More and more states around the country are welcoming wine lovers with wine trails and wineries that may not be as famous as California’s, but provide great wines and ambience a little closer to home, for some. Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains are a host of comfortable estates with mountaintop views beckoning you with spirits brought to fruition under Georgia’s hot summer sun. Napa isn’t the only valley with conditions just right for great wines. Spared Atlanta’s scorching summers, vineyards in the North Georgia Mountains are producing a variety of grapes that make for delicious vintages.
North Georgia has seen an explosion of vineyards as more and more winemakers are realizing the fertile slopes mirror weather conditions found in the more renowned grape- growing regions of Spain, Italy, France and California. The popular grapes are all grown here: chardonnay, cabernet, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and pinot noir, and even zinfandel, syrah and Riesling. However, the mountains just north of Atlanta also host a variety of grapes not often found in American vineyards. Grapes like Portugal’s touriga nacional, which is used to create ports; the Rhone Valley’s voignier grapes, once endangered and now used to create dry white wines or used to soften reds; and southern France’s tannat grapes, used to create full-bodied reds and roses. Indigenous only to the Southeast and very difficult to grow, muscadine grapes — used to produce sweet dessert wines — also grow well in our local mountains.
With such a collection of vineyards emerging, the Winegrowers Association of Georgia created the Georgia Wine Highway, a route easy to navigate in a day’s or weekend’s quest for wines that are rich, bold, dry, sweet, oaky, fruity, and, oh, the list goes on. Whether you’ve got a free Saturday afternoon or you want to enjoy a weekend getaway that makes you feel worlds away from home, the Wine Highway is where we begin our adventure, going off road to discover other worthy vineyards with a great selection of wines.
Daytripping in Dahlonega
Forget the gold once found in these here hills. Today Dahlonega has found new minerals in its clay mountainside, the kind that makes for added flavor to grapes thriving on steep slopes and soaking up the southern sun. The first to realize the area’s grape-growing potential, was Dahlonega’s BlackStock Vineyards, which produced award-winning and nationally acclaimed wines. Although the original winery closed, it found a rebirth as Kaya Vineyard and Winery, owned by the Werkheiser family.
Drive up to the rustic tasting room for awe-inspiring views of the rolling vineyards. Then step inside, where wines from estate-grown grapes will delight your taste buds.
Another Dahlonega winery in its hills is Frogtown Cellars. Since founding the estate on 57 acres in 1998, Frogtown and its second label, Thirteenth Colony, have been recognized for producing some of the best wines in the country, taking home medals at the L.A. Wines of the World, Atlanta Seaboard Vinifera Wine and San Francisco International Wine competitions, to name a few. Sure, you’ll enjoy a great wine at Frogtown, but a visit will conjure images of seaside communities in its cottage-style winery. Standing under the tin-roof covered deck with glass in hand, it feels as if you should be looking out at blue seas instead of 32 acres of green vineyards, but if you really need to see water, just enjoy views of the lake instead. If you plan your trip right, the vineyard may be hosting a winemaker dinner with meals tailored to wines, including vintages from France or Italy.
Lumpkin County’s largest vineyard, resting on 154 acres, also prides itself for being the county’s first bonded farm winery since Prohibition. Three Sisters Vineyard did not get its name for three sisters working the land but instead from the trio of mountains that sit on its horizon. Don’t let the warm Southern hospitality and farm-like ambience fool you, Three Sisters grows more than 8,000 vines at its 1,800-foot elevation, producing a variety of wines under the Chestatee, Fat Boy Red, Walasiyi Wine Company and Three Sisters Vineyards labels. When visiting, make way to the gazebo that sits at the vineyard’s highest point, affording the best views.
Before leaving Dahlonega, make one last stop at Wolf Mountain Vineyards. The winery’s grand rustic wood and stone cottage overlooks 25 acres. Move from its spectacular views and cold winds on the covered porch at 1,800 feet to indoor comfort beside a massive fieldstone fireplace and a regal cabin-like interior complete with wood floors, wall and ceiling supplemented with expensive glass, sparkling chandeliers and imposing antiques. The Boegner family, headed by Karl and Linda, bought the land in 1999, creating its first vintage in 2002 and selling out within eight months. The beautiful winery and cask room host dinners by reservation as well as quarterly winemaker dinners.
