Wine Travel – Alabama’s New Wine Trail

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.

Bryant is a small operation with no website at press time, so be sure to call ahead to make sure someone is available to greet you.

In closing, we encourage you to get your wine travel “fix” in some of the southern states during the winter months. Travel is easy as temperatures stay above freezing for the most part. And, you won’t need to fight the crowds while you linger at unique small wineries and discover interesting cities and sights along the way.

Hangzhou Travel – Solitary Hill

Of all the travel spots commonly listed in Hangzhou, the Solitary Hill is the only one actually on the lake itself. Unlike the other travel spots, you do not need to buy a ticket to see Solitary Hill, there are no opening times and you can include it in your walk around West Lake.

The Facts

The hill stands alone on the lake surrounded by water so it was called Solitary Hill. It is also a place of solitude for ancient poets and scholars.

The peak of the hill is 38 meters above sea level and easily scaled making Solitary Hill more of an island with a bump than a real hill. It is the only natural island in West Lake.

Points of Interest

There is (to me) no one particular point of interest there that stands out as a must see. There are a number of points that are worth visiting as you make your way round the island.

Ancient Palaces – This part of Hangzhou was the home of three ancient imperial palaces. Emperor Lizhong of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had their palaces on Solitary Hill. You can see the foundations of these palaces as you walk around the island and some of the older foundations have been enclosed in protective display cases.

Tomb of Qiu Jin – Qiu Jin was a famous female revolutionary at the end of the Qing Dynasty. Qiu Jin was a member of a revolutionary society dedicated to the overthrow of the corrupt Manchu government. She was caught and beheaded in 1907, only 5 years before the formation of the Republic of China in 1912.

Lin Bu’s Tomb – Lin Bu is one of the well known poets of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1227) who chose to live at Solitary Hill in isolation. Ironically he was a poet of the reclusive school/field of poetry.

Crane Pavilion – Also called the Tending Crane Pavilion. Lin Heqing, a famous poet from the Song Dynasty lived in seclusion at Solitary Hill where he tended plum trees and a crane. The Crane Pavilion was built in his memory.

Getting There

Solitary Hill is located at the northern end of West Lake and can be accessed from the eastern side by Bai Cause Way and from the western side by a bridge near the Temple of General Yue Fei and near the beginning of the Su Causeway.

You can ride onto the island and access most parts by bike and there are bike stations at the causeway entrance. You can also catch the K7, 81 and 850 public buses and the Y9 tourist bus.

Kuala Lumpur Travel Tip – Series 3 (Weird Food)

Malaysia has many weird food (weird even to some locals) to offer, and most of them can easily be found in Kuala Lumpur. However, each state in Malaysia offers its own special delicacy. For example, budu in Kelantan, keropok lekor in Terengganu, cencaluk in Melaka. However, all of them are easily found in Kuala Lumpur. Be sure to treat yourself with these :

Petai – Green beens from the deep jungle, which some people say smell like methane gas. Its popularly cooked in sambal tumis ikan bilis – which is fried chili with anchovies. However, locals absolutely love them eaten raw as ulams (almost equal to the western salad). Petai is also enjoyable grilled or boiled. A typical dipping with petai is sambal (chili paste), budu (a fish sauce) and tempoyak (a paste made from durian). Budu and tempoyak themselves are also considered ‘weird’ food.

Durian – A fruit as big as a football, covered with tough spiky skin. The pulp is pale yellow, with shape and consistency of raw brains. Smell has been compared to rotting flesh, old gym socks, or sewage. Yet the taste has been called so exquisite that a European explorer of the 1700’s claimed it was worth the journey to experience it; “the King of fruits.” Many believe it aphrodisiac and hold durian-eating parties. Most hotels, and so on, forbid it on the premises.

Keropok Lekor – Its not what you think it is. Its actually fish sausages, normally deep fried and dipped in a sweet chili sauce (tastes almost like plum sauce). The best keropok lekor you can find is available in the state of Terengganu (where many fishing villages are). Fresh caught fish are brought to roadside stalls, where the fish are deboned, cooked and made into fresh keropok lekor you can ever find, made right in front of your eyes.

Otak-otak – Brains anyone? Otak literally means brain. But otak-otak has nothing to do with it. Otak-otak is made by pounding fresh fish into a paste, and mixing it with chilies, coconut milk, and spices, then wrapping the whole thing in a banana leaf and grilling it. When the banana leaf chars, the fish is read to eat.

Some are unique, but not so horrible looking. Make sure you try these:
Lai Chee Kang, ABC (Air Batu Campur/ Mixed Ice), Longan drink, Karipap (curry puffs), cendol (colorful goodies made from starch eaten in cold coconut milk mixed with dark sugar), tapai, pulut, popia, roti canai, the tarik (literally means – pull tea), char kuey teow, and so many others.

Enjoy!