Georgia’s Winning Wines

The state’s burgeoning wine industry is producing a surprising array of reds, whites, pinks and dessert wines, as reflected in the results of Georgia Trend’s inaugural tasting of Georgia wines.

One hundred and two wine glasses are lined in three identical groups, like stalwart battalions passing before a parade stand for inspection. However, the judges aren’t saluting these “soldiers,” containing liquids in shades from pale straw to inky cherry: They’re swirling, sniffing, slurping and scribbling on notepads.

Jane Garvey, freelance wine writer and instructor at the Atlanta Wine School, holds up a white napkin to check a red’s color and clarity, as well as the viscosity of its “legs” as they slide down the side of the glass. She presses her nose into the top, inhales deeply and pauses before becoming the first to speak: “I’m wondering,” she says, “if I’m smelling those flowers.” Three small, exquisite bouquets of magenta peonies are quickly banished from the table.

We’re in an upstairs meeting room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, attend-ing Georgia Trend’s first-ever Georgia Wine Tasting. With the help of the Ritz’s staff, including Dining Room manager Claude Guillaume and newly hired sommelier Robert Evans, we’ve gathered some 34 wines for the three tasters, each in a numbered glass.

I hold the key showing the wines’ names and their corresponding wineries, all from Georgia. A white tablecloth shrouds the bottles – in ice on a nearby cart – to hide their labels (and shapes, which can impart hints about varietals) from the judges.

An informal group (Georgia Trend Publisher Neely Young, Editor Susan Percy, Associate Publisher Ben Young, and I) had begun planning the event in February. We were well aware that the spring’s freeze, and, as it turned out, the summer’s drought, were tremendous challenges for Georgia’s farmers. Such weather extremes were particularly trying for North Georgia’s grape-growers, and for the state’s fledgling winemaking industry in general.

Then there’s another adverse climate: The political one. Georgia’s liquor laws favor California and French wines over its own products – most of the state’s smaller wineries lack distributors, so your local wine shop is less likely to carry them. Nor can you order Georgia wine online or on the phone from wineries – you must visit the winery in person to take it home.

Still, according to a 2005 study by the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, the industry is projected to generate nearly $30 million in revenue annually through 2024, with most coming from the state’s North Georgia Wine Highway Counties (Jackson, Hall, Lumpkin, Union, Towns, White, Habersham and Rabun. For more information on the state’s wine industry, go to www.georgiawine.com or www.georgiawinecountry.com).

Georgia Trend had featured the state’s winemakers in a December 2005 cover story, and in an accompanying piece, Ritz-Carlton Café Chef Christophe Le Metayer and then-Dining Room Sommelier Chantelle Pabros assessed Georgia wines and created a menu to complement them.

Once known best for toothache-sweet muscadines, the state’s winemakers have climbed onto some very well-regarded wine lists – including that of the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room, the only Mobil-five star, AAA five-diamond restaurant in the Southeast. The Dining Room features wines from North Georgia wineries Persimmon Creek and Tiger Mountain.

This year, Neely Young proposed we would focus even more specifically on the wines’ ever-improving quality, this time in a competition based on a blind tasting. Again joining forces with the Ritz, we put wines to the test of three well-known palates. For judges, we recruited Garvey, the Ritz Dining Room’s Michael Lueptow, who’d become acting sommelier after Pabros left to pursue her master sommelier certification, and local wine “negociant” Wynn Pennington. Pennington, who has earned profiles in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and North Carolina’s Independent Weekly, blends boutique wines from around the world for his own company, Motovino.

The chase was on. I called winemakers and growers from all over the state, inviting about 15 of the state’s 20-plus wineries; 13 eventually entered wines into the event. The ground rules were simple: Each winery could enter up to three wines – but no more than one of each kind: red, white and pink.

Rather than specifying categories, we allowed the winemakers to choose whatever they saw fit within those broad categories – if the white was a dessert wine, fine; if the pink was a dry rosé, that too was acceptable. We’d ask the judges to award the top wines in each of our three categories, and then, according to their scores, designate an additional seven “wines of distinction,” that would round out 10 winners.

