Arkansas Wine: Visiting Arkansas Wine Country

 

Arkansas Wineries: It’s a “Natural State” of Wine Enjoyment!

For frame of reference, it’s just under two hours to reach Arkansas Wine Country from Little Rock via Interstate 40. You’ll find the town of Altus, known as the grape-growing capital of Arkansas, 5 miles south of Interstate 40 exit 41, which is Arkansas State Highway 186. Fort Smith and the Oklahoma border is about 50 minutes to the west, and Fayetteville is about one hour north. The historic city of Fort Smith has an “Old West” vibe and numerous attractions. The main thoroughfare through the city is Garrison Avenue. The western end of Garrison Avenue is a shopper’s delight, complete with specialty shops and a family-friendly retro amusement park. For dinner, try Logan’s Roadhouse, known for flame grilled steaks, cold long necks, made-from-scratch yeast rolls and buckets of salted in the shell peanuts.

If you’re looking for a base from which you can explore Arkansas Wine Country, we recommend Altus. The charming downtown square offers specialty shops, historic architecture and several local restaurants.

Just over 140 years ago, not long after the Civil War, European immigrants began establishing their new lives in the United States in earnest. Many settled on the eastern seaboard, in large cities reminiscent of the large urban areas in Europe. Others learned of areas where the geography reminded them of their homeland, with mountains, ripe rich valleys and a temperate climate offering four distinct and vibrant seasons.

In particular, many German-Swiss immigrants traveled well into the south central United States to stake their claim. And back in the 1870s, the beautiful Ozark Mountain area of northwestern Arkansas seemed an appropriate place to begin. Rolling mountains, while not quite the height or splendor of the Swiss Alps, offered a reminder of home. Lush green valleys and abundant fresh air provided more of the same. And so, a large German-Swiss settlement blossomed in the west/northwest area of Arkansas, “The Natural State”. Now, almost a century and a half later, this European influence remains particularly evident in a unique area of the state, roughly between Little Rock in the state’s center and Fort Smith, at its western boundary. Not far off of Interstate I-40, about 50 minutes east of Fort Smith, you’ll find Arkansas Wine Country.

After settling in Franklin County near the current town of Altus, these European settlers recognized the grape-growing potential in the Arkansas River Valley. Mountains to the immediate north of this area have a moderating, protective effect against harsh winter freezes. Sloping soil that drained quickly and easily proved ideal for planting vineyards, and soon, the Arkansas wine history took root.

After Prohibition in the 1930s, dozens of wineries found a market for their wines. Even today, historic vineyards in this area are run by 4th and 5th generations of the founding families. While most of the smaller wineries have left the industry, five historic wineries still meet the needs of tourists, local residents and all manner of wine lovers. In fact, Arkansas remains the largest grape juice and wine producer in the southern United States. Arkansas is also home to three distinct official viticultural areas, designated in the mid 1980s: Altus, Arkansas Mountain and Ozark Mountain.

Even though its city limits contain no wineries, let’s start our tour in Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas.

Little Rock is a compact, friendly city nestled along the banks of the Arkansas River. Proud of its heritage and building toward the future, Little Rock is a city of neighborhoods, live music and passionate about barbecue. One of the most famous Little Rock neighborhoods is River Market, near downtown. It is the catalyst neighborhood for riverfront development. A center of cultural and nightlife activity, River Market teems with markets, unique shops, restaurants, and trendy bars and nightclubs. Just a short distance from River Market is an architectural throwback neighborhood, Quapaw Quarter. In this 9-square mile neighborhood, you’ll find beautiful 19th century homes, well worth a driving tour.

Looking for places to eat in Little Rock? Sims BBQ has tasty pulled pork and beef brisket. Or, there’s Burge’s Hickory Smoked Turkeys and Hams. For almost 50 years, they’ve offered a real taste of Little Rock, with delicious catfish and po’ boys. There’s also Cajun’s Wharf — good food, live music and a big deck overlooking the Arkansas River. Perfect for happy hour! Or, Vino’s Brewpub is centrally-located and they serve specialty pizzas, excellent calzones and, of course, beer brewed onsite. Our favorite brew? 6 Bridges Cream Ale.

Farther west from downtown are the Hillcrest and Heights neighborhoods. Hillcrest is another architectural treasure, boasting historic homes that are a showplace of this National Register of Historic Places district. The Heights, nestled along the Arkansas River bluffs, is a trendy, fashionable destination not to be missed. Along with River Market, The Heights teems with specialty boutiques, restaurants, cafes, antiques and all sorts of interesting shops.

