Affectionately called “Napa of the South,” the Dahlonega (pronounced ‘duh-lah-neeguh’) Plateau AVA offers wine lovers a dose of Southern comfort. Tucked away about an hour north of Atlanta, the Dahlonega Plateau is one of two American viticultural areas in the state of Georgia—the other being the Upper Hiwassee Highlands AVA shared with North Carolina.
Being a plateau, the AVA sits just above 1,500 feet of elevation, allowing for adequate sun exposure to help with ripening and good drainage through the clay-loam soils, which provide increased flavor concentration in the grapes grown. But over the last few years, growers have been met with climate change-related challenges. “Climate has changed the growing season slightly, making it more volatile due to warm Januarys and Februarys, then late freezes in March and even April,” explains Sam McDuffie, director of tourism for the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Visitors Bureau. Thus, vineyard managers must be very meticulous and prepare for these late surges that occur during budburst each vintage. Luckily, these seasonal frost events have not greatly impacted grape or wine quality.
Though Dahlonega Plateau became an official AVA on June 29, 2018, winemaking goes back much further in the region. Since the 19th century, the state of Georgia has been a leader in growing the Muscadine grape—a variety native to the southeastern part of the U.S. that does exceptionally well in the warm climate. It was in the 1990s, however, that many of the wineries operating today purchased land to cultivate it for growing European wine grapes. According to the visitors bureau, today the region is planted with over 100 acres of grapes, including European, French-hybrid and American varieties.
With its nine vineyards and dozen tasting rooms, Dahlonega is home to a host of hotels, restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts—a welcoming environment for tourists interested in discovering this hidden piece of the wine world. History buffs will be interested to know that Dahlonega holds an important role in Georgia’s past—it was the primary location of the first gold rush in 1829. And because of this, the name Dahlonega is derived from the Cherokee word meaning “yellow” or “gold.”
The Paul family claims the title of Dahlonega’s first family farm winery and produces all of their award-winning wines from their 20 acres of vineyards in Lumpkin County. Sharon Paul co-founded Three Sisters with her late husband, Doug, in 1995, and only uses Georgia-grown fruit to produce their wines. “Getting the AVA designation four years ago legitimized our work, and now the world has noticed that we have a special place here,” she says. Three Sisters produces red, white, rosé and sparkling wines, with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cynthiana Norton (considered the South’s version of Cabernet Sauvignon), representing about 10 acres of the estate; the other half is dedicated to other grapes such as Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Touriga Nacional.
As the region continues to grow, Paul is optimistic about the recognition that the wines of Georgia will receive. “Wineries have exploded everywhere!” Paul exclaims. “Not just here in Dahlonega, but Upper Hiwassee [Highlands AVA] as well. And more tasting rooms come online every year. The more the merrier!”
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Published: February 1, 2023