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A vintage year for area winemakers?

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Neil Johnson
September 9, 2012

— Like so many days this summer, rain threatened, but none fell.

Joe Staller surveyed the rows of grape vines on his vineyard in rural Delavan as workers clipped bunches of shiny purple grapes and dropped them into white 5-gallon buckets.

Low clouds kept the sun at bay, and stands of drought-stung corn in the nearby field rustled in the cool Saturday morning breeze.

Yet the blistering-hot, dry weather that’s plagued crops in southern Wisconsin this summer has not been a big worry for Staller and his wife, Wendy Staller, who own and operate Staller Estate Vineyard and Winery on County A.

For them, it could be a vintage year for the wines that they produce from grapes in their 3-acre vineyard.

As the Stallers carried buckets of deep purple Frontenac grapes to feed into a crushing and destemming machine in their winemaking room, Joe Staller weighed a bucket.

It was 21.5 pounds.

“That’s not a bad weight. Not great, but not bad,” Joe said.

It’s not that it’s a bumper crop of grapes this year in southern Wisconsin. In fact, the Stallers, like other local grape growers, had to cull a percentage of grapes from the vines.

That’s because some of the grapes were slow to ripen as the vineyard labored in the drought—the grape vines’ leaves fading from green to tan and their 15- to 30-foot-deep roots going into overdrive to tap moisture from rains that so seldom fell this summer.

No, it has not been a bumper crop. So why do the Stallers’ believe that 2012 could be a fine year for southern Wisconsin wines?

“The secret this year is inside the grape,” Joe said.

The dry, hot weeks this summer followed an unusually warm spell in March that kick-started grape vine growth in Wisconsin.

A blast of cold weather in April stressed the new plants, but the drought this summer actually kept the developing grapes from falling victim to mildew and other blight that can strike Wisconsin grapes in what is typically a colder, wetter, shorter growing season than other grape-growing regions.

According to the Stallers, their red-wine grapes began to mature at the perfect time—during the brutal, 100-degree heat and pounding sunshine of July and August.

The four to six weeks of constant sunshine and the lack of rain gave the grapes an unprecedented playground in which to ripen, Wendy said.

“You want as much sugar as possible. Rain dilutes the amount of sugars in the grapes and it takes them longer to ripen. Too much rain can completely change sugar levels in the grapes,” she said.

That did not happen this year. The grapes ripened a couple of weeks earlier than normal, and they ripened with a high amount of sugar.

Both Joe and Wendy have biology and chemistry backgrounds. Give Joe a few minutes in the vineyard and he’ll wax poetic about how high sugar levels and tannic acid in well-grown red wine grapes give red wines their distinct characteristics.

That includes both the burst of sweet flavor—all that sugar—and the “puckeriness” of red wine’s aftertaste.

“There’s an astringency there, you see?” Joe said, tasting a grape off the vine.

Wendy just wrinkled her nose and handed a Gazette reporter a bunch of grapes.

“Just put a grape in your mouth. You’ll get it,” she said.

The grape was bursting with flavor, rich and sweet, with a sharper aftertaste of grape peel.

Inside the Stallers’ winemaking room, an electric pump slurped mashed grapes from the crusher’s hopper through a tube and into a tall, stainless steel fermenting tank. The smell of grape juice filled the room, a perfume of fruit and flowers.

“Just wait until it starts fermenting,” Wendy said, thumbing toward the metal tank. “You just want to jump in there.”

Fermenting is a couple of weeks off, but soon enough the Stallers will begin making red wine in earnest.

The Stallers, who also make white wines, say this year they’ll produce about 10,000 bottles of red wine, including “Lady in Red,” a merlot-like table wine, and “Estate Reserve,” a dry red wine that’s brought to maturity in barrels lined with oak staves.

One type of wine the Stallers make from their Frontenac grapes is Ruby Classico, a fortified red port wine.

Wine tasting is subjective. When explaining it, Joe delves into the chemistry of smell and taste, and a theory on taste and smell being rooted in “olfactory memory.”

For Joe, the Stallers’ red port wine swims with the dark flavors of chocolate and currant. He expects those same flavors will deepen in the port wine made from this year’s grapes, mostly because of the grapes’ higher sugar content.

“In the wine industry it’s kind of a cliché, but here’s the truth: It all starts with the grapes. If you can get a good quality of grape to start, then you’re going to have a really consistent flavor of wine later,” Joe said.

It’s always a waiting game. From vine to glass, it will take wine bottled from this year’s grapes a full year to mature.

Joe said that he’s always excited to taste the fermented fruit of a given year’s grape crop.

He hopes his prediction holds true—that southern Wisconsin grapes grown in the trials of this blazing summer will have turned into something special when the first bottle cork pops next September.


 
 

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