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 42: North Dakota

Welcome to Episode 42 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, where we explore the wine scene of North Dakota.  I hope you have your towel ready, this being episode 42 and all that.  Our first examination of the North Dakota wine scene is the Pride of Dakota Tomato Wine from Maple River Winery, which is located in the historic town of Casselton. Ginger joins the team again for this episode!

While wild grapes and a host of other fruits were found growing along North Dakota’s riversides by early settlers,  the climate in the state and the adoption of prohibition at the time of statehood in 1889 mean that the commercial wine history of North Dakota stretches back only to the 1990s.  This puts North Dakota wines in a very recent mode.  Yes, although North Dakota repealed its ban on alcohol in 1933 when Prohibition ended, but restrictive local laws surrounding winemaking lead to a distinct lack of any winemaking traditions in the state until very recently: 2002.

Viticulture is full of challenges in North Dakota due to the extremes of the local climate. The wine industry here is growing here, however – albeit slowly – and in 2011, there were nine wineries and 40 vineyards spread across the state. Most viticultural production in North Dakota is focused around cold-climate varietals created at the University of Minnesota, or local fruits and produce: hence, this episode’s Tomato wine.

This bottle was acquired by yours truly from the winery website itself.  While none of us was, in the end, super fond of this wine (it was out of the wheelhouse for all of us), we did find the experience fascinating.  I also admit I made a pretty nice Bloody Mary the next day with it, as seen in the photo below.  Sometimes, you just need to make cocktails out in the middle of nowhere, you know?

north dakota tomato wine
While none of us were admittedly super fond of the Tomato Wine from Maple River Winery, it made a pretty fun Bloody Mary the next day.

Episode 41: Ohio

Welcome to episode 41 of the Make America Grape Again podcast, featuring the Buckeye State, Ohio.  Featuring one of the more unique flags of a US State, Ohio has a long and lauded history with the American Wine industry. It is fitting, therefore, that the bottle we have chosen for our first Ohio episode: the En Plein Aire pét-nat from Vermilion Valley Vineyards, is somewhat of an homage to that storied history.  This sparkling wine, made as a méthode ancestrale, is a field blend of roughly 75% Pinot Noir, and 25% Muscat Ottonel, with minuscule percentages of Lemberger and Müller-Thurgau, sourced from their vineyards in the Lake Erie AVA. For those who are new to the natural wine game, this method, known also as pétillant-naturel, allows the initial fermentation to finish inside the bottle without any additives, imparting a gentle carbonation by trapping carbon dioxide; there is no addition of new yeast for a secondary fermentation, nor disgorgement (unlike with Champagne and other sparkling wines of that ilk).

So, why a Sparkling wine to start Ohio off? To answer this question, we must go to the Ohio River Valley around 1825, and visit one Nicholas Longworth.  He planted, in the end, over 2,000 acres of Catawba grapes, and ended up producing sparkling wine that won not only national acclaim, but actually beat out titans from Champagne in at least one competition in Europe!  The resulting victory lead to a famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, entitled “Ode to Catawba Wine.” (I’m thinking this poem may be the subject of a dramatic reading in Season 2.) However, by the late 1850’s, black rot and powdery mildew had destroyed much of these vineyards, and the viticultural center of Ohio had moved to the region surrounding Lake Erie, where at the time, 33,000 acres of grapes and 161 wineries flourished.  Alas, like in other states, the grim specter of Prohibition ended this idyll, and to survive, most vineyards were converted to the growing of Concord for juice production–some vineyards dating to this period, such as Meier’s Wine Cellars survive today in this mode. By 1963, only 27 wineries survived, with only half making wine from Ohio-grown grapes.  The state was ripe for a renaissance.

Oddly, compared to other states we’ve explored in the course of our podcast, Ohio never needed farm winery legislation to aid that renaissance.  Instead, two major organizations devoted to viticulture jump-started this transition.  The first was the Ohio Wine Producers Organization; the second was the Ohio Grape Industries Program.  Both of these groups have catapulted Ohio wine to the impending super-stardom where the industry lurks at this time. Today, the state of Ohio has over 290 wineries, located within Five distinct American Viticultural Areas: the Lake Erie AVA, the Isle St. George AVA, the Ohio River Valley AVA, the Grand River Valley AVA, and lastly the Loramie Creek AVA.  Producing over 3,582,902 gallons, Ohio is (as of 2016) actually ranked 6th in the US in terms of wine production, and 8th in terms of total acreage under vine. Wine Enthusiast actually recently wrote an article about why Ohio wine is something to look out for, as well, so winemakers in the state are making some noise.

This bottle was kindly provided to the Make America Grape Again Podcast by the winemaker himself, Joe Juniper. I reached out to him after a kind couple in the tasting room I work for in Arizona mentioned that Vermilion Valley Vineyards was their favorite winery in the state. Thank you again, kind sir for your contribution, and for joining in on our podcast!

A sparkling wine in the oldest tradition, the En Plein Air from Vermilion Valley Vineyards starts our journey into Ohio Wine.

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 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.

Episode 28: Indiana

Welcome to episode 28, where we focus on Indiana!  Our featured wine for this episode is the Creekbend III, from the Creekbend label of Oliver Winery, located near Bloomington, Indiana.  This wine is a blend of barrel-fermented Vignoles and Chardonel, along with some stainless-steel fermented Vidal Blanc.  Oliver Winery, as it turns out, is one of the oldest post-prohibition wineries in the state of Indiana, opening its doors in 1972.  Oliver winery was founded by Professor William Oliver, who was instrumental in passing the Indiana Small Winery Act in 1971, kickstarting the Indiana wine industry. Today, Oliver Winery is entirely employee-owned, which is pretty impressive considering that it is among the largest wineries east of the Mississippi River in terms of production.

Prior to Prohibition, the wine industry in Indiana was surprisingly fruitful, being the  10th largest state in the country in terms of wine production.  In many cases, the wines being produced were hybrid varietals, with Catawba (a grape we have not met yet) being a popular option.  It took the Indiana Small Winery Act of 1971 to change the winery landscape, and now the state is a success story; as of 2015 there were 76 wineries in the Hoosier state. Today, Indiana produces about 1.4 million gallons of wine a year and grows approximately 650 acres of grapes, from a variety of French-American Hybrids (such as the three varietals used in vinifying the Creekbend III) to vinifera varietals such as Cabernet Franc and Gewürztraminer.  There are also two AVAs in Indiana: the Ohio River Valley AVA (which actually happens to be the second largest wine appellation of origin in the United States, covering 16,640,000 acres of portions of the states of Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, along with Indiana), and the Indiana Uplands AVA, which has 17 wineries totaling around 200 acres under vine.  (Oliver Winery is located within this AVA)

In this episode, I am again joined by Megan and James, and we talk a bit about the two major varietals in this wine (Vignoles and Chardonnel), as well as some techniques for white wine vinification: Malolactic fermentation, barrel-fermentation, and sur lees aging.  My occasionally crippling dyslexia also shows up as well, as does James’ penchant for bad jokes.  Enjoy!  (And thank you, Oliver Winery, for including the tech sheets! You have no idea how much that is appreciated!)

This bottle was acquired by yours truly, online through the Oliver Vineyards website.

indiana episode 1
The Creekbend III from Oliver Winery is our introduction to Indiana wines and several wine-making techniques used for white wines.