Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Winning Wisconsin Wineries

(June 24-28, 2011) Did you know there are now 42 wineries in Wisconsin? This was one of the amazing facts I learned during my four day visit at the invitation of my good friend Peg. In addition to touring three wineries, we had a wonderful time sight-seeing in downtown Milwaukee. I was very impressed with the bustling businesses, the amazing architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the historic mansions along Lake Michigan and the charming Third Ward. Peg also treated me to great food and wine, boat rides, and the chance to meet her fascinating friends.

We obtained a copy of the Wineries of Wisconsin Tour Guide and I was surprised to see that the wineries are spread all over the state. Wisconsin is especially known for fruit wines, such as strawberry, peach, blackberry and many others. Many of these wineries are clustered in the Door County Region. Since I am a grape wine person, we focused on visiting wineries that were best known for this and had won national awards for their wines.

Cedar Creek Winery in Cedarburg Wisconsin (www.cedarcreekwinery.com)

The first winery we visited was Cedar Creek during the mad rush of the Strawberry Festival. When Steve, the general manager, greeted us, he said it was one of their busiest days of the year. I was thrilled to see so many people crowding the tasting room to buy cases of wine, as well as to purchase wine by the glass and carry it around in the festival.

Despite the crazy atmosphere, Steve was kind enough to give us a guided tour of the cellar, show us the bottling line, and explain how their wine was made. Cedar Creek Winery started in 1970 and now produces around 27,000 cases per year, which is sold primarily in Wisconsin via wholesalers and direct to consumer. They are owned by Wollersheim Winery where most of the wine, with the exception of the unoaked chardonnay, is produced.

Steve said their biggest selling wine is the Cedar Creek Vidal Blanc. It is a semi-dry crisp white wine that has won numerous awards at wine competitions in the US. We tasted through 4 wines and they were all well made. My favorite was the 2010 Cedar Creek Waterfall Riesling with a lovely nose of apricot, slight residual sugar, but with such a crisp acid that the sugar is barely noticeable. Very refreshing. Since it was the Strawberry Festival, I also tried the 2010 Cedar Creek Strawberry Blush wine which is made by adding strawberry juice to vidal and seyval blanc. It was fun and sweet – like a strawberry lolli-pop; a perfect entry wine.

Cedar Creek is shipping grapes from Washington State and New York, as well as buying local fruit for the fruit wines. All together they produce 14 different wines, including a port. I left feeling very impressed at such an “energetic operation” in the charming historic town of Cedarburg.

Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac (www.wollersheim.com)

It took us about 2 hours to drive from Milwaukee to Prairie du Sac and the scenery was lovely. We drove through rolling hills covered with green trees and lakes. We passed charming farms with quaint farmhouses, tall silos, old barns, and dairy cows. The main crops we saw were corn and wheat, and I was thrilled to see so many Sandhill Cranes with their babies in the fields.

As we came to the entrance of Wollersheim Winery it was so impressive that it seemed we were in Napa or Sonoma. Of course Wollersheim has always been a famous winery and I teach my students about it in wine class because Agoston Haraszthy, the Father of California Winemaking, came here first in 1847 when he left his native Hungary. He spent two years planting grapes and trying to start a winery, but left in 1849 to start Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. Wollersheim was purchased by a German who planted Riesling and buried the vines every year to protect them from the harsh Wisconsin winters. Eventually in 1972 the current family purchased the property.

We were greeted by Julie Wollersheim and her husband, Philippe Coquard, who came from France to Wisconsin as a student and fell in love with Julie. Today they both run the winery with Philippe making the wine and Julie managing marketing. They provided us with a fascinating 2 hour tour starting in the vineyards and culminating in the cellars where we tasted through most of their excellent wines. Wollersheim Winery produces around 54,000 cases per year and makes 18 different wines.

