Did you know that the first wine ever made in this country was made near Jacksonville, Florida in the 1560’s? French Huguenots exploring the eastern coast discovered wild Scuppernong grapes growing near the beach and vinified it. Sadly, the wine was so disappointing they soon sailed back to France. Similar experiments with local Vitis rotundifolia (Muscadine) occurred at Jamestown and Plymouth with little success, as the wines created tended to be harsh and a little skunky. It took another 300 years to get Vitis vinifera to produce well on the east coast, and even now Florida is a hard climate for the classic varietals. This doesn’t mean we don’t have our own wineries and wines, we do, and the two best known are within driving distance of Gainesville: San Sebastian in St. Augustine and Lakeridge in Clermont. Both of these wineries are popular tourist spots, and their wines do have a following in Florida and can be purchased at most Publix supermarkets and ABC Fine Wines and Spirits. The wines are not so bad that they send French Protestants packing for home, but only just barely, as they are not on par with wines from Bordeaux or Burgundy, either.
Generally I’m not into sweet wines, and to make Muscadine wines more palatable we tend to add some extra sweetness, through other grape or other fruit juice concentrates. This is why Lakeridge recommends chilling all of their wines, even the “Southern Red” and to enjoy them with cheeses and desserts. I find Florida wines to be a little hollow, without the real concentration we get with vinifera wines, but Florida is a tough climate for the classic varietals. We have too much humidity, too many insect pests and too much mold and mildew for the vines to thrive. The University of Florida has been working with Lakeridge to create hybrid grapes, crossing vinifera and rotundifolia, to create a hardy vine that still has some of the complex flavors of the great wines of Europe and California. This has not been a complete success, and many of these “local” wines have “Southern” on the label, rather than just “Florida” since many of the grapes are sourced from Georgia, North Carolina, and even California, grown in climates that support vinifera better. Yes, Lakeridge has vines and vineyards to show you, but the vast majority of their juice comes from their vineyards in the panhandle of Florida.
The most common wines from Lakeridge are their Southern White, Southern Red, and Sunblush pink, and all are made with Muscadine grapes and tend to be pretty sweet and fruity, with that slight musky edge on the finish. They do produce a few vinifera wines, like a Southern Merlot, but these wines tend not to have the depth as wines made of the same varietals from more temperate locales. San Sebastian does a similar line up of three styles, white, red and Rosa with a similar level of sweetness. Wines from both of these wineries are usually priced at less than $10 per bottle.
San Sebastian, now partnered with Lakeridge, has the added bonus of being in St. Augustine, so a perfect addition to your typical St. Augustine sightseeing. You can take a tour of the winery (easy to do in an hour) and try free samples of their expanded offerings, many of which are only available at the winery, like their new Muscadine Sparkling wine, “Blanc de Fleur” made Methode Champenoise. They do a similar base level of White, Red and Rosa like Lakeridge but they produce some drier wines blended with juice from California to give a more classically polished Cabernet or Chardonnay feel, though they are always blended with local Muscadine. These blends, like their Castillo Red and their Blanc du Bois Reserve, have a little drier finish, making them more like typical domestic wines. What I liked best were their surprisingly good Muscadine fortified wines like their Cream Sherry, where the yeasty sherry notes mask some of that Muscadine mustiness. The same holds true for their two Ports, the Ruby is available through other Florida retailers, but the heavier Port, with deeper and richer flavors, is like the Cream Sherry and can only purchased at the winery. Prices range at the winery from $8 to $20 per bottle and odds are you will find one that appeals to your palate, and they give quantity discounts.
Is it still worth a visit to Lakeridge or to San Sebastian? Of course it is! Visiting wineries is fun, and not just because you get to sample wines on the visit. The experience is educational on many levels and doesn’t have to take hours. So if you are on your way to Orlando for a Disney visit or to the beaches near St. Augustine, drop by these local establishments and get a sense of what it really takes to produce wine, from planting, to picking, to fermentation and aging. Even here in Florida you get a sense of the full process, no matter that most of the grapes are trucked in from elsewhere. San Sebastian hosts wine tasting music events most weekends at their facility on King Street, and even if you are not a big fan of Muscadine, it’s a great venue and whole lot of fun (and there is always their Florida Sangria). Other smaller Florida winemakers, some using blueberries or citrus fruit, are popping up all over the state, so check them out too! Cheers!