American Midwest’s Hybrid wine Grapes
By Mark Gudgel | Photography by Carole Topalian
On a Wednesday in early February, snow rapidly descended from the dark morning sky to blanket the earth, making Omaha’s roads slow going and treacherous to navigate, if not entirely impassable. Two days later, on Friday, it broke 60 degrees Fahrenheit and the snow disappeared with the same rapidity with which it had come. Longtime residents of the area generally seemed to find the weather unremarkable.
The regions grape growers, ubiquitous and scattered across the expansive Midwestern area, face the considerable challenge of coaxing fruit from a place with extreme, often erratic weather, in addition to the usual obstacles to viticulture that include pests and pesticides, erosion, birds and other enemies of the vine. One way those who farm grapes have found success in these unfriendly environs is by favoring hybrid varieties over better-known Vitis vinifera (European grapes). Bred to be cold hearty and disease resistant, if less recognizable by name to most casual consumers, these hybrids make up the vast majority of the grapes being grown in the American Midwest.
While many people can tell you what they like in Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, popular varieties of vinifera, it’s far less common to hear someone wax poetic on the qualities of a fine bottle of Marquette. It can be difficult to pinpoint varietal flavors, given that so much of a finished wine’s taste comes from terroir, the decisions of the winemaker (such as whether to age it in oak and for how long) and other factors. But these lesser-known hybrid grape varieties, like their European cousins, often boast unique characteristics and can be fashioned into very good wines when in the hands and barrels of talented vintners. The following is a brief introduction to the varieties you’re most likely to encounter should you find yourself tasting in the Midwest
Of course, this is only the beginning. Many local vintners also make wines from various types of fruit, such as pears, apples or raspberries, in addition to brewing beer, cider and other beverages. Some more adventuresome vintners are taking great pains to grow vinifera in spite of Nebraska’s harsh and unpredictable climate. For example Jim Shaw, owner and winemaker at Soaring Wings in Springfield, Nebraska, makes a nice Syrah.
As the winter snows and late-spring freezes give way to the impending heat and drought of summer, new obstacles arise, though there can be no doubt that those who farm the vines in states better known for cattle and corn will both persist and persevere. They do so with little thought of reward in mind, save that you and I might purchase a bottle of their tremendous effort, take it home and enjoy it with dinner. We should probably oblige them.
A hybrid wine grape produced by French grape breeder Albert Siebel well over a hundred years ago, Chancellor is often crafted into beautiful, fruit-driven red wines.
A cross between Seyval and Chardonnay, Chardonel produces wines that often exhibit a roundness of mouthfeel that pays tribute to its French lineage.
Named for Ontario wine pioneer Adhémar de Chaunac, this varietal is often crafted into medium-bodied dry reds or blended with other varieties.
Extremely popular in Nebraska, Edelweiss was developed by Elmer Swenson at the University of Minnesota and is often made into a white wine so sweet you could pour it over ice cream.
Frontenac & Frontenac Gris
Respectively red and white in most cases, they are among the region’s most common, favored for durability against nature and the pleasant wines they often become.
Named for a French general from the Great War, “Foch” often produces a medium-bodied, easy-drinking wine that, when done well, can be reminiscent of Rhône reds.
Also known as “Minnesota 1211” to oenophiles (wine geeks), Marquette can be made into a pleasant dry red wine with both great balance and complexity.
A staple of Missouri’s wine industry and the state grape of Missouri, Norton is often turned into rich, full-bodied red wine and benefits greatly from oak aging.
Seyval (also known as Seyval Blanc)
A hybrid that has gained popularity both in America and abroad for its ability to thrive in cool climates, it often exhibits desirable mineral and citrus notes and is typically made into white wine.
Another Elmer Swenson hybrid, St. Croix is made into medium- to full-bodied reds with low tannins and, often, unmistakable notes of pickles.
The brainchild of Nebraska viticulture pioneer Ed Swanson of Cuthills Vineyards, Temparia is a Tempranillo hybrid that can be crafted into one of the best reds in the region.
A hybrid crossed with Gewürztraminer, Traminette is often transformed into beautifully complex white wines with spicy and herbaceous notes.
Visit these websites to learn where you can experience all that local wine has to offer.
Nebraska native, Dr. Mark Gudgel is a teacher and writer with a great love of travel and of wine. Mark has been writing about wine for nearly half a decade and publishes the blog ITheeWine.com with his wife, Sonja. They live in Omaha with their son, Titus, their dog, Mollie, and are expecting their second child in April. Their book about Nebraska’s wineries will be released as soon as life slows down a bit.