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North Georgia vineyards are ripe with promise

TIGER — Coming into this tiny Blue Ridge Mountain community of 350, you know exactly where you are. From the cool breeze that blows sweet and clear as moonlight through the pines in the surrounding Chattahoochee National Forest to the UGA Dawgs signage hanging off seemingly every other car or storefront, it looks and feels unmistakably like Georgia here.

Tastes like it, too. Much to many people’s pleasant surprise. One big reason why lies a couple of miles off U.S. 441 — past the volunteer fire department and the rustic market with the truth-in-advertising name “Goats on the Roof” — where Tiger Mountain Vineyards is producing wines that couldn’t have come from anywhere else.

“The most important thing about making good wine is right out there,” Tiger Mountain co-owner John Ezzard said recently, indicating the gently sloped terrain of his longtime family farm. Some 10 acres are planted with vineyards that work in harmony with the uniquely North Georgia “degenerated granite” soil underneath and the high humidity mountain air all around. “Georgia should grow something of quality that we become known for. Because there’s no mistaking it’s from here.”

As a maker of fine wines made from locally grown European vinifera grapes — including a widely lauded 2011 Petit Manseng — Tiger Mountain Vineyards is the easternmost outpost of a robust wine region that’s expanding across the top third of the state. Heavily centered around Dahlonega and stretching as far north as Towns County near the North Carolina border, this homegrown wine country doesn’t yet have its own appellation along the lines of Napa Valley or the Champagne region of France (although some have begun informally referring to that part of Lumpkin County where a half-dozen vineyards and wineries peacefully co-exist as the “Dahlonega Plateau”).

Nor is it the only part of the state where good wine is being made. Southeast Georgia is home to several wineries making muscadine and other wines particularly well-suited to the hot, low-altitude climate.

Still, three decades after Château Élan in Braselton and Habersham Winery in Helen first decanted the seemingly exotic notion of making wine here, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the North Georgia wine region. Or stop its growth. The area now is home to nearly 20 wineries and vineyards — with more likely on the way. With its high elevation, warm temperatures, sandy red clay and aged granite soil (which soaks up extra moisture that could potentially affect proper grape ripening), the region is ideally suited for producing varietals more often associated with France — Cabernet Franc, Viognier, Malbec — and other parts of Europe (Touriga, Sangiovese).

“Mother Nature gives you a certain blueprint, and our job is to adapt to what she gives you and make the best, most authentic thing you can,” said David Harris, whose BlackStock Vineyards and Winery in Dahlonega produces more than a dozen wines and supplies grapes to other wineries inside and outside Georgia. “When you get a sense of balance, depth and flavor of the place where it’s actually grown and made — it’s what the French call terroir.”

All this, set against a backdrop of breathtaking mountain views seemingly tailor-made for “Visit Wine Country” tourism campaigns, has created a level of excitement not unlike that of the oenophile who stumbles across a case of vintage Bordeaux tucked away in a relative’s attic.

“I love having wine country an hour and a half from here,” said Nicolas Quinones, co-owner of acclaimed Atlanta restaurant Woodfire Grill, where the wine list includes several North Georgia-produced vintages. “I want to make sure they’re sustainable by listing their good wines and selling them so I don’t have to fly out to California [on buying trips].”

Said Eric Crane, a certified wine educator and advanced sommelier who serves as director of training for Empire Distributors in Atlanta: “I can’t tell you how many times I hear from people who say, ‘I was up there and those are some really good wines.’ Not everything works from North Georgia, but there’s definitely a movement going on.”

Other indicators of that “movement” include:

Awards: In May, Tiger Mountain Vineyards won Best of Class, Gold Medal for its 2011 Petit Manseng at the prestigious Los Angeles International Wine & Spirits Competition. Only 109 of 3,300 wines entered from around the world received the top designation this year, putting Tiger Mountain in such rarified company as Dahlonega’s Wolf Mountain Vineyards and Winery, which claimed Best of Class-Gold in 2011 for its Brut Rosé sparkling wine.

