Move over Napa. Wine industry matures in Bloomington, Indiana

When I was told that there was a thriving wine industry in Indiana – I thought it was the beginning of a riddle. Well, much to my surprise (and delight) I learned that wine production and consumption is growing in Indiana and the reviews from wine competitions indicate the industry is gaining domestic and international recognition.

In addition, at Purdue University the Departments of Food and Science and Horticulture and Landscape Architecture work closely with the Indiana Wine Grape Council to provide Indiana’s vintners and growers with expertise on viticulture (grape growing), enology (wine making) and marketing and an increasing number of domestic and international students are not going to California to study viniculture – but heading to Bloomington, Indiana.

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In the Beginning

Southeast Indiana (Switzerland County) is considered the birthplace of the American wine industry as it was the locale for the first successful winery in America founded by Swiss immigrant Jean Jacques Dufour who harvested the first grapes 1806 – 1807. He used the native Vevay Alexander grape rather than an imported European variety and studied the unique challenges of the region.

Other European settlers developed the Indiana wine industry through the 18th century and by the mid-19th century is was the tenth-largest wine grape producing state in the country. Dufour’s successful foray into the wine business encouraged others and the Ohio River Valley expanded making it the largest wine-producing region in North America.

Unfortunately, politics got in the way and by mid-century the wine growers and winemakers left the vineyards to fight in the Civil War. The industry disappeared as mildew and degenerative crop diseases took over the terroir. In the 20th century Prohibition totally destroyed production along with any interest in reviving it. If was not until the 1960s that viticulture was rebooted and family-owned wineries began to develop and market a viable product.

Indiana’s wine industry adds $72 million to the state’s economy and wine sales increase 15 percent yearly. Today there are two American Viticulture Areas (AVA) in Indiana: Ohio River Valley AVA (includes parts of Kentucky and Ohio) and the Indiana Uplands AVA that covers south-central Indiana. The Indiana Uplands Wine Trail is the first American Viticultural Area entirely within Indiana. There are 17 wineries and 19 vineyards with about 200 acres under cultivation. Nine of the wineries are members of the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail. Indiana wine production exceeds 1 million gallons a year (equal to 5 million bottles).

Agriculturally Challenged

It is not an easy life – being a grape in Indiana. The winters in the mid-west are very harsh. To overcome the struggle for survival, hybrid vines have been cultivated. A sturdy varietal and a signature grape for the Hoosier state is the Traminette which holds its own in cold weather and is resistant to disease. In 2009 the state of Indiana declared Traminette as the state’s signature wine and this designation has been supported by the Indiana Wine Grape Council’s marketing efforts, “Try on Traminette” campaign. Traminette successfully offers a flowery, aromatic white wine with a bit of spice that is frequently compared with its parent grape – Gewurztraminer.

Grape Varieties Popular in Indiana

Red:

• Chambourcin: This is considered as Indiana’s best red variety. It is a French hybrid able to withstand the phylloxera pest. As a late-ripening grape it does well in the southern part of the state. It offers moderate tannins and develops into a semi-dry table wine or blush.

• Marechal Foch: An early ripening black grape with small berries and clusters, the vines stand up to the cold; a popular red wine grape grown in northern Indiana that ranges from fruity, light table wines to hearty full bodied red.

• Norton: This species is native to eastern North America and is vigorous, resistant to most diseases, ripens late in the season and is best suited to southern Indiana.

• Concord: Frequently identifies as “grape jelly,” it is crafted into sweet wines and a most popular wine in Indiana.

• Catawba: Pink in color, this grape was discovered by the Catawba River in North Carolina. It is used to produce pink and rose wines and produces a medium-body, sweet, fragrant strawberry flavored wine.

White:

• Seyval: This hybrid grape variety has vines that ripen early and grow well in fairly cool climates. Offers suggestions of honey-suckle, melon and fresh-cut grass. Because of thin body, malolactic fermentation or barrel fermentation followed by oak aging is introduced to improve the taste on the palate.

• Vidal: This French-American hybrid produces dry to semi-dry, full bodied wine with fruity characteristics and offers clean citrus notes of lemon and grapefruit. It requires a long growing season and moderate winter temperatures. Used to make brandy and in the production of ice wine.

• Vignoles: Developed to fend off the phylloxera pest, this is a French hybrid that grows well in the Midwest. Perfect as a dessert wine as it produces a floral aroma and citrus flavors such as pineapple and honey or melon.

• Traminette: Developed through a cross between Jannes Seyve 23.416 and Gewurztraminer it offers roses and jasmine, nutmeg, black pepper, cloves and cinnamon to the nose and palate.

