From vine to vino: Chateau Elan winemaker hopes for fine wine

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

BRASELTON -- Five tons of merlot is slowly fermenting in seven large, white containers inside the Chateau Elan Winery.

On Monday, Brian Womack and Eli Watson used large shovels to punch down the cap of grape skins that had formed on the surface of the fermenting wine. Punching down the cap -- mixing the skins with the deep, reddish purple, aromatic liquid -- extracts color and flavor from the grape skins. Winery employees will do this three times a day, even on weekends.

After the wine is fully fermented, it will be aged for six to eight months before it is filtered and then bottled. This particular wine won't be available for purchase until next fall.

Chateau Elan winemaker Karen Van der Vort believes this merlot will be the gold medal wine, the best to come out of this year's harvest at the Braselton winery.

"Isn't that pretty?" she said, watching Womack and Watson punch down the cap inside one of the large containers. "It almost makes me cry."

This year's harvest, which began in late August, is Van der Vort's first on the East Coast after more than 30 years spent as a winemaker in California. The Dacula resident took over as winemaker at Chateau Elan in March.

Last week's plucking of merlot and Viognier grapes was the final grape harvest of the season.

Along with the merlot, 10,000 gallons of muscadines are fermenting, as well as about 2,500 gallons of Viognier.

Chateau Elan produces 22 varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and several Muscadine wines.

"I really believe in drinking the wine in the state that you come from because you're supporting your state," Van der Vort said. "(This business) pays taxes, it goes to the state, it's agriculture, so a lot of that money stays in the state and I really do encourage people to drink Georgia wines."