Distribution: In the all-important Atlanta market, North Georgia wines now are found on shelves at Whole Foods, Fresh Market and upscale liquor stores and on the menus of top restaurants like Miller Union, Restaurant Eugene and Muss & Turners in Smyrna. Woodfire Grill’s Quinones says he’s not just being a good neighbor by offering Frogtown Cellar’s Touche Bordeaux blend and its Vineaux Rose alongside several other fine rosés from Spain and France: “I list them because they taste good.”

Tourism: Weddings, tasting room visits and “wine weekends” are becoming big business in North Georgia wine country, where the same one-mile area contains BlackStock, Three Sisters Winery and Frogtown (it was standing room only inside the latter’s Bistro Panini on a recent beastly hot July weekday). State officials have taken note: The Department of Agriculture’s “Georgia Grown” designation is about to be extended to 12 North Georgia wineries’ products. While the budding effort isn’t entirely without controversy — “Georgia Grown” wines only have to be made here, not made from grapes grown here — the eventual goal is to use billboards, ads and other outlets to promote Georgia wines and breathtaking wine scenery, said the Agriculture Department’s Mary Kathryn Wearta.

Meanwhile, wine country keeps expanding. Hightower Creek Vineyards officially opened June 2 in Hiawassee, featuring six wines bearing names such as “Deliverance” and “Red Clay Rosé,” and providing a Towns County neighbor for the well-established Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris.

“I’m excited about that,” said Crane Creek owner and Georgia Winegrowers Association President Eric Seifarth, who routinely hears from four or five aspiring vineyard planters a month. He envies the Dahlonega area’s visitor-friendly cluster of wineries. “My catch phrase has always been, ‘If I were the only wine grower up here I’d be a kook. But with 30 of us up here, we’d be a wine country.’”

Not that success is automatically a given.

“There’s a romance about it that gets a lot of people interested,” said Seifarth, an Atlanta native and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, who developed an appreciation for winemaking during the years he was stationed in Northern Italy. “The reality is, it’s a small business like anything else. And also, you have the peculiarities of farming.”

Nor are there as many layers of protection when one of those wine-specific “peculiarities” arises.

“If you have a winery in California and your fermenter breaks down, there’s someone who can come fix it in an hour or you can borrow equipment from another winery,” said Crane, the Atlanta wine expert who led tasting seminars at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival in May. “They don’t have that luxury in North Georgia.”

Or maybe they just don’t have it yet. Crane said the region is at “a pretty cool crossroads” in terms of figuring out “what Georgia wines are supposed to taste like.” For Georgia wine drinkers getting to follow along, sip by sip, year by year: Also pretty cool.

Meanwhile, back in Tiger, John Ezzard is content to be right where he is. Nearly two decades ago, he gave up his urology practice in Denver to return to the Rabun County farm where he’d grown up milking cows. When he and his wife, Martha, a former AJC editorial writer, planted the first vines there in 1995, the main goal was saving the land that had been his family’s for five generations.

Ezzard’s father lived long enough to see the first plantings, and while “Dad never had a drink in his life, probably,” Ezzard said, “he was so glad I was coming back, it wouldn’t have mattered if I was growing marijuana.”

Instead, Tiger Mountain Winery, which the Ezzards co-own with Atlantans John and Marilyn McMullan, produces about 2,500 cases of wine annually. Daughter Lisa Ezzard, 48, recently relocated from California to learn all about growing grapes and making wine — including the award-winning Petit Manseng, described by Woodfire Grill’s Quinones as “a treasure” and “the best white wine made in Georgia when it’s done right.”

It doesn’t stop there. Like wine, winemakers — and wine regions — improve with age, too.

“It’s getting better every year,” Ezzard said about the Petit Manseng he has been bottling since 2003. “Because every year, I know better what to do with it.”

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