Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sense of Place (part 2 of 2)

Goût de Terroir (French): a taste of the earth

Usually, a wine tasting evolves (or devolves) into a flourish of descriptors ...colors, aromas, flavors. It's an exercise in subjectivity; a bizarre ritual of flaunting knowledge and one-upmanship. I'm wired to transform into this often-pretentious mold when tasting, especially when trying to match wits with a proprietor or winemaker. Yet, as we sip on Persimmon Creek's five offerings- a dry Riesling, Seyval Blanc, Cabernet Franc (a grape that always seems to show up where grapes "shouldn't" be grown), Merlot, and an Ice Wine made from the Riesling- there is very little discussion of exotic fruits and flavors. Rather, we quaff over empassioned exchanges on politics, the struggles of running a successful small business, the high cost of distribution, wine writing and respect/disrespect for the subject matter, and the hallowed French concept of terroir. To say that Hardman is passionate on these topics is like saying Jimi Hendrix was a "pretty decent guitar player." I don't know if "chip on the shoulder" is the right way to describe it, but there's an overwhelming sense that this woman has taken a lot of heat as a Georgia winemaker, and she has fought tooth-and-nail to defend her place among the snobs and fortunate sons of an industry built on the haughty shoulders of legacy and pedigree.

As for the wines themselves: they are all pleasant enough. The Seyval Blanc (a French-American hybrid) is unique. The Cabernet Franc brings an interesting nose. The Merlot is easy-drinking. And then, there's the Riesling: dry, crisp, and aromatic. I'm pretty stunned that they have the cojones to grow Riesling in Georgia. Generally regarded as a cold weather grape, the pride of Germany seems clearly out-of-place (hell, even the German-kitsch town of Helen is more than an hour away). However, it's worth noting that Persimmon Creek sits at 2200' above sea level, and there's a bite in the gusts of wind this morning. According to Mary Ann, bud break occurs a much later than the nearby Dahlonega Plateau, and she definitely considers this a "cold climate" growing region. Furthermore, those vines are used to produce a rich, concentrated Ice Wine. There's enough sweetness, enough acidity, and a very interesting nose that I feel I'm about to decipher before Shadow the sheepdog knocks my glass out of my hand.

Unlike the Ice Wine, where the rest of the wines lack to me are on the palate. Like many Georgia wines I've tasted, I feel the flavors tend to be a little hollow. That being said, I imagine this will only get better. Most of the vines are Persimmon Creek are only about 5 years old, so they've yet to even reach maturity. As the vine ages, its roots go deeper and work harder, soaking up nutrients in the soil. The result is more complex fruit, creating more complex wines. Furthermore, these wines have a soul all their own. They don't taste like California wines. They don't taste like Australian wines. They are subtle, likely food-friendly, and have a smell and a taste that can only be described as...Georgia. And isn't that what "sense of place" is all about. If the locals try to produce bottles in the California style, they are destined to fail miserably. But if they work to express the unique terroir of these vineyards, then there's a much better chance of success.

And it's out among these vineyards where I see Mary Ann come alive, more so than in the tasting room. We grab a bottle of the Ice Wine and head into the trellised rows. "People often think these bottles grow right off the vine," says Hardman, a little tongue-in-cheek. "If they knew what went into crafting the product that ends up in the glass...well, they certainly don't have to like it, but they owe all that effort the respect to at least try it." The soil, a sandy, loamy alluvial (I would've guessed red clay), the training of the vines, the spacing, the pruning...well, it's all pretty impressive, and clearly a laborious and meticulous process. But no doubt a labor of love, and my host bounds with child-like energy from row to row, excitedly relishing in the symmetry of a perfect vine. "Wine is topiary, and we are gardeners," she pontificates.

Biodiversity is another source of excitement. While the practical application of organic and/or biodynamic processes is anything but in Georgia (too much humidity, proliferation of downy and powdery mildews, Pierce's disease, etc.), a push towards polyculture is cultivated here. Sunflowers have just been planted; a proper host for many critters that are needed in the vineyard. Bees buzz around a couple hive boxes outside Mary Ann's house. Then, of course, there are the sheep. 30 plus of them...East Friesians, bred for their milk, not their meat (though seeing them made me feel guilty about this and especially this). They're also here to keep the grass nice and trimmed, eliminating the fumes of a gas-powered mower.

It's this dedication to the land, the stewardship of the terroir that is Georgia's hope for wine success. When the earth and the vine is treated with this much care and respect, the product that results is sure to be good. Or, at the very least, knowing the arduous processes involved, the uphill battle for notoriety and respect, and the passion of the people behind the wine, Persimmon Creek- and Georgia viticulture and viniculture in general- needs to be appreciated for what it is, not what it isn't. That's what "sense of place" is all about. Almost sounds like something they'd say in Burgundy...
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