There were plenty of questions along the way, and since it’s our first tasting, we figured them out as we went along. Whom would we invite? (We aimed for a good mix of established wineries and new ones, from all over the state, with everything from sweet muscadine wines to those crafted from European vinifera.)

What kinds of wines were we looking for? (We were wide open, and the state’s winemakers astonished us with viognier, cabernet sauvignon, claret, Riesling, white merlot, native port, peach chardonnay and dry, sparkling blueberry.)

Would we require the wineries to submit only wines made from 100 percent Georgia grapes? (Winemakers sometimes go across state borders for grapes – a situation this year’s drought is likely to make even more common next year. As long as the wine was made by a Georgia winery, we decided to allow it. As it turned out, however, the vast majority of submitted wines were labeled “Georgia wine” – which, according to state guidelines, indicates they were made from 100 percent Georgia grapes.)

Finally, how much would we tell the judges? Would this be blind, or a “double blind” tasting, in which we would tell the judges nothing about the wines – not even the varietals? It’s an important distinction – a tasting involves judging a wine for what it aims to be (a well-crafted sweet wine might be a successful muscadine, but not if it’s labeled “chardonnay”). We decided we wanted to know the judges’ responses when they knew nothing but what they could see, smell and taste. With dry and sweet wines made of grapes, as well as pear, blueberry and peach, we wondered: Would the judges be surprised, or would they ferret out the winemakers’ secrets? How many of the unorthodox wines and fruits would they correctly deduce?

As it turned out, even the judges got into the act of shaping the event: During the tasting, at their unanimous request, we spontaneously added a fourth category: dessert wines. Georgia’s sweet wines are among its oldest and most popular entries, especially those made from native muscadines, grown in South Georgia. After tasting all the wines, the judges argued that these were so outstanding that they deserved their own, winning category. We agreed. Since all the winemakers had operated under the same rules, they would still be playing on a level field.

We prepared the tasting with the help of Evans and Guillaume, grouping the wines from dry to sweet. (Just as eating dessert first could spoil your appetite for the main course, sweet wines could deaden the judges’ palates for the drier wines.) The first round went slowly – the judges decided to taste the entire flight of whites in silence, assigning scores and writing their comments, before comparing notes.

But then things started to get a little more interesting. After the judges read their comments and rankings for all 10 wines, it was clear there was a winner by acclamation: All three judges placed Habersham Vineyards’ Creekstone Viognier 2006 in first place. Garvey described the way the wine seemed to evolve in the glass. At first, she said, “it almost seemed off to me. Then just as quickly it went into something radishlike, and finally, it got floral! It’s like something moving, walking.”

The next flight of pinks went smoothly, with a general consensus that this group of wines was less developed than the whites – after all, dry pinks are relatively new to the popular palate, much less a fledgling industry of winemakers. Still, with only a little discussion, the judges settled on a winner: Habersham brings it home again, the judges are surprised to learn, this time with Cherokee Rose (named for the state flower). “This was my favorite [pink],” Garvey says. “I kept going back to it.”

On to the reds: After a bit of discussion among the judges, Blackstock Vineyards’ A.C.E. 2004 emerges as their favorite. “My number one choice,” Lueptow says. “I like the word meaty for this one … dark fruit, nice oak finish.”

Next, the judges decide on a winning dessert wine, No. 34: Three Sisters’ Georgia Port. “It looks like port, smells like port, tastes like port,” Pennington says. “If this is the what they can do with port grapes in Georgia, more power to them.”

“I’m quite sure it’s not fortified, though – Georgia doesn’t allow fortified wines,” Garvey says. (On that point, it turns out, she’s only partly right – read on.)

Then, suddenly, a last-minute drama: Tasting the dessert wines, the judges believe that one has been misplaced, and should have been included among the dry reds. Not only that, but Pennington declares, “It’s the best red I’ve had today. It has structure, depth and balance. I think we should all taste it again, against our top choice. Let’s try it, just for laughs.”

