Vintage FloridaExplore Our Region’s Wineries and Discover the Delightful Flavors of Northwest Florida
By Andrea Walker
Out of all the southeastern states, Florida boasts the richest and most flavorful history in winemaking. Hundreds of years ago, the Spanish discovered wild muscadine grapes growing among the lush vegetation of Florida and began making America’s first wine. Today, muscadine wine is a Southern specialty, and Florida’s wineries have used the grapes to perfect a variety of delicious textures and tastes to satisfy any palette.
Past the beaches and amusement parks, there is much more to discover in the Sunshine State. For a few hours and very few dollars, make your way through the local wineries and vineyards and see why you don’t have to travel far to experience wine country.
A BLUSH OF COLOR This blush wine from Chautauqua Vineyards and Winery is a blend of Carlos and Noble Muscadine wines. A semi-sweet perennial favorite, the blush is best enjoyed chilled. Photo by Nikki Ritcher.
CHAUTAUQUA VINEYARDS & WINERY
364 Hugh Adams Road
Since 1979, Chautauqua Vineyards has operated as one the largest vineyards in the state, with more than 40 acres used to harvest grapes. The vineyard is located 12 miles north of DeFuniak Springs. Grape harvesting starts in late August and lasts into September. At least 400 pounds of grapes are crushed, fermented and taken to an in-house lab, where the winemaker evaluates field samples and wines for quality assurance.
Located on the corner of Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 331, the winery was constructed in 1989 and is situated on a small rolling hill away from the main roadway. Visitors can tour the gift shop in the front room and sign up for a tasting.
My husband and I are white wine enthusiasts, so we decided to try the chardonnay, white zinfandel and blush wines first. The chardonnay was dry, as it should be, but with a pleasing, buttery aftertaste. If you love sweet wines, the white zinfandel is a perfect fit. I like blush wines because they are a nice balance between red and white wines.
We then decided to venture into the specialty wines and selected a wine called Sunset Red. Fruity yet spicy, this warm wine was heated in a slow cooker and had been simmering with a bag of mulled spices. For a chilly night, having a glass of this will warm you from head to toe.
Feeling a little adventurous, we opted for a glass of their Chocolate Port, which is 18 percent alcohol and infused with real cocoa beans. I can only describe it as pure decadence, an excellent dessert wine.
Most of the single bottles are in the $7 to $25 price range. You also can buy a case of mixed wines. Just before heading out, we bought a bottle of the Winterberry seasonal wine to take home, as well as some mulled spices.
Chautauqua Vineyards is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the tastings and tours are always free. Visitors also can view the winemaking process in a viewing room located in the back of the winery.
EMERALD COAST WINE CELLARS
1708 Scenic Gulf Drive
An almost 30-minute drive down from Chautauqua Vineyards, Emerald Coast Wine Cellars is located across from Miramar Beach. A sister retail wine store to Chautauqua, Emerald Coast Wine Cellars has an impressive two-story store where wine, gourmet food and other treats can be purchased.
After browsing around the store for a few minutes and holding back the urge to buy some gorgeous, cobalt blue champagne glasses, my husband and I made our way to the tasting table.
Looking for a different variety, I selected their Sugar Sands White, Noble Muscadine, Wildflower Honey and Spumante wines. The Sugar Sands White is a riesling made from Niagara grapes imported from New York. For a more stout red wine, I recommend the Noble Muscadine. The Wildflower Honey was a welcome change, and the taste of the white muscadine grapes instantly made me picture a warm spring afternoon. For an extra-special touch, wildflower honey is added to the wine.
Before partaking of their Vanilla Sherry, we were urged to taste the Spumante, a sparkling white wine, first. Crisp and dry yet mildly creamy, I instantly loved this wine. The Vanilla Sherry is flavored by rich vanilla beans that make it feel like another delectable dessert. Here’s a tip we learned about the sherry: If you put vodka or brandy in the bottle and let it sit for six months, then you actually have vanilla extract.
Prices for single and a dozen bottles are the same as those at Chautauqua Vineyards. The store is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and tastings are always free.
PROPER FERMENTATION Port and sherry, which are fermented from muscadine grapes, have been resting in these stainless steel tanks at SeaBreeze Winery for seven to eight years. Photo Courtesy Seabreeze Winery.
13201 Hutchison Blvd.
Panama City Beach
Arriving on the last leg of our weekend wine excursion, we came to SeaBreeze Winery. Located on the west end of Hutchison Boulevard in Panama City Beach, the winery opened in July 2003. The grapes are brought to the facility, where crushing, pressing and fermenting take place in temperature-controlled, stainless steel tanks.
The source of SeaBreeze’s grapes, Kyotee Vineyards, is located 35 miles northwest of Panama City Beach in Bruce, Fla. The first vines were planted in 1996, and the vineyard has steadily expanded in size to 100 acres. Kyotee Vineyards grows several of the most popular muscadine wine grapes, including the black Noble variety from which SeaBreeze Winery produces its red wine, and the bronze Carlos, Welder and Magnolia varieties, from which the white wines are produced.
SeaBreeze Winery offers tastings in the front room. We started off trying the dry wines, which consist of Horizon Red and White. The Horizon White is easy to drink and has a dry muscadine blend. For a more full-bodied wine, Horizon Red offers raspberry and cherry flavors while having moderate acidity.
We then moved on to the semi-dry and were poured a glass of Magnolia. This is one of SeaBreeze’s newest wines, made with the Magnolia variety of the muscadine. With hints of green apple and pepper, this wine is tart and fruity.
Switching gears to semi-sweet wines, I tried the Palmetto White while my husband indulged in the Palmetto Red. The Palmetto White is the winery’s biggest award winner, and I could easily taste why. Consisting of unique muscadine flavors, it offers perfect acidity and a nice finish. According to my husband, the Palmetto Red was a smooth, semi-dry blend.
Bypassing the sweet wines, such as Island Red and White, I was poured a glass of Blackberry fruit wine. This intense berry wine starts off sweet, like a handful of freshly picked berries, but has a dry finish. In my opinion, it’s an ideal balance for a fruit wine. SeaBreeze has a Blueberry flavor as well.
SeaBreeze Winery also offers some very nice selections of dessert wines. Its fortified wine consists of a sweet ruby port that has aromas and flavors of sundried raisins and caramel. As for SeaBreeze’s sherry, this dessert wine serves up a montage of nutty flavors, such as pecans and walnuts swirled with honey. These wines cost $17 a bottle, while SeaBreeze’s other selections run from $9.50 to $10.50 per bottle. The winery is open seven days per week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and tastings are complimentary.