Friday, March 25, 2011

Wollersheim wines, French Marshals and the English wine industry


Even casual drinkers of wine are familiar with the major grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gamay…

Looking at Wollersheim’s lineup of wines one finds a different heritage for many of their wines  (http://www.wollersheim.com). 

Prairie Fume is Wollersheim’s most popular wine, accounting for one-third of their annual production of 240,000 gallons of wine (1.2 million bottles). It is 100% Seyval Blanc. The Seyval Blanc grape is also the major contributor to the blend in the Blushing Rose and River Gold wines. However, the major grape for many Wollersheim wines is the Marechal Foch (after the famed French marshal of World War I who said: "Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack.") which can be found in Domaine du Sac, Domaine Reserve, Prairie Sunburst Red, Prairie Blush, Blushing Rose, Port, Tawny Port, and Ruby Nouveau. The other grape varieties that are used, also usually as blends, are St. Pepin grapes in the Eagle White, Ice Wine and Late Harvest wines, the Lacrosse grapes in the Eagle White wine, and the Millot grapes in Domaine du Sac and the Domaine Reserve.

So what are Seyval Blanc, Marechal Foch, St. Pepin, Lacrosse and Millot?

Standard wine reference books, such as Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine, only have a passing reference to Seyval Blanc and do not even refer to the others.

The major European wine grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Gamay…. come from the Vitis Vinifera species. Most members of this species are considered tender, or very tender, with respect to cold weather. Grapes from the Vitis Vinifera species are used in some Wollersheim wines such as their Sangiovese, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Dry Riesling – these grapes being brought in to Wollersheim from Washington state -- and in their White Port (made from the Muscat grape from New York state). 

However, the grapes used in all the other Wollersheim wines – Seyval Blanc, Marechal Foch, St. Pepin, Lacrosse and Millot -- were developed by crossing Vitis Vinifera species with species native to North America such as Vitis Riparia (the “river bank grape” native to northeastern North America) and Vitis Rupestris (found in most parts of North America).
 
The Marechal Foch grape and the Millot grape – which are the two components of Wollersheim’s Domaine du Sac wine are considered “siblings”, and the Seyval Blanc grape was used to create the St. Pepin grape.

They are hybrid grapes that have been “designed” to withstand the cold winters, possibility of spring frosts, humid summers, and short growing seasons of the Upper Midwest and upstate New York. They also have a greater resistance to mildew and other fungal diseases that attack vines. Marechal Foch, St. Pepin, Lacrosse and Millot are considered very hardy with respect to cold weather, and are grown in the Lake Wisconsin Viticultural Area. Seyval Blanc is considered moderately hardy, and is custom-grown for Wollersheim in the Finger Lakes area of New York state.

Parenthetically, the table grapes commonly found in groceries and supermarkets are usually Concord grapes, from the Vitis Labrusca species, which is also native to northeastern North America. These grapes are also commonly used for juice, jams and jellies.

Elmer Swenson (1913 – 2004) of Osceola, Wisconsin was a pioneer in the development of many of these hybrids. Swenson began breeding grapes in 1943, at his own farm, starting a program of crossing French grapes with selections of local wild species – Vitis Riparia. He is credited with developing (and patenting) the St. Pepin and Lacrosse grapes that are used in some of the Wollersheim wines.

The use of hybrid grapes is not permitted for commercial wine production in the European Union, and thus wines from these hybrid grapes – such as many of those used in Wollersheim wines -- are almost exclusively a New World phenomenon. In Europe, the Seyval Blanc grape is grown mainly in England, and the illegality of the grape for commercial wines is a source of conflict between the EU and the English wine industry (who knew there was an English wine industry?).

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