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…

Season 2, Episode 1: An Unexpected Birthday

Welcome to the first episode of Season 2! This was originally going to be an additional bonus episode for Season One, but harvest, crush, and a new tasting room job meant I didn’t get much time to get this ready, so we’re going to open Season 2 with this episode instead!  Future episodes will continue at roughly every 10 days, as with season one.

In this episode, Megan (alias VeniVidiDrinki), James, our friend Ruben, and I drink a Henri Marchant Cold Duck that dates back at least to the early 1970s. Why? Because it was there. More seriously, VeniVidi found this bottle at an estate sale somewhere in Illinois, and had it sitting around… and so we decided to drink it.  For myself, this is probably the second or third oldest bottle I’ve had in my life, but for the others, it was their oldest bottle; in fact, this bottle was older than every one of us excepting possibly James.  Old wine is fascinating, often lauded, but sometimes misses the mark.  But we decided to try this one anyway and record it for shiggles.

What is Cold Duck, anyway?  Well, it so happens that Cold Duck is pretty much a uniquely American innovation in the wine world.  The wine style was invented by one Harold Borgman, the owner of Pontchartrain Wine Cellars in Detroit, Michigan in 1937. This inaugural Cold Duck vintage was made at the Ponchartrain Wine Cellars by simultaneously pouring Champagne and sparkling burgundy into a hollow stem wine glass.  However, this recipe was based on a German legend that involved Prince Clemens Wenceslaus of Saxony ordering the mixing of all the dregs of unfinished wine bottles in his cellar with Champagne. The wine produced by Borgman was at first given the name Kaltes Ende (“cold end” in German) until it was altered to the similar-sounding term Kalte Ente meaning “cold duck”.

It was this translation of the second name that took root for this particular wine style, and many other American wineries, particularly in California and New York, followed in the wake of Pontchartrain.  Today, you can still find bottles of Cold Duck in most grocery stores, as a “low-end” wine (see: Frasier, Season 4, Episode 9), but for the time it was a revolution that allowed most Americans who would never have been able to afford high-end sparkling wines from France to get their first experience with bubbly.

Of note: we dated this bottle based on a particularly awkwardly hilarious commercial we found on YouTube; the audio of which is featured in the podcast, but the video is below:

henri marchant cold duck
Cold Duck revolutionized the way Americans drank in the years just prior (and during World War 2). This bottle dates back at least to 1970, and we drank it… because it was there. Also, we drank it for your amusement.  How did it taste?  Listen, and find out.

Episode 51: Washington D.C.

We’re not quite done with season one yet! Sorry for the late post; it’s the height of crush and harvest here in Arizona, and I’ve been working myself raw. Our last non-bonus episode for the season is focused on Washington D.C.  In this episode, Michelle Petree (a friend of mine who dates all the way back to freaking Grade School) and I drink the 2017 Cuvée Noir, from District Winery; which is so far the District’s only urban winery and tasting room. This wine, a blend of Grenache and Petit Sirah, is their house take on Rhone-style blends, sourced from vineyards in California. (I affectionately referred to this wine repeatedly as a GPS, because boy howdy do I love puns.) In this episode, Michelle and I tackle some of the “darker” sides of the wine industry: wine additives and the grape trade. It turns out that we feel one of these is much darker than the other.

That being said, let me be emphatic right here: the trade of grapes and bulk wines from California is NOT necessarily a bad thing.  It’s all in what you do with what you get. I, for one, really enjoyed my experience at District Winery so much that I actually sent them my resume. They’re doing good stuff. It’s not their fault that nobody grows grapes in Washington D.C. anymore!  They are also wonderfully open both on their website and in the tasting room how things are done. And frankly, there’s no getting around the fact that sometimes, you absolutely have to source grapes from elsewhere because of market demand, a bad harvest, or because the grapes you want to work with don’t grow anywhere near where your winery is.  It is really hard, after all, to make a Barbera in, say, Maine. Also, let me be clear: the only “additive” in the wines from District is the Sulfites which are pretty much standard in everything; they’re not using Mega-Purple (which, dibs on that name for my future wine-themed metal band by the way) or anything else, but our conversation just went that way. (This reminds me: I need to do an episode about why Sulfites Are Not Evil at some point.)

