local grapes and aged for 16 months.
For something sweeter, there’s Ozan Peach. Peach wines are big in Alabama and this one is really good! Very pleasant and well made, it’s not overwhelmingly sweet and has the aroma and flavor of farm fresh peaches.
There are almost a dozen wines to try here, with special releases planned through 2009. Only minutes off I-65, it’s an ideal stop between Birmingham and Montgomery. Ozan is a big supporter of the Alabama Wine Trail and helps enhance promotion of the Alabama wine industry. They’re open Fridays and Saturdays, 11-6.
Down I-65 To Montgomery
Less than an hour from Ozan is Alabama’s historic state capital, Montgomery. Located in the heart of Montgomery’s downtown a few short blocks from the Alabama River is a Montgomery landmark, Daisy’s Diner. Daisy’s is southern cooking personified. There’s a set menu at Daisy’s, and daily specials, usually focused around a “meat and three”. This means you’ll get one meat and three side dishes. From the moment we walked in, we were mesmerized by the scent of fried chicken, which was nothing short of outstanding. The outer breading was crisp and tasty, the chicken itself moist and tender. We also ordered a plate of meatloaf, with buttered corn, squash casserole, and turnip greens on the side. What a delicious introduction to Montgomery!
With just over 200,000 residents, Montogomery isn’t particularly large. It’s easy to navigate, especially the walkable downtown area. The city is rich in history, with numerous civil rights landmark sites. The best place to start is historic Union Station, an 1890’s era building housing the Montgomery Visitors Center. We viewed a short video overview of the city and visited “The Depot”, Montgomery’s official gift shop. You can also buy $1 all day passes to the Montgomery Trolley System, which will transport you all around the downtown area.
From here, your choices are many. Visit and tour the Alabama Capitol, explore historical sites, or spend an afternoon amidst the speciality shops on Mulberry Street. This is a government town, so the downtown is bustling, especially during the day.
We enjoyed meeting some local Montgomerians, who were delighted we were spending some time in their city. They claim many tourists bypass Montgomery on their way to the Gulf Coast and never experience the city’s charms. We enjoyed our visit very much, and recommend a day or two stay for anyone traveling through Alabama.
If you’ve ever felt that wine travel is best suited for summer time, perhaps by the end of this travelogue you’ll have a slightly different perspective. It’s January as we write this, and winter has its usual vice grip on the Midwest. But all around the country, wineries are welcoming visitors and hosting wine trail events. Actually, the traditional off season is the perfect time to visit your favorite winery. Crowds are lighter and chances are you’ll rub elbows with the owner or winemaker who can personally provide insight into their craft. It’s an ideal way to learn more about wine in a relaxed, leisurely setting.
In spring 2008, we caught wind of a new wine trail being developed and marketed in the Deep South. And so, in an effort to escape the winter doldrums, we set out for the milder climate of Alabama to discover the burgeoning Alabama Wine Trail.
The Alabama Wine Trail: Background and Challenges
Although Alabama isn’t typically known as a wine producing state, there is a long history of grape production and wine making here. Like other southern states, the muscadine grape reigns supreme, but Alabama winemakers are developing a surprising array of excellent wines. Much of north central Alabama offers a mountainous terrain, with numerous opportunities for outdoor recreation. Of course, where there are mountains, there are sure to be valleys. This, combined with a long growing season, gives the Alabama wine industry an excellent opportunity to thrive as time goes on.
Wine Trails USA was delighted to see Alabama designate an official wine trail. If you’re interested, be sure to request an Alabama Wine Trail brochure from the Alabama Travel Council. It’s a beautiful brochure outlining Alabama’s eight wineries, all within an easy drive from the state’s three main cities of Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile.
There was, however, a large amount of publicity devoted to the Alabama Wine Trail at its launch, unfortunately not all positive. Long standing anti alcohol biases are quite prevalent in the state, and wineries have overcome numerous hurdles to open for business, let alone market their products. Fortunately, through a lot of hard work and persistence, the Alabama Wine Trail is open for business and capitalizing on the wine travel and agri tourism trend. We’re rooting hard for the success of Alabama wineries and their wine trail, and we hope our visit and this travelogue helps open a few eyes.