When a lazy Saturday afternoon blends into Sunday, follow winding, two-lane roads that climb higher and higher, leading to wineries with distinct flavors and grapes grown in hard-to-reach mountain slopes. Beyond Highway 19, four more mountainside vineyards produce award-winning wines that present fragrant aromas and a burst of flavors. First, follow Hwy. 19 beyond Blairsville to the small town of Young Harris, where shadowed by Brasstown Bald, Crane Creek Vineyards awaits. This intimate little winery may not be as grand as others on the Wine Highway, but its welcoming staff is eager to introduce you to its collection of wines in a converted home overlooking a fog-covered lake. A quaint guesthouse is available for special occasions and provides a quiet place to reflect upon the day’s travels.
Crossing Lake Hiawassee and following Highway 75 south, the wine excursion continues with a stop in the German-inspired town of Helen, which has kept its winery a secret for far too long. Habersham Winery isn’t much of a secret to the wine community, however. Operating two vineyards and producing a variety of wines under the Southern Harvest, Creekstone and Habersham labels, winemaker Andrew Beaty learned the art of winemaking from California and works with more than 150 tons of grapes annually from the winery’s Mossy Creek and Stonepile Vineyards, creating more than 10,000 bottles of wine so good you may want to pick up a case in the estate’s large red-roofed gift shop. Habersham is the oldest winery in Georgia, and lends itself for a full day’s activities complete with horseback riding, antique shopping, a historic grist mill and more.
Don’t get too sidetracked, though, as your wine travels would hardly be successful without devoting time and an educated palate to Tiger Mountain Vineyards. Here, two couples combine efforts to create annual bounties so rich they have taken home numerous awards. John Ezzard was born on Tiger Mountain but left to operate a successful vineyard in Virginia with his wife Martha. Returning to Georgia, the Ezzards began planting grapes in 1995, following the same formula they had in Virginia and eventually joining forces with Bill and Leckie Stack, who operated an apple orchard and began growing grapes on the mountain as well. The Ezzards and the Stacks make a great team, creating internationally acclaimed vintages. Located high in the clouds, the rolling estate is housed in a historic creamery overlooking an old, red barn, and one of the few vineyards offering free tastings.
You could end your tour of mountain vineyards at Tiger Mountain, but instead make your way back to I-85 to sample a taste of Europe in Braselton at Chateau Elan. This French-inspired resort looms on the hillside from the interstate’s view, featuring a luxurious 275-room inn, championship golf, fine dining and a superior spa. But also resting upon the resort’s 3,500 acres is its award-winning vineyard, which serves as Georgia’s largest producer of wines and makes this final stop a must for a weekend of wine tasting. A variety of tours are available of the estate’s 42,000-square-foot winery, from simple, self-guided walks to in-depth tours with the winemaker, depending on group size. The winery is home to a full-sized wine market providing a spectrum of the vineyard’s creations, as well as gifts and collectibles, and its own art gallery, which is open to the public daily for viewings of local, regional and nationally renowned artists. After a day of enjoying spirits, settle into one of the resort’s eight restaurants for classically inspired French dishes.
North Georgia vineyards along the Georgia Wine Highway are merely a couple hours drive from Atlanta on scenic roads winding through picturesque mountains. Wine connoisseurs from across the nation travel near and far to visit what’s located right in our own back yard; all we have to do is hop in the car and follow the signs leading to the many vineyards. If you haven’t yet visited the mountains and uncorked samplings of Georgia’s harvested grapes, believe me, the time is ripe.
WHERE TO FIND WINES THAT WHET YOUR WHISTLE
Kaya Vineyard and Winery
5400 Town Creek Road, Dahlonega
Chateau Elan Winery
100 Tour de France, Braselton
Crane Creek Vineyards
916 Crane Creek Road. Young Harris
3300 Damascus Church Road, Dahlonega
7025 South Main St., Helen
Three Sisters Vineyards
439 Vineyard Way
Tiger Mountain Vineyards
2592 Old Highway 441, Tiger
Wolf Mountain Vineyards
180 Wolf Mountain Trail, Dahlonega