Now that the disclaimers are out of the way: once upon a time, as I alluded to above, there were vineyards and wineries in Washington D.C. It is, as far as I could find out in my research, unknown what varietals were grown in the area.  Space was limited, of course, and after Prohibition hit, these vineyards were torn out, and the land where these vineyards once grew was urbanized.  Today, there simply just isn’t the space to grow vineyards in Washington D.C. itself. However, this aspect didn’t stop the founder and winemaker of District Winery, Conor McCormack, from opening the first winery in the area since Prohibition in 2018. As I alluded to above, many of the grapes being made into wine here are sourced from vineyards across California, but he is also sourcing grapes from vineyards in New York and nearby Virginia. (In fact, the amazing amber wine made of Virginia-grown Petit Manseng was the bottle that I took home for “research” and shared with some local Arizona wine folks. Frankly, it was really hard to choose just what to drink for this podcast.)

Anyway, stay tuned for the next two bonus episodes… then a short break before Season Two begins!

2017 Cuvée Noir
Michelle and I drank the 2017 Cuvée Noir side by side with a Châteauneuf-du-Pape; the only Rhone wine she had in her cellar. Such a tragedy.

 

Episode 50: Tennessee

While more famous for being the heartland of country music, Tennessee actually has a thriving wine industry. The Volunteer State is home to one of the largest wine industries in the American Southeast, with just shy of 50 vineyards and tasting rooms. Our wine focus for the state is the White Zinthiana Blush from Amber Falls Winery, located in Hampshire, Tennessee. This wine is made from 100% Zinthiana, which is a cross between the Cynthiana clone of Norton, and Zinfandel, recently released from UC Davis.

This wine, as you may also have guessed from the name, is a Southeastern take on the whole “White Zinfandel” phenomenon of semi-sweet pink wines known as blushes. (A general rule of thumb: pink wines with under 1% residual sugar are labeled as rosé; anything over that tends to get labeled as a blush). Zinthiana is a varietal that I had never even heard of, and it is always fun to meet a new grape; I’m kind of boggled at how to classify it, because while it is technically a hybrid cross, it’s not quite like some of the other hybrid varietals we’ve looked at over the course of this podcast, like those in our previous Iowa episode for example.

The state of Tennessee was home to a reportedly vibrant wine industry in the 19th century that was greatly impacted when that old bugaboo and nemesis, the Volstead Act, was introduced in the early 20th century. However, unlike in much of the Southeast, amateur winemaking and grape growing continued to thrive in the region, which allowed for a renaissance to begin starting in 1980 with both Highland Manor Winery and Tiegs Winery opening in that year. In 1985, the state legislature passed the Tennessee Viticultural Policy act, which greatly assured the stable development of the industry; perhaps this state support is why Tennessee has so many more wineries than most of its neighbors. Like elsewhere in the American South, humidity and associated grapevine diseases are the major challenges associated with viticulture in the region, so many of the varietals grown here are growing French hybrid and native grape varietals, but the state does have some Vinifera varietals grown in higher elevations. So far the only AVA in Tennessee is the small portion of the Mississippi Delta AVA that extends into the southwestern part of the state.

I acquired this bottle from the winery website, myself, for this podcast.  We actually acquired two bottles: one for Gary and one for me.  If you like this podcast, Gary and I would greatly appreciate it if you rated us on iTunes or whatever podcast app you use, and please do remember that we have a Patreon which can be found at https://www.patreon.com/TheMakeAmericaGrapeAgainPodcast. (I know that I haven’t been terribly good at putting things on Patreon, but I promise I will try harder for season two. Speaking of, while we have indeed completed fifty states, there are still three more episodes coming to wrap up season one, so we are not done yet!)

white zinthiana
The White Zinthiana from Amber Falls Winery in Tennessee is our 50th wine of the podcast. Zinthana is a hybrid cross of Cynthiana and Zinfandel, and is our introduction to the “blush” concept.

