Savoring Mountain Serenity
North Georgia has become one of the most popular destinations to visit for folks who live and work in Atlanta or the greater metropolitan area. With a slew of outdoor activities, unique shopping opportunities and a laid-back lifestyle that can be infectious, it’s no wonder that cities like Ellijay come to mind when the term “getaway vacation” is brought up.
While cabin rentals and zip-line adventures are as popular as ever, local vineyards have quickly gained a loyal following by offering tours of their property, weekly events and the chance to try award-winning wines that can only be found in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
Gilmer County is famous for its luscious apples and its numerous outdoor activities; however, viticulturists and vintners also know that grapes grown in the rolling fields and valleys around Ellijay have unique characteristics which lead to beautiful wines. The climate of the Southern Appalachians, alternating from cool and cloudy to sunny and hot, creates a complexity of flavors that are fully released from the grapes and expressed in the wines created here. Winemakers call this delicate yet immediately recognizable quality a region’s “terroir”, which is created by site-specific soil conditions, climate, elevation, and topography. The infinite combinations of these elements, big and small, give every wine a particular character, which both the experienced sommelier and casual wine drinker can appreciate. Experienced wine-sippers who prefer some wines over others, and wines from one region over another, can likely point to the wine’s terroir as a major reason why.
Georgians have been growing grapes and making wine since the colonial days of the 1700s. The uniquely Georgian terroir of our soil and climate has always found its way into wineglasses around the world (except during Prohibition, of course). North Georgia is particularly friendly to viticulture and vintners, and Gary Engel of Engelheim Vineyards couldn’t be prouder or more thankful for Georgia’s burgeoning wine country.
At Engelheim Vineyards, visitors are encouraged to savor the whole experience of tasting and enjoying locally produced Georgia wines. Since revitalization after prohibition began in the 1970’s, the Georgia wine industry is booming. In fact, says Engel, 2016 produced the best vintage he has ever seen in Georgia. The dry weather, a consequence of record-setting drought conditions across the Appalachian region, just so happened to create some spectacular wine grapes. The state of Georgia was once the sixth largest producer of grapes in the country, and Engel thinks we can get there again someday soon as more and more people flock to the Georgia wine country in search of the perfect bottle.
But why is Georgia so particularly suited to viticulture and winemaking? It’s because the mountains in our state have excellent growing conditions combined with rich soil that closely resembles that found in Italy’s Piedmont region, an area that produces some of the most coveted wines on Earth. With our abundance of rolling pastoral mountain acres and longstanding history of growing wine grapes and producing delicious wines, the Georgia wine industry and quality of wines are continuously improving—and doing it very well. Engelheim has received numerous awards and medals from various wine competitions including a Double Gold, multiple Silver, and Bronze medals from the San Francisco Wine Competition with Engelheim estate grown and bottled wines.
The diversity of winemaking styles is another thing that sets Georgia’s wine scene apart. Many of the vineyards and wineries here are run like old-fashioned farms, the methods not much different than they were 200 years ago. Others are more modernized, making copious use of the best techniques and machines current technology has to offer. All, however, as subject to the same intense scrutiny: that of the Georgia wine-lover in the winery’s tasting room. There’s an astonishing number of grapes that are grown in the state, too. Engelheim proudly produces eleven varietals including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Traminette, Chambourcin, Petit Manseng, and others. These grapes thrive in our sunny Southern climate, while our frequent cool and rainy spells, perfect drainage, fertile soil, and elevation give them a sophisticated character that expresses itself in the wine.
And because the Georgia wine country is also some of the most beautiful terrain found anywhere in the state, wine tours are immensely popular with tourists, especially couples on a romantic getaway. It’s no coincidence that North Georgia weddings are commonly held at or near wineries, and charming B&B’s are easy to find. Relaxing on an elegant patio with breathtaking views across green mountain vistas, a crackling fire nearby and a cool glass of delicious wine in hand, may just be the perfect way to experience this lushly beautiful slice of the state.
Engelheim Vineyards provides all this and more. As a Christian, faith-based, family-run company, they strive to honor God in everything they do while paying respectful homage to the Cherokee people who once inhabited their land. “Engelheim,” or “Angel Home” in German, makes use of German architecture as a celebration of the Engel family’s rich German heritage and history. But it’s anything but stodgy or stiff; children and pets are always welcome and guests are invited to share their knowledge—or lack thereof—of wine. Saturdays and Sundays usually feature live music, or special events like weddings, wine pairing dinners, corporate meetings/ dinners, and other celebrations. Above all, Engelheim Vineyards is meant to be a place where people can come together, relax, and truly appreciate what a fabulous wine experience the state of Georgia has to offer.
Gary Engel’s passion for wine stems from his time in the United States Army and his childhood in a farming community in South Alabama. Though he comes from Alabama, he has spent extensive time overseas, in California, Virginia, and other grape producing regions and the processes of viticulture and winemaking still fascinate him. His mother made her own wine when he was a child, so being a vintner is in his blood. When he retired from the Army, now-Colonel Engel told his wife, Jan, that he wanted to grow grapes. The couple bought their lush, green acreage near Ellijay, Georgia in 2007 and planted their first vines in 2009, producing their first harvest in 2011. The vineyard’s success has continued to grow, and is now among the most prominent wineries in Georgia.
Wine tours and tastings have become so popular that several companies offer food, driving, and lodging packages similar to those found in the Napa Valley. Visitors from around the world can be whisked away on a multi-day tour of the vineyards and wineries that can be found everywhere from Ellijay to Helen, flitting from tasting room to tasting room with a uniformed driver as their sober, courteous escort.
However people choose to experience the Georgia wine country, Gary Engel is confident that the popular local wine industry is here to stay. It’s about more than wine; it’s about culture, history, hospitality, and the rich Southern farming heritage that makes Appalachia such a magical place to live and play. Engelheim invites you to “come and experience a taste of heaven.”