A Brief Treatise on Iowa Wine, Part 2: Varieties

In part one of my series on Iowa Wine, I explored the very short history behind the Iowa wine industry. Today, I’ll go over a few of the more popular varieties in the area along with my personal experiences with each wine.

A * denotes facts and information gleaned from the Iowa State Review of Cold Climate Cultivars. All other information provided came from Royce Bennett of Collectively Iowa or from my own experience in the tasting.

St. Pepin (from http://www.eccevines.com)

St. Pepin

St. Pepin is a variety cultivated by Elmer Swenson in 1983 in Osceola, Wisconsin. A pistillate variety (meaning only the female parts of a fruit-bearing vine are fully developed), St. Pepin requires proximity to a developed vine to pollinate and bear fruit*. It makes a very light, delicate wine, and the lack of acidity makes the wine almost always cloying and underwhelming in an off-dry style.

The St. Pepin I tasted was made by Royce in his personal Vines and Wine line (NV). It was bone dry, light-bodied, with an attack primarily of minerals. It had a fairly impressive complexity with light tropical and stone fruit flavors. Though it started off tame, the flavors became richer and smoother towards the finish, which was longer than I expected. Definitely a good summer sipper.

Edelweiss

Edelweiss was developed in 1955 by Elmer Swenson in Osceola, Wisconsin, a hybrid of riparia (Frost Grape) and labrusca (Fox Grape) varieties*. Unlike traditional wine varieties, Eidelweiss must be harvested before it fully ripens. Ideally, it is harvested around 12º to 13º Brix. At full ripeness, roughly 18º Brix, it loses its wine descriptors and develops a flat foxy, grape-y flavor. It’s a difficult grape to maintain. With an early bud break and poor productivity from secondary buds, late frosts can very easily ruin a year’s crop*.

The Edelweiss I tasted was from Prairie Crossing Vineyards (NV). It had a massive attack of Granny Smith apple, crisp and pure. It was slightly off-dry, decently balanced, with a medium peach finish. It was fairly simple, but the flavor was clean.

Frontenac (from grapes.umn.edu)

Frontenac

Frontenac was developed by the University of Minnesota from 1978 to 1983 in Excelsior, Minnesota. It is a very vigorous, hardy vine that demands a lot of attention as it grows*. For years, it was harvest during its perceived ripeness peak and pressed to make an aggressively acidic, cherry-flavored wine. In recent years, experiments have revealed that letting the grape sit on the vine roughly a week past peak ripeness drastically softens the acidity, creating a richer, more nuanced experience.

The first Frontenac I tasted was a Vines and Wine label (NV). It was created in the traditional Frontenac style, with a bright cherry flavor, rather plummy, with a VERY high acidity and a short finish. It was in line with most Frontenacs I’ve tried, though I’m excited to see how the new “overripe” Frontenac wines will taste.

The second Frontenac I tasted was from Prairie Crossing (NV). It had a full flavor, again, a typical high acidity, though the character of this wine was softened by a medium level of old American oak, leaving it with a slightly medicinal flavor but nowhere near as harsh as most Frontenacs I’ve tasted. The flavor was simple, a brisk, tart, spicy cherry. This was definitely in the higher end of Iowa reds I’ve tasted.

St. Croix

St. Croix was developed by Elmer Swenson in 1981 in Osceola, Wisconsin. It’s an extremely thin-skinned grape, prone to leaking and very susceptible to disease and injury*. Grapes tend to have a moderate acidity and low Brix and tannins, giving it a natural affinity for palates attuned to Burgundy wines*. It’s a surprisingly hardy vine, recorded as surviving temperatures as low as -39º F and safe down to roughly -28º F, though snow cover significantly improves its chances of survival*.

I had the good fortune of trying two St. Croix varietal wines, and I’m convinced it will be the flagship red wine grape for the Iowa wine industry.

The first St. Croix I tried was from Royce’s Vines and Wine (NV). It had a wonderful potpourri bouquet, descriptors of cinnamon, nutmeg, dark floral, and blackberry. A light tobacco quality sat on the finish. Very rustic and aromatic, though with a surprisingly light body. It was like drinking the scent of a burning candle, and I mean that in the best way.

The second St. Croix I tried was the Wagon Trail Red from Prairie Crossing (NV). If you want to get me excited about the future of Iowa wine, this will do it. The presence of red fruit on this wine was so bare as to hardly even need mentioning. The experience was all violets and spices. There was oak, but it was skillfully introduced, tasting as a component of the spices than as a separate flavor. Like the other St. Croix, the descriptors were hefty and perfume-y, but the wine itself was light and delicate. An absolutely brilliant, unique experience.

LaCrosse (from reddogvineyards.com)

LaCrosse

LaCrosse was developed by Elmer Swenson in 1983 in Osceola, Wisconsin from a staggering array of species, including V. vinifera, V. labrusca, V. riparia, V. rupestris, and V. lincecumii*. As Royce told me, it’s a very foxy, finicky grape that invariably produces a wine with a “raunchy” aftertaste. It’s fairly frost resistant as its bud break is mid-season, and it can produce fruit from secondary buds.

