by Richard Paul Hinkle
Santa Rosa, Calif. –– Years ago, Richert & Sons in the Santa Clara Valley of California offered a string of excellent fruit and berry wines–including strawberry, apricot, plum, pomegranate and kiwi. Good as they were, sales always lagged. “If I can get folks to taste ’em, they’ll buy,” complained owner Scott Richert. Getting people to taste them, that was the hardest sell.
That remains true. “The best producer of fruit wines in the Midwest is Fred Koehler, over at Lynfred Winery, just west of O’Hare International,” asserted Sterling Pratt, long time wine director at the Chicago area’s Schaefer’s Wine & Foods. “Fred knows how important it is for customers to actually taste the wines, so he put in a bed-and-breakfast at the winery and has a very extensive tasting room program to acquaint people with his wines. It helps that, unlike other fruit wine producers, he doesn’t use ‘seconds’ or ‘culls.’ He uses only ‘food grade’ fruit, and you can taste it in the wines. His plum wine tastes like plums.”
Pratt is correct: the wines–made in a showcase, ivy-covered brick facility–are stunning in fruit purity, their fruitiness and tart, tangy finishes (particularly the rhubarb, plum and cherry). Koehler’s winemaker is Chilean-born Andres Basso, who worked for Concha y Toro there, and Merryvale (Napa Valley) and Gordon Brothers (Washington state) in the U.S.
“The major difference between grape and fruit wines is that there is no tartaric acid in the latter,” Basso explained. “We only have to deal with malic acid, which is stable. Thus, we need not do any cold stabilization, so our time frame is shorter, fermentation to bottle. Our primary difficulty is filtration, as there are many solids in fruit and berry wines. Pectin levels are high, so we have to use more enzymes. So we treat them much like we would treat a sweet white wine: DE filtration, then a polish pad filtration prior to bottling. Nutrient levels are good, especially in our strawberry wine. Yeasts are the same as you’d use for grape wines–we use a Cote de Beaune. For some fruit wines we have to add sugar; others we have to ameliorate, add water, for low pH. Cranberry can be at 2.7 pH; really hard to get a fermentation going with that.”
Basso said that he aims for 10 or 11% alcohol with his fruit wines. “We want the fruit to show through, we want them to be juicy. You go any higher in alcohol, and you lose the essence of the wine. When you’ve got a good fermentation going, the fruit smells so good that you want to dig into the stuff right then.” He noted that he can get rhubarb for 30 cents per pound ($600/ton), but has to pay a dollar per pound ($2,000/ton) for blueberries. “We pay a little less than what you’d pay for the same fruit in the supermarket.”
Another Illinois producer is Lucian Dressel (formerly with Mount Pleasant in Missouri). He produces an apple wine that has all the subtlety of a German Mosel, with a delicate, underlying apple essence. “Production is pretty similar to that of our other ‘real’ wines,” Dressel said, “but apple wines require a little more in the way of nutrients. They do have the advantage that they don’t coat the tank with cream of tartar crystals, so clean up is easy. We use an even blend of Fuji, Granny Smith and Red Delicious apples, which typically run about $500 per ton. No amelioration is required; the wine is all apple juice, and we ferment in stainless. We have never had any labeling issues, and our wines are sold mostly in Illinois and Missouri at $5.99 per bottle.” Under the Illinois Cellars label, Dressel’s apple wines account for 5% of the winery’s 20,000 case annual production.
Chateau Grand Traverse is Michigan’s vinous leader, with a strong showing on the fruit side. “Cherries are very big here,” said German-born winemaker Bernd Croissant, who has been at the winery for 15 years. “Michiganders pick nearly 90% of the national cherry crop, usually in early and mid-July. Most of the crop goes for pie fillings, juice concentrate and a liquid that’s supposed to cure arthritis. We like it for wine. Sometimes we ferment the juice fresh, sometimes we use concentrate, and sometimes we freeze the cherries so we can handle them when we’re not so busy with our grape wines. That year-round flexibility is nice to have.”
Croissant noted that a ton of cherries will yield over 200 gallons of juice. “We use rice hulls to make pressing easier, and a standard Prise de Mousse yeast, like DK-1. Fermentation is done in stainless, and we can have the wine in the bottle in four to six months after DE filtration and a sterile filtration just prior to bottling. The only labeling problems we have are with our ‘formula’ wines, like Spiced Cherry or Sangria. Most of our wines sell for less than $10 per bottle, and most are sold here in Michigan. We used to make a cherry-Riesling blend that I really liked. It was dry. Didn’t sell; so now it’s sweet,” he said. Grand Traverse produces 65,000 cases per year; fruit wines account for about 17,000 cases of that total.