Episode 47: Maryland

Welcome to Episode 47, focusing on a state that I think has one of the best flags in the country: Maryland. In this episode, we will be focusing on the 2017 Vin Doux Naturel from Old Westminster Winery, located in Westminster, MD. This particular bottle was one of three chosen by the winery as part of a #Winestudio event for the month of June.  Mind you, all three of the wines involved in the series were fantastic; especially the Cabernet Franc.  I’ve also been to their tasting room before and have picked up bottles and cans from this winery specifically for this podcast… which may well still appear in future episodes, or I may just drink them on my own without sharing.

All that being said, the opportunity to review a dessert wine and talk on the podcast about the intricacies of making dessert wines along with the various styles thereof was too good a chance to resist. And so, here we have the 2017 Vin Doux Naturel, a dessert wine made of 100% estate-grown Valvin Muscat (a cross between Muscat Ottonel and the hybrid Muscat du Moulin, for the record) which was fermented with wild yeasts and fortified during fermentation using neutral grape spirits distilled from estate grapes. This particular vintage is made in a way reminiscent of wines coming from the Muscat de Beaumes de Venise AOC in France. 

Here, as with the Valvin Muscat from Old Westminster, fermentation is stopped by the slow addition of up to 10% of a 190 proof (95%) grape spirit. This additional alcohol basically slowly kills off the yeast, as most yeasts cannot stand an overly high concentration of alcohol. Port, as well as other similar fortified wines, are also made in this fashion. (Madeira is, too, but is then literally baked in hot steam rooms, or historically on the decks of ships; sweeter sherries are made this way also, but then develop a living coat of yeast known as flor while aging in barrel. I really should find American vintages made in both styles, as they are really fascinating wines to talk about and drink, but I digress.)

One can also create a sweet wine that isn’t fortified by halting the fermentation before completion through chilling the wine to the temperature where yeast goes into stasis, and then sterile filtering.  A second way of creating a sweet, desert-style wine is by adding sulfites to the wine at a high enough level where the yeast cannot survive, and then sterile filtering. Sterile filtering is important for the production of sweet wines of this sort, because, without filtering, any yeasts that survive will feed on the residual sugar.  This will either make the wine ferment to dry in the tank, or worse: if bottled, the CO2 created by the yeast as a result of fermentation can cause corks to pop or bottles to explode from the pressure.

A final way of making a sweet wine that could qualify as a dessert wine is to back-sweeten the wine after it has finished fermenting to dry with a sugar solution or honey.  The TTB classifies a dessert wine as any grape wine containing over 14% but not more than 24% alcohol by volume. Citrus, fruit, and agricultural dessert wines must be further identified as to the fruit that was used. 

I’ve rambled a lot about dessert wines here, and how to make them, so I’ll have to be brief about the history of the wine industry in Maryland here. The oldest continuously operating winery in the state is Boordy Vineyards, located in the rural region of Hydes, Maryland. This winery was bonded in the 1940’s by Philip & Jocelyn Wagner. Philip Wagner is one of the most important figures in the history of American wines that you’ve probably never heard of, as he quite literally wrote the first major book on the subject: American Wines and How to Make Them. The book was revised and republished as Grapes Into Wine, and it became the definitive book on winemaking in America for decades.

Old Westminster Winery is much newer in comparison (planted first in 2011, and is rapidly expanding with the acquisition of Burnt Hill), but is part of the rapidly expanding industry in Maryland which now contributes an estimated $50 million dollars annually to the local economy. Today, Maryland has over 40 wineries, and three AVAs thus far: the Catoctin AVA (named for an Algonquin word meaning “speckled rocks”) is located in Frederick and Washington Counties, while the Linganore AVA, part of the Piedmont Plateau, includes parts of Frederic and Carroll Counties. Lastly, the Cumberland Valley AVA we met in passing extends from Pennsylvania into Washington County in west-central Maryland.