Lastly, let’s not forget about the Riverdale neighborhood, an upscale destination just a few miles west of downtown. Riverdale boasts a unique collection of restaurants, nightspots and prime views of the Arkansas River. The Arkansas Queen Riverboat is a sightseeing cruise on the Arkansas River, adjacent to downtown Little Rock. Also nearby, the Clinton Presidential Center museum and library and Heifer International Center, where you can learn about going “green” and tour a building dedicated to reuse and sustainable energy.

Onward to Arkansas Wine Country

Traveling west/northwest out of Little Rock (actually, North Little Rock) on Interstate 40, it’s about 140 miles to the heart of Arkansas wine country. As you travel outside of Little Rock, you’ll notice the topography changing — lush valleys and rolling mountains — a perfect sub-climate for grape growing and wine making. Approximately two hours outside of Little Rock on Interstate 40, look for exit 41, Arkansas Route 186. Go south about five miles on 186 and you’ll enter the charming and historic town of Altus, heart of Arkansas wine country and home to four of the area’s wineries. Let’s take an in depth look.

Chateau Aux Arc Vineyards and Winery: Directly on Rt. 186, actually just two miles off I-40 and before you reach the town of Altus, is Chateau Aux Arc, the world’s largest propagator of Cynthiana grapes. Be sure to check out their gorgeous tasting room, situated on top of St. Mary’s mountain. Enjoy the view of the Arkansas River Valley while you taste the fruit of Chateau Aux Arc’s labor. We particularly enjoyed the 2005 Altage, a medium bodied Chardonnay/German blend, with hints of pear and a fruity finish. We also enjoyed Chateau Aux Arc’s Chardonnay, made without oak which sometimes obscures flavor. This Chardonnay finished with a hint of grapefruit, making it an ideal complement to a fruit and cheese platter.

Mount Bethel Winery: Three generations of the Post family have proudly guided the Mount Bethel Winery. Just 1/4 mile east of the town of Altus, Mount Bethel Winery offers a full selection of reds, whites and fruit wines. Since Arkansas is a renowned fruit producer, we decided to try the Elderberry and Blackberry wines, both produced from fruit grown and hand picked by the Post family. Both were sweet, tangy and quite enjoyable. Mount Bethel is also renowned for their port wine, Big Daddy Port. Check with the winery as they were preparing to release a new line of port at press time.

Post Familie Vineyards and Winery: On to downtown Altus, where one block north on Rt. 186 stands the Post Familie Vineyards and Winery. They say the scenery in this area is just as beautiful as Napa Valley, and we wouldn’t disagree! Post Familie is known for their muscadine wines (a southern specialty), as well as a very nice Pinot Grigio. Indeed, this is half the fun of visiting local wineries — you never know when you’ll find a new, unexpected gem or a new favorite. Post Familie thoughtfully offers a sampler pack — in either dry, semi sweet or sweet. Be sure to stop in their gift shop, which offers plenty of wines and local favorites like jams, juices and local delicacies.

Wiederkehr Wine Cellars: A pioneer in the U.S. wine industry (Wiederkehr is Bonded Winery #8), Wiederkehr Wine Cellars is an introduction to the Swiss wine-making heritage. Housed in an Alpine lodge, Wiederkehr offers 45-minute winery and cellar tours for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into wine-making. We enjoyed a German-Swiss lunch in their onsite restaurant, the Weinkeller Restaurant. As for wine, try Wiederkehr’s deliciously dry Johannisberg Riesling or their unique, crisp Verdelet, a white wine made from a French-developed grape variety. For an after dinner selection, try their Tawny Port, rich and warm.

Cowie Wine Cellars and Museum: Our last stop takes us to the smallest winery in Arkansas, Cowie Wine Cellars and Museum. Located three miles west of Paris, Arkansas, on scenic Route 22, Cowie Wine Cellars is a must-visit, not just to taste and buy their wines — but also to see their museum, dedicated to the art of Arkansas wine-making and Arkansas wineries. Founder Robert Cowie and his seven children carry on the Arkansas wine-making tradition at their winery, originally bonded in 1967. Known for their port (Robert’s Port), Cowie Wine Cellars also offers a full, complex Cynthiana and a crisp semi-sweet Mount Magazine Mist, among others.

The Wine Museum traces Arkansas wine history through the last 130 years. Be sure to see the original wine press and other historic wine-making artifacts. Interestingly, this is the only museum in the United States dedicated solely to the wine history of one state. A new branch of the museum was recently opened in Hot Springs, a popular tourist stop further south in the state.

Cheers!

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