By Jim Hofman
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.
On The Road To Perdido
Our next morning’s agenda pointed us south on I-65 for the 170 mile ride to one of our favorite seaside destinations, Mobile. About 30 miles outside of the city, you’ll find Alabama’s oldest and southernmost farm winery, Perdido Vinyards. This was our first stop of the late morning.
Since 1983, Perdido Vineyards has been a stalwart of the blossoming Alabama wine industry. Open six days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Perdido welcomes visitors and offers winery and vineyard tours to individuals and groups. They specialize in muscadine table wines but also produce a surprising array of other wine styles.
Perdido is a great place to get acquainted with muscadine wines. This prolific grape is common in southern states and is a traditional sipping wine enjoyed by generations of southerners. If you like sweet wines, they’re right up your alley. We found Perdido’s to be very well made. Muscadine wines are a bit too sweet for our liking, but that’s not a knock on them at all. After all, the best wine is the one you enjoy the most! As our tastes trend toward semi dry wines, we’ll like some wines you won’t, and vice versa. Taste, compare, enjoy, and tell your friends. That’s what wine travel is all about, right?
For our palate, Perdido’s Demopolis Ecor Blanc was a fine discovery. This semi dry white has mild tropical fruit flavors and an extremely well balanced finish. This one came home with us, as did Delta Bouquet, an enjoyable blush wine with just a tinge of sweetness. And if you’re headed out to the Gulf Coast beaches, don’t pass up Perdido’s Wine Coolers, the newest addition to their product line.
Mobile: Gateway To The Gulf Coast
When describing Mobile to friends, we often compare the city to its Gulf Coast neighbor, New Orleans. There’s a similar pace and a wonderful mix of cultures in both cities. But as much as we enjoy New Orleans, we enjoy Mobile even more. Maybe it’s the close proximity to such natural attractions as Dauphin Island. Maybe it’s the safeness and walkability of the downtown area. And maybe it’s because Mobile is a bit of the underdog, in the shadow of it’s more prominent neighbor. Whatever the reason, if you like all the good things about New Orleans, you’ll love Mobile.
Here’s another parallel … did you know Mobile is the birthplace of Mardi Gras in North America? Mobile first celebrated the Mardi Gras tradition over 300 years ago, in 1703. Every February, Mobile throws a huge two week party to celebrate the event, with parades and all sorts of revelry. In fact, Mobile is known as home to “America’s Family Mardi Gras”. There’s even a special store devoted to the event, Toomey’s Mardi Gras.
The city itself hugs the western shore of Mobile Bay, a large inlet that merges with the Gulf of Mexico 10 miles to the south. Ecotourism is big here, with all sorts of spectacular natural sights in this subtropical climate. Even in January, we enjoyed temperatures hovering right at 70 degrees with gentle breezes and flowers in bloom all around the city. Nature has truly blessed this area, making the Mobile area a one-of-a-kind waterfront destination.
Summing It All Up
We chatted with one of the shopkeepers about our Alabama wine travels, and she responded “Alabama is beautiful before a glass of wine, and after!”. We couldn’t agree more. This is truly an underrated vacation spot. If you’re a foodie, you’ll love the southern cooking, the barbecue, and of course the fresh seafood. If you’re into history or the outdoors, Alabama has you covered with friendly cities, clean and clear mountain areas, and the compelling Gulf Coast.
And finally, if you’re a wine lover, hopefully we’ve given you a glimpse into the Alabama wine industry. May you enjoy your Alabama travels as much as we did!
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