Wine Finds Among The Fishes

wine corks

Last night’s Aqua Vino fundraiser for the Georgia Aquarium’s Correll Center for Aquatic Animal Health (got all that?) was a great excuse to sample a wide variety of wine from around the world, all for a good cause. While I didn’t come close to tasting even half of the wines available, there were a few things that stood out. First, kudos to the organizers for having a great selection of Georgia wines. Montaluce, Wolf Mountain, Three Sisters, BlackStock, Habersham, and Yonah Mountain were all there pouring.

Wolf Mountain

Was it a coincidence that they were next to the Georgia swamp area of the aquarium? Just like the Georgia swamp exhibit, the Georgia wines might not have been the biggest names (or whales) in the house, but they made a great showing. A new one to me was Yonah Mountain‘s Traminette. Traminette is a gewurtzraminer hybrid grape, and for this bottling, Yonah Mountain sourced the fruit from the Finger Lakes region of New York, where winemaker Joe Smith grew up. So now we have a Georgia winery, producing a seldom seen hybrid varietal wine, sourcing from the Finger Lakes, with a winemaker who hails from that region as well. They win bonus points just for the audacity of it. And you know what? It was excellent. Great acidity, lovely floral notes on the nose, good balance and depth, a pleasant amount of residual sugar.

The other two discoveries that stood out for me hailed from California and Spain.

Sequana

From California, the Hess Family has a relatively new label called Sequana, which is dedicated to single vineyard, California pinot noir. Winemaker James MacPhail was brought on as a pinot noir specialist, and, based on the two wines being sampled, is turning out some really nice, nuanced wines. The wines on offer were a Santa Lucia Highlands Sarmento Vineyard (from outside Monterey) and one from the famed Dutton Ranch in the Russian River Green Valley area. These aren’t cheap wines, priced around $30 – $40, but for single vineyard pinots from these areas, they do represent a pretty good deal. The Sarmento Vineyard pinot was my personal favorite, with floral notes and dark spices topping off a bright cherry backbone.

Dinastia Vivanco
The view over the vines from Dinastia Vivanco in Rioja, Spain.

From Spain, Dinastia Vivanco is a winemaker whose magnificent wine museum is a must-stop for any visitor to Rioja. It is full of history, knowledge, and beauty. And now, for the first time, their wines are being imported to the US. Their current reserve release is the 2004 Reserva, which is 90% tempranillo. It has seen almost two and a half years in oak, followed by more than two years of bottle aging in the winery’s cellars. A quick check online shows it priced around $20, a great deal for a reserve Rioja with just enough age to be interesting, and this one can easily go another 10 to 20 years. Hopefully this will be showing up on local wine store shelves.

Finally, a taste of the 2006 Trimbach Gewurtztraminer reminded me how good and distinctive Alsatian Gewurtztraminer is. Thick, spicy, lightly honeyed tropical fruit. Gorgeous. Enough to send your mind off to a faraway place where graceful creatures drift through clear waters…

Georgia Aquarium

Full Disclosure: my attendance at this event was on a complimentary media pass

North Georgia Wine Country

Creative Loafing Atlanta recently published an article I wrote on “the past, present and future of Georgia wine country.” The idea for the article actually started when I volunteered to help harvest grapes at Montaluce Vineyards, about an hour outside Atlanta in the hills near Dahlonega. Suffice it to say, even just a few hours of picking grapes in the late summer heat was plenty enough to help me appreciate the tremendous amount of work (and planning, knowledge, dedication) that goes into making wine here.

Arriving in the early morning, I headed into the neat rows of vines lining the hillside, ready to carefully clip bunches of grapes from the vines. The ground was wet with dew. OK, soaking with dew. My shoes and socks were quickly drenched. Bugs of all shapes and sizes were plentiful, providing a musical accompaniment to the grape picking and occasionally snacking on my exposed skin. Thankfully, retiring from the vines into the cool interior of the winery, I was able to taste some of the (very) early results of the current harvest with winemaker Maria Peterson. A blend of pinot grigio and chardonnay was fermenting in the tank, and a quick sip revealed what was basically at this stage of its development a very good grape juice, bright and tart. We discussed the merits and challenges of making wine here in Georgia, a place that certainly can produce great wine, but not without a skilled vineyard manager and winemaker. The minerality and clay in the land actually have their benefits when it comes to the grapes, as Maria said, “they didn’t mine gold here for nothing!” But it also takes a great amount of knowledge, “working smarter in the vineyards… rootstock selection… the right soil preparation…the timing of when you plant…In Georgia the vigor of the vines is UNBELIEVABLE! So you need to have very good knowledge of canopy and vine management. It is not a romantic thing where you brag about having a vineyard to your friends. It is damn hard work, but extremely fulfilling.”

