Rediscovering Wisconsin Dry White Wine
By Tracy Phillippi | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Ask any American what they think of Wisconsin (or even ask any Wisconsinite) and you’re likely to start a conversation about cheese, brats, beer, and football. And while these stereotypes are admittedly accurate, they don’t do justice to the more than 85 vibrant wineries that add flavorful diversity to our culinary landscape. Contributing roughly 50 million dollars annually in tourism and providing more than 1,300 jobs, the wine industry’s economic impact on Wisconsin is no sour grapes.
Now, if you’re thinking that Wisconsin wines are all sweet fruit wines, you’ll be pleased to know that producers here have adapted to changing tastes, and there are now some wonderful Wisconsin dry white wines available. It’s precisely these wines that I set off to explore this summer.
As a passionate veteran off all things beer, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous to challenge my palate with the subtleties of wine. So I headed to Brix 340, a cozy yet welcoming wine nook in Waunakee, to sit down with Drumlin Ridge Winery’s Certified Wine Steward and Wine Educator, Amy Wulz. With Amy’s assistance, I tasted my way from dry to sweet and back again. While I appreciated the bold, jam-like flavors of the sweet Riesling, it was the bone dry white with its tart and lively fruitiness that made my palate dance.
Did I just discover a new love?
Dry Versus Sweet
If you are new to dry white wine, be careful not to confuse aromatics with sweetness. Fruity aromatics can actually trick you into detecting sweetness that isn’t there. Simply put, dry wine has been fermented long enough for all of the grape’s sugar to be gobbled up by the yeast that’s producing alcohol. These dry wines can still retain fruity aromatics.
Sweet wine, on the other hand, retains some of its residual sugar, resulting in a fuller body and mouthfeel. Unlike classic dry whites like chardonnay, sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, sweet whites tend to be heavier and stick to your glass like another Wisconsin treat, maple syrup.
Winemakers harvest grapes at very specific times of the year depending on what type of wine they are producing. The longer the grapes sit on the vine, the sweeter they become, while grapes that are picked early are more acidic. Like many of the finer things in life, it’s all about finding the perfect balance for your desired experience.
When most of us think of our native Wisconsin wines, we’re likely to imagine wines on the sweeter side of the spectrum. Why is that so, you ask? Is it because of the types of grapes we can consistently produce in our fair state? It turns out that it has less to do with the grape varieties grown here and more to do with our palates.
Early Wisconsin winemakers crafted their beverage out of anything they could get their hands on. With an abundance of orchards, it was primarily fruits such as apples, cherries, blueberries, plums, cranberries and even dandelions. As the industry evolved and winemakers began using grapes, they still needed to add other fruits to please the established sweeter palates of Wisconsin’s wine drinkers.
Although older wine drinkers in Wisconsin can be thrown off by dry whites, Amy Wulz believes that Millennials may be helping to drive a consumer shift in taste preferences. “Younger people are increasingly open to nuance and experimentation with their wine,” Amy notes over her glass of pinot grigio.
And luckily for us, this sense of innovation extends to a healthy handful of winemakers in Wisconsin who are experimenting with new varieties of grapes that cater to our finicky, cold climate.
Cold Climate Grapes Come to Wisconsin
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Wisconsin winters are cold. While we do enjoy the beauty of four seasons, our summers are short compared to other wine regions like the Napa Valley in California. Given these climatic restrictions, our winemakers are unable to grow grapes you are likely to be familiar with, like chardonnay or pinot noir. Instead, they increasingly rely on new cold-climate grape varieties being created by the University of Minnesota, one of the top wine research programs in the country. With grape varieties such as Frontenac blanc (white), Louise Swenson (white) and Marquette (red), the university has been “developing high-quality, cold-hardy, and disease-resistant wine grape cultivars...since the late 1970s.”
Learn more about the science behind breeding cold-climate grapes in "New Grapes for a New Terroir," from our Fall 2012 issue.
Steve Johnson, owner and winemaker at Door 44 and Parallel 44 wineries in Eastern Wisconsin, is a shining example of the innovation and passion emanating from our wineries. Using his own vineyard to source 80 percent of his grapes, Steve is a champion of locally grown, cold climate grapes, and it’s paid off. This year, his dry Frontenac blanc won the Best Wisconsin Wine at the 2017 Wisconsin Professional Wine Competition, and 44 White won a gold medal at the New York International Wine Competition.
When it comes to any wine, finding balance between acidity, sweetness, tannins and alcohol is key. When one of these elements is out of whack, the entire batch can be thrown off. Our cold-weather grape varieties are naturally more acidic than their sun-loving cousins in California. Therefore, winemakers using these local grapes employ an arsenal of techniques to make truly balanced and delectable dry white wines.
As we’ve discussed, the best method is to achieve optimal ripeness before picking. That means selecting only the grapes that are not too young and acidic or too old and sweet. After harvest, winemakers use a cool and slow fermentation for dry whites. This approach helps to prevent or mellow fermentation-based offflavors and keep white wine fruity, fresh and crisp.
In addition to proper harvesting and fermenting, a technique called “sur lie aging” can be used to increase the body of a wine. Sur lie aging occurs when the winemaker leaves the fully fermented wine on the dead yeast cells, stirring it every two weeks for several months. The result is a greater depth of flavor and a creamier mouthfeel that balances the acidity in our cold climate grapes. Johnson believes that sur lie aging coupled with back-sweetening (adding unfermented grape juice to dry wine) is “the future of wines from Wisconsin.”
Dry White Wine with Food
While everyone has their preferences, Johnson believes the dry to semi-dry wines tend to complement more of our favorite foods. Kevin Appleton, food and beverage program director at Madison College School of Professional and Continuing Education, agrees. “The crispness and acidity of a dry white wine adds a refreshing complexity to delicate green salads, poached scallops and other light first courses.” Try the awardwinning Prairie Fumé from Wollersheim Winery or Heatwave chardonnay from Fisher King Winery with grilled local root vegetables or a seafood salad.
The natural acidity of our cold-climate grapes also pairs well with salty and fatty foods while simultaneously refreshing your palate. For this delectable palate combination, try 44 White from 44 Winery with lightly battered Wisconsin fried fish.
The Future of Wisconsin Wine?
While it may be an uphill battle to educate the Wisconsin wine-lover about unfamiliar cold-climate grapes, the future is bright for Wisconsin wine. Johnson says, “We are in our infancy here in Wisconsin, but I believe that years from now people will be talking about Wisconsin’s reputation for whites, rosés and sparkling wines.”
So I challenge you, dear reader, put down your glass of Napa Valley cabernet and support your local winery. You might discover a new love.
Must-Try Wineries and Tasting Rooms
• Wollersheim Winery, Prairie du Sac
• Drumlin Ridge Winery, Westport
• Fisher King Winery, Verona
• Baraboo Bluff Winery, Baraboo
• Spurgeon Vineyards & Winery, Highland
• Vernon Vineyards, Viroqua
• Branches Winery, Westby
• Fawn Creek Winery, Wisconsin Dells
• Brix 340, Waunakee
The brand new Driftless Wine & Cheese Trail brings together some of the best wineries and creameries from Madison to La Crosse. Check out the member wineries' dry whites, plus stop for cheese samplings, music, tours and more on the trail's special event weekends throughout the season. www.driftlesswinecheesetrail.com