With an established wine industry in the mountains and the reintroduction of heritage wine grapes expected to thrive elsewhere in the state, Georgia is on track to revisit – and relive – its winemaking history.
Winemaking in Georgia is as old as the state itself. Early settlers cited making wine for export back to England as a reason to colonize Georgia. In the years prior to Prohibition, the state was among the top wine producers in the country. When the law changed, so did the course of the state’s wine industry.
In recent years, vineyards have taken root in the northern region, where the climate and soil consistency is similar to the Piedmont area of Italy. Wineries throughout the north Georgia mountains are producing critically acclaimed European-style wines and top-quality grape harvests.
In White County, five wineries are located within 15 minutes of one another.
“People can make a day out of coming and tasting different wines, visiting the wineries and enjoying the scenery and vistas of our region,” says Joe Smith, winemaker for the award-winning Yonah Mountain Winery and the owner/winemaker of Serenity Cellars, both located in Cleveland, the heart of the north Georgia wine region.
Yonah Mountain produces two main wines. “The owners wanted to focus on producing the very best possible chardonnay and a red blend Meritage that is a Bordeaux-style wine called Genesis,” Smith says.
The strategy has worked. Yonah Mountain has earned more gold medals in a prestigious West Coast competition than any winery east of California.
Grapes grown in the Yonah vineyards include chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, malbec and sauvignon blanc. Three miles away, Smith’s Serenity is growing cabernet sauvignon and sangiovese.
Those grapes don’t grow as well elsewhere in the state, but the answer to growing Georgia’s future in the wine industry lies in its past.
Heritage bunch grapes including lenoir, norton, herbemont and lomanto, and a few recently developed American hybrids such as blanc du bois that were bred for the Deep South, are being planted from the coast of Savannah to Carroll County in the west.
“We’re bringing back grapes that were used to make wine in Georgia before the Revolutionary War,” says Doug Mabry, CEO of the Vineyard and Winery Association of West Georgia. “These grapes put all 159 counties in play to be in the vineyard winery business. These grapes are versatile. Winemakers can make dry and sweet wines, port wines and even Madeira.”
Georgia farmers are interested in growing wine grapes, Mabry says, and the agriculture education nonprofit group is ready to help. Each year, the association conducts symposiums, workshops and field days to teach novice growers about the vineyard and winery business, from planting to pouring.
“We started planting grapes outside of the north Georgia mountains about three years ago,” Mabry says. “Carroll County’s first harvest will come this year, and our association members in 32 counties have already planted, or will soon be planting, these grapes. Everyone is chomping at the bit waiting for the first wineries to open in west Georgia. We’ve got two coming this year, and more in the works.”
Carroll County issued its first permit for establishment of a winery to Little Vine Vineyards, which expects to open in 2014.
The University of Georgia is conducting a study identifying the economic impact of the wine industry in the state. While those numbers aren’t in yet, Mabry estimates the current industry value is less than $100 million.
“We have a long way to go,” Mabry says. “North Carolina has exceeded $1 billion and Texas is more than $2 billion. That’s the trend across the country.”