Season 2, Episode 3: “Icewine, baby”

It’s pretty freaking cold everywhere you go east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada right now, so it seemed like as good a time as any to talk about Ice wine.  Our main wine focus of this episode is the 2017 Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice Wine from Oliver Vineyards in Bloomington, Indiana, though we drank this alongside the 2009 Golden Icewine Valley from Changyu in Liaoning, China, and the 2017 Late Harvest Vidal Blanc from Arizona Stronghold Vineyard, sourced from Bruzzi Vineyard in Young, Arizona. The latter, of course, isn’t an Ice wine but is still a varietal Vidal Blanc.

As it turns out, over half of the ice wine vintages made throughout the world are made from Vidal Blanc, because of just how hardy this grape is.  Vidal Blanc (also known simply as Vidal), is a complex hybrid cross between Trebbiano (also known as Ugni Blanc) and Rayon d’Or. Vidal is very winter-hardy and produces surprisingly high sugar levels in cold climates. This aspect, combined with the natural tendency of Vidal Blanc to have moderate to high acidity, makes this varietal a favorite in harsh climates across the Northern Hemisphere, even being grown as far north as Sweden and Norway. Since these climates are prone to freezes, it makes perfect sense that the Icewine tradition would tend to find a home wherever Vidal Blanc is grown.

The secret of Ice wine is that it is produced from grapes that have frozen while still on the vine.  The sugars and other dissolved solids in grapes will not freeze, but the water within the grapes does. This means an incredibly concentrated grape juice results; the must is pressed from these frozen grapes, which results in a smaller amount of more concentrated, very sweet wine. Only healthy grapes kept in good shape are used for this wine; none of them may be infected with noble rot. Furthermore, time is of the essence, since re-thawing the grapes will cause them to spoil quickly since ice crystals destroy cell walls. Thus the harvest must be completed within a few hours on the first morning that is cold enough. The result of all this hard work is a wine with refreshing sweetness, balanced by high acidity.

Ice wine production is risky for several reasons: the frost may not come at all before the grapes rot, or are otherwise lost, for one. The production also requires the availability of a large enough labor force to pick the whole crop of grapes within a few hours, at a moment’s notice, on the first morning that is cold enough, often before sunrise. This results in rather small amounts of ice wine being made worldwide, making ice wines generally expensive.  The bottles used for ice wines are generally small, holding only 375 mL of wine, as befitting this small production.  The increased production of ice wine has been dramatically assisted technological inventions in the form of electric lighting, driven by portable generators, remotely-controlled temperature alarms, and the invention of the pneumatic bladder press.

While there are some indications in the writings of the world’s first wine critic, Pliny the Elder, along with the poet Martial, that the Romans were making vintages in this style on occasion (probably in Northern Italy), the first ice wine that we definitely know about was made in Germany in 1794.  The story goes that the winter had been harsh, and some wine growers had the idea to leave grapes hanging on the vine to use as fodder for their animals; when the growers noticed that these grapes after being frozen yielded a very sweet must, they were pressed anyway, and a wine revolution slowly began. Only six 19th century vintages with Eiswein harvests have been documented, and there seems to have been little effort to systematically produce these wines. Over time, with the technological developments listed above, ice wine production became more common… but at the same time, growers in Germany, the region where this wine style was invented in the modern era, have noticed that in the last few decades, good ice wine vintages have been less common. Many vintners have cited climate change as the cause of this decline.

The first ice wine produced in the United States was made in the Finger Lakes region of New York in 1981 by Great Western Winery. Today, Michigan leads the charge in creating ice wine in America;  as an example in 2002, six Michigan wineries alone produced over 13,000 half-bottles of ice wine. The US law for ice wines specifies that grapes must be naturally frozen; the TTB declares that “Wine made from grapes frozen after harvest may not be labeled with the term ‘ice wine’ or any variation thereof, and if the wine is labeled to suggest it was made from frozen grapes, the label must be qualified to show that the grapes were frozen post-harvest.”

Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice wine
Our main focus for this episode, the 2017 Creekbend Vidal Blanc Ice Wine from Oliver Winery, is only the second vintage of ice wine produced by this vineyard. Ice wine is a difficult endeavor, after all…

Episode 48: Iowa

Iowa may be a state that is associated in pop culture with endless waves of corn and soybeans, but the Hawkeye State has a vibrant wine culture too! Our first wine from this state that we will be looking at is the Iowa Candleglow White, from Tassel Ridge Winery, located in Leighton. The Candleglow White is a non-vintage dry white blend of La Crescent, Brianna, and Edelweiss grapes grown in Mahaska County, Iowa.

We have met La Crescent before during our exploration of the Tectonic from Iapetus Winery, but Edelweiss and Brianna are new varietals to the Make America Grape Again podcast. Like La Crescent, both Edelweiss and Brianna are complex, cold-hardy, French-American hybrid varietals. Both of these varietals came into being as a result of Elmer Swenson, and the University of Minnesota’s cold-hearty grape breeding program. Indeed, the genetic history of these grapes is pretty tangled, as seen in the diagram below.

brianna pedigree
The Pedigree of Brianna, like that of many complex mixed-heritage varietals, is mindbogglingly complex.

Growing wine in Iowa is filled with challenges.  Warm summer days can create conditions conducive to promote fungal vine diseases, while the extreme cold nights of winter can kill many other grape vines; this is why there are relatively few plantings of Vitis vinifera in Iowa, versus complex hybrids and native American varietals.

There was some viticulture in Iowa prior to prohibition, but records are spotty at best.  Prior to 2000, there were only thirteen wineries in the state, and eleven of them were in the Amana colonies, which was a religious communal society which had originated in Germany and settled in Iowa in the 1850s.  These wineries benefited by a native wine law which passed after Repeal, which allowed them to sell wines to anyone.  It was in the year 2000 when the Iowa Grape Growers Association was formed, and this group wasted no time in creating an action plan for the growth of the wine industry in the state.

The group decided that the three main things which were needed were favorable legislation and basic education relating to viticulture.  Within a year, the team had gained the involvement of the Iowa Department of Education involved, along with some basic assistance from Iowa State University.  A year later, funding for viticultural research and promotion became a reality with a five percent tax on wine.  In 2003, the team created a ten-year plan, with the aid of interested parties, and within a mere four years, 62 wineries had emerged in Iowa.

 Today, despite the challenges of growing in the harsh conditions of the high plains, the state of Iowa contains 100 commercial wineries, with more than 300 vineyards that cover approximately 1,200 acres. There are no American Viticultural Areas that are solely in Iowa, but Northeastern Iowa is included within the area covered by the Upper Mississippi Valley AVA.

This bottle was kindly provided to the podcast by Greg Gonnerman of Laramita Cellars, who also guest-starred in this episode.  He acquired it from the Tasting Room directly.

iowa wine
The Candleglow White from Tassel Ridge Winery in Iowa is a dry white blend of La Crescent, Edelweiss, and Brianna, sourced from Iowa vineyards.

Episode 40: Minnesota

Welcome to Episode 40 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we explore the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes: Minnesota. Located at roughly the same parallel as Bordeaux, Minnesota has many challenges due to an often bitterly cold climate. That being said, the 2017 Voyageur from Alexis Bailey Vineyard is a vintage which shows that this state can hold its own against all comers.  The 2017 Voyageur is a blend of Frontenac, Marechal Foch, and Leon Millot, sourced from the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA. All of these varietals are complex French-American Hybrid varietals, adapted to cold-weather climates; a topic we discussed a bit at length back in episode 34. It should be noted here that Alexis Bailey Vineyard is home to the oldest planted vineyard in the state of Minnesota, dating back to 1977, and is the second oldest winery in the state.

