Wisconsin and the Lure of the Grape

The Wollersheim Estate

Many people give up lucrative jobs and stable careers to get into winemaking. The lure of working the land, creating beauty, and sharing it with enthusiasts in an atmosphere of good cheer colludes with the hope, sometimes vain, of earning a living at it. The romance is just too much to resist, and so wineries have been popping up like spring flowers across the U.S.

But it’s one thing to find the attractions of winemaking compelling in a part of the country conducive to growing grapes. It’s quite another to try to make wine in the Upper Midwest where cold winters and short summers make growing wine grapes a perilous enterprise. First, you have to find varietals that will survive the winters. There are about 10,000 identified species of wine grapes growing some place in the world. Almost all of them have fruit buds and wood cells that will rupture in sub-zero temperatures thus killing the plant. Fortunately, when the Americans were helping the French re-engineer their rootstock after the 19th Century phylloxera epidemic, the French were unwittingly helping the Americans as well. They crossed fine-tasting French varieties with phylloxera-resistant American varieties, a few of which just happened to be better able to withstand cold winters. These French/American hybrid grape varietals, especially Marechal Foch and Leon Millot, now form the backbone of the locally-grown offerings at some of the older, established Wisconsin wineries.

But these French hybrids are only moderately cold hardy with crop loss and winter kill always a threat. Thus, independent grape breeders such as Wisconsin’s Elmer Swenson, and more recently the University of Minnesota, have gotten into the grape breeding act, developing varieties specifically designed to survive temperatures below –20 degrees, resist mildew, and ripen early before the fall frost arrives. St. Pepin, La Crescent, La Crosse, and Frontenac Gris are some of the white wine products of these breeding programs. Newly bred reds include St. Croix, Frontenac Red, and Marquette. There is a lot of excitement about these grapes among newer producers in Wisconsin, although some of the old hands remain skeptical and prefer the French hybrids. Nevertheless, wine grape growers in the Upper Midwest now have many options in deciding what to plant. But that’s a lot of effort put into a product with 10,000 varieties already flourishing around the world in better situated climates. Is it worth the effort?wisconsin-wollersheim

Despite the disease resistance bred into these grapes it’s still a struggle to stay ahead of the moisture and resulting disease pressure in this wet climate. Once the grapes are in the winery, there are more challenges to overcome.  As Alywn Fitzgerald, owner and winemaker at Fisher King winery in Madison told me, even at peak harvest Marechal Foch has green flavors with astringent seeds that lack the nutty flavors typical of mature, conventional, wine grape seeds. To prevent these green flavors finding their way into the wine, seeds have to be removed as quickly as possible and fermentation must proceed at higher temperatures requiring careful monitoring to make sure the character of the wine survives the heat.

But the most important challenge is probably getting acidity down to acceptable levels. Acid reduction techniques must be employed, but carefully, to avoid spiking the PH to levels that various wine-loving critters would find palatable. In cool years, chaptalization (adding sugar) is common to bring wines into balance.

With all these challenges, one might be justified in asking “what were they thinking” of the pioneers of Wisconsin winemaking. Yet, growth has been rapid. In 2001 there were 13 wineries in the state. Today there are about 135 permitted wineries contributing 200 million dollars per year to the state’s economy. People like having wineries in their backyard. They are destinations, event centers, and part of the mix of tourist options that enliven local culture as well a place to drink locally, meet the people who make your wine, and support local businesses. The steady growth in customers seems to be answering the “is it worth it” question.

As wine lovers we should welcome all this activity in unlikely places. These grape varieties are distinctly different from the familiar Chardonnay/ Cabernet/Pinot Noir wines made from v. vinifera, and that diversity is at the heart of what makes wine compelling. The fact that fermented grape juice can find so many different expressions makes the wine world inexhaustibly fascinating.

But with regard to wine quality, are these grapes on a par with the more familiar varietals such as Cabernet and Chardonnay from California?  That in part depends on what you mean by “wine quality” but I think they have some catching up to do. The whites such as La Crescent and St. Pepin are very aromatic and round in the mouth. La Crescent has many of Gewurztraminer’s considerable charms. Because the acidity is high, and local tastes being what they are, the white wines tend to be off-dry to medium sweet although I occasionally came across an impressive, dry white wine. Frontenac gris with its explosive flavors and long finish is especially interesting although it is usually made with some residual sugar to balance the acidity. Coming up with a grape that will make a highly aromatic, rich, yet dry, white wine is a work in progress.