The judges have been tasting wine for more than three hours, and in the next room, candles have been lit and our places set for a dinner by Dining Room Chef Arnaud Bertholier. Soon Evans is pouring fresh glasses, and the competition is back on: The swirling, sniffing and slurping resume. But after tasting again, the other two judges feel comfortable with their original choices and scores. Pennington’s score change isn’t enough to alter the overall outcome, and Blackstock’s A.C.E. remains atop the reds.

“What was that?” asks Pennington of the late upstart, and the answer unhinges his jaw: Butterducks’ Dry Blueberry wine. “Really!” he says. “That’s wild!” Of all the judges, he’d pinpointed wines, grapes and fruit with the highest accuracy all afternoon; but this one had finally stumped the panel.

Then again, Georgia’s winemakers have made a habit of pulling off astonishing feats with unexpected sources. Steve Gibson, speaking for Habersham, one of Georgia’s oldest wineries, explained the forces behind his two winning wines: “We source the viognier [grapes] from Blackstock, and it’s made by our winemaker, Andrew Beaty,” who studied winemaking at University of California at Davis. Not bad, for Beaty’s first attempt at viognier. At $24 a bottle (less at some Atlanta locations), “we’re doing well with it,” Gibson says.

Habersham’s second winner, the Cherokee Rose, is “100 percent Habersham,” he says, with grapes from its oldest vineyard, Stonepile. “It’s a blend of seyval blanc, vidal blanc and chambourcin. It’s our original blush wine – one of our flagships.” At just $12, it’s widely distributed, Gibson says.

David Harris, owner and winemaker at Blackstock Vineyards, named his winning A.C.E. red for his children Austin, Chandler and Eliza. He says it’s a “blend of touriga, mourvedre and a little of our best merlot,” adding, “We sell it like crazy,” at about $23 a bottle. (Blackstock is “just going into distribution in Atlanta,” he says. “We’re slowly spreading our wings.”)

Having opened his winery just last year, Harris says, “We are doing gangbusters.” He describes A.C.E. as “our most aromatic red … driven by touriga. It’s a nice, mainstream wine.” Proud of his grapes’ contribution to Habersham’s winning viognier, he says simply, “Wine is made in the vineyard.”

Three Sisters’ Doug and Sharon Paul also earned two winners: Their Georgia Port, the winning dessert wine, and their vidal blanc, a “wine of distinction.”

The port, Sharon says, is “100 percent touriga nacional,” the traditional port grape, which the couple planted in order to make port. “We thought it worked,” she says, and the judges clearly agreed. However, the judges did not realize that Three Sisters’ Georgia Port is a true port – that is, fortified with high-alcohol spirits (like brandy, or in this case, neutral grape spirits, not much different from grain alcohol or grappa).

As our judges realized, state law does not allow Georgia wineries to fortify wines, so the Pauls had to take their port across state lanes, to North Carolina’s Shelton Vineyards, for fortification. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. The production costs are reflected in the price: $75 per bottle.

On the other hand, Three Sisters’ vidal blanc sells for $14 per bottle, and is available in metropolitan Atlanta. “Some people think it’s a lesser grape because it’s a hybrid,” Paul says. “But I think it’s delicious, and it grows so well here.”

While North Georgia-made wines from European vinifera took top honors in our tasting, the judges’ “wines of distinction” awards also reflect the strength of the state’s old-school muscadine, as well as such innovations as Chesser Island’s startling, dry sparkling blueberry wines and Boutier’s Peach Chardonnay.

Yet, after this year’s weather, many local winemakers may face grape shortages – a challenge to those who wish to make true Georgia wines. And despite our judges’ pleasant discoveries, Garvey says that on a national scale, our state has a long way to travel to compete with regional wine strongholds like New York, Virginia and North Carolina. “Virginia,” she says, “has 100 years on us.”

Still, the state’s winemakers remain deeply invested in a product that reflects so much of their heart and soil. “I’m proud,” says Bill Utter, whose Butterducks blueberry wine triggered that last-minute flurry, “to be included in such a group.”

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