I headed upstairs to Montaluce’s tasting room and tasted through their most recent releases. Without fail, these were solid, enjoyable wines that just about any wine drinker could appreciate. Among the whites, the viognier in particular has a lovely nose with hints of wildflowers and vanilla. This is a grape that, based on Montaluce’s efforts and those of several other Dahlonega-area wineries, clearly does well in the Georgia soil and climate. Montaluce’s “Dolce” delivers a slightly sweeter experience, but the sweetness is balanced nicely by spicy notes akin to what is typically found in gewürztraminers. The Montaluce “Centurio” merlot blend has knockout aromas of leather and dark fruit, a touch of oak, and a complexity that calls to mind Chateauneuf de Pape (at least for a few seconds). And, again, merlot is clearly a star for Georgia wineries – after wrapping up my harvest day at Montaluce, I later tasted some superb 2006 (the current release) reserve merlots at both BlackStock Vineyards and Frogtown Cellars.

David Harris at BlackStock, who brings a grower’s mentality to the table, opined on what can distinguish Georgia wines, especially those from the Dahlonega area. When it comes to varietals “merlot is the star here, chardonnay and viognier too. These are ‘granitic’ soils, just like Condrieu (in France) where the world’s best viognier is grown. Our whites in general have nice minerality, and our reds have a warm, earthy, round style. We’re not going to make big fruit bombs. Our wines are balanced and harmonize beautifully with a meal, and Georgia wine customers are really digging on that.”

The Dahlonega area is unique in its terroir in Georgia, and I highly recommend visiting the cluster of wineries in the scenic hills outside the lovely town square of Dahlonega. There have been (thus far unfruitful) efforts to designate an official appellation for this area – the Dahlonega Plateau for example – which would help differentiate the area within Georgia. BlackStock, Frogtown, Three Sisters, Wolf Mountain, Montaluce – you’ll have a great experience at each and every one of them, not only with the wine but with the views, events, music, or food that they round out the experience with as well. Wolf Mountain has my favorite tasting room with fabulous views, Montaluce has my favorite restaurant with a very talented young chef, BlackStock has my favorite Georgia red wines with their range of Merlots and their fascinating Touriga, and Frogtown has my favorite unique blend with their “Shotgun” from two vintages (a gold medal winner in San Diego’s wine competition this year). A day trip is certainly in order to experience these places for yourself. They are all run by folks who are passionate about their wines and what can be achieved here, and they are pushing to do better and better each and every year.

I also want to emphasize that focusing here on the Dahlonega area is not a knock against the wineries further afield in Georgia at all; just like Napa and Sonoma, there are distinctions in the wines based on the differences in geography and climate. Further north, Tiger Mountain, Persimmon Creek, Crane Creek, and Habersham have also received critical acclaim that would surprise most Southerners who haven’t really tasted today’s Georgia wine, and are also worth a visit.

Check out the Winegrowers Association of Georgia and Georgia Wine Country for more information, and get up and visit Georgia wine country. You’ll be happy you did.

Here are a few more photos to give you a hint of the what awaits in Georgia wine country:

A Witch Hunt & More in Decatur, GA

Leon's Full Service

Decatur and the Westside seem to be battling it out for food and drink supremacy in Atlanta these days, and Decatur’s lineup is enough to make you rethink your decision to live anywhere other than within walking distance to the heart of Decatur. Visits to some stalwarts of the Decatur scene revealed all that is great about the onset of Autumn – seasonal ales, creative cocktails shifting to spices and fall fruits, and food to match.

Let’s start with Leon’s Full Service, where Miles and team man the bar and turn out some of Atlanta’s best cocktails. They’ve already made the turn out of the relatively light and refreshing summer drinks and are now in the land of apples and honey – richer, spicier, darker. With names like Death & Company, Witch Hunt, and the Whitehall Mystery, surely Halloween is right around the corner. The Witch Hunt is a perfect drink for easing into the cooler weather, a mix of house-made apple-cardamom syrup, Dry Fly gin, Liquore Strega (Italian for witch), a bit of lemon and an absinthe rinse (full recipe below, under Comments). It manages to be bright and balanced, warming and refreshing, and Miles’ tricks with the shaker make a perfect treat when you feel the fabulous texture, the “mouthfeel,” of this drink. Here’s a little video to whet your appetite for going on a Witch Hunt of your own:

Leon’s Full Service: Miles & the Witch Hunt from Thirsty South on Vimeo.

Down the street a few blocks, Cakes & Ale matches their stellar, seasonal food with some equally stellar, seasonal drinks. Corina behind the bar is now featuring a cocktail called East of Eden (recipe here). Apples and pomegranates mix together with Corsair Wry Moon unaged whiskey, a beautiful sight in a dark vintage martini glass. Corina has been seeking the right pairing for the Corsair unaged whiskey, and the freshly pressed apple juice and muddled pomegranate seem to be the perfect match. Look for some interesting Hot Toddy-inspired cocktails coming soon to counteract the cooler weather.

Cakes & Ale

Back on the square, the Iberian Pig has been turning out a signature drink for some time now, but it seems especially well suited to the weather these days – their Iberian Old Fashioned gets smokey and rich with house bacon-infused rye whiskey, brown sugar and molasses, and a mix of bitters and citrus oil to top it off. Other bars are playing with bacon, but Iberian Pig gets it right, not too heavy, not too salty, simply right.

