Hybrid grapes survive Southern humidity, make dry wine

Hybrid grapes survive Southern humidity, make dry wine

September 30th, 2011 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Ray Debarge places Chambourcin grapes into a small press at his winery in LaFayette, Ga. Debarge has been growing grapes to produce wine for the past decade.

Photo by Alex Washburn /Times Free Press.

There's sawdust in the air at the old Masonic lodge on Rossville Boulevard, as the sounds of change echo off the century-old bricks.

The din of hammering, cutting and shouting will give way in November to the polite clink of wine glasses and muted murmurs, after physician Ray DeBarge cuts the ribbon on his Chattanooga winery.

"My goal is to have a glass of wine, fresh bread from Niedlov's and fresh sausage from Link 41 all in one place," DeBarge said, referring to two nearby Main Street businesses. "These are going to be truly dry, upscale wines."

That means that his wine won't be the typical sweet muscadine wine common in the Southeastern U.S.

Instead, he's experimenting with so-called "old world" grapes not traditionally grown in humid states such as Georgia and Tennessee. DeBarge is growing his grapes on a farm near Pigeon Mountain near LaFayette, Ga., but he vows his wine will be different from most other Georgia wines.

Locally grown dry wines would be a refreshing development for Chattanooga, said Mindi Lamar, a wine instructor at Chattanooga State Community College.

"Local wines made in the old world style would be a nice change of pace," said Lamar, who also heads an event at Cornerstones' Wine over Water benefit. "It will be great to have those local wines, it's just going to be important to expose people to them so we can alleviate the misconception of local wines always being sweet."

Increased foot traffic from the winery also could create a ripple effect for Main Street's renaissance, said Shannon Fuller, manager of nearby Zarzour's Cafe.

"I think it'll only enhance the area," she said. "The more stuff that comes down here, the better it is for everybody."

Oglethorpe Returns

Georgia has a rich grape-growing heritage dating back to the state's founder, James Oglethorpe, who wished for the state to excel in "fine silk and fine wine," according to the publication Georgia Wine Country.

Oglethorpe's experiment was mostly defeated by insects and disease. But science eventually caught up and the state produced wine until Georgia's 1907 prohibition act ended production from 1908 until 1935, according to the Georgia Encyclopedia.

"When prohibition came around, everybody jerked up their vines and started growing cotton again," DeBarge said.

To coax the finicky French grapes through Georgia's sweltering summers, he created hybrids with American grapes that he'll age in oak barrels.

DeBarge will build a shaded patio for tasting purposes that should support both walk-in connoisseurs and catered events that will feature wine and food pairings.

Until his eight tons of wine is ready for prime-time, he'll be serving a variety of regional and international brands to visitors while he waits on federal permits.

"It takes a minimum of five months of fermentation, racking and bottling before you sell," he said, though he noted that the hardest part -- the picking -- already is behind him.

"We did a 48-hour marathon one weekend, so we're finally done," DeBarge said. "The happiest days of a grape grower's life are when the grapes are in the vat."