The three things in life that puzzle me the most: 1. Why do we park in driveways? 2. Why do we drive on parkways, and 3. Why would anyone want to start a winery in Georgia?
I’ll leave the first two questions for the philosophers and consider the third here. You might think it’s impossible to make quality wine in Georgia. You’d be wrong, especially if you examine the arc of terrain stretching from Chatsworth in the west down to Dahlonega to up to Clayton in the east. The rolling hills and valleys that march up the foothills of the Appellation Mountains provide the cool nights, excellent drainage and complex geology for growers to produce serious grapes.
So, Georgia winemakers don’t lack the most important component in winemaking—flavorful fruit. The thing they do lack—besides a decent market to sell their wines—is respect.
In September, I was asked to do the wine pairings for a farm-to-table dinner being held at the Martyn House, a gorgeous and eclectic bed & breakfast inn located in Ellijay. The husband-and-wife owners Rick Lucas and JoAnn Antonelli befriended a local grape grower/winemaker and thought it would be fitting to have his wines alongside the amazing produce, cheeses and meats that would fill the table for the 40 or so guests. As Antonelli and I discussed the menu, she wondered if it were possible to find other quality Georgia wines.
I assured a skeptical Antonelli that she would be amazed at the quality of Georgia wines. To make my point, I called on three of Georgia’s top wineries, Yonah Mountain, Wolf Mountain and Frogtown Cellars.
I was a little concerned about the fourth winery, Cartecay Vineyards, located near the Cartecay River in Ellijay. This was a new winery for me and we would be using wines from owner Larry Lykins’ first vintage. Antonelli assured me that I had nothing to worry about.
I started the evening out with Wolf Mountain’s Blanc de Syrah sparkling wine to go with the appetizers. It is a crisp, brut-style sparkler with hints of almond paste and a tart lemon-raspberry note. “This is made in Georgia,” was the incredulous buzz I heard as I schmoozed.
As we sat down, I could hear guests openly mocking Georgia wines and relating “awful wine” stories. As I spoke about Wolf’s sparkler and presented the wine for the first course (a corn, green bean, sun-dried tomato and shrimp succotash prepared by Antonelli’s daughter, Heather, a cookbook author and underground supper club chef in Brooklyn, NY), I had to address the skeptics.
“Have you ever had a great wine from California?” I asked the group, but I was talking to one loudmouth in particular. “Once upon a time not too long ago, people scoffed at the idea of quality wine coming from California.”
The first-course wine was Yonah Mountain’s 2009 Chardonnay. This buttery gem embraced the sweet corn and shrimp nicely and silenced Mr. Know-It-All. There were so many ooo’s and ahhh’s, you would have thought you were at a fireworks display.
Lykins took on the second course, trout filet with roasted fennel in a lemon-thyme, white wine sauce with herbal couscous. His dry 2011 Vidal Blanc, with its abundant lemony citrus and herbal notes could not have been a bigger hit. The crowd, now thoroughly won over, gave Lykins a big round of applause.
The wine that concerned me the most was Lykins’ Merlot, which would go with the house-made Italian sausage with sautéed greens, roasted balsamic beets, goat cheese and roasted potatoes. I was not able to taste this wine prior to the dinner and, to be honest, I’ve had a few herbaceous, thin, sulfury Georgia merlots. Why was I being so skeptical? Was I just as bad as the guy with the big mouth?
One sniff and I knew the wine was more than just sound. It had spicy cola notes that supported tart blueberry and raspberry fruit. Another solid match with the sausage dish.
For dessert I offered up Frogtown’s Cachet for the maple apple cake. While luscious, this ice wine was not overly sweet and had an unmistakable maple sugar quality about it. The wine-pairing guy had a perfect night, but my job is a whole lot easier when you have the wines to work with.
I asked Lykins later on how was he able to execute such good wines with three-year-old vines and minimal winemaking experience. He gave a lot of credit to Andrew Beaty, the winemaker at Habersham Winery in Helen, who mentors Lykins on the intricacies and frustrations of making wines in Georgia. Ultimately, though, Lykins pointed to his vineyards, located on long-abandoned cattle, hay and corn fields.
As we sat around the campfire after the guests went home, Lykins described the specific micro climate, unique soil, subsoil and westward-facing, moderately sloped fields of his vineyard. “These fields are just right for growing great fruit, and great fruit allows for great wine to be produced,” he said. “I just try to get out of the way and let the wines express the best the fruit has to offer.”
This week celebrate the Fifth Annual Regional Wine Week, sponsored by DrinkLocalWine.com, by picking up a locally made wine. Bring a bottle to Thanksgiving dinner to silence the naysayers in your crowd.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.