Vine from a vintage farm

Alex McLennan III hopes folks are willing to drive to the far reaches of the earth to find a good glass of wine.

That’s because his family’s farm is located outside Scotland Neck, N.C., down a long and windy road that has no outlet. There are few neighbors, plenty of wildlife and perfect soil for grapes.

“Grapes just grow super out here,” McLennan says. Sixty percent of the farm is bounded by the Roanoke River.

Ventosa Vineyards and Winery is part of a larger operation known as Ventosa Plantation, which has been in McLennan’s family since before the American Revolution — he says the deed is signed by King George. It covers 4,000 acres and has seen a multitude of uses over the years.

Key Points

• This one-time cattle farm now has vineyards and 800 acres of no-till cotton.

• The owner is expanding to 16 acres of muscadines in the next two years.

• This 4,000 acres of land has produced crops since the time of King George.


“This was a cattle farm in the early 1900s before shifting to agriculture in the late 1970s,” McLennan says. “There’s been corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans here, the usual stuff. We even tried racehorses for a while. With my dad [Alex Jr.], we’re always trying different projects to supplement the income.”

There are several conservation and wildlife projects spread out over the acreage, as well as a police canine training facility. Six acres have been in grape production for the last two years, and four more acres will start producing this year. McLennan expects to be up to 16 acres in two years.

“That’s a load of grapes,” he says, laughing. “I’d been making beer and wine for years, and I wanted to do something besides cotton. It is easy to make wine. It is not easy to make good wine.”

The muscadine varieties he favors are Magnolia, Carlos and Noble. He’s also working with a new variety in development at North Carolina State University, a hybrid known as NC 94-4.

“It’s a red winegrape born in this state,” McLennan says. “Some say that it is the ‘elixir of the gods.’ It has a surprising flavor for a muscadine.”

He’s also working with another unusual grape known as Regale.

“It’s fire-engine red; I have never seen a grape that is that red,” McLennan says. “It makes a really nice rosé-like wine, but a little darker in color.”

He has a small planting of a white grape that was in development at NCSU but then halted. McLennan refers to it as a “supergrape.”

“One of the researchers took some home and planted them,” he says. “It’s had no disease problems, no insect problems.”

Muscadines are native to North Carolina and have become widely known in recent years for their health benefits. In the wine world, they are sometimes looked down upon for their non-traditional style.

“We’re trying to get away from the stigma of [muscadines] being only super-sweet wines,” McLennan says. “We have some reds that are off-dry, off-sweet. Our Carlos is dry with a sweet feel.”

Grape challenges

Muscadine grapes are known for being more hardy and disease resistant than other winegrapes, particularly Carlos. The biggest challenge becomes insects and wildlife.

“Japanese beetles are the biggest pest problem. There are leaf beetles, and at harvest we have real trouble with wasps. Doves will build nests in the vines,” McLennan says.

Vineyards require year-round maintenance. In the cold winter months, vines are pruned back on the trellis system, and typically break bud in April-May. The harvest begins in mid-September, but unlike many crops does not have a finite finish time.

“We are constantly checking for sugar and acidity. If it is not right, we stop picking,” McLennan says.

For now, Ventosa sells mostly to people who come by the winery, although a well-known upscale restaurant in nearby Tarboro has added the winery’s offerings to their dessert menu.

“Our biggest sales problem is distributors,” McLennan says. “They don’t want restaurants to go outside of them for wines, and we can’t make a profit at the prices they are offering. I think in time they will be after us. Most of our sales here are by the case, and no one has ever come out to taste and not bought some wine.”

Ventosa’s vineyard is now in its sixth year and averages 8 tons of grapes per acre in its single-wire vineyard. While it doesn’t produce as highly as a double-wire, McLennan says it is much easier to maintain. Typically, a ton of grapes will produce 220 to 230 gallons of wine. The winery, now in its third year, has a 5,000-gallon capacity, all in stainless-steel tanks.

“Wine is made in the vineyard, not the winery. You have to use good grapes,” he says. “We are an agricultural family here, and we’re really proud of our
vineyard.”

Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.

No-till produces immediate returns

The location of Ventosa Plantation in the Roanoke River flood plain has benefits for the farm as a whole and for the grapes specifically. As have many farmers in Halifax County, McLennan went to no-till farming a few years ago and has seen results not just in the vineyards, but in the 800 acres of cotton they still plant.

“We’d have to have a terrible year to have a bad year,” McLennan says. “When my dad went to no-till, we started seeing returns immediately. It has been outstanding. The cotton this year was high quality, and it requires half the labor. It has made a big difference.”


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GOOD SIGNS:
Vines that have a nice green strip of life on the inside are a good sign for the vineyard owner. McLennan will have 6 acres of grapes this season and has plans for expansion.

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MAN OF STEEL: Alex McLennan III shows off a bottle of Ventosa wine created in Scotland Neck. The wine is made from muscadine grapes and stored in stainless-steel tanks before being bottled.

This article published in the October, 2010 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.