The LaCrosse I tasted was from Row 13 Vineyards. It was a very light fruity, floral affair, with apricot and citrus flavors. This wine did not have that peculiar aftertaste, and Royce told me it was because LaCrosse tends to lose that flavor in blends. To produce a varietal wine without that flavor, the winemaker blended the fermented juice with just a touch of unfermented juice from the same grapes. The science behind this baffles me, but the finish was clean and fruity.

Concluding Thoughts

Quick thoughts?

Tannins are hard to come by in Iowa. You’ll stub your toe on a thousand tractors before you find a big red here. There’s just not enough sunshine and heat to develop these wines.

You’ll have to dig in to find dry wines. The local palate, raised on sweet, skunky German-style fruit wines, guarantees that most local wines, even the reds, will be made off-dry / semi-sweet. These wines are so delicate that the sugar utterly destroys the quality of the wine. The good news is more and more winemakers are attempting to get the most out of their grapes, and the results are encouraging.

Expect the unexpected. Not to sound dramatic, of course, but you’re not going to find a Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Noir, or Sauvignon Blanc here. If you do, it’s imported juice. So don’t fret if you don’t recognize any of the grapes on the tasting sheet… they’re still good wines, and there’s still something for most palates there.

The future of Iowa wine depends on newer, more suitable varieties that will be cultivated in the area, though the current industry has been built on traditional grapes. Royce has seen this dichotomy in the preference for the Alsatian Marechal Foch, a decent grape in its own right but one with very limited potential (as in, you’ll live a thousand years before you see a wine scored 90 points from this grape in this area) over its underused, richer sibling Leon Millot (Lay-own Mee-yoh). As winemakers figure out the challenges to growing old varieties and the science behind the new ones, the industry will begin to receive notice from the coastal wine drinkers. For now, the limits of total production, suitable varieties, and overall quality make Iowa wine an unpolished gem in the Midwestern wine industry.

A Brief Treatise on Iowa Wine, Part 1: History

Recently, I got the opportunity to participate in a wine conference in Iowa. While the conference spanned roughly two full days, I planned an extra day to explore the wine country nestled in the sprawling agrarian region around Cedar Rapids. Roughly a dozen wineries are within 30 minutes of the city, and I had the good fortune to visit half of them. By far the most productive visit I had, though, was to a winery and event center named Collectively Iowa.

Collectively Iowa, winery, tasting bar and event center in the Amana Colonies

While I had the opportunity to try some of the best fruit wines I’ve ever had during my many stops, remnants of the influence of German winemaking in the area, the real surprise to me was the level of sophistication in winemaking in the area. Royce Bennett, the winemaker for Vines and Wine and proprietor of Collectively Iowa, gave me the full scope of the incredible growth of the wine industry in the state.

A mere eight years ago, there were 2 grape wineries and 40 acres of grapevines in Iowa. Today, there are 87 wineries and almost 1500 acres of land under vine, an astonishing growth rate of 3750% in less than a decade. At the Iowa Wine Growers Association Conference, I must have met at least another 10 to 15 viticulturists who were either laying bricks on new wineries or beginning fermentation on their first vintage. This state is taking off.

Elmer Swenson

Elmer Swenson

Royce also gave me a run-down of popular varieties in the area, what grows where, and where they came from. Iowa owes most of its viable vines to Elmer Swenson, a self-educated grape grower from Wisconsin. From age 8, Swenson had been cross-breeding French hybrids with American native vines, and he dedicated over 60 years of his life to creating cold-climate varieties. With the dozens of grape varieties he bred, he only patented five, and he sent clippings to just about anyone who wanted them in order to help develop the Midwestern wine industry. He passed away in 2004 at the age of 91, and the University of Minnesota, an early partner in his efforts, continues to develop varieties according to his work.

Over 50% of the vines currently planted in Iowa can be traced directly to vines cultivated by Elmer Swenson.

Other grapes popular in Iowa are French hybrids, though viable only in Southern Iowa. The New-York-centric varieties developed by Cornell are also grown in southern Iowa, where the temperature rarely drops below -25ºF. Only the cold-climate grapes developed by Minnesota and Swenson are viable in central and northern Iowa.

The Iowa wine industry as it stands today owes most of its success to Iowa State University and especially Dr. Murli Dhrmadhikari, a viticulturist who joined the university’s staff in 2005. Iowa State, through its Enology and Viticulture outreach program, has assisted burgeoning wineries and vineyards with clearing hurdles to early industry development, from protecting grapevines from deadly corn pesticides to winemaking basics and essentials.

Royce Bennett, behind his wine bar at Collectively Iowa

For an exhaustive list of Iowa-viable grapes researched by Iowa State University, Royce pointed me to their Review of Cold-Climate Cultivars, and believe me, you could spend hours perusing it. In my next post, I’ll highlight the most popular varieties with a summary and tasting notes from varietal wines I tried during my tour.

I especially want to thank Royce for all of his help on this trip. Even before he’d met me in person, he spent over a half hour on the phone describing the history and popular varieties in the state to me, and he spent almost 2 hours of his time conducting an extensive tasting for my benefit. I’ll highlight more on the Amana Colonies in the future, and I absolutely recommend a vacation there to anyone near Iowa. It’s a gorgeous, tight-knit community with 3 wineries, 2 smokehouses, and a brewery within 3 blocks. Hallelujah.

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