TIGER, Ga. TIGER, Ga. Coming into this 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 peoples 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 couldnt have come from anywhere else.
The most important thing about making good wine is right out there, Tiger Mountain co-owner John Ezzard said, 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 theres no mistaking its from here.
As a maker of fine wines made from European vinifera grapes including a widely lauded 2011 Petit Manseng Tiger Mountain Vineyards is the easternmost outpost of a robust wine region thats 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 doesnt yet have its own appellation along the lines of Napa Valley or the Champagne region of France (although some have begun 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.
Three decades after Chateau Elan in Braselton and Habersham Winery in Helen first decanted the exotic notion of making wine here, its hard to overstate the importance of the North Georgia wine region. Or stop its growth. The area is home to nearly 20 wineries and vineyards. With its high elevation, warm temperatures, sandy red clay and aged granite soil (which soaks up extra moisture that could 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 its actually grown and made its 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 relatives 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 North Georgia-produced vintages. I want to make sure theyre sustainable by listing their good wines and selling them so I dont have to fly out to California (on buying trips).
Beyond that, tourism is involved. 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.
And wine country keeps expanding. Hightower Creek Vineyards opened in June in Hiawassee, featuring six wines bearing names such as Deliverance and Red Clay Rose, and providing a Towns County neighbor for the well-established Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris.
Said Eric Crane, a certified wine educator who serves as director of training for Empire Distributors in Atlanta: I cant 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 theres definitely a movement going on.