New Grapes for a New Terroir
By Erin Clune | Photos By Jim Klousia 2
Winemaking has been called both an art and a science. That’s because creating a great wine—with a unique flavor profile and bouquet—requires an equally keen understanding of the chemical behavior of proteins, sugars and acids. But before they are scientists or artists, many vintners work as grape farmers. Indeed, viticulturists generally pay close attention to factors like the location of a vineyard, seasonal climate, mineral content in the soil and timing of the harvest. Many growers cultivate grapes with an awareness of terroir, those natural elements in a localized climate that affect the unique quality of a crop.
Throughout the world, viticulturists may use specific farming techniques to manipulate the expression of terroir in their grapes. The same holds true for many vineyards in Wisconsin, where several hundred growers now produce grapes statewide. Grape growers may alter traditional vineyard techniques to account for especially humid or cloudy seasons. They may take special precautions to protect their buds from spring frost. Like all farmers, they have to manage infestations of insects, wildlife and weeds. Midwestern grape growers aren’t alone in having to contend with issues like these. Growers in Washington State sometimes face excessively cloudy or hot weather. Viticulturists in the Burgundy and Alsace regions of France have surely put in extra hours protecting their buds in springtime.
For those who pay attention to terroir, there is at least one natural factor that Wisconsin growers can’t do much about. That is the cold winter climate, where temperatures have (historically, anyway) fallen into the negative double digits. Fortunately for Midwestern growers, the winter problem has been met with a unique local solution. In the last century, especially in the last 10 to 15 years, researchers have invented entirely new breeds of grapes.
Delving into the story of grape hybridization doesn’t require you to have a degree in botany, but reading through the dizzying list of grape varietals with Latinate scientific classifications, you could probably use one. One local expert on the subject is Philippe Coquard, winemaker at Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac. As Coquard explains it, the history of grape hybridization can be understood in terms of three main grape families. The first, called Vitis vinifera, is the largest by far. This group accounts for most of the best-known grape varieties, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Riesling, Chardonnay, and nearly 120 others. While these grapes are still primarily grown in Europe, they have proven successful in warm, dry climates throughout the world, like Napa Valley in California.
But very few grapes from the Vitis vinifera family can survive a Wisconsin winter. Philippe Coquard knows this first-hand because he once tried to grow Pinot Noir grapes at Wollersheim. The vines lasted for ten years, but he said it was a lot of work to cover and uncover the canes and wasn’t “commercially feasible.” Ultimately, Coquard concluded that the wine he could make from locally-raised Pinot Noir grapes was “decent but not worth the trouble.”
This anecdote helps to explain why the vast majority of grapes planted in Wisconsin today are descended from the two other traditional grape families: native American, and French-American hybrids. There are, in fact, only about 15 native American varietals, known commonly by names like Delaware and Concord. These varietals didn’t play a particularly notable role in the wine industry until the turn of the 20th century, when European hybridizers began using them to make their own grapes more resistant to disease. Within the span of a few decades, many of these French-American hybrids made their way back to the United States, where American winemakers discovered— to their pleasant surprise—that the hybrid vines were also quite winter hardy.