Most people have heard about the California Gold Rush and the Alaska Gold Rush. But how about the Georgia Gold Rush? A surprise 1838 discovery of gold in Georgia’s Dahlonega region yielded more than $6 million worth of ore before mining was shut down at the beginning of the Civil War. It resumed after the war and continued into the early 20th century.
While tourists can still mine for gold, the county is now trying to mine another type of rush, one for the region’s wines.
Georgia’s Premier Wine Region
The Dahlonega Wine Region is located in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains. The region grows over 30 grape varietals on approximately 100 acres. Since we were in the area, we had to make a stop to check out the wines.
The mere mention that we were going to explore Georgia’s premier wine region drew laughs and smirks from our friends. We must admit that we too were a bit skeptical. Georgia in general and the Dahlonega region in particular, poses big challenges to growing grapes:
- The prospect of late frosts, such as two frosts in April 2021 which damaged buds and slashed yields by up to 75 percent;
- Its high humidity can cause grapes to rot; and
- Insects such as the glassy wing sharpshooter spreads the bacterium that causes Pierce’s Disease. The disease reduces the plant’s water intake, scorches the leaves, and typically kills the vines over three to five years. While this is beginning to affect vines from Florida to California, it is particularly pronounced in the southeast.
Some wineries, such Frogtown Winery, grow 23 varietals on their own estates. Many other wineries primarily grow specially developed hybrids (such as Muscadine, Blanc du Bois, Norton and Chambourcin) and a few particularly adaptable European varietals (such as Petite Verdot) which have late bud break and can remain on vines longer, even with precipitation. But most of the area’s wineries source many of their grapes from California and Washington with some exploring Texas, New York Finger Lakes, and other regions. Still the relatively young wine region has gained a lot of experience and made much progress over the last three to five years. Their hopes for the future remain high.
We visited several of the region’s wineries.
- Frogtown Cellars. As one of the largest Georgian wineries, Frogtown grows virtually all its own grapes and has recently begun growing some of the same varietals in its Paso Robles vineyards, which have recently begun to produce good fruit. We liked their crisp 2019 “770” white (a blend of Chardonnay, Petite Manseng, Sauvignon Gris and Viognier) and on the red side, the 2017 Convergence (a blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). Our tastes, however, tended to lean more toward some of its Paso Robles wines, especially the 2018 MRV white Rhone blend (Marsanne, Rousanne, and Viognier) and the pleasantly tart 2018 Clos Primavera Estate Rose.
- Kaya Vineyards. All of its grapes are from their own estate or are sourced locally except for the Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, both of which come from California. We found two interesting whites, the 2019 SS Viognier and the SS unoaked Chardonnay, and two reds, the 2016 Reserve Merlot and Fifth Year Anniversary Blend of Toriega, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
- Cavender Creek Vineyards. This small, roughly 5,000 case winery grows most of its own grapes except for the Merlot (which is sourced locally), Viognier (from Lodi) and Washington-sourced Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. We were mostly interested in their 2020 Viognier, 2019 Cabernet Franc and 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon. An enjoyable surprise was their moderately sweet (roughly 5 percent residual sugar) Fox Blackberry dessert wine which is a blend of blackberry juice and Merlot. And for those who prefer other drinks, the tasting room also offers a selection of locally brewed craft beers and hard ciders.
- Accent Cellars. This small, boutique winery produces only about 1,200 cases per year. It was founded by two winemakers who. along with Erica, their extremely knowledgeable and helpful knowledgeable tasting room manager, explained the challenges of growing grapes in the area and what they look for in non-local sourcing partners for whom they rely on slightly more than half their fruit. We tasted about a dozen of their wines.. Our favorites were a fruit-forward 2020 Gewurztraminer (from Yakima Valley), the tartness and tropical notes of the 2020 Rose Gold (90 percent Blanc du Bois and 10 percent Chambourcin, both from local sources), and a big, full-bodied, fruit-forward 2019 Syrah from Beckstoffer vineyards. We were pleasantly surprised with two dessert wines. Their 2020 red Muscadine is one of the few grapes that grow well throughout Georgia. Based on previous tastings, we had all but written off. While the grape is normally very dry and tart, with about 3-4 grams of residual sugar, many vintners sweeten their wines by adding sugar. Accent achieves a level of about 35 grams without adding sugar. Its non-vintage Wanderlust fortified apple-based wine was incredibly smooth despite an alcohol level of 19.1 percent. Overall, it is a very promising winery.
Based on our very limited sample, it appears that some Georgian winemakers are making some very promising wines. While this should not be unexpected when they use grapes from established and proven sources, some are also doing a good job with grapes that one would not expect to do particularly well in this climate. The problem is that it takes a lot of work. Accent, for example, claims that the moist climate alone requires that grapes must be pruned and sprayed about five times more often than those in California. Even then, yields can be small and quality inconsistent. As a result, even in the best of circumstances, the price for wines made from Georgia grapes must often be higher than those for comparable wines produced in more favorable locations. Georgian producers will be challenged to address this big challenge, particularly if the Pierce’s Disease challenge cannot be addressed.