As mentioned above, this wine was provided by Old Westminster Winery for the #Winestudio event. As far as I’m aware, this wine is not available to be purchased by the general public yet, but I plan on acquiring another bottle when it does become available.

Old Westminster Winery Vin Doux Naturel
In this episode, we talk a bit about dessert wines with the 2017 Vin Doux Naturel; a 100% Valvin Muscat from Old Westminster Winery in Maryland.

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 44: Mississippi

Hello, and welcome to another splendid episode of the Make America Grape Again Podcast, centered around the Magnolia State: Mississippi. In this episode, we drink the 2018 Delta Dry mead from Queen’s Reward Meadery, located in Tupelo, Mississippi. Now, there’s a fair bit of argument in the drinking community on whether or not mead truly counts as a style of wine, but I’m going to err on the side of the TTB on this one, which defines mead and honey wine as being the same thing. And even if you are a purist, and feel mead should truly be its own entity, the fact of the matter is that the 2018 Delta Dry is technically what is known as a pyment; a mead (or if you want to be super pedantic, a melomel) made from honey and grapes. In this case, the Riesling in the Delta Dry was sourced from Oregon, while the honey was local wildflower honey sourced from just down the road.  The grapes and honey were fermented together to produce this beverage.

So… what do these terms all mean, anyway?  Before we cover the history of the industry in Mississippi, let’s clear some mead terminology up. Mead, which etymologically comes from the Old English meodu, is an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with water, often with the additions of various fruits, spices, grains, or even hops.  The key defining characteristic of mead is that the majority of the beverage’s fermentable sugar is derived from honey.  That all being said, there are different styles of mead under that umbrella. Cyser, for example, is a mead made with honey and apples or pears. A mead that uses spices or herbs (or both) is often referred to as a metheglin. As mentioned above, meads made with fruits other than apples and pears can be referred to as a melomel, and a mead specifically made with grapes can often be known as a pyment. As if that wasn’t enough, Wikipedia has an even bigger list… suffice to say, Mead is rather more complicated than it seems at first glance.  Anyway, I digress: onto history.

At one point in time, Mississippi ranked rather high in terms of American viticultural production. Muscadine grapes were grown in many locations throughout the state, but the dramatic loss of life from the Civil War, combined with a statute enacted in 1907 which banned the manufacture and sale of Mississippi Wine, meant that the industry went into a nosedive. Due to the long-lasting effect prohibition created in the deep south, Mississippi was, as it turns out, the last state to repeal the Volstead Act in 1966, and many counties in the state remain dry through present day.

This means the wine industry in Mississippi still has yet to recover. Along with Queen’s Reward Meadery, the state has only three other wineries: Almarla Vineyards, Gulf Coast Winery, and Old South Winery. The State does have one AVA: The Mississippi Delta AVA, formed in 1984, is shared with Mississippi’s border states of Tennessee and Louisiana. However, this AVA has not attracted any large-scale viticultural endeavors as of yet. This is due to an additional factor along with the long history of Prohibition in the region: climate.

Mississippi’s location, between 30 degrees N and 35 degrees N in latitude, produces a sub-tropical climate with long, humid summers and short, mild winters. This means that Fungal diseases like mildew and Pierce disease are often widespread. In addition, unpredictable weather patterns stemming from the proximity of the state to the Gulf of Mexico also present a large risk for growers. The unpredictable Mississippi climate makes it difficult to grow most varieties of grapes, other than those within the Muscadine family–which are often not associated with “fine” wine production. (Though as we’ve discussed before, most of us who are associated with this podcast rather enjoy them anyway.)

I acquired this bottle online through the meadery’s website, specifically for this podcast.  In addition, we were lucky enough to catch Geoff Carter, the mead-maker and co-owner on the phone for this episode, to answer a few of our questions. (We now realize, after seeing just how complex of a topic Mead can be, that we probably should have asked more of them.)

Delta Dry
The Delta Dry Grape Mead from Queen’s Reward Meadery in Tupelo, Mississippi is not only our introduction to the wine industry in Mississippi, but also to mead as a whole.