I’ve made little secret of the fact that I’m fascinated by wines that are outside the mainstream. Don’t get me wrong – I dearly love great Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo, and even a few California cabs. But give me a grape I’ve never heard of from an unlikely location, and my eyes light up.

When the Missouri Wine & Grape Board invited me a on a press trip exploring the state’s vineyards and wineries last month, I jumped at the chance. I’ve written about Missouri wines in the past, and readers were intrigued.

This time, I was inspired not only to write about the wines, but also to bring some bottles back to Orlando and give my readers an opportunity to try them. I’m partnering with Digress Wine in College Park to host a tasting two weeks from today, on November 8 at 6:30pm, where we’ll sample and learn about these unique wines that rarely make it out of their home state. They’re not distributed in Florida, so this may be your only chance to experience them. Seating is extremely limited, so reserve your spot today!!

Want to know more about the wines we’ll be tasting? Read on!

Center of Early American Winemaking

The mention of “Missouri” and “wine” in the same sentence might evoke more skepticism than salivation at first, but the state was once a center of America’s wine industry.

German immigrants started making wine in and around Hermann, Missouri in the 1840s. Italian arrivals soon joined in from other parts of the state. Missouri was second only to California in U.S. wine production until Prohibition. Its flagship producer, Stone Hill, was the third largest winery in the world.

Hermann from Stone Hill
View from Stone Hill Winery near Hermann, MO, the birthplace of Missouri wine

When the devastating insect phylloxera was ravaging the grapevines of France in the 1870s, it was Missouri’s state entomologist who diagnosed the problem and drew attention to American vines that were resistant to the bug. Missouri growers sent hundreds of thousands of pest-resistant vine cuttings to France, where local vines were grafted onto their rootstocks. The effort ultimately helped save France’s wine industry.

Missouri’s own wine industry, however, couldn’t save itself from Prohibition. All of the state’s wineries were shuttered in the 1920s, with the exception of one producer in St. Louis that made sacramental wine. The recovery was slow. It didn’t even get underway until 1965, when a local farm family bought Stone Hill Winery and began restoring it.

The state bounced back, though, and in June of 1980, it received the federal government’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation, beating Napa Valley by eight months. There are now over 130 wineries across Missouri, welcoming visitors and producing unique wines.

Wines for Adventurous Palates

Missouri makes wines for the open-minded oenophile. You won’t find many familiar European varietals here, so tasting these wines allows you to put aside your preconceived notions. That’s what I like about them.

The state’s flagship grape is Norton, a native American varietal first discovered in Virginia in the early 19th century. Also known as cynthiana, this red grape can survive the cold Midwest winters.

Norton on Vine Villa Antonio
Norton grapes just before harvest in September 2018 at Villa Antonio Winery near Hillsboro, MO 

It yields a wine that defies categorization.

At times it reminds me of a Bordeaux, with red and black fruit notes, sometimes a bit of mocha, maybe a hint of green pepper. Other times, it takes me to the northern Rhone, with aromas of smoke and meat. One unoaked example reminded me of Beaujolais. Some say it can be reminiscent of wines from Italy’s Piedmont because of its lighter body and higher tannin structure.

All that to say that Norton is its own distinctive varietal, and it’s been gaining in esteem. Riedel even started making a glass specifically for Missouri Norton in 2009.

We’ll compare two or three examples of Norton at the Digress tasting.

Most other varietals grown in Missouri are hybrids, created by crossing grapes from different species. Common European varietals like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah are part of the vitis vinifera species. But there are many more species out there, offering attractive characteristics like cold-hardiness and disease resistance.

One of Missouri’s most common hybrids is a highly versatile white grape called vignoles, created in 1930. It can be sweet, dry, or anywhere in between, with pleasing floral notes and mouthwatering acid.

On the red side, chambourcin is what Missouri winemakers call their “workhorse grape.” They use it in everything from rosés to dry red blends to port-style wines. On its own, this French-American hybrid created in the 1950s makes a light-bodied dry red that often has notes of cherry, tomato, olives, and herbs.

Cave Chambourcin in tank
Just-picked chambourcin starts fermenting in the tank at Cave Vineyard near Ste. Genevieve, MO.

Several of Missouri’s hybrids are made by crossing well known vitis vinifera varietals with other grape species. The vines are hardier, but the grapes produce wines that are strikingly similar to their vinifera parents.

At the Digress tasting, we’ll try chardonnay and gewurtztraminer hybrids next to their parent varietals to see if we can tell the difference!

The full lineup isn’t set yet, but I promise there will be a beautiful sparkling and a couple of other surprises too.

Beautiful Country, Welcoming Wineries

If you have the chance to visit Missouri Wine Country, you’re in for a treat. The state’s wine trails wind along lazy rivers that invite contemplation, past stunning bluffs offering wide vistas, and through rolling hills where the mist hangs low in the mornings.

The wineries are laid back and welcoming, with not a hint of pretension. You’ll often meet the owner or winemaker who’ll be eager to tell you his or her story.

The experience is best captured in pictures. Here are a few of mine.

Chaumette terrace
The terrace at Chaumette Vineyards and Winery, near Ste. Genevieve, MO, looks out over a wide vista of green rolling hills. It’s a relaxing place to enjoy a glass or a bottle.
Chaumette Henry Johnson
Chaumette winemaker Henry Johnson is serious about his wines and a little shy about pictures. I caught him in this moment of levity. 
Cave wine glass in cave
Cave Vineyard gets its name from the natural cave a short walk from the winery. Guests are encouraged to take their wine and picnics inside this cool and scenic escape.
Tom Polesel Villa Antonio
Owner-winemaker Tom Polesel of Villa Antonio, near Hillsboro, MO, took over from his father Antonio, an Italian immigrant who founded the winery in 2001. Tom has fond memories of listening to his dad singing old songs under the stars with his Italian friends after an evening enjoying his wines.
Aphrodite on vine La Chance
These Aphrodite grapes are a recently-created cross of Norton and mourisco, a Portuguese varietal often used in port. LaChance Vineyards near DeSoto, MO, is one of the only places in the world growing them. Aphrodite grapes yield an off-dry wine with notes of honey and flowers. Owner Harold Hamby grows exclusively experimental varietals like these, leaving “normal” Missouri grapes to others.
St. James Tasting Bar
St. James Winery was another pioneer in the rebuilding of Missouri’s post-Prohibition wine industry. It’s now one of the state’s largest producers. The new “premium tasting bar” showcases its wide range of quality wines. (Fun fact – my uncle used to be their insurance agent!)
Crown Tractor
Crown Valley Winery’s huge property near Ste. Genevieve houses elk and bison as well as grapes. The best way to see it is from a wagon pulled by a tractor!
Charleville
Charleville Vineyard‘s beautiful tasting room at the end of a back road near Ste. Genevieve, MO offers expansive views and a feeling of being in a private retreat. You can hike here from Chaumette, just over the hill.

Let me “Show You”!

It was a pleasure to discover new wineries, new wines, and new winemakers in the Show-Me State last month. Now, I’m excited to show you my discoveries in a couple of weeks at Digress, here in Orlando. Hope to see you there!

 

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