Iberian Pig
Iberian Pig
Iberian Pig

Of course, The Brick Store Pub is constantly offering seasonal beer specials from keg or cask or bottle, and the current crop is keeping the crowds happy. A current rare treat is the Founder’s Black Biscuit, a barrel-aged black ale that brings serious complexity and depth.

Brick Store

As if the cocktails and beer weren’t enough to get you over to the Decatur side of town, there’s also a new wine shop down the street in quaint Avondale Estates. The Little Wine Shop just held their grand opening and is a great stop for good and interesting value wines. Their monthly six pack special is an especially good way to try some compelling wines at a very compelling price.
Little Wine Shop

Beer or Wine? Four Excellent Events Battle It Out In October

Beer or wine?

Atlanta beer and wine lovers have much to rejoice over, as the first two weeks of October bring one whale of a wine celebration at the Georgia Aquarium, two hopped up beer celebrations in Decatur and Glenwood Park, AND one intimate event pitting wine vs. beer for pairing prowess. Yes, there are many other events happening in Atlanta in October, but these four will be shining a very bright spotlight on some stellar beers and wines.

Firmly on the wine side of things, AQUA VINO on October 14 is one of the city’s major wine events, benefitting the Georgia Aquarium’s Correll Center for Aquatic Animal Health. Your ticket will indeed save the whales. Guaranteed. Well, maybe we shouldn’t go that far, but this is a great cause, and a great excuse to sample hundreds of wines from around the world, with more than 30 of Atlanta’s best restaurants providing the food, in one of Atlanta’s most amazing settings – next to the swimming seas of the aquarium itself. More info and tickets here.

Moving over to the beer side of life, things are getting crazy, with HOTOBERFEST on October 2 (this weekend folks!) and the Decatur Craft Beer Festival just two weeks later on October 16. Both of these events are best described as “beyond awesome” – the quality and variety of beer available will be astounding, the music will be rockin, hopefully the weather will be as stunning as it has been the past few days as the cool, crisp air of Fall finally settles over Atlanta. HOTOBERFEST offers three ways of partaking in the fun, from free entry to the main festival area and a la carte beer purchases to the (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED) “Firkin VIP Ticket” that gets you tastes of an incredible lineup of crazy casks, seasonal beers, and more from the likes of Allagash, Sweetwater, Terrapin and Atlanta Brewing (with a special 15 year anniversary vintage brown ale aged in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels!!). Meanwhile, the Decatur Craft Beer Festival again sold out in something like seventeen seconds or so, so you’ll have to pray for a ticket to fall from the heavens or peruse Craigslist for unsavory characters scalping their way to profit.

And, finally, a showdown between our two featured beverages, BEER vs. WINE at 5 Seasons Westside on October 6. The wine hails from heralded Lioco Winery of California, who is pairing two of their stellar chardonnays, two of their pinot noirs, and their truly unique “Indica” blend with five courses prepared by 5 Seasons Chef David Larkworthy. And the beer, of course, comes from 5 Seasons themselves, with a killer lineup of unique aged brews (the “Burgundian” for example is a saison aged in a pinot noir barrel). Does 5 Seasons have the home field advantage? Maybe so, but being able to taste this lineup of Lioco wines will surely have the crowd cheering for the visiting team as well. All this for $55 per person, reservations required – call 5 Seasons at 404-875-3232.

What are you waiting for? Get out there and support these great Atlanta events! No matter who the victor, beer or wine, it will surely be a good game.

A Peek Into Empire State South

koozie closeup

Empire State South has Atlanta buzzing, both literally and figuratively, and their coffee and wine programs are part of the allure. Jonathan Pascual is the guru behind the coffee bar, stocked with Counter Culture beans, and has a unique concoction to battle the Atlanta heat – “Georgia Coffee: Served in a 16-ounce Mason jar, the iced coffee comes creamed and sweetened. Shaken not stirred.” True enough, he employs a cocktail shaker to whip this one into a frothy delight. The coffee menu also lists our very favorite espresso preparation, the Cortado – “Served in a Gibraltar glass, the 4-ounce beverage is for someone who wants to taste the espresso but not be overwhelmed by steamed milk.”

On the wine side, wine director Steven Grubbs has assembled a delightful list, heavy on Burgundy and Riesling. We’ve already added them to our Thirsty Guide to Atlanta, and if you get there soon, you can take advantage of one of the best wine deals in town – a bottle of Claude Genet Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Champagne for $40. This is a crazy good price, and a crazy good wine (see Grower Champagne, AKA Farmer Fizz), with a nose of toasted almonds and yeasty biscuits (is there such a thing?), followed by hints of vanilla, baked apples, a burst of lemon, and a finish that manages to be both crisp and creamy. No telling how much of this they have left in stock, but it’s a steal. And works wonders alongside their peach tart dessert.

We’ve yet to tap into the cocktail list in any significant way, but if the coffee and wine are any indication (not to mention the nice selection of American whiskey you can see behind the bar), there are delights there as well.

A peek inside. First, the coffee bar and the Georgia Coffee all wrapped up:
coffee bar
coffee
coffee koozie

Then, the selection behind the bar, and by the glass:
bar
glass

Finally, a happy table, graced with Claude Genet Champagne, oh, and some food!
champagne
farmer fizz
food