Chokeberry was an essential ingredient in the native American diet, either dried for winter use or mixed with fat and buffalo meat in pemmican - a staple of the native Indian’s of the prairie. Wild chokecherries were not only abundant; they are also loaded with nutrition. Chokecherries are a better dietary source of potassium (269mg/100g) than blueberries and strawberries, and contain 4.7g of fiber, 1.5g of protein, and 0.3g of fat per 100g of fruit. Today chokecherries are used to make syrups, jellies, jams, and wine - although winemaking is difficult because the berries are highly acidic and quite tart. Plus the seed accounts for over 50% of the berry’s volume. Despite this trouble and from its winter hardiness it is the fruit of choice for many vintners in the northern United States and Manitoba, Canada.
The first winery to vinify chokecherry commercially and perhaps privately was Prairie Berry Winery in South Dakota. The Vojta family had been creating wine from chokecherry ever since the first family members immigrated to South Dakota from Moravia in the late 1880’s. The recipe was passed to succeeding family members up to the present, where current winemaker Sandi Vojta (the 5th generation) decided to share the family wine. And why not, she grew up knowing how chokecherry wine should taste and was certain the public would accept this unique product. She first, though, had to convince the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Agency to allow production of commercial wines from the fruit. Once this was accomplished, other wineries were able to follow suit. Prairie Berry Winery’s “bread and butter” chokeberry wine is their Great Grandma’s Chokecherry, a wine made almost exactly from the original family recipe. This wine is made semi-dry and has a strong fruity flavor. The winery also creates a port-style chokeberry wine in their Great Grandma’s Chokecherry Bliss. In this wine, the chokecherry wine is fortified with cherry Kirsch which produces a great dessert wine. The chokeberries are also blended with grapes to create the Pheasant Reserve and with honey to make Chokecherry Honeywine. The Vojta family deserves our recognition for paving the path for the general public to enjoy this fruit wine.
In neighboring North Dakota, Chokecherry wine is one of Maple River Winery’s top sellers. According to Greg Kempel, Chokecherry wine is popular in North Dakota because “Everyone that grew up in the Midwest on a farm either made or knew someone that made chokecherry wine”. And since traditional vinifera grapes do not fare well in the Dakota’s harsh climate, fruit wines, such as chokecherry, must truly stand out to grab the public’s attention. Maple River Winery’s version is semi-sweet and they recommend serving with red meat dishes. Even though the wine is popular locally, the winery is seeking to alleviate the national "Grape" obstacle, i.e. the belief that all quality wine is produced from grapes. Mr. Kempel sees that, “with education, our chokecherry wine is gaining tremendous popularity...even in wine country”.
Further west, in Mt. Pleasant Utah, Native Wines specializes in creating wines from wild fruit. Chokecherry is one of their products, not only from its flavor, but also from its healthy side effects. Each year the winery sends samples of their red wines to a laboratory for antioxidant testing and chokecherry wine always tests near the top in its antioxidant scores. Chokecherry also has a long tradition in Utah, from the Native Americans and early pioneers to the present. Mr. Bob Sorenson, Native Wines owner\winemaker, says that many middle-aged and elderly customers are pleasantly surprised to find Chokecherry wine available. Mr. Sorenson’s Chokecherry wine is rather unique in that he adds a few pits of the fruit, which creates a “warm spicy/nutty” aspect to the flavor. He admits that since the pits contain a certain amount of cyanide some people may be worried about drinking the wine. However, Mr. Sorenson reply’s that “many old recipes include the nuts of the stone fruits and as long as the products are consumed in reasonable quantities there will be no adverse effect”. We for one will take him at his word and look forward to trying his version of Chokecherry wine.
Traveling north into Manitoba Canada, D.D. Leobard Winery started making Chokecherry wine in 2005 after three years of trials. The winery is located in Winnipeg and specializes in producing wines from locally grown or wild fruit. Their Chokecherry wine is made from wild berries and made off dry, with a strong cherry flavor. Although the wine has been well received by critics (it was awarded a bronze medal at the 2006 All Canadian Wine Championships) it has been demanding to produce commercially. First, the winery has found it troublesome to find someone to pick their supply of wild berries. Second, Chokecherry wine is difficult to produce. The berries are small and initially highly acidic and quite tart. The winemaker must reduce these properties while simultaneously extract the natural cherry flavor of the fruit. Finally, although Chokecherry wine is very popular in Manitoba, it is difficult to sell because of this popularity. Many people either make their own Chokecherry wine or know some family member or friend who makes it; thus, according to Denis d'Eschambault, one of the winery’s co-owners, “why pay for it!”
Chokecherry wine is produced by a little over a dozen wineries in North America, most likely from wild berries and family recipes. The styles range from the semi-dry version offered by Colorado Cellars Winery to the sweet, port-style Chokecherry wine offered by the Lil' Ole Winemaker Shoppe in Wisconsin. We are certain, regardless of the style, that the majority of wine consumers will appreciate this wine, once the opportunity to taste one, presents itself.