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 45: Montana

Welcome to episode 45 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we examine the wine scene in Big Sky Country: Montana. Our wine of the episode is the Dandelion Wine from Hidden Legend Winery, located in Victor, Montana. Now, we’ve looked at some particularly odd “Country wines” (as they’re known in the UK; in the US as I’ve discovered, they’re known more mundanely as “Agricultural Wines”) in previous episodes before, but this wine style, admittedly, is something I’ve always personally had on my bucket list.  I never expected to find one being made in commercial volumes, so I had to snatch this vintage up, despite the fact that Hidden Legend also produces award-winning meads and vintages made from Montana-grown grapes.

The fact that there are Montana-grown grapes is, in and of itself, miraculous.  The landscape and climate of Montana is harsh and unforgiving often in the best of times, which means that most wine-making in the state until fairly recently has focused on fruits such as huckleberry, cherry, and apples, along with vegetables such as rhubarb… and dandelions.  (Dandelion wine actually does have a long history associated with prairie settlement, apparently.) In other cases, wineries in Montana would bring in grapes from Washington or California to make wine: a facet of the industry we will cover in a future episode, I promise.  However, thanks to the tireless work of viticultural scientists at the University of Minnesota, cold-tolerant “hybrid” varietals have been bred that can tolerate or even thrive in the harsh Montana conditions.  There are no American Viticultural Areas in Montana yet, but today, the state has eight licensed and bonded wineries.

I acquired this bottle directly via the website for Hidden Legend Winery, specifically for this podcast. I also want to make a shoutout to Derrek for sharing a link to my other blog, who has an interest in Dandelion wine. As for this wine itself, the winemaker, Joe Schultz, reports that “Our dandelion wine is made by combining dandelion flowers and cane sugar with water and fermenting with yeast just like wine. The flowers are removed after the right amount of time and the wine finishes fermenting and is racked and clarified just like grape wine. We strive for balanced flavors concentrating on acidity, alcohol, and sweetness/dryness. It is then filtered and bottled.”

Next Episode: It’s time for Miles’ least favorite Varietal.

Montana Dandelion Wine
The Hidden Legend Winery Dandelion Wine is our introduction to the wine scene in Big Sky Country.

Episode 39: South Dakota

Welcome to episode 39 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, where we focus on the Mount Rushmore State: South Dakota.  Our wine of the podcast today is the Red-Ass Rhubarb from Prairie Berry Winery, which is acclaimed by many as the best wine South Dakota has to offer. This blend of Rhubarb and Raspberry wine has won a slew of awards in multiple competitions across the US. The fact that this is a “wine” made mostly of a vegetable lead us in a long rambling philosophical discussion in this episode of “what is wine, exactly, and if this is not a wine, what do we call this?” (I personally like the UK categorization of vintages like this as “Country Wines,” but I talked about that before way back in episode 17.)

While the family heritage of fermentation at Prairie Berry Winery goes back to settlers from Moravia in the late 1800’s, the commercial industry as a whole in South Dakota is far more recent, dating back to 1996, when the Nygaard family established Valiant Vineyards. The cold climate and harsh conditions of South Dakota favor wines made from fruits, as well as those made from French-American hybrid varietals such as Seyval Blanc, Frontenac, and their ilk.  Currently, South Dakota has 20 wineries, but as of yet, there are no American Viticultural Areas in the state.  Many of these wineries are clustered around the Black Hills region, which actually has a thriving wine trail.

I acquired this bottle directly from the winery website.  Interestingly, this particular bottle came to my attention during the planning stages of this podcast, as multiple people (unaware of each other) all recommended that I review this bottle–this episode is dedicated to those folks: Margaret Ashton and a man whose name I sadly don’t remember, who suggested this vintage in the tasting room where I have my day job.

south dakota
The Red-Ass Rhubarb from Prairie Berry Winery is our introduction to the rugged winescape of South Dakota.

Episode 32: Nebraska

Welcome to episode 32 of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, where we return to the Great Plains and imbibe the 2016 Chambourcin from Glacial Till Winery, located in Palmyra, Nebraska.  Chambourcin is a grape we have not yet met in the podcast. This French-American hybrid is a cross between Chancellor and Seyve-Villard 12-417. Chambourcin is also one of the most abundant hybrid varietals still grown in France today, and it is known across the world in colder, wetter, regions for producing full-flavored, aromatic reds. It is a grape we will meet again in future episodes.

The history of the wine industry in Nebraska begins in the late 19th century, by the end of which 5,000 acres of grapes were in production. Most vineyards of this era were located in the counties of southeastern Nebraska which were adjacent to the Missouri River. The Nebraska wine industry was devastated in the 1910s by Prohibition; after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the remaining commercial grape industry in Nebraska was destroyed by a massive winter storm in November of 1940.

The wine and grape industry in Nebraska was essentially dead after the storm until the mid-1980s; the passage of the Nebraska Farm Wineries Act by the Nebraska Legislature in 1986 increased the amount of wine that a Nebraska winery could produce from 200 US gallons to 50,000 US gallons. Even in the early 1990s, though, fewer than 10 acres of vineyards were in cultivation in the state.  This changed with the opening of Cuthills Vineyard, in Pierce, Nebraska, in 1994. Following shortly thereafter, James Arthur Vineyards opened, and in 1998, the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association was created to enhance the prestige of Nebraska wines and vineyards. Since then, 28 additional wineries have opened across the entire state, sourcing grapes from roughly 100 planted vineyards which are found scattered across Nebraska. As of press, Nebraska has no established American Viticulture Areas, nor am I aware of pending legislation to create any.

I should also note that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has four experimental vineyards in Nebraska, and there is a breeding program for the creation of new grape varietals associated with both the university and Cuthills Vineyards. This program seeks to cross European varietals with indigenous Nebraska grape species. The first grape varietal released from this grape breeding program is a varietal known as Temparia.

While I have actually visited the tasting room for Glacial Till Vineyards in Ashland, Nebraska, many years ago, (as well as the James Arthur Vineyards tasting room in Lincoln on that same trip), this bottle was acquired through their website by yours truly a few months ago.  The fact is when I tasted an earlier vintage of this Chambourcin, I fell in love because of the use of French, rather than American Oak… but had an already packed suitcase. Lamentations ensued, but now the world is right again.

Nebraska
An earlier vintage of this wine was the bottle that got away… yet the 2016 Chambourcin from Glacial Till Vineyards stands up to the memory of lost vintages and lost chances and is our introduction to the budding Nebraska wine industry.