New Grapes on the Block

by Kelly J. Larson | Curb Magazine | November 2011

Grapes grown at Clover Meadow Winery in Shell Lake, Wis.

France. California. Wisconsin. For many wine experts, the latter probably ranks low on their list of high-quality wine producers. After all, merlot and chardonnay grapes can’t survive Wisconsin winters, and Wisconsin doesn’t have years of winemaking experience like France and California. But even though Wisconsin has a young wine industry, its winemakers dream of putting this beer-drinking state on par with other wine-producing regions.

Wisconsin has traditionally focused on fruit wines like apple, cranberry and pear, but cold-hardy grapes are redefining Wisconsin wine. Most popular among the red grape varieties are Marechal Foch, Frontenac and Marquette. Popular white grapes include St. Pepin, Edelweiss, Frontenac Gris and La Crescent.

“Those varieties aren’t very well-known to the public, and so there’s a unique branding challenge,” Ryan Prellwitz, president of the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, said.

In just 15 years, Wisconsin’s wine industry has grown from 15 wineries to more than 70. Part of the boom comes from the release of hybrid grapes that can survive cold winters, and part is because of a buy-local movement. According to the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association, nearly half of Wisconsin wineries produce wine made mostly with Wisconsin-grown grapes. That number is expected to increase.

Grapes can be difficult to grow and harvest, especially in Wisconsin with its winter season that would kill traditional varieties like cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. It takes about three years for grape vines to produce any fruit and five years until they’re fully mature. The process between harvesting the grapes and corking the bottle is time-consuming and arduous. Grapes have to be picked, de-stemmed, crushed and pressed before beginning the fermentation process.

Because Wisconsin has such a young wine industry, it doesn’t have an established terroir, a French term referring to the distinctive flavor land gives to its grapes and, thus, the wine. Wine connoisseurs claim that wines, even those made from the same grape variety, taste differently depending on where the grapes are grown.

It can take years to develop terroir, and many in the wine community believe it can only be detected by someone with a mature palate who has tasted wine from the same grapes for years. But grape growing is a continuous experiment, providing Wisconsinites the opportunity to develop a unique terroir.

Alwyn Fitzgerald, owner of Fisher King Winery in Mount Horeb, Wis., is among those Wisconsin winemakers who want to prove that the state can, in fact, make high-quality wine from locally grown grapes. “I am convinced that we can make very, very high-quality wines here in Wisconsin, even with our cold-hardy hybrid grapes,” Fitzgerald said.

The buy-local movement has also added to the Wisconsin wine industry’s boom. “People want to be more in touch with their food and their agricultural-based products,” Fitzgerald said. “We have our own local feel to it.”

Wisconsin’s grape growers, winemakers and wine lovers now have the grapes and the wineries to make an impression on the national wine industry. Whether it’s made from merlot or Frontenac grapes, wine can influence people to try new things, learn about the local area where the wine is made and savor the flavor of a libation that’s often overlooked in a state known for beer.

Terroir can exist in Wisconsin. Cold-hardy grapes and blossoming wineries are proving it.

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