Vino – right here in Dane County!

Cold-climate grapes spur the growth of southern Wisconsin wineries

by Kate Newton
September 18, 2015

There’s a term in French — “bon élévage” — that likens creating a wine to raising a child. In keeping with the metaphor, the formative years of each bottle rely on selecting the right blend of grapes.

But trying to grow that right blend of grapes has not been an easy task for Midwest winemakers. Known for being especially punishing to the most well-known grape varieties, Wisconsin’s cold climate has historically limited the growth of West Coast-style wineries here, leaving wine snobs turning up their noses at the state’s penchant for fruit wines and, of course, its preference for another alcoholic staple.

Fortunately, the rise of cold-climate grape varieties all but guarantees that Wisconsin winemakers, both commercial and homegrown, are no longer frozen out of the industry. In recent years, wineries and vineyards of all sizes have been cropping up across the state, and 20 accredited wineries are producing wines with 75% or more Wisconsin-grown grapes, according to the Wisconsin Grape Growers Association. Nearby wineries include the well-established Wollersheim Winery of Prairie du Sac and Botham Vineyards outside Barneveld, with others further afield (for instance, Weggy Winery in Richland County, Spurgeon Vineyards near Highland and relative newcomer Baraboo Bluff Winery in Sauk County).

There’s also the Fisher King Winery in Mount Horeb, within Dane County’s borders.

That count will rise next summer with the anticipated opening of Drumlin Ridge Winery in the town of Westport. Longtime winemaker David Korb, with the help of son Keenan and friend and fellow vintner Rich Trotta, plans to break ground on the winery in October with a soft opening tentatively set for next June.

In the making for more than a decade, the winery will sit on Korb’s 13-acre residential property off River Road with an outdoor patio that looks out over some 1,100 vines he’s planted over the years.

While the plan initially is to sell wines that Korb and his son have developed out of a collaborative winery facility in California’s San Luis Obispo County, Korb says he wants to release their blends made with Wisconsin grapes and produced in-house as soon as possible after the winery is fully licensed.

“I think having the California wines may be a good thing to bring in the wine connoisseurs, and then we can present them some of the local wines that I think will be very comparable,” Korb says. Despite the increasing name recognition of cold-climate grapes, he adds, many Midwestern wine drinkers, no matter how seasoned, have never heard of them.

Developed since the mid-1980s by a breeding program at the University of Minnesota, cold-climate grapes, among them Frontenac, La Crescent and Marquette, can withstand temperatures sometimes down to 30 or 35 degrees below zero. Before these grapes were on the market, winemakers like Korb and Trotta, who has been making wine out of his home since 1974, either suffered major losses to their vines in the winter months or made do with grapes or other fruits that could at least survive, but not thrive, in the harsh conditions.

“It’s been wonderful for the home winemakers and the wineries to be able to grow these grapes and start experimenting with the blends you can make from them,” Trotta says. “There’s so many different nuances to making a wine, but it all starts with the grape. And it’s been said that the Marquette grape will eventually become the cabernet sauvignon of the Midwest. It’s just a matter of people trying it and understanding it.”

Korb says he thinks it is “odd” that there aren’t more wineries in Dane County, especially considering the high density of wine drinkers in Madison, but attributes much of the struggle to the high cost of land.

Drumlin Ridge will differ primarily by using techniques Korb has learned in California, he says: experimenting with approaches to fermenting and blending, and planting the same variety of grape in different locations in the vineyard for subtle variations in taste and vigor.

The Marquette grape, a well-known Midwestern grape, is one of the varieties Korb grows in his vineyard. It “has a great acid and tannin structure,” Korb says, and typically is smooth with notes of cherry. Wine drinkers can try the limited-release Marquette from Fisher King Winery at $18/bottle, or the 2013 Marquette, a dry red wine from Ripon’s Vines & Rushes Winery ($20).

The Petite Pearl, which Korb compares to “a petite sirah [with] a lot of structure and a lot of body,” is another popular red wine variety for this area. Parallel 44 Vineyard and Winery in Kewaunee County has an award-winning blend that was released beginning in 2011 — only the second commercial offering of Petite Pearl worldwide ($29).

Fans of white wines should enjoy wines made with La Crescent grapes, which Korb says have a “fantastic bite” and are known for their refreshing sweetness, including Parallel 44’s $18 rendition. Fruit wine lovers should gravitate towards the Brianna, typically blended with tropical flavors including pineapple and mango (like Vines & Rushes’ semi-dry, $15 a bottle).

Frontenac grapes are perhaps the most versatile, with red, white and blush varieties. For a taste of all three, try the 2014 Solitude from Rock N Wool Winery of Poynette ($25), Vines & Rushes’ 2014 Frontenac Gris ($15), or River Bend Vineyard and Winery’s Magenta sweet rosé ($13), from Chippewa Falls.

Korb and Trotta agree that all things considered, Wisconsin winemakers will likely continue to face challenges virtually unknown in the arid vineyards of the West. Originality and innovation, though, is on their side.

Says Korb: “They haven’t even heard of these grapes in California!”