The climate of Minnesota is harsh, making viticulture difficult. Prior to prohibition, most winemaking in the state seems to have been focused around fruit wines. It can be honestly said that the history of Minnesota wine truly only begins with the work of Elmer Swenson. Indeed, it might be said that without this man, cold-weather viticulture would not exist. Elmer Swenson started to breed grapes in Wisconsin, thanks to an interest in grapes brought on by his grandfather, along with a reading of T.V. Munson’s Foundations of American Grape Culture. On a whim, Swenson brought some of his early hybrids to a field day at the University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center. This led to him being hired by the department. The first varietals released from this program were in 1977: Edelweiss and Swenson Red. Many more varietals bred and adapted for cold climates have been released since then, including the Frontenac in this blend.

As mentioned above, Alexis Bailey was the first planted vineyard in the state, and also the first to produce a vintage made entirely of 100% Minnesota-grown grapes. Of note also, The Minnesota Grape Growers Association has had a dramatic role in promoting grape growing and winemaking not only in the state but also in other cold-hardy climates. Hosted annually with the support of both the MCGA and the University of Minnesota, the International Cold Climate Wine Competition is the only wine competition solely dedicated to the promotion of quality wines made mainly from cold-hardy grape varieties.

Today, the state of Minnesota has 70 wineries, and two American Viticultural Areas, including the largest in the United States; the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA. This AVA covers an area almost 50 times larger than Bordeaux in France; a total of 29,914 square miles (77,477 square kilometers) located along the Upper Mississippi River and its tributaries in northwest Illinois, northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. Minnesota’s second AVA is the far more modest Alexandria Lakes AVA, which is also Minnesota’s oldest AVA.

This bottle was purchased online from the winery website, by yours truly. If you like this podcast and want to throw a few dollars into the bottle fund, you can find us on Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/TheMakeAmericaGrapeAgainPodcast, and there are various rewards available for supporters.

2017 Voyageur
The 2017 Voyageur is a stunning exploration of Minnesota terroir, from Alexis Bailey Vineyard in the Upper Mississippi Valley AVA

Episode 36: Pennsylvania

Welcome to episode 36 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, where we focus on the Keystone state: Pennsylvania. Our wine du jour this time around is the NV Oaked Vidal from Spyglass Ridge Vineyard, which is located in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. This episode is our first real introduction into the major workhorse grape of the cooler regions of the United States and Canada: Vidal Blanc. Indeed, this grape is among the most cold-hardy varietals known, and it is used to make late harvest and icewines across most cooler climates throughout the Northern Hemisphere.  (We will meet a Vidal Icewine in season two of the podcast.)  Vidal Blanc is a white hybrid grape variety produced from the Vitis vinifera varietal Ugni blanc and another hybrid varietal, Rayon d’Or.

The history of Pennsylvania wine prior to the onset of Prohibition is nebulous and mysterious, though urban legend and the factsheet from Pennslyvania Wines tell us that the first vineyard in the state was planted by in 1863 by William Penn himself, in what is now Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. Post-prohibition, the industry restarted in the 1970’s, with Presque Isle Wine Cellars and Penn-Shore Vineyards receiving their licenses on the same day in 1970. Today, Pennsylvania is the eighth-largest wine producing state in the country, with roughly 119 wineries and 5 AVAs: Central Delaware Valley AVA, Cumberland Valley AVA, Lake Erie AVA, Lancaster Valley AVA, and the Lehigh Valley AVA. The sale of Pennsylvania wines has historically been crippled by the state’s notoriously byzantine State Liquor Board, with made it difficult for those outside the state (and even in some cases, inside the state) to acquire local wines. This situation seems to be improving of late, however.

This bottle was acquired by my mother specifically for this podcast, from the vineyard tasting room in Sunbury while she was visiting members of my extended family.  Hi Mom!  We also have a new podcast guest member in this episode: Kim Musket, who is a cellar hand and winemaker at Arizona Stronghold Vineyards; though she got her first-hand education in Missouri.

spyglass ridge vineyard
The Oaked Vidal from Spyglass Ridge Winery is our introduction not only to the surprisingly vibrant wine scene in Pennsylvania, but to Vidal Blanc as a varietal.