What do you know about Georgia wine? Speaking for myself, not that much—save for a few disappointing bottles I opened last year. But there’s good stuff to be had, says Juan Cortés, Restaurant Eugene’s head sommelier. Two years ago he took a trip up to North Georgia and has been looking to host a wine dinner ever since, which is happening next Wednesday, September 2, at 7 p.m. featuring Frogtown Cellars and Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery. Below, my brief chat with Cortés about Georgia wine and, frankly, whether it’s worth it.
Do you feel like Georgia wine is finally coming into its own?
I first got interested in Georgia wine after reading a story by Steven Grubbs from Empire State South. It was about East Coast wine. A lot of people have written off the East Coast, even though New York makes a lot of wine, some of which is very good. Grubbs also mentioned Georgia wine. I work in a restaurant that sources food from local farms, and it’s part of what has made us successful. I felt like I should know about them and that if any were good, they should be on my radar. During the trip, the first few vineyards were a bust, but when I went to Wolf Mountain, I was surprised. I tried their sparkling wine, and I thought that in a blind tasting scenario, when you’ve got an open mind, you would never have guessed that it came from Georgia.
Are Frogtown Cellars and Wolf Mountain the best Georgia wineries right now?
They’re two of the best in my opinion and strike me as the ones with the most potential. They could compete in a global market. I also like the wines from Tiger Mountain Vineyards, particularly their Petit Manseng, and a rosé by Stonewall Creek Vineyards, which I have on the wine list by the glass.
What are these wineries getting right?
They’re the ones that are taking it very seriously. These are the guys who came in with more knowledge and more of an understanding about what it takes to make good wine. At some of the wineries, it seemed like the people decided to grow grapes just because they had the land. But grapes are specific and have to be grown in the right place. The Europeans know this, this idea of terroir. I feel like some wineries grow grapes just because they have the land. When I went to Wolf Mountain, the exposure of the hill, the steep hillsides—it seems like they picked a place that would be more appropriate for growing grapes. Not a lot of people are doing that. There may be other vineyards, but these are the wines that got on my radar first.
Which varietals seem like they’re most suited to Georgia’s climate and terroir?
That’s an interesting question. Chardonnay seems to be doing well for Wolf Mountain and Frogtown, as well as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Tiger Mountain Vineyards—their Petit Manseng is very good, and that’s not grown in a lot of places. And Vidal Blanc, which I associate with ice wine, seems to be making a very tasty white wine. I’ve also tasted some very good Touriga Nacional, which you associate with port wine. This is good. This tells me that the people are experimenting, trying to figure out what grows best, and that they’re taking their wine very seriously.
A lot of these wines are in the $30 to $50 range. That’s seem pretty pricey for such a young wine region.
Those high price points can definitely hurt the industry and keep these wines from becoming popular. I’m not sure how these wines are priced. I know, for example, that Frogtown is using new oak barrels and certain oak regiments—that’s a factor. Price is often dictated by demand and supply. I don’t know if these wineries have a small supply and if there are a fair amount of people buying them.
Anything else you can tell me about the dinner?
I’ve had these wines on my list at the restaurant. We’ve often poured them by the glass and incorporated them with the tasting menu. I want people to know that we’re not compromising quality just to feature something local. I feel that these wines are of the quality that we expect to pour at Restaurant Eugene. Craig and Cydney Kritzer, the owners of Frogtown, will be there, as well a Karl Boegner of Wolf Mountain and his family.
Dinner is $125, plus tax and gratuity. For reservations, call 404-355-0321.