I was impressed to see the 24 acres of vineyard which seemed very healthy and well-tended. Spacing was wide so a tractor could easily fit between the rows – approximately 12 by 8 feet. Trellising was high to keep the grapes away from the cooler ground, and Phillipe called it a “top cordon” system. The vines are Marechal Foch, Concord, Millot, La Crosse, and St. Pepin – all hybrids that can withstand the harsh Wisconsin winters. I had never heard of St. Pepin which is used for Ice Wine, and Philippe explained that it was developed in Wisconsin and required that LaCrosse be planted next to it for fertilization – very rare now days for grapes. The other famous grape that requires another vine and the wind for fertilization is the Keknyelu grape of Hungary.

In the cellar everything was modern with stainless steel tanks for fermentation, filters, and protective gas. We started with their signature white, 2010 Wollersheim Prairie Fume, which has a lovely grapefruit and lemon nose which follows through on the palate and a crisp acid, a touch of sweetness and a long dry finish. It reminded me of sauvignon blanc, but Phillipe explained that it was 100% Seyval Blanc from New York. He has it harvested at 19 brix and shipped to Wisconsin where he performs a cool fermentation to around 10% alcohol and 1.2% residual sugar. The result is stunning, and makes a wonderful sipping and food wine – very refreshing. It has won many medals and Phillipe calls it “the wine that opened the door to our brand.”

In the barrel room we tasted the amazing 2009 Wollersheim Domaine Reserve which is 98% Marechal Foch and 2% Millot. The wine was lovely – similar to a full bodied pinot noir with red berry notes, spice, firm tannins, and a good acid. Then Phillipe invited us to taste the wine from two different barrels. The first was half Wisconsin and half French oak with Wisconsin heads – this was more tannic. The second was the same but with French heads – this was more elegant with well-integrated tannins. It was fascinating to taste the difference. Phillipe also experiments with oak from Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota. Another interesting fact is that Phillipe is experimenting with thermo-vinification on the Marechal Foch to soften tannins.

We ended the tour by tasting their white, red, and tawny port – all good!, as well as the whiskey is he starting to make. Though the Ice Wine was not ready to taste, Julie and Phillipe were kind enough to send us home with a bottle for the future. I left Wollersheim Winery very impressed with the high quality of winemaking, and especially for the passion and innovative spirit of the owners and employees.

Vetro Winery in Concord Wisconsin (www.VetroWine.com)

On the drive back to Milwaukee we stopped at the small and charming Vetro Winery in Concord, about 4 miles off the Interstate. This was a true small family winery with the tasting room in a small building next to the family house. The view from the winery was lovely – looking down a hill towards a small pond and the vineyard.

I was again happy to see that the tasting room was busy with two other groups dropping by to taste and purchase wine. The owner, who was running the tasting room by herself, was so busy ringing up sales she had a hard time pouring for us. However, I made things easy by explaining that I only wanted to taste wines from the vineyard. She kindly poured me Vetro Winery Nun on the Run which is a dry red wine made from the Millot grape. It was similar to a light pinot noir but had a very bitter finish. I enjoyed the second wine better, which was called Vetro Winery Wap-a-tu-e. This was a blend of Delaware, Niagara, La Crosse, and Concord grapes – all American varietals or hybrids. Though sweet, it was well made and quite pleasant to drink for an aperitif with ripe berry flavors and a pleasing finish.

It was interesting to notice that the other people at the tasting bar were trying all of the fruit wines. Vetro Winery provides an excellent selection of these, including blueberry, cranberry, blackberry, cherry, raspberry, and strawberry.

My four days in Wisconsin were delightful, and I am pleased to find so many good wineries in that state. As always my heart is cheering for the small family winemakers of America!


Ed Urbanski said...

Hi Dr. Thach,
I read the article on you by Anne Schamberg and went out and ordered your book "Chardonnay Chalice" from Barnes & Noble (it was not in stock at the store). Like you, I enjoy wine and mysteries! Could I suggest that you include a link to your books as Kathleen Tosh on your website? Take care and enjoy the summer!

Ed Urbanski
Greendale, WI

Professor Liz said...

Dear Ed,

Thanks for your great suggestion! Liz