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