You don’t normally think of Kentucky as a destination for wine, but in honor of our new wine project, and encouraged by a few recent bottles that were quite good, I decided it’s time to take a fresh look at the Kentucky winescape.
A little history….
Even though it’s widely accepted that the Lexington area is home to America’s first commercial vineyard, it remains a topic of dispute among some. A Google search reveals that California, Indiana, Ohio and New York also claim to be first. To confuse things further, various wine texts claim either Virginia or Florida as first.. so who knows.
Either way, before prohibition, the commonwealth of Kentucky was a pretty major wine producer. Third in the nation. Sadly, prohibition hit and farmers discovered that those vineyards could be easily converted to tobacco – the soil was a nearly perfect fit.
Fortunately for wine lovers, the tobacco industry in Kentucky has been slowly collapsing over the past twenty years and Kentucky farmers are returning to grapes. Today, Kentucky is the sixth-largest wine producing state in the USA (Virginia is 5th, New Jersey 7th) with over sixty wineries scattered across the state. Even still, prohibition is alive in parts of the state. Some wineries are located in “dry” counties where tasting rooms are prohibited, so to skirt the rules these wineries often operate the tasting rooms in nearby cities.
Conveniently for tourists, the densest concentration of both wineries and tasting rooms is located within the Lexington-Louisville- Cincinnati “triangle” which makes it easy to visit several wineries in a day or two.
Kentucky’s short, often unpredictable growing season is unfriendly to the vitis vinifera varietals (Cabernet, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir) that most people associate with fine wine. Thus, most Kentucky vintners are advised against planting them. Fortunately, many Kentucky winemakers ignore that advice. Chardonnay and Riesling are widely planted here, and the quality of these wines can be outstanding. Cabernet Franc also seems to do well here and enjoys wide popularity in blends and as a stand-alone wine. Other traditional traditional European vinifera grapes you’ll find here include Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, but the quality is very spotty.
Most Kentucky vineyards are planted heavily with vitis labrusca (American) and French/American hybrid grape varietals such as Corcord, Chambourcin, Catawba, Chancellor, Vidal Blanc, Traminette and Bacco Noir. You’ll find several well-made Vidal Blanc (which resemble California Sauvignon Blanc.) The Norton grape is also one to watch out for. A North American grape popular east of the Rockies, these wines run the gamut in quality, and are made in sweet, off-dry, and dry styles. Norton and it’s sister grape Cynthiana have incredible potential, and quality Norton wines are worth seeking out.
Most Kentucky wineries also produce a line of fruit (non-grape) wines as well, and often use them as a fallback during rough grape harvest years. Some swear by them, others swear at them. But given Kentucky’s long history with moonshine, I guess you can’t fault them for trying to make wine out of anything they can lay their hands on! And even if you can’t bear to drink them, the fruit wines do make a lovely drizzle over a cheesecake…