Middle America's new wine country heats up
At its best, drinking wine is a sensory experience, full of complex flavors and intoxicating bouquets. A fine wine can also transport your imagination to another place in time: an afternoon in Tuscany sipping Chianti; a sultry night of dancing in Barcelona dizzy on Roda II; the day you plan to pour up a glass of Frog Hollow Foch and propose to your beloved in a windswept Iowa cornfield.
Yes, Iowa. And Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
The Upper Mississippi River Valley may not be Bordeaux yet, but the region is beginning to hold its own in the world of wines. Dozens of wineries dot the Upper Mississippi, reports Big River Magazine (Sept./Oct. 2005), and together they are vying for federal designation as an American Viticulture Area 'based on the distinct topography, soils, bedrock, and microclimates of the Upper Mississippi.'
Known more today for corn and soybeans, the region has a strong history of grape production (in 1919, Iowa ranked sixth in the nation). The liberal application of the herbicide 2,4-D to other crops in the 1930s and 1940s, and its subsequent drift, 'caused considerable damage to remaining vineyards and was a key factor in the decline of the grape industry in Iowa and other Midwestern states,' reports Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. Even today, 2,4-D drift can wipe out an entire vineyard, and in heavily industrially farmed states like Iowa, it is a serious concern.
Cold weather is another challenge to Midwestern vineyards. While warmer-climate grapes can be grown in the Midwest, they struggle to survive the harsh winters. The University of Minnesota and other institutions are creating new cold-hearty hybrid grapes that can withstand temperatures of -20 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. In the French tradition of terroir, which denotes the 'taste of place' of a food or drink, the new grape hybrids are being named after regional towns and rivers, such as La Crosse and St. Croix.
State governments have jumped on board to foster the burgeoning Midwestern wine trade. Iowa now has more than 30 acres of vines, and southwestern Wisconsin, with the help of a program instituted in 2000 to switch tobacco crops to grapes, has more than 50 acres. Illinois hired an enologist (wine expert) to help develop its wine, and while the state's wine industry has faced recent challenges, last spring Governor Rod Blagojevich renewed his state's commitment to winemaking and declared September 'Illinois Wine Month.'
What do these wines taste like? Limestone. 'The limestone in the soil here could be discernable, especially in the white wines,' says John Brietlow, a wine judge from Winona, Minnesota. 'Keeping the limestone taste would be the winemaker's choice, of course.'