Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Missouri Wine: Reviving American Heritage Grapes at Vox Vineyards

Albania, America, Brilliant, Carman, Cloeta, Delicatessen, Favorite, Lenoir, Lomanto, Marguerite, Muench, Wetumka
These are winegrapes that were once grown in Missouri and middle America prior to Prohibition. They are just a handful among the many grapes developed in the rigorous breeding programs of viticulture pioneers Thomas Volney Munson, Hermann Jaeger, George Husmann, and Isador Bush. Each of these gentlemen received commendations from the French for rescuing that wine industry as mentioned in The Basics and between them developed hundreds of new wine grapes and rootstocks. The Show Me State is a prime grape breeding region as several diverse climates merge (eastern woodlands, western plains, Ozark Highlands, and the Mississippi Delta). Across the globe, there are about 79 different species of grapes in the genus Vitis (grapevines); but 27 of those are native to middle America. Thus Missouri has historically hosted many of these species: labrusca, aestivalis, riparia, rupestris, cordifolia, among others; and in fact, it was vines and rootstock from the riparia and rupestris species which were eventually grafted to French vines.

Post-prohibition, many of these vines have been lost, but there are groups of individuals who are dedicated to maintaining the legacy of the early grape pioneers. Jerry Eisterhold became one of these converts after reading Thomas Volney Munson's, Foundations of American Grape Culture in 1978. Inspired by Munson, in 1996 Eisterhold did what any reasonable person would do, he chartered a plane to scout topography and being a soil scientist by training (Agronomy at the University of Missouri and the third-best soil judge in the Big Eight) discovered a site in the Missouri River Bluffs. He also "reached out to Grayson College, a small university near Munson’s original vineyard in Denison, Texas. With their help, Jerry acquired cuttings from over sixty of the native varieties Munson had been developing for wine production". In 1996 this property was planted with two acres of vines in which Eisterhold just extended to six acres and judiciously, consulted with viticulturist Lucie Morton while planting specific rows.

For practically twenty years Vox Vineyards acted as an experimental vineyard narrowing down to 40 grape varieties which Eisterhold would like to widdle down to 12-20. Since he wasn't producing wine, Jerry could experiment freely without the market influencing his decisions. But in 2012 that changed and Vox Vineyards released its first vintage under the TerraVox label -- the Latin "terra", meaning "earth" or ground", and the Latin "vox", meaning "voice or "speech". The goal: " let the land speak for itself through our wine, and for our wine to be a Voice of the Land".

Vox was our very first stop along the Missouri Wine tour and our group received a similar epiphany regarding these heritage grapes. After introductions and a winery-vineyard tour, Eisterhold presented a slideshow on the importance of these American Heritage Grapes and the pioneers: Munson, Jaeger, Husmann, Bush, Muench, and Rommel - the latter two Munson named grapes after. Muench was a grower in Augusta and Rommel brought the first Norton into Missouri. After the slideshow, we were intrigued; how do these wines taste? Here are my notes from the three heritage grapes plus four styles of Norton.

2018 Albania ($32)
This is a Lincecumii-Aestivalis-Bourquiniana hybrid created by Munson in 1896 and is a cross of Ten Dollar Prize x Norton x Herbemont. It is late ripening with thin, but tough, skins used for late harvest and white wines. Eisterhold considers it the most sophisticated of the Munson whites. The nose is citrus and tropical, with a tart citrus core, and medium acidity. This is a most pleasant and easy drinking wine.

2018 Wetumka ($27)
This is a Labrusca-Vinifera-Bourquiniana-Aestivalis hybrid bred by Munson in 1893 by crossing Elvira x Herbemont x Gold Coin. This is another late ripening tough-skinned grape that retains a hint of its labrusca parentage. The strong aroma bounces between floral and elderberries and the core is tart with almost a funky pear cider component. But there's also a hint of Niagara or another strong grapey flavor and with all the combinations produces an interesting wine. I brought a bottle home to let it test the senses.

NV Wetumka RePort ($42 375ml)
This is the Wetumka fortified with local neutral grape spirits to 17.6%. It is delicious. I'm kicking myself for not purchasing a bottle. The strong floral aroma is present immediately and then the wine leads to a creamy interior and finishes with noticeable acids to balance the sugar and alcohol.

2018 Lenoir ($39)
Commonly known as Black Spanish in Texas, this grape is a Bourquiniana variety that was a natural hybridization between an aestivalis species of grape with an unknown vinifera pollen donor. Modern DNA analysis points to a Jacquez cultivar such as Madeira Jacquez. It is most popular in Texas because of its resistance to Pierce's disease and produces a full-bodied red wine. The TerraVox Lenoir is medium bodied with a woodsy profile and intense acids.

2018 Sunny Slope Rosé ($27)
The wine is made from Missouri's state grape Norton (aestivalis) and is quite tasty with a strawberry creamy core. The downside is a relatively flatter finish.

2018 Norton Saignée Rosé ($32)
This version of rosé has a little less fruit character than the preceding wine, but more lifting acids providing a refreshing finish. If TerraVox could somehow blend the fruit and texture of the Sunny Slope with the finish of the Saignée.....

2014 Norton ($35)
The winery had provided some bottle aging relief so this Norton does not shock the palate with a massive dose of acidity. It is still fresh with a friendlier cherry profile, not jammy, and with medium tannins. A solid Missouri Norton.

2016 Norton RePort ($40 375ml)
Once again, this wine has the acids to complement the sugar and alcohol providing a very fluid experience with really no sense of alcohol heat. Plus it's tasty revealing dried figs and plums. A dangerous wine at 19% abv.

2018 America Pet Nat ($42)
We actually didn't sample this wine but I purchased anyway and will provide an update on the tasting notes. But what patriot could ignore *M*R*C*?  According to Eisterhold, "We planted America, a red grape from Munson’s list, in our vineyard and we were surprised at how light in color last year’s crop was. The flavor was strangely beefy, similar to how steak tartare tastes. Our winemaker, Whitney Ryan, had the idea to lean into the funky taste, color and unpredictable nature of the grape and use it to make a pét-nat, a method of producing sparkling wine by bottling the wine during primary fermentation, capturing the carbon dioxide that’s naturally released".

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