Tasting Rooms Uncork Farm to Bottle Endeavors
By Hope S. Philbrick
Terroir is a tricky thing to define—heck, we don’t even have an English translation for the French term. Words can seem inadequate to describe the ethereal qualities of wine and the characteristics that specific local conditions such as soil, weather, topography and geography contribute to it. As the number of vineyards crisscrossing the mountainsides in White County, Georgia, continues to grow, one can’t help but wonder: What does the North Georgia terroir lend its wines? Three tasting rooms in White County simplify the effort to sip and discover answers.
Before Prohibition, Georgia ranked sixth in the nation for grape production. Currently more than a dozen wineries are located within a 45-minute drive of Alpine Helen, three within White County borders. What characteristics make White County in particular attractive to grape growers? “The soil tested real well,” says Jeff Parker, vineyard manager for Yonah Mountain Vineyards, citing analysis that owners Bob and Jane Miller had commissioned to be completed by experts from Napa Valley and the University of Georgia. “It was strangely comparable to the soil in Sonoma Valley,” Parker says of the soil under his feet. What’s more, in White County “the temperatures stay cooler, steep hillsides help with water runoff and also push winds that help control frost,” he says. While he admits that the fog that lingers between the mountains “sometimes helps, sometimes hurts” the crops, since the five vineyard acres were planted in 2008—primarily with chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon—the vines have performed well. Long-term plans include expanding the plantings to 25 acres on the 197-acre property that’s located midway between Cleveland and Helen.
The goal is no mere dream: On January 17, 2013, Yonah Mountain Vineyards was awarded six medals in the 30th annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition—more gold medals than any other winery east of California in a two-year period. Yonah Mountain Vineyards’ flagship wine, the 2008 Genesis 3, won a gold medal.
Though Smith admits that “everybody has different taste,” his goal is to achieve the best possible expression of each varietal and he will use all the tools available to do so. For example, all grape clusters are hand sorted because “it’s critical to make sure the fruit is the best it can be,” says Smith, who grew up in New York’s Finger Lakes region. “Our wines are probably more full-bodied than Georgia wines tend to be,” he says, describing himself as an “aggressive” winemaker. Current production is 1,800 cases a year, but the goal for annual production is to reach 5,000 cases.
While the number of vineyards planted throughout White County in recent years has increased, don’t take that to mean that farming wine grapes in the region and making wine from them is relatively easy to do. “We have to work our butts off to make wine with really nice character,” says Smith, who spent ten years as a home winemaker before leading operations for Yonah Mountain Vineyards. “But that’s what makes it all fun.”
It’s by no means an exclusive sort of good time. Founded in 1983, Habersham Vineyards & Winery is one of the largest and oldest wineries in Georgia with production of approximately 15,000 cases each year. “We’re also the most visited winery in the state,” says Manager Steve Gibson. Habersham produces more than 20 different wines under three different labels in a range of styles from dry to sweet. “We don’t try to make one distinctive style,” says Gibson. The goal instead is to produce “good quality wine for everyone’s palate.” For example, Habersham produces three different Chardonnays, one aged in stainless steel and two that are aged in oak barrels—which differ in length of time stored as well as type of barrel used—for more buttery characteristics. Winemaker Andrew Beaty, who trained at University of California Davis, works with grapes that Habersham grows on two company-owned vineyards as well as more than 100 tons of fruit each year sourced from various other grape growers. But all the wine is made at the facility located just one-half mile from Alpine Helen in Nacoochee Village.
“We are what 90 percent of the wine industry is in America,” says Hue Rainey, speaking specifically of his Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards and generally on behalf of his colleagues in White County, Georgia. “That is a small, family farm winery.” Though they share a microclimate and “are very supportive of one another,” Rainey says, “the three of us [wine producers in White County] are real different.” His wines range from dry to sweet—“a commercial necessity,” he says, since different consumers seek wines along the tasting spectrum—and are “more straightforward” expressions of style. “Our goal is to make consistent, good wine,” he says. “If it’s not good we’ll get rid of it, but we haven’t had to do that.” Current production is 1,500 cases a year. Rainey leapt into the wine business after growing disillusioned with retirement. “I thought I was done, but I’m just getting started,” he says of his new career. And then, realizing the same might be said of the wine industry in White County, he adds: “It’s going to get bigger and bigger.”
Habersham Vineyards & Winery
The winery is open daily for complimentary tastings and self guided tours; from the tasting room it’s possible to view the tank room, bottling line and barrel room.
Sautee Nacoochee Vineyards
Call for tasting room hours and details.
Yonah Mountain Vineyards
The tasting room is open noon to 5 p.m. on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays plus 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays; sample four wines for $4 (waived with wine purchase) or nine wines for $10 plus a souvenir glass.
-Photos Courtesy Yonah Mountain Vineyards
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