Cindy Rynning is a Chicago area resident, an avid wine blogger on her site, Grape Experiences and a contributing writer specializing in wine for Wine Tourist Magazine and other online publications. She enjoys discovering a country’s culture which includes their people, cuisine, and of course, wine!
Planning my visit to a college friend’s home in Atlanta, I anticipated meals of shrimp and grits, homemade biscuits and pecan pie. I looked forward to strolling the brick sidewalks of charming small towns and was more than ready to hone my southern accent -- one that’s been somewhat lost since my relocation to the Midwest. A relaxing weekend replete with good friends, favorite wines and a splash of comfort would remind me of my southern roots.
When I arrived, there was a most welcome surprise -- a day trip to Georgia wine country had been planned.
We all reveled in a chance to learn about the local tastes. Our group drove a swift 90 minutes from Atlanta to Dahlonega, a delightful town tucked in the foothills of the northeast Georgia mountains, to visit two wineries, Montaluce and Wolf Mountain. Along the way, gently winding two-lane roads, majestic trees and structures seeming unchanged for decades reflected the beauty of the south.
The Backstory of Georgia Wine
With some quick research along the way, I discovered that James Ogelthorpe, Georgia’s founder, introduced viticulture to the area more than 200 years ago. Unfortunately, Oglethorpe’s plan to place Georgia on the map as a colony that produced fine wine from European vines failed because of the state’s unique climate and rampant plant disease, due in part to dangerous insects. Through the years, however, indigenous muscadine grapes were cultivated for sweet wine production. As winemaking techniques progressed, table wines from European and American grapes started being produced. Prior to prohibition in the 1920s, Georgia ranked sixth in grape wine production in the U.S. After the ban was lifted, only sacramental wine was produced until the state’s farm bills of the 1970s were passed into law.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, Split Rail Vineyard, The Georgia Winery, Habersham Vineyards and Winery and Chateau Elan were established by rogue 20th century pioneers of the Georgia wine industry. As years passed, more and more vineyards and wineries opened, many of which included tasting rooms for the local wine lover. Now, Georgia wine country includes almost 100 production areas across the state.
If you’re perplexed at how grapes are able to grow and thrive in Georgia, you’re not alone. “It’s difficult,” said Tristan Van Hoff, winemaker since 2012 at Montaluce Winery. He explained that growing grapes in this region of the world is challenging at best. Soils carry dense clay, high acidity and lime compounds. Rain, high humidity, hot days and hot nights are elements that cause vines to develop downy rot and sour rot “that spreads like wildfire.” A risk of late frost is always a problem and Pierce’s Disease -- a bacteria spread by the glassy-winged sharpshooter --causes vines to lose water and leaves and eventually die. Vineyards located above 1,500 feet are considered less at risk; fortunately, the vines at Montaluce are at 1,700 feet.
And let’s not forget that bears have a penchant for wine grapes directly from the vine as a late-night snack.
How are winemakers and grape growers prevailing against the odds? For Pierce’s Disease, vineyard managers enforce strict canopy management. As for the critters, vines are often covered as a deterrent. Chemicals to help prevent rot are sprayed when humidity is a factor, and fescue grasses have been planted to stop erosion. The mountains provide drainage and elevation necessary to produce wines that reflect this unique terroir.
Is Georgia wine country a winemaking region or a tourist destination? During my visit, I realized it’s both, and only you can choose your preference. Festivals and events are in full supply thanks in part to the Winegrower’s Association of Georgia, a nonprofit group helping lend the region more exposure and money.
James Hummel, marketing and sales director at Montaluce, said the winery should be considered a destination for foodies as well as wine lovers. Its restaurant, La Vigne, is popular for brunches, dinners and special events. With a striking entrance, vistas of rolling vineyards, a comfortable, chic tasting room and beautifully appointed restaurant, I quickly understood why Georgia natives and those from nearby are lured Montaluce. My tastes of vidal blanc and cabernet franc were delicious and distinctive; other estate-grown varieties include petite sirah, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petit verdot, merlot, chardonnay, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc.
Likewise, our visit to award-winning Wolf Mountain Winery included an interesting, informative tour of the vineyard and barrel room tasting of seven wines that included some of my new favorites: Blanc de Syrah Brut, a festive sparkling wine with subtle notes of strawberries and raspberries; Chantaloup, a rich, oaked chardonnay and viognier blend; and Howling Wolf, a bold and jammy syrah and cabernet blend.
Apparently our group wasn’t alone in craving a taste of Georgia wine country. About 25 people, including a bachelorette party, joined us, and there were others awaiting the next tour. Our early-afternoon lunch at Wolf Mountain was delicious: bites of Southern-style crab cake salad with sips from my glass of estate-grown Viognier made me feel at home once again, but I lingered only a bit afterward -- there were scores of others patiently waiting for a table at this lovely location flaunting views of the sloping vineyards.
The visit to Montaluce Winery and Wolf Mountain Winery clearly satisfied my spirit and my palate. Tasting wines that reflect such unique terroir, enjoying a savory lunch, appreciating the beauty of the land and indulging in a dose of Southern hospitality were a delightful reset.
And yes, my Southern accent returned, if only for the weekend.