• Chardonel: Seyval and Chardonnay were crossed to produce a wine that is produced in stainless steel tanks or aged in oak barrels. The wine outcome is dry and full-bodied.

• Cayuga White: Ripens mid-season and crosses the hybrids Schuyler and Seyval Blanc at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. This hardy vine is bunch-rot resistant and when picked at the proper time produces a sparkling wine with good acid balance, structure and aroma or a fruity white wine reminiscent to Riesling or Viognier.

Government Legislation Increases Wineries

The year is 1971 and the Indiana legislature finally passes the Indiana Small Winery Act allowing for the development of small vineyards in the state. On the heels of the legislation, Indiana University law professor and wine-maker hobbyist, William Oliver, took advantage of the legislation and opened Oliver Winery. Although the start-up was modest, it grew quickly when he introduced Camelot Mead, a light wine made from honey. Today the winery is the 4th oldest operating winery in the state.

In 1983, at the age of 23, Bill Oliver took over the management of the enterprise from his father and began to improve the quality and variety of the wines produced. The new Creekbend Vineyard (1994) is the agricultural division of Oliver Winery of Bloomington, Indiana. This Monroe County site provides a hilltop location and well-drained limestone soil and combined with a long warm summer grapes are allowed to ripen- developing excellent Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio. It also produces both hybrid and viniferia estate wines, including award-winning reds.

The Tasting. Oliver Winery and Vineyards

1. Creekbend Noir 2014. Blend of 52 percent Corot Noir; 48 percent Marechal Foch

Corot Noir (round, soft body with low tannins; no oak influence) is harvested and crushed into stainless steel tanks. In the early stages of the fermentation process a portion of juice is removed from the tank, concentrating the impact of the skins on the remaining volume resulting in wine that is darker and more intensely fruit-forward; the remaining portion of the blend (48 percent Marechal Foch) is fermented entirely off skins. The outcome: Hints of black cherries presented in a light-bodied fruit-forward wine. Perfect for picnics with roast beef sandwiches or smoked chicken sausage grilled over an open flame with onions and mushrooms.

2. Pinot Noir 2013

Grown from Bien Nacido vineyards in California’s Santa Maria Valley. The grapes are cold-soaked on the skins to maximize color and fermented on the skins to extract tannin and additional color. A gentle press and then fermentation is completed to dryness. Aged in new and neutral French oak for 9 months this wine develops a lush and silky mouthfeel. Look for cherry and raspberry notes to the nose and berries and violets to the palate with hints of vanilla from the new French oak barrels. Pair with grilled salmon or pork tenderloin. For additional information, click here.

Butler Winery & Vineyards

Since 1983 Butler wines (owned by James Butler and his wife Susan) have been growing grapes and producing wines within the northern boundaries of the Indiana Uplands viticultural area. Jim has served as President of the Indiana Winegrowers Guild for ten years and is a member of the Indiana Wine Grape Council starting in 1990. His 8.5 acre vineyard produces about 10,000 gallons of wine annually. The Chesterton tasting room sells approximately 100 cases of wine each month. Increasing annual sales volume at the tasting room had led to an increase in land under cultivation and expanded wine production.

He grows and buys grapes from Indiana vineyards that include: Cayuga, Vignoles, Chardonel, Chambourcin, Traminette, Catawba and Concord and also makes fruit wines from Indiana growers.

Butler has been honored as the first Indiana winery to win one of the top five awards at the indy International wine competition for his 2008 Chambourcin Rose. (The Chambourcin competed against 3000 wines from 10 different countries).

The Tasting. Butler Winery and Vineyards

1. Chardonel 2013. A hybrid of Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc. Selected Best in Class Indy International Wine Competition

Aged in French oak offers notes of apples, hazelnuts and almonds. (Can be a “stand in” for Chardonnay). Pairs with roast chicken and pork chops.

2. Vidal Blanc 2013 (Estate Grown)

This is a cold hardy white wine grape that was developed by Jean Louis Vidal (1930s) and is a cross between the French Ugni Blanc grape and a Native American interspecies hybrid grape. Considered to be acidic and fruity – delivering hints of citrus, pineapple and floral notes. May be vinified to establish a Riesling-like character. Richly rewarding to the nose – sharing touches of pears and tropical fruits and offers up a citrus finish. Pair with brie with rind or poached seafood such as salmon or steamed clams, bacon and white beans. For additional information, click here.

Oenophiles

Sometimes wine connoisseurs get left out of the conversation when the discussion revolves around outdoor activities like biking and hiking – major activities in the Bloomington, Indiana area. It is now possible for travelers – whose idea of an outdoor sport is a glass of wine on an outdoor patio overlooking gardens and pools – can be part of the conversation. Bloomington is definitely a destination for outdoor fiestas. For additional information, click here.