Alabama Wineries – East of Birmingham
We chose Birmingham as our base of operations for two nights since four of Alabama’s wineries are situated within a 45 minute drive east of the city. Interstate 20 cuts east/west across Alabama and intersect with Interstate 59 just northwest of Birmingham. Either route will take you into a hilly, almost mountainous, terrain that’s home to Alabama wineries.
Our first winery to visit was Wills Creek Vineyards, just a short distance off Interstate 59 exit 188 in the small town of Attala. Arriving just after 10 a.m. on a crisp but sunny day, we had the winery tasting room all to ourselves. Wills Creek specializes in muscadine wines with interesting twists, as some are dry and others the more traditional sweet.
We enjoyed just about everything we tried, especially the terrific Sirano Limited Release. This bold red wine, similar to a Syrah, is moderately dry with flavors of dark fruit – we tasted plum and blackberry. Also, don’t miss Blazing Sun Pinot Grigio, a friendly white wine with pleasing citrus flavors. We bought a few bottles of this to take home, our very first Alabama wine purchase!
The winery itself is located in the midst of the Duck Valley Wildlife Preserve, and the grounds are pleasant and peaceful. Stop for a few moments and breathe in the fresh air … it’s almost as refreshing as the wine!
Just a few miles south of Wills Creek is White Oak Vineyards, in Anniston just north of Interstate 20. Open on Friday afternoons and Saturdays, White Oak boasts a beautiful tranquil farm setting amidst the rolling hills of central Alabama. Here you’ll enjoy an eclectic variety of twelve wines, ranging from sweet to crisp, all made with Alabama pride. Surprisingly, we found a Chambourcin and also a Burgundy, with the Burgundy made from Norton grapes. Reflecting on last year’s trip to Missouri, we noted the terrain is quite similar in this part of Alabama. The Burgundy in particular was outstanding, with bold intense flavors that to us stacked up against any other Burgundy we’ve tasted.
You should also try White Oak’s fruit wines, especially the Peach. This is such a fun, easy sipper and it’s a real taste of Alabama, as the state is known for its peach crop almost as much as neighboring Georgia. On the drier side, there’s Villard Blanc, an elegant white offering that also made its way home with us.
Alabama Wineries – Day Two
About 35 minutes southeast of Birmingham in Harpersville, AL is Morgan Creek Vineyards, a state of the art winery producing a wide range of wines. Ranging from dry to very sweet, Morgan Creek’s wines are made with fruit and various grape varieties, including the muscadine grape. A stalwart of the south, the muscadine grape is generally quite sweet but are also a perfect blend with fruit and other grapes.
We sampled most of Morgan Creek’s wines and came away most impressed with three in particular. First in our hearts was Noble, a dry red offering with a unique finish of strawberry and dark cherry. We’d serve this one room temperature as a partner to a mild cheese or a strip steak. Next, we liked Cahaba White, just slightly sweet with a bit of a spicy palate mixing well with the fruit. Finally, Regal Red, in the burgundy style and brimming with dark cherry flavors.
In summer, Morgan Creek offers fireworks displays in conjunction with live music nights. You can bring a picnic, enjoy wine tasting, and listen to music under the stars, all capped off by a rousing fireworks show.
Our final winery in this chapter of our Alabama Wine Trail travelogue takes us to Bryant Vineyards in Talladega. If that name sounds familiar, it’s due to the famous Talladega Speedway that draws thousands of visitors each year. Bryant Vineyards is just a few miles away from the track.
Bryant Vineyards has been producing wine since 1985, with grapes grown on land that has been in the Bryant family since the late 1800’s. You’ll find a full range of muscadine wines here, including our favorite, Country White. This is a perfect wine for warm summer nights, or cold January nights for that matter! We also liked Festive Red, a dark red table wine that we felt benefitted from a slight chill.