Inside the Bottle
Bridgette McAuliffe takes us with her to explore Tennessee's Amber Falls Winery.
Tennessee Wines: They're More Than Just Desserts
Wine is an art. From the seeds planted to the fruit on the vine, to the aging for years, it tells a story of family, history, science, agriculture, and love. What is each wine’s story? What makes it special? What’s really Inside The Bottle? That’s what I’m here to find out.
What do you think of when you think of wine? You probably think of kings and queens in France. You might think of a sunset in Tuscany. But have you thought of a sunrise over the mountains of West Tennessee? Most likely not. But I had the chance to take part in a harvest of a locally grown grape and small family-owned production vineyard in Hampshire. Amber Falls Winery & Cellars started planting their wines in 2005 and started bottling in 2008.
According to Tim and Judy Zaunbrecher, owners of Amber Falls, it takes about 4 years for new vines to yield good fruit. So our story begins there: a couple that moved to western Tennessee, to an area with rocky soil that was great for many grape varietals.
So how does a grape make its way into the bottle? My journey of discovery began at the vineyard at around 8 a.m., watching the sunrise over the Tennessee mountains as a rowdy lab was running around our feet. Cut to walking between rows of grapevines with a pair of shears, inspecting bunches of grapes as we picked them for fermentation.
The harvest was time-consuming but quite simple; discover where the bunch started, trim the bunch, and throw them into a bucket. That’s it.
But the harvest was so much more than just throwing grapes in a bucket. It was a family, talking about their life, their kids, the weather, anything that came to mind as they were out in the vines picking grapes. It was friends gardening together as if it were a hobby, to make a product that would bring others so much joy.
In the vineyard, we harvested the Chambourcin grapes; a young grape that did not require much aging in the fermentation tank before the bottling process. As we were picking, I was encouraged to try the grapes off the vine, and it was an experience that I could never have predicted. The Chambourcin grape had relatively thin skins with so much flesh and a taste of ripe wild berries that are slightly sweet and slightly tart. But it turns out that they create a light-bodied dry wine with just a hint of the berry-flavor held in the raw grapes. This all happens because of the chemical reaction that occurs as the grapes and juice age.
The winemakers at Amber Falls age the wines until all of the natural sugars have broken down into alcohol, ideally creating a wine that has relatively 12.5% ABV. According to one of their assistant winemakers, their style is more so influenced by the French styles of winemaking. I’ve loved being able to taste many New World wines, trying to determine where their winemaking influences come from. Italy? France? Spain?
The conclusion many people draw about domestic wines that are not from more well-known production areas is that they are either too sweet, or low quality. But I think that’s an unfair judgment. We have a lot of factors to consider when we’re looking at wines from smaller areas, like the hills of Tennessee: What grapes are going to thrive in this location and climate? What different characteristics will they take on here, rather than if they were grown elsewhere? What is the palate of the local consumer? Let’s face it, we’re in the heart of Tennessee, where the average person is most likely a tourist, and even the locals enjoy something rich, full, and sweet. Odds are that the everyday wine drinkers in Nashville are not looking for something with the amount of earth that Northern Italian and French wines may contain.
I’m not out here trying to critique this wine. Truthfully, I just wanted to go out and explore what a harvest was really like. Although styles and taste preferences may differ from mine in this market, the fact that we have so many dedicated people pouring their heart, soul, and time into growing beautiful grapes and making wine is absolutely incredible.
Right now in my wine journey, I may have more of a palate for Old World Wines, but I will always support local businesses doing great things to make wine more accessible to all of us.