Solving the Temperature and Terroir Conundrum in Colder Climates

When you’re growing grapes and making wine in California, Oregon or Washington, it seems like a given that you’d grow or source fruit from the AVA in which your winery is located.

But as you get into regions with colder winters — such as the Midwest — the choice isn’t as straightforward. Do you grow or source locally, making only varietals that grapes from your region are well suited for, or do you source from outside the region and let your winemaking skills be your identity?

For years, most Wisconsin winemakers used local grapes, adding fruit flavors and sugar to counter the strong acidity that allows local vines to weather harsh winters, said Tom Nye, General Manager and Head Winemaker at Blind Horse Restaurant and Winery in Kohler, Wisconsin.

But eight years ago, Nye set out to do something different, which has led him to largely source his grapes from California and Washington.

“There is a high bar of quality for wine coming out of California, so we are constantly pushing the edges to try to meet that quality. My respect for the industry drives me to produce remarkable California wine right here in Wisconsin. In the end, the biggest difference makers are knowing your vineyard owners, embracing cold-soaking technology and long-term barrel aging.

“We wanted to introduce ourselves as a microwinery, so we get the best products and ship them here. We have long standing relationships with a lot of vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, and Washington. 

Blind Horse ages their wines for three years in barrels, and three of the top-selling wines are dry reds, which is contrary to what Nye said has historically been the Wisconsinian palate.

“Since we started doing this eight years ago, tastes in Wisconsin have changed,” Nye said. “People are now seeking drier style wines rather than sweet cranberry wines.”

But for its newest offering — a sparkling wine — Blind Horse deviated from its usual script.

When it decided to venture into the world of sparkling wine — a style known for being produced in California — Nye decided to stay local.

“Wisconsin-grown grapes naturally have desirable attributes to create a sparkling wine rivaling any great French Champagne or California Sparkling Wine,” Nye said. “The chemistry just made sense to start exploring, researching and testing the production of a world-class wine from locally grown grapes.”

Despite leaning toward making Californian varietals in Wisconsin, Nye said he still wanted to make a great Wisconsin wine that identified his state as a great growing region.

“In California, where they make sparkling wines, they pick the grapes in August when they make less sugar, much like the hybrids here in Wisconsin,” Nye said. “We’re using LaCrosse and it makes a spectacular sparkling wine. We’re extremely proud of what we’ve released here, and it represents Wisconsin.”

But making a California-style wine from Wisconsin grapes had its challenges.

One was the cost.

“The pricing of sourcing Wisconsin grapes startled me,” Nye admitted. “I thought they would be a lot cheaper in WIsconsin, but that wasn’t nearly the case.”

The other was the need for new equipment to make bottling and production more efficient.

“I did not realize the time commitment and investment that would be necessary to produce this and make 10,000 bottles of it,” Nye said. “I wanted to do it all by hand. There are other ways to make sparkling wine that are easier, but I turned the bottles by hand, doing it in the old French traditional method. It paid dividends, but corking it and putting the wire hood on it took a tremendous effort. Sometimes we can produce 40 bottles in an hour, which is not a lot. And we had a nice, unique sparkling wine bottle that doesn’t fit on our bottling machine, and hung manual tags on that as well.

“I believe with the positive response we got from the wine we’re going to continue with it, but I think we’re going to have to invest in some additional equipment.”

Gervasi Vineyard in Ohio takes a mixed approach too. On its estate it grows Aromella, Frontenac Gris and Marquette, and makes eight varietals from those grapes.

To grow its portfolio from eight SKUs to 30, it looked outside Ohio’s borders.

When expanding the portfolio in part to serve its on-site restaurant, Scott Swaldo said  wanted more diverse offerings than the state’s climate could provide.

“Right away, we knew we were going to have to source from northeast Ohio, from the Finger Lakes of New York, and, of course, from California and Washington,” Swaldo said. “We needed to source the best product we could from our vineyard with a short growing season, and buy as much as we could from Ohio to keep it local.”

Gervasi maintains long-standing buying relationships with growers in California and Washington and regularly visits the site and specifically tells them what grapes they want. Ten of Gervasi’s wines are a private label product from Italy, and trips are regularly made out there, as well.

The Cabernet Sauvignon is Gervasi’s biggest seller, followed by the Truscano. 

“It’s allowed us to become a niche business that our customers like,” Swaldo said. “Our wine is being created for a restaurant environment, and our guests are here to dine so we have to have a pretty diverse offering.”

In New Jersey, Unionville Vineyards manages and sources grapes from six vineyards, including three estate vineyards, spread across three New Jersey counties. The grapes used in their wines are the product of a variety of soil types, macroclimates, and topography that represent the region’s terroir.

The first vines were a field of French-American hybrid varieties such as Chambourcin and Vidal Blanc, but classic European Vinifera varieties that include Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling were eventually added.

General Manager John Cifelli says growing local is a philosophy on which Unionville does not waver.

“Wine at its pinnacle represents the place it is grown, otherwise it is just another adult beverage,” Cifelli said.

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