Can they grow wine grapes in Montana? There are some hardy souls who try. Excessive cold, meaning sustained temperatures below –10 degrees, will damage the wood on all vitis vinifera varietals, the species of grape that includes the familiar varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay. For some varietals such as Merlot or Syrah 5 degrees above zero is risky territory. There are a few growers who persist with vinifera in Montana’s unforgiving winter climate but the consensus is it’s a losing proposition. So most growers are planting the cold hardy grapes—French-American hybrids and native varietals that are bred to survive deep freezes. Most wine drinkers have never heard of these grapes; many probably never will. The quality level of wines made from these grapes is, shall we say, improving. But you have to go to war with the grapes you have, and the allure of winemaking is so strong, many are willing to endure years when severe crop losses effect even the cold-hardy varietals.
Andy Sponseller, co-owner of Ten Spoon Winery in Missoula, went so far as to bring in helicopters twice in one season to blow frost off his vineyards, an expensive proposition for a marginal business. He started growing Pinot Noir in 2003 but has since abandoned it using fruit from Oregon to satisfy Pinot lovers and planting the cold hardy grapes for those seeking local flavors. It was actually cherry wine that got Andy and his wife Connie through the lean years; now since 2014 he is showing a profit making a satisfying St. Pepin (a aromatic white wine with a plump palate) and a field blend of 5 cold-hardy grapes called Range Rider that features a big, spicy nose and full body. And that Flathead Cherry wine? It’s delicious. Making wine in Montana is not for the feint of heart but with the right grapes and some non-grape wine to fill in the gaps it can be done successfully.
Ken Schultz of Hidden Legend Winery had a different solution. He was an amateur winemaker when he moved to Montana from Ohio in 1979, long before the more recently developed cold hardy grapes were available. But one thing Montana has in abundance—bees. And so Ken started to make honey wine, aka mead. You might think mead would be sweet and heavy, like honey. But not in the hands of a master mead maker. After all, mead is wine, you can ferment it dry where it becomes light and refreshing, age it in oak so it picks up caramel and coffee notes, ferment it with elderberry or chokecherry to add complexity, add carbonation for sparkling mead, or blend it with maple syrup which can be warmed and served for breakfast. He makes a line of traditional, i.e. sweeter, meads from clover honey and a line of contemporary meads, lighter and drier, from wildflower honey.
Like wine grapes, mead’s flavor will depend on local characteristics, not the soil obviously, but the type of flower that the bees are pollinating. I lack the experience with mead that would enable me to distinguish Missoula mead from any other, but tasting through Hidden Legend’s lineup was eye-opening with regard to the savory complexity and multiple expressions of this ancient beverage.
Ken has not forsaken grape wine. He makes several Montana-grown, cold hardy varietals such as a scintillating St. Pepin, as well as Marquette and Marechal Foch. But the most surprising taste sensation was his crisp, light-bodied dandelion wine showing delicate herbal notes. In a blind tasting I probably would have guessed Pinot Grigio.
There are only a handful of wineries in Montana but their definition of “wine” is as expansive as their Big Sky.
What does grow well in Montana is bison, elk and other game, which can often be found on local menus. Buffalo burgers have become a staple of some menus in the U.S. But what you’re actually eating is bison. Buffalo as in “water buffalo” or “African buffalo” are native to Africa and Asia and are part of the same bovine subfamily as bison but are a different species. Early explorers in America called bison “buffalo” because of their resemblance and the name stuck.
Although “buffalo burgers” are reasonably common, I seldom see bison steaks on menus but in Montana it’s relatively easy to find. I found a bison tenderloin at The Red Bird, Missoula’s fine dining restaurant. It’s leaner than beef with a milder flavor and a dense, yet delicate texture, but the accompanying shell filled with molten roquefort cheese to be lavished over the tenderloin was a bit much conquering the subtleties of the meat.
Another dish that Montana can claim as its own are elk meatballs, especially when served with a sauce made of huckleberries, a fruit grown in abundance here. Blue Canyon’s elk meatballs were slightly gamy, reminding me of ground lamb, but with a softly crumby texture like good sausage. The huckleberry sauce was perfectly balanced, slightly tangy with bright berry flavor.
And finally, Montana’s traditional comfort food is a dish they share with the rest of the upper midwest—a meat pie called a pasty (rhymes with nasty, although it’s not). Legend has it that pasties came to the U.S. via Cornish immigrant miners who needed a portable, hand-held lunch. They consist of cubed or ground beef, potatoes, and sometimes onion (in Wisconsin they add rutabaga) wrapped in a shortcrust and baked. Montanans, at least at Lisa’s Pastry Pantry, serve them with brown gravy. I’m sure if you grew up eating pasties it’s the bee’s knees but I find them a bit dry and uninteresting, a good vehicle for gravy but not something I would voluntarily seek out. However, I will be in the upper Midwest for the next several weeks and I feel duty bound to investigate pasties further.