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.
Today the most common French- American hybrid grown in Wisconsin is a varietal called Marechal Foch. According to the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association (WGGA), the exact origins of the Foch grape are disputed, but whatever its precise lineage, it clearly thrives here. It is estimated that at least 40 tons of Foch grapes were harvested statewide in 2011. Wollersheim has one the largest Foch vineyards in the Midwest and grows another French-American hybrid known as Leon Millot.
As it turns out, however, the most common varietals in Wisconsin are neither native American nor French-American hybrid grapes. They are part of an altogether new family known as American hybrids. Reading down the list of names like Frontenac, Marquette, St. Pepin and La Crescent, you’d almost think these American hybrids had French origins. In fact, all of these grapes were invented in the Midwest, either by University of Minnesota researchers or a pioneering Wisconsin breeder named Elmer Swenson.
The American hybrids have complex lineages. For example, the WGGA identifies the Frontenac grape as a cross of “V. riparia 89 with the French hybrid Landot 4511” and the Marquette grape as a “cousin of Frontenac and grandson of Pinot Noir.” Whatever their ancestries, the new American hybrids share one significant characteristic in common: all are extremely winter hardy, able to survive temperatures down to around negative 40 degrees.
Since their appearance in the last two decades, the new varietals have clearly given a boost to the practice of viticulture in Wisconsin. WGGA President Ryan Prellwitz says that of the 750 to 1000 acres of grapes planted in Wisconsin today, many were planted in just the last five years, making the grape growing industry now very competitive.
“There are a lot of wineries in Wisconsin that would love to purchase more Wisconsin grown grapes,” Prellwitz says, “but we don’t have enough supply to fill the demand.”
Evidently, it’s a local market with a lot of room for growth. Of the 85 licensed wineries in the state, many still specialize in fruit wines made from cherries or cranberries. Only 25 or 30 wineries in Wisconsin currently produce wine using their own grapes, and many of those wineries supplement with grapes purchased from other growers. Only a handful of wineries produce wine exclusively from their own estates’ grapes. Wollersheim, for example, which has 27 acres of both French-American and native American hybrids, imports some of its grapes from New York and Washington states. “Imported” grapes like these help to explain why the wine lists at so many Wisconsin wineries include Pinot Noirs, Rieslings and Chardonnays.
Coquard says that the biggest challenge facing local growers today is no longer the grapes’ viability but their marketing. He strongly believes “there is a very bright future for the grape industry in Wisconsin.” Yet he also feels that customers—and local restaurants— too often choose a Pinot Noir over a wine made with local grapes, simply because of name recognition.
Finn Berge, owner and wine buyer at Barriques in Madison, says that local wines do sell well, but he’s also found that sometimes the “familiarity of, say, a California Sauvignon Blanc helps a customer to be decisive about their selection,” in a way that a local wine like Seyval Blanc may not. Berge believes that local wineries can overcome this challenge by proactively organizing wine pairings at local restaurants, particularly those which embrace the “buy local” movement.
Michael Kwas, wine director at Madison’s L’Etoile Restaurant, agrees that selling local wines sometimes means working a little harder to encourage customers to try something unfamiliar. He believes that restaurant lists will include more and more local wines as Wisconsin winemakers continue to expand the range of choices.
Coquard would like to see this change sooner rather than later. After all, he argues, many traditional wine-producing regions in both Napa and France aren’t as vibrant and exciting as they used to be. With Wisconsin producers turning out better wines all the time, he says, “We feel that maybe it’s our turn.”