Visiting Haw River Valley AVA

Haw River

The Haw River, seen here in Saxapahaw, gives this Piedmont American Viticulture Area it's name.

Winter has to be one of my favorite times to visit wineries. There’s not much to see in the vineyards – the vines are being pruned and there’s nothing green in sight. But even the most humble winery is inviting and warm in the winter and offers a sanctuary from the cold.

Recently, I spent a crisp Sunday afternoon exploring the wineries of the southern Haw River Valley AVA, which includes a half dozen  wineries in three Piedmont North Carolina counties – Orange, Alamance and Chatham. Amongst the dairy farms, rediscovered small towns like historic Hillsborough and Saxapahaw, these rural wineries offer some surprising experiences in wines.

All the wineries I visited offer the standard $5 tasting with a souvenir glass. At some wineries, the tasting fee will allow you to sample all the wines available, while others give you a choice of five or allow you to choose between reds and whites. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a fan of reds, especially in winter. So my goal was to find a few good ones, which I did.

Benjamin Vineyards and Winery

Benjamin Winery

Benjamin Vineyard and Winery

Benjamin Vineyards and Winery offers a pleasant tasting room, only minutes from Alamance County’s Saxapahaw, a quaint, former textile mill town on the Haw River. The inside space is small, but the winery offers patio seating as well as several shaded picnic tables for warm weather visitors.

The five-acre winery opened in 2003, a year after planting vines. Today, Benjamin Winery produces wines from 16 grape varieties, including native grapes such as muscadines, a native American vinifera grape known as Norton, European viniferas and Chambourcin, which is becoming a signature wine of the Haw River Valley.

In the mood for tasting wines, I tried the ’10 Norton, ’09 Merlot, ’09 Chambourcin, ’07 Cabernet Sauvignon and a winter spice wine, served warm. I enjoyed all the reds I tasted, especially the Norton, which I tasted for the first time, and the Chambourcin, which may just be my favorite North Carolina wine.

The Norton (also called Cynthiana) has a rich, earthy taste, with a surprising hint of spice. The winery describes it as offering, “a hint elderberries balanced with a crisp tartness and soft tannins.”

Just a short drive from the Haw River, Benjamin Winery appears to have forged relations with the local paddling industry. A women’s paddle and paddle dinner are on the schedule for March.

Unfortunately, I was a day late for a big event in the Haw River Valley Wine Trail Tidbit event. For the price of $18, guests could sample a different course paired with a wine from each winery. Benjamin offered the entre – a pork, veggie and fig tart. I will have to pay closer attention to events next year.

I decided to bring home a nice bottle of the ’10 Norton, and I’m glad I did. A little spicy, but smooth as velvet, it is everything I love in a good red wine. We can’t seem to stop pouring.

View photos from Haw River Valley AVA tour and Starrlight Mead

Read Part 2, Wolfe Wines and SilkHope Winery
Read Park 3, Starrlight Mead


2 thoughts on “Visiting Haw River Valley AVA

  1. Natalie, thank you for the invitation to Tarheel Taps & Corks! I enjoyed reading about your experience visiting Benjamin Vineyards and would love to have the same experience one day. I’m going to plan a day trip and take my Dad so he can see and taste the wines Benjamin Vineyards has to offer, especially the ’10 Norton you couldn’t seem to stop pouring. We both like a good steak while sipping good wine at dinner too. Nice article, William

  2. I’m glad to hear that you found an enjoyable Norton wine in NC. In my experiences so far (I’ve tasted 119 Nortons in seventeen states) most Norton wines need to age at least five years or more and then be allowed to breathe for an extended amount of time before tasting. To date I’ve found a few respectable Deep South Norton (Cynthiana) wines in GA, AR, AL, TX, but the best seemingly are from Missouri and a handful from VA. Read Todd Kliman’s book, The Wild Vine, to learn more about the American historical wine experience and the Norton grape. It’s a documentary that reads like a novel. I promise you that upon reading the book, you will start to seek out other Norton possibilities.

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