Over 135 years ago, many German-Swiss immigrants traveled well into the south central United States to stake their claim. And back in the 1870’s, 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.
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 is still felt 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.
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 subclimate 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 area wineries. Let’s take a closer 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 their Altage, a chardonnay blend with hints of pear and a fruity finish.
Mount Bethel Winery: Three generations of the Post family have proudly guided this beautiful historic 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.
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.
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 winemaking heritage. Housed in an Alpine lodge, Wiederkehr offers 45 minute winery and cellar tours for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into winemaking. 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.
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 Rt. 22, Cowie Wine Cellars is a must stop, not just to taste and buy their wines, but also to see their museum, dedicated to the art of Arkansas winemaking and Arkansas wineries.
The Wine Museum traces Arkansas wine history through the last 130 years. Be sure to see the original wine press and other historic winemaking 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.