Saturday, March 6, 2010

Midwest Wine Tasting: A Holy Grail?

Brad Post:
The Two Wine Brothers were invited to Tassel Ridge Winery, located near Pella in central Iowa about an hour southeast of Des Moines, for a program touted as a “Red Wine Lovers” event.  A gorgeously sunny day followed us as we drove for 90 minutes through a landscape of gently rolling farm fields enshrouded in brilliant snow white.  Acres of vineyard announced our arrival as we neared the winery, and snow drifts piled roof-top high encircled us as we drove into the visitor friendly parking lot.
We were warmly greeted by the Tassel Ridge staff, including owner (Bob Wersen), winemaker (Rhonda Taylor) and vineyard manager (Steve Richardson) and after an impromptu tasting at the expansive tasting bar we were whisked away to the cellar for the program.  Modeled after premium California wineries, Tassel Ridge Winery created an impressive and impeccable winery sparing no expense.  Upon exiting the main Tasting Room level we were offered a brief glimpse of the winery below as we made our way down the stairs.  Immediately upon entering the chilly cellar floor area you could tell this winery is poised for success.  In front of me were two large format oak barrels (containing several hundred gallons of Marquette wine each), to my left an automated Bottling Line, to my right several two-thousand gallons stainless steel tanks filled with aging wine. And next to the large format barrels a mini-tasting bar and interspersed with samplings of food for our wine-food paring.
The “Red Wine Lovers Event” purpose was to provide a level of education for those of us with a deep interest (some would say passion) for red wines.  In addition to providing an education of red wine making given by the winemaker, the vineyard manager (also a wine educator) provided insight into food-wine pairings and answered any wine growing questions to the 30+ visitors on hand.  A lively and interactive red wine making tutorial was presented by the head winemaker who stood teasingly in front of the large oak barrels.  Two red wines, Marquette and Merlot, were on tap for barrel sampling, a process where the winemaker using a “wine thief” retrieves a small sample from a barrel and gives all in attendance a tantalizingly small portion to taste.  (Times like these I have to remind myself it is a tasting, it is a tasting, it is a tasting – not a drinking).
In our large semi-circle, wine glass in hand, swirling, sniffing, looking, and sipping the Tassel Ridge staff guided us through a casual tasting asking us to describe the wine as best we could.  Throughout the process questions about fermentation and wine treatment were asked and answered. The two grape varietals for the tasting represent very different wine grapes. The Merlot, a “noble” or traditional vinifera grape of France and California fame is brought to Tassel Ridge via refrigerator trucks, from CA, in bins of whole grapes and processed on site.  The Marquette, a new hybrid grape created by the University of Minnesota, was developed to survive and thrive in cold-climates like Iowa.  Marquette is related to the regionally familiar Frontenac and internationally recognized Pinot Noir and is grown and processed by the winery.
As an advocate and vocal supporter of non-vinifera grapes, namely cold-hardy grapes grown in the Midwest, I was most interested in the new Marquette wine.  New being the key!  This grape, for the most part, has only been in the ground for about 4 years and this vintage represents one of the first plantings and harvests in Iowa. Heartland wine growers continue to seek the “holy-grail” of red wine grapes (i.e., fully ripens, good sugar, manageable acidity and pH, and no funky off-flavors) and much hype and hope rests on the inky purple shoulders of this new grape varietal.  In the vineyard, according to the wine grower, Marquette is a pleasure to work with ripening to an amazing 28° Brix (that’s 28% sugar – huge for Iowa!) and harvested at 11.5 g/L total acidity (bright and lively but manageable), and 3.3-3.4 pH (perfect).  On the downside the birds really love them; so much, in fact, that nearly half of the anticipated 21 tons were eaten by the grape-loving birds. Total harvest: 10.5 tons.
Fermentation: The Marquette was crushed-destemmed and left to cold-soak (e.g., to aid in color extraction without fermentation taking place) before being pumped into the new, large-format French oak barrels.  The macerated Marquette was warmed to appropriate temperatures and transferred to the oak barrels where fermentation was allowed to occur for nearly a week. Twice a day pump-over’s took place and Malolactic Fermentation (MLF) was started midway through alcoholic fermentation.  Then the wine was pressed and filtered and returned to the clean large French oak barrels for aging. Projected barrel contact time: 2-2.5 years.
Tasting Notes:  The wine thief delivered a small sample to my glass, yet it was obvious, at first impression, Marquette is a penetratingly attractive garnet hued, medium intensity wine.  After a couple of gentle swirls around my chalice, fascinating aromas of black cherries, spice, fig and a hint of leather suggested something interesting was awaiting me. Hopeful but wary of disappointment I took my first sip.  Hopeful. My taste buds were happy to first encounter black raspberry, then underneath a subtle buttery signature of secondary fermentation, smidgeon of vanilla, and a light smoky quality.  Tasty.  The family tree (i.e., Pinot Noir and Frontenac) is well represented with bright acidity and modest body, evocative of a young Pinot Noir. Impressive.  Marquette, very youthful (about 5-6 months old) and exciting, will benefit from extended maturity and barrel time.  
Post Tasting Notes:  This was the fourth Marquette wine I have tasted over the past year – all have been extraordinary.  On the vine it is delicious and now, it appears, in the glass equally sublime.  Not to oversell or overstate the importance of the grape program at the University of Minnesota or the potential of this cold-hardy grape varietal, but Marquette could quite possibly become the signature red wine of Iowa (and the Midwest) if these samplings are any indication.  Any grape capable of surviving at -35F and make wine like this deserves acknowledgement.  Lastly, the staff and owner of Tassel Ridge Winery were incredibly hospitable and friendly and special thanks to Derek for the invitation and the sample of the 2006 St. Croix.  Tassel Ridge Winery is a state of the art, modern winery with a big vision – tremendous production increases are on the way.
Whether Marquette will ultimately become the signature red of Iowa (or the Midwest) or fulfill an almost prophetic position as the “holy-grail” there can be little doubt great wines are being made in Iowa now!

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