Surprisingly, Arkansas has a long wine history dating back to the late 1800s. Winemaking expertise arrived in Northwestern Arkansas with the first European immigrants of German, Swiss and Italian descent. Settling in the Arkansas River Valley at the foot of the Ozark mountains these families were attracted to the sandy and fertile soil along with the moderate climate, both ideal conditions for growing grapes.
The history of winemaking in Arkansas
Two European families were instrumental in the birth of Arkansas viticulture. John Post arrived in Altus, Arkansas from Germany in 1872 and began making wine for personal consumption but over time it became the family business, Post Familie Winery. The winery is still in operation today and run by members of the Post family. The family tradition of winemaking also continued with the establishment of the Mount Bethel Winery by Jacob Post’s grandson Eugene in 1984.
In 1880 Johann Wiederkehr came to Altus from Switzerland and established his own successful vineyard and winery called Wiederkehr Wine Cellars. The Post and Wiederkehr wineries thrived, and production grew through the turn of the century. Prohibition hit these two producers and others in the area hard, but the industry was saved as growers grafted table grapes onto the rootstocks of the grapevines and grew tables grapes, instead of ripping out the vineyards, leaving them prepared to start anew when prohibition ended.
Today as in the beginning wineries across the state produce a wide range of wine styles including dry, sweet, sparkling, and even Port wines from a variety of grapes. Native American grapes have flourished here since the beginning of the wine industry including Muscadine, Niagara, and Norton. The Norton, also known as Cynthiana, is the most widely grown of these and produces the signature wine of many wineries. Its bright raspberry flavors, deep color, and husky tannins has led it to be nicknamed “Cabernet of the Ozarks”. French hybrid grapes like Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin and international varietals Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot are also known for producing excellent Arkansas wine.
The Altus wine region grew over the mid- 20th century and gained national recognition. In June of 1984, it was named the first American Viticulture Area (AVA) in Arkansas. It is an AVA within the larger Arkansas Mountain AVA that is within the even larger Ozark AVA (includes part of Missouri and Oklahoma) both established in 1986. The Arkansas Mountain AVA is over 2.8 million acres in size and in 2008 was the ninth-largest in the US. The establishment of this AVA was largely driven by Wiederkehr Wine Cellars, the largest producer in the region at over 50,000 gallons of wine a year. The owners pushed for the AVA as they and others wanted Arkansas wines to have a way to distinguish themselves from nearby Missouri producers. Today the Post and Wiederkehr wineries along with four others make up the Arkansas Wine Trail in the adjacent wine-making towns of Altus and Wiederkehr Village. Only a mile or so apart, each of the area’s wineries shares a climate but creates a unique experience for the visitor. Many of them have restaurants as well as tasting rooms and even wedding chapels and event facilities. The Cowie Winery makes for a very educational visit as it houses the Arkansas Wine Museum. To learn more about all the wineries visit The Arkansas Wine Trail website.