Because the growing season is short, the red wine grapes do not enjoy long hang-time on the vines and thus don’t have the sugar or phenolic development required for “big reds”. Thus, they are lighter in body than their warm weather counterparts. Moreover,  not only are these red varietals naturally high in acidity, since the growing season is short, they can’t depend on additional ripening to reduce acid in the vineyard. The result is often a wine that feels hard, angular, and unyielding in the mouth.  They have generous fruit power but can be a bit grapey, one-dimensional, and lack finesse. Yet the best winemakers succeed in making interesting, elegant wines from Marquette, Marechal Foch, and Leon Millot. When learning to appreciate them you have to make an effort to focus on something other than the acidity. But isn’t that how we learn to taste? By bracketing the obvious and focusing on what else is there?

Most importantly, Wisconsin wines are  a far cry from the standardized, homogeneous product we find at the supermarket. It’s wine in all its rambunctious glory with tragic stories and serendipitous success, surprising flavors and new taste sensations on every tasting menu, and lots of people dedicated to producing the best wine they can with what they have available.


Wine Tasting in Wisconsin

wisconsin-red-barnThere are several wine regions in Wisconsin but the two main regions are the Driftless region near Madison and the Door County region east/northeast of Green Bay. For the most part we focused on those two regions. Wineries in Wisconsin tend to be spread out so trying to hit the best ones involves some road time. But even that is time well spent—Wisconsin has fine-tuned the quaint, rural charm thing, especially if you find happy cows and red barns attractive. (I do)

Almost all wineries here make some wines from imported grapes. In fact some wineries use exclusively grapes shipped in from California. To be honest, we aren’t interested in tasting California grapes in Wisconsin. Thus, we visited only wineries committed to using 100% local grapes in a least some of their products and we largely ignored the wines made from imported grapes. Wisconsin wine lovers also have a sweet tooth. Off-dry and semi-sweet wines, as well as dessert wines, always appear on tasting menus. But some of these varietals are so high in acidity that, when well made, the sweetness is not cloying. Some wines labeled semi-sweet have a crisp and refreshing finish. While we typically didn’t taste all the sweet wines, we did taste a representative sample and found some gems.

Here are the best wineries we visited on our 3 week tour of Wisconsin.

Wineries in the Driftless Region (esp. the Madison Area)

Wollersheim Winery

The oldest winery (making grape wine) in the state having opened their doors in 1973, 13th generation French winemaker Phillipe Coquard married into the family in 1984, and with his wife Julie, they have built this winery into a Midwestern powerhouse with an annual case production over 100,000. It’s a gorgeous property with a lot of history and some very good wines anchored by several bottlings of Marechal Foch (see my review here) and an award winning Seyval Blanc called Prairie Fumé, which is their largest seller. Several of their wines, including the Seyval, are made from grapes imported from New York or California, but they have a full lineup of Wisconsin wines from their Estate vineyards as well. Wollersheim was the first commercial winery to plant the Swenson grape St. Pepin in 1980, which still graces their tasting menu.

Botham Vineyards and Winery

In 1989 Peter Botham began transforming his family’s dairy farm into a winery. Today he makes some of the best wine in Wisconsin. In fact his Field 3 Leon Millot is hands down the best wine we tasted in the state. (See my review here.) Occupying the hilliest part of the state which is good for microclimates, his vineyards are uniquely well situated to get Leon Millot ripe in the best years, and only then is Field 3 made. For wine lovers who like a little sweetness in their wines, Botham’s Big Stuff Red, a semi-dry Marechal Foch, had lovely texture and big flavors. And because it’s unusual, seek out their Vin 10, made from Geisenheim grapes, a relative of Riesling grown in New York. It’s crisp and fresh with citrus and melon notes, a very nice wine.

