Georgia wine is coming into its own (and no, it’s not all sweet)

Oenophiles embrace the unique grapes and hybrids that thrive on the state’s rolling hills

Georgia wine is coming into its own (and no, it's not all sweet)
Cloudland Vineyards + Winery

Courtesy of Cloudland Vineyards

On a sunny afternoon in August, there’s a sense of giddy excitement in the air as winemakers from across North Georgia gather for an impromptu meeting of the Georgia Wine Producers at Cloudland Vineyards + Winery in Buford. Some are comparing the bottles they brought, lovingly crafted from grapes grown—after much trial and error—on land not far from where they’re standing. Others are admiring the rich, deep red hue of a new vintage of lomanto, a hybrid varietal that combines the old-world qualities of European wines with the heartiness of American vines. Everyone seems energized by the opportunity to meet and talk shop and, most importantly, share their love of wine made right here in Georgia.

One of General James Oglethorpe’s primary goals when establishing the colony of Georgia was to grow grapes and make wine. And the state was home to the sixth-largest viticultural region in the United States prior to Prohibition. But wine isn’t usually what comes to mind when you think of Georgia-grown products—at least, not good wine. Slow to recover following its decimation during the Temperance movement and Prohibition, Georgia’s wine industry today is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.

“We’re finally coming around to this new era of Georgia wine where we’re venturing out and discovering some grapes that actually grow well here,” says Sean Wilborn, wine farmer and proprietor of Cloudland.

Grapes that grow well in Georgia are key to this resurgence. As the wine industry hobbled along following the end of Prohibition, winemakers, many of whom descended from European immigrants, tried to grow familiar varietals, all cultivars of the European Vitis vinifera. Unfortunately, Georgia didn’t lend itself well to the vines accustomed to the Mediterranean climates of France and Italy. In South Georgia, vines were beset by Pierce’s disease, a bacterial blight spread by bugs, while in North Georgia, mildew devastated entire vineyards.

“If you’re looking at European grapes, Georgia is actually a terrible place to grow, from the standpoint of all the diseases that occur, the environment, the weather,” says Phil Brannen, a fruit disease specialist at the University of Georgia Extension and an expert in growing wine in the state. “We are not a Mediterranean climate.”

Increasingly, though, winemakers are attempting to move away from European varietals and focus on grapes that grow better in Georgia’s climate, many of which are hybrids of European and American vines. Hybrids like lomanto, chambourcin, blanc du bois, and Vidal blanc are growing in popularity, and winemakers are proud of the wines they’ve been able to make from vines that combine the complex flavors of European wines with grapes that will actually thrive in North Georgia’s temperate rainforest. Of the 15 most prevalent varietals grown in Georgia today, only four are European; the rest are hybrids or types of muscadine.

With evolution, however, comes the challenge of reeducating consumers.

“The consumer side, they don’t know what chambourcin is,” says Peter Seifarth, a second-generation winemaker at Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris, near the North Carolina border. “They don’t know what these hybrid grapes are, but they know what pinot noir is. So, years ago, we went into it saying, ‘This is like a chardonnay, this is like a cabernet,’ when it’s not at all. These are completely different grapes.”

Winemakers who have embraced hybrid varietals are excited to share them with consumers, without the qualification that they might taste similar to the familiar merlot or chardonnay.

“Now, it’s shifting where we are owning these grapes,” Seifarth says. “We’re saying, ‘This is Georgia!’ You can’t buy this grape at the grocery store. You can’t get it in California. You have to come here.”

Even with a growing sense of pride in Georgia wine and the hybrid varietals that produce much of it, winemakers find it hard to maintain a business focused on Georgia wine alone. The fact remains that—even in a good year with no frost and just the right amount of rain—there just aren’t enough grapes grown in Georgia to sustain dozens of wineries and satiate thirsty customers. Most wineries must import grapes from other states to keep up with the demand. And that’s fine, according to winemakers like Wilburn and Seifarth, as long as the wineries are upfront about it with customers.

“We co-manage a vineyard in Virginia, but by God, we’re going to tell you everything about it on the label,” Wilburn says, gesturing to the paragraph of tiny print that does indeed give the consumer ample information about precisely where the grapes were grown. “If it’s not something that we grew 100 percent, we’re going to say who else was involved.”

Just like people want to know where the clothes they wear were made or where the food they’re eating was grown, they want to know the origin of the wine they drink. Also, say Georgia winemakers, embracing local varietals is paramount to putting Georgia wine on the map, as the hybrid grapes that thrive here might someday soon become globally recognized.

Climate change has wreaked havoc on popular growing regions around the world, like Napa and Bordeaux, leading wine scientists at the University of California, Davis, to partner with UGA to develop more disease- and pest-resistant hybrids. Even hoity-toity regions like Champagne in France have had to ease viticulture rules to make room for grapes that can withstand harsher growing conditions.

“When we started, we were planting grapes that we drank,” says Wilburn. “And that’s not a good way to start. So, now we’re being daring and venturing out and seeing that the vitality of the vine is important. We’re trying to play with vines that can survive this crazy jungle we’re in, and we’re tasting the grapes, we’re tasting the flavors. And if we can get that intangible flavor . . . Boom! We’re excited! We’re making some smokin’ good wines with grapes that make sense for us here in Georgia.”

Fortunately, most winemakers have seen the tide turning and public opinion of Georgia wines evolving. Yes, there is still a place for muscadine, and some wineries are doing interesting things with Georgia’s native grape, including off-dry muscadine wine and muscadine brandy. But the true evolution has been among drinkers who proclaim that all they like is a full, dry, jammy California cabernet.

“I’ve been working the tasting room for a while now, and people have preconceived notions about Georgia wine,” says Sandi Diehl, co-owner and assistant manager of Stonewall Creek Vineyards in Tiger. “They’re really pleasantly surprised. They think the only wine is California wine, but we can make good wine here out of hybrids, out of vinifera, out of native grapes. It’s evolving.”

Blessy Devasia, general manager at Cloudland, agrees. “Right now, 90 percent of our tasting menu is all Georgia-grown, and everything that people taste, they’re like, Wow, this is grown in Georgia?

She walks over to the edge of the lawn, steps away from where this year’s crop of lomanto hangs heavy on the vines, and gestures at the acres of grapes thriving on a verdant plot of land just 30 minutes north of Atlanta.

“Yes!” she exclaims. “Right here!”

The Muscadine of It All

Georgia’s most prevalent grape may get a bad rap, but give it a chance, and you might be surprised

For many, the idea of Georgia wine immediately brings to mind the saccharine, almost syrupy flavor and shockingly pink hue of muscadine. It is the state grape, after all, and claims the largest growing acreage of any wine grape in Georgia because it can grow just about anywhere.

When colonists from Europe found it challenging to grow Vitis vinifera here, they started making wine with the musket ball–sized grapes that were sprouting around them like weeds—only to find that they needed to add an unpalatable amount of sugar to get the resulting wine to taste vaguely like European versions. This intense sweetness, coupled with the low cost of growing muscadine grapes, gave it a reputation as cheap, sugary booze that would get you drunk quickly and leave you regretting your choices in the morning.

Now, though, the grape is making a bit of a comeback. Particularly in South Georgia, wineries are embracing muscadines and experimenting with new uses. Still Pond Vineyards in Arlington is producing muscadine moonshine, an 80-proof spirit made smoother by the inclusion of grapes and grains. Other wineries, like Currahee Vineyards in Toccoa, are creating off-dry wines by adding less sugar.

This, say some experts, is the future of winemaking in Georgia: embracing our native plants while continuing to innovate and create products with a true sense of place.

This article appears in our November 2022 issue.