The production of fruit and berry wines seems to know no bounds. While their strongest bastion is in the middle of the country–Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio are category leaders–even South Dakota makes a strong showing. Sandi Vojta is winemaker at the award-winning Prairie Berry Winery in Rapid City. “The fruit wines that I make are so dramatically different from each other that there are many production differences just within fruit winemaking itself,” she said. “Some fruits are fermented whole berry, others are pressed and the juice is fermented. The main differences are in how the fruit must is prepared for fermentation, in that they usually require a higher degree of chaptalization (sugar addition), amelioration, acid adjustments and assimilable nitrogen requirements. Once the fruit must is where I want it, the fermentation process is very similar to most grape fermentations. Some fruit wines are started out with a three to five day cold soak. The lighter colored fruits, such as the Wild Plum, are often fermented at cooler temps, similar to a white grape wine, while the darker fruit wines, such as Black Currant, are fermented a little warmer–it does improve color and stability.”
The cost of wild fruit, even more than grapes, can swing dramatically from year to year. “As with grapes,” Vojta said, “we are at th e mercy of Mother Nature not only with temperature, but moisture, in that it is not possible to irrigate. Some years, she treats us well with plenty of moisture and sun and we have bumper wild fruit crops. Other years, there is a late frost, little moisture, hail, etc., and very l
ittle or no wild fruit at all. So, in banner years, we go like hell and buy as much fruit as we can. On average, a ton of wild fruit yields approximately 250 to 330 gallons of wine. Domestic fruit and wild fruit prices range anywhere from a $1,000 per ton . . . to $12,000 per ton.”
She said many powerful yeast strains work interchangeably well with fruit or grape wines (ICV-GRE, 71B, Fermirouge and Fermiblanc), and that she conducts most fruit fermentations in stainless steel, but does use oak for chokecherry, apricot and wild plum. “I utilize crossflow filtration for both fruit wines and grape wines. They both typically get crossflow filtered twice during the aging and stabilization process. Most of our fruit wines are fermented, stabilized, filtered, bottled and finished with Stelvin screwcap closures.”
“Most label problems occurred in the past with the wild fruit wines, such as chokecherry or wild buffaloberry. We sell most of our wines right out of our tasting room. Most of our wild fruit and domestic fruit wines retail around $13-$14 per bottle.” The Red Ass Rhubarb shows powerful raspberry and rhubarb fruit, with a hint of dark chocolate complexity, and the Chokecherry Medley puts you right in the middle of a wild berry patch.
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Oak Knoll Winery is known for Chardonnays that taste of the grape and Pinot Noirs that are succulent and supple. But Oak Knoll Winery is renowned for the delightful Frambrosia (red raspberry) wine it’s made for 30 years; a velvet-textured raspberry delight that is a steal at just $10 per bottle. “People love it as a complement to cheesecake or dark chocolate, or poured over peaches or vanilla ice cream,” said owner Marge Vuylsteke.
“It takes a full pound of fruit for each half bottle,” she continued. “We freeze the berries so that we can conduct the fermentation after we’re finished with the grape crush. But the freeze-thaw also breaks down the berry’s cell structure and helps release the juice. After a gentle pressing, we ferment the wine to dryness. Unlike grapes, berries have almost double the acidity and about half the sugar, so we have to add water and sugar to get to a desired balance, both for alcohol content (about 13%) and residual sugar (9%).” The results are about as pure an expression of “berry-ness” as you are ever likely to find.
Then there’s Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Frambroise ($12 per half bottle), a bit thicker at 17% alcohol, and with blackberry and raspberry flavors in full profusion. “We call this our ‘tsunami of raspberry essence rendered in liquid form,'” said owner/winemaker Randall Grahm. “We make it from lightly fermented raspberries from Mt. Vernon, Wash., sweetened and then fortified with un-aged grape brandy. This wine’s European precursor is the so-called Crème de Framboise produced in Burgundy, Alsace, Switzerland and Germany. This wine has been a staple for hedonistic sybarites throughout Europe for centuries.”
Veteran wine salesman Bill Traverso (Traverso’s Gourmet Foods, Santa Rosa, Calif.) loves judging the fruit- and berry-wine category at wine competitions. “The cherry wines from Michigan are sensational, the raspberry wines tingle in your mouth, the plum wines from Japan have a following, and customers love the honey wines (Mead) heated in winter. Chaucer’s Mead (Bargetto Winery) even comes with a small bag of spices on the bottle neck.”
Most of the fruit and berry wines are, slightly chilled, a dessert all by themselves or a good “little something” at bedtime. The raspberry wines are particularly good with dark chocolate or dark berry sorbets, and even go well with cheesecake, chocolate mousse or chocolate soufflé. Grahm suggests pouring them over shaved ice (“a sno-cone with an attitude”), or dabbing a little on the nape of your neck.