Fisher King Winery

An urban winery in Madison, Fisher King’s Alwyn Fitzgerald is enthusiastic about the future of Wisconsin wines and is dedicated to revealing their full potential. His Troll Town Red made from Marechal Foch was fresh and inviting (see my review here) . All the white wines were fresh and aromatic with White Whisper, a semi-sweet Frontenac Gris, a standout. But the show-stopper is “Perfection”, a port-style desert wine made from Frontenac Red, with complex orange and spice aromas and scintillating acidity. Frontenac makes an outstanding port-style wine and this one is particularly well made.

Milwaukee Area

Cedar Creek Winery

This is the only Milwaukee area winery I could find using Wisconsin grapes. Located in the charming destination town of Cedarburg, just north of Milwaukee, this is the sister winery of Wollersheim with wines made at Wollersheim’s production facility by Phillipe Coquard. Most of the wines sold in their tasting room in Cedarburg use imported grapes, but there are several bottlings produced from Wisconsin grapes that are not sold at the Wollersheim winery. A pleasant and surprisingly complex Beaujolais-style Marechal Foch called Bon Vivant and the elegant, aromatic Marquette 2015 were worth seeking out. (see my review here) But for sheer originality try the Port Rosé. This is Foch and Edelweiss fermented as a rosé before brandy is added to stop the fermentation. Fresh and fruity but with the brandy kick, it starts sweet but finishes dry, an interesting wine.

Door County

Parallel 44 and Door 44

wisconsin-lakeUsing 90% Wisconsin grapes, and with estate vineyards just minutes from Lake Michigan, Parallel 44 is a real success story. They opened their doors in 2007 and have grown to an annual production of 10,000 cases, growth that has required two winery expansions and a 2nd tasting room in Door County (Door 44) Proximity to the lake is key as it moderates frigid temperatures in the winter and keeps heat in the vineyards in the summer. Both their St. Pepin (called Blue Moon) and La Crescent  are off-dry flavor explosions, some of the better white wines we tasted in Wisconsin. Their Door County Marquette is fruity, cheerful and easy to drink. Surprisingly, they make a nice Baco Noir, the only one in Wisconsin, with grapes sourced from a nearby vineyard with an unusual microclimate. Their ice wine made from Frontenac Gris is lovely as well.


Cold Country Vines and Wines

Another winery taking advantage of the Lake Michigan’s size and airflow to provide warmth in the vineyards, Cold Country is a relative newcomer having opened their doors in 2014. Dedicated to using primarily Wisconsin grapes, they make a wonderful La Crescent and an off-dry Frontenac Gris called Summer Mornings (blended with some Seyval Blanc) both bursting with flavor. With high energy acidity in the reds, wines with some sweetness were the most successful.The semi-sweet Red Sunset, a blend of Marquette, Pearl, and Frontenac, was complex with nicely structured tannins. But the show stopper was the Frontenac 2013 Dessert wine. Great complexity, a very intense nose, and scintillating acidity—this wine alone is worth the trip to Cold Country.


Von Stiehl Winery

Housed in an historic building built in 1868, this is Wisconsin’s oldest licensed winery having opened their doors in 1967 producing, at the time, all fruit wine. The current owners, the Schmiling family, purchased the business in 1981 and gradually added grape wine. They have an extensive list of fruit wines, traditional vinifera varieties grown in California and several wines made with Wisconsin grapes. The wines from local grapes were all impressive. The Marechal Foch 2013, called Sylvester, has an expressive nose and a soft approachable palate with good structure. The Stony Creek Red Marquette is elegant, soft and round, with a lovely evolution on the palate. (see my review here). And finally, I don’t devote much attention to fruit (non-grape) wines but we’re near Door County where they’re known for the distinctive Montmorency cherry. So I couldn’t resist Von Stiehl’s oak-aged Kirsch, a really lovely dessert wine.

Lautenbach’s Orchard Country and Market

This is a busy tourist stop that sells specialty foods, kitchen gadgets and other sundries along with a full lineup of fruit and grape wines. The wine in such places is usually disappointing but I was pleasantly surprised here. The Ashlyn Sophia Marquette and a Marechal Foch/Frontenac blend called Nathan John were standouts. But the whole lineup was well made in a lighter bodied, elegant style. Door County has plenty of tourist traps with dreadful wines. But this was not one of them. And tastings are free.


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