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Georgia Wine FAQ

What is Terrior?

One of the most important concepts in growing and understanding wine is best-described by the French term Terroir. Not only limited to discussions of wine (the term has been used in writings about a wide variety of foods, including certain dairy, artisanal cheesemaking and some animal husbandry), it is the “somewhere-ness” concept of all of the regional influences that collaborate and conspire to give the product of that region its unique character and flavor. In winegrowing, the totality of these influences are debated, but are, generally, widely held to include influences such as soil-type, -depth, and -fertility, topography including aspect and slope, absolute and relative elevation, all climatic influences especially in the growing season, surrounding flora and fauna, and cultural & management techniques.The “marriage” or interplay of all these influences conspire to not only define the viability of certain varieties in a region but the quality and consistency of the finished wine.In Georgia, this influence yields, we hope, wines that have a uniqueness that will give them a regional identity.We do not hope to grow a wine that tastes “Californian” or “Italian” in style.We hope to evolve an identity that will be consistent and recognizable and only duplicable with grapes grown in our own region, while still maintaining differences among each other depending on the individual winemaking style desired.

To that end, a consumer interested in authenticity should demand wines that have a specific regional identity such as “Georgia” appearing on the label in direct conjuction with the varietal or fanciful name such as Georgia Merlot or Georgia Red Wine.The nomenclature “American” would mean “not legally required to be from Georgia”.Estate grown, also defined by “grown, produced, and bottled by…” on the label or carrying a “vineyard designation” has the highest degree of guaranteed authenticity, having to be 95% from that designation. All Winegrowers of Georgia members have a strong commitment to producing unadulterated regional wines of style when so lablelled—Georgia means Georgia.

Why Grow Grapes in Georgia?

While many varying microclimates exist throughout Georgia, the greatest over-riding feature in the terroir of Georgia is found in the interaction and marriage between our rainfall and the well-drained hillsides of sandy red-clay soils.At first blush, Georgia appears to be a region that experiences too much rainfall during the growing season to grow grapes.However, the most common soil characteristic between here and Virginia throughout the Piedmont and Blue Ridge provinces, is red clay.Even if its not at the surface, chances are you don’t have to dig far to find it!Turns out this clay doesn’t absorb water very fast, allowing most to run-off a slope in a heavy rain.This is why water puddles are so common in Georgia (if we actually get back to normal rainfall), and this is where the hillsides enter into the picture!The hills are like tipping a tea saucer with spilled tea, it will run right off.And lo and behold, how would you characterize most of the rain in Georgia’s growing season—that of high intensity and short duration, mostly as a result of Gulf-influenced thunderstorms.It is actually common to get too much, too quickly during a dry spell and find the rain did not have time to soak by finding dry ground just a couple inches deep.

Intense run-off is also why we maintain grassy middles between vine rows to prevent soil erosion and further compete with the vines to utilize any potential excess soil moisture.In essence, the vines feel as if they are in a drier condition than they really are judging just by our total rainfall.And this is why Georgia’s steeply sloped vineyards can produce quality and consistency with a plant whose fruit can suffer from excessive soil moisture.

The “red” color of clay is even important because it indicates good oxygenation.Typically, poorly drained soils can be gray, brown or “mottled” looking—low lying land good for corn, not grapes.The same way metal oxidizes into a red rust, so too the high iron content in our soil turns red when well-oxygenated.Good aeration to the roots is important and grapevines do not like wet feet.

Another example of the importance of red clay in a famous wine region is found in the Piedmont of Italy, which grows the most expensive red wines of Italy.Here, the most sought after and famous winegrowing soil is called Terra Rossa, or “red earth”.These well-drained red hillside clays that support Barolo vines are the same source of “terra cotta” pottery and brick-making.

Our “terroir” provides its own form of water limitation.However, while clay will only take “so much” water, it has a good moisture-holding capacity, so we rarely suffer from drought problems.The sandy component in our clays also provide a balanced texture to the soil giving it enhanced drainage and aeration.In our area, after about 9-12 inches of topsoil and 24-30 inches of clay, one can often hit pure sand, very granitic in nature, mostly from eons of eroded sedimentation of the original parent material.

In California, their “terroir” of little or no rain throughout the growing season requires deep loamy soils that soak up and retain winter rainwater like a sponge and supports deep root systems to tap into those winter reserves throughout the growing season.A shallow clay-based hillside in Napa Valley would be disastrous for un-watered vines, just as a rich loamy bottom with Georgia’s potential for frequent summer showers yield equally unrewarding results.

Another important element of terroir in Georgia is elevation, which is why most quality vineyards are in a “sweet spot” of the higher elevation of North Georgia.Too low and the warmer climate fosters lethal disease problems, too high and severe cold can be limiting.

Furthermore, to the South, our elevation provides a great degree of relief from humidity, dramatically so compared to Atlanta, which is at a much lower elevation.The typically mountainous terrain of our vineyards, with its ridges and exposed hills provides shaded valley areas of cool air that mix and invert with the warmer hillsides giving excellent air airflows translating into turbulence, or frequent breezes throughout the growing season and cooler nighttime temperatures.The former is more effective than the most comprehensive fungicide program and the latter is instrumental in preserving the acidity in the grapes throughout the fruit-ripening phase.

Lastly, North Georgia experiences its lowest average rainfall of the year in August, September, and October.This is when the fruit is ripest and most susceptible to breakdown from rot and mildew, which means that, on average, we have good harvest conditions, under which to ripen and mature quality fruit.We generally harvest throughout September and October, the same harvest window of other classic winegrowing regions (many hot, high volume “jug wine” regions can begin in late-July and be finished by mid-September).

To summarize, it is the high intensity-short duration nature of our summer rains and the unique ability of our steep slopes and red-clay soils to shed the rain.The elevation and terrain provide good cooling and drying breezes on our exposed hillsides along with drier harvest conditions in the Fall.These prevailing conditions form the basis for a viable terroir upon which to begin sculpting regional wines of unique character and quality.