When Big River Brewery opened in Chattanooga some 20 years ago, do you remember tasting the beers and thinking, “I can’t believe we have one of these in Chattanooga?” Last Friday I had a Big River moment: I visited the DeBarge Winery at 1617 Rossville Ave. After an hour visit, my thought was, “I can’t believe we have one of these in Chattanooga.”
When DeBarge Winery suggested I come taste their wines, I did no advance homework. I did not research their brochures, had not visited their website, nothing. I was stone cold. Everything was a pleasant surprise, from meeting winemaker Lee Morse and discussing his opinions on winemaking, to learning about the winery’s grape sources in Oregon and Washington State and their vineyard in North Georgia.
The DeBarge Family Vineyard is located on Georgia’s Pigeon Mountain near Lafayette. The winery, on Chattanooga’s Southside, is in a building built in 1910 which was a Masonic lodge. The winery is making dry wines, not the syrupy-sweet stuff so often produced in this region. By Old World-style, this means that the white wines are subtle and un-oaked, the reds are more soft and French-style rather than bold and in-your-face as so often experienced with California wines.
The winery offers three whites and three reds, all of which are available for tasting on site, and I tasted all six.
The first one is called “Chardonooga” ($15) and is a blend of the hybrids Chardonnel and Cayuga. The vineyard is experimenting with European-American hybrids because they are more resistant to the high humidity found in the South-east. According to Morse, the Cayuga provides the aroma and the Chardonnel provides the fruit. In fact, the nose was sharp like Granny Smith apples, nutty with a little citrus like a Sauvignon Blanc. The taste in your mouth, though, is a different experience: Its taste and finish are fruit-forward like a Chinon Blanc or a light Chardonnay. This wine is un-oaked. Morse is vocal in his opposition to heavily-oaked, vanilla-and-buttery white wines. Rarely do we get the chance to sample hybrids, and this is an example of a very fine effort, grown, produced and bottled right here.
The next two wines were the 2010 Chardonnay ($17) and the 2009 Reisling ($20). The grapes are from California and Oregon, respectively. The Chardonnay is clean, with crisp pear fruit and floral aromas. Although this wine has 14.7 percent alcohol, there is no hot-pepper-burn. The Reisling, according to Morse, is “off-dry.” He says there is only about 1 percent residual sugar but my mouth thinks it is a little higher. This wine looks and tastes like a Reisling, with clear color, and an acidy crispness to balance the sweet apple-and-pear fruit.
The real treat for me were the red wines: The 2010 Pinot Noir ($23) uses Oregon grapes and has a nose of cherries and almonds. It has a velvety mouth-feel and a finish of fruit and wood. The Pinot is not barrel aged.
The 2009 Cabernet Sauvigon ($25) and 2009 Syrah ($28) both come from the same vineyard located in Washington State and both are aged in French and American oak. Both possess 13-½ percent alcohol. The Cabernet is reminiscent of a left-bank Bordeaux, bold and smooth but not in-your-face. There are fennel and licorice in the nose as well as blackberries and herbs. The Syrah is fuller-bodied with oak, black pepper and red currant fruit in the nose and a jammy mouth-feel. All three of the reds may be drunk now but would also benefit from bottle aging.
I am not a fan of Washington State red wines generally, because they are usually a little under-ripe to me. These were fully ripe. Morse said it takes the grapes four days to get here. Is it possible that those four days provide some maturity in those grapes? I bought a bottle of the Cabernet and a bottle of the Syrah, took them home and tasted them both the next evening and am pleased to say that what I was sold was identical to what I had been served.
You should run, not walk, to DeBarge Winery to taste these delicious wines, but when you do you will unfortunately not see Morse. He is now on loan to the Kim Crawford winery in New Zealand assisting with their harvest. Not to worry: He will be back here before the fall harvest and wine-making season.