RIPE TIME FOR FRUIT WINE
Close your eyes and picture the landscape of wine country: gangly persimmon trees pushing orange fruit to the sky; fluffy blackberry bushes squatting by a fence; tufted mango groves topped with bristly heads of long, pointy leaves.
You imagined something else?
Talking about wine conjures up images of grapevines arranged in neat rows on a sunlit slope. Humans tamed grapes earlier than most fruits, and over the millennia we bred good wine into their DNA. A ripe wine grape’s sugar – the highest level of any other member of the berry family that includes fruits from melons to blueberries – yields about 11 percent alcohol even at moderate levels of ripeness, and most good wine regions get even more sugar than that. The tartaric acid found almost exclusively in grapes helps give wine its characteristic taste. The tannins in their skins and seeds give body, color and long life to a red wine. But the yeast that turns sugar to alcohol don’t care about the source; any fruit can be fermented. Mash it up, add yeast and watch the microbial munchers go to work.
Humans are pickier. Tell casual “regular wine” drinkers that you drank a bottle of olallieberry wine last night, and they’ll probably ask, with obvious skepticism, “Was it any good?”
Few disbelievers would ask the same question about cheese, pickles and preserves, yet fruit wines come from the same farmhouse roots. Farmers with excess produce had to preserve it before it rotted. You still find a particularly bountiful year in the histories of most modern-day fruit wineries. “We had lots of Santa Rosa plum trees on the property,” says Marty Bargetto, whose Bargetto winery near Santa Cruz has been making fruit wines since 1964. “One year, we had an extra crop and decided to make plum wine.” And many a home winemaker comes to the craft after an exuberant backyard tree showers the ground with fruit. (In California, most fruit wine comes from home winemakers, and it shows well in state fair competitions.)
But while other preserved foods have become gourmet goodies, fruit wine has never captured any foodie fans, perhaps because so many are off-balance and overly sweet. The best have a refreshing and intense fruit flavor and a low alcohol level that begs to be enjoyed on a hot summer day on a picnic blanket or a deck table. While Hawaii’s Tedeschi Vineyards produces 20,000 cases of fruit wine each year, Bargetto and most fruit wine wineries produce just a few thousand. So why have they never caught on?
“When people think of fruit wines, they think of Grandpa in the backyard,” says Bill Galarneau, who produces off-dry tropical fruit wines at Adams Point Winery in Berkeley’s western industrial sector.
“(Grandpa) may not have been a great winemaker. He may not have had good experience. The chances of getting good fruit wine from your backyard, well, the odds are stacked against you. People say, ‘Oh, you’re making fruit wine, not real wine.’ ”
He and other producers want to combat that picture. Not even fruit wine’s fans think these bottles contain the world’s greatest wine, but they want to elevate the fruit wine from its coarse, rustic past to an appreciated and admired present. It’s a tough road; too many are undrinkable.
But history made room for fruit wines wherever grapes were scarce. America’s early homesteaders warmed their bones in winter with fruit wines. In England, Sweden and France’s Normandy region, apple cider and perry or pear cider, enjoyed enough popularity that farmers raised fruit varieties suited more for the bottle than the bite. And in Alsace and Germany, fruit wine lives a mayfly’s life, while a distiller makes eaux-de-vie, high-proof fruit brandies that capture the essence of fermented fruit.
Tradition isn’t enough to net you a good bottle, though. Good winemaking skills set one bottle above another. Listen to fruit wine makers talk about their craft, and you could imagine the same words coming from top Napa vintners – in fact, many fruit wine makers also produce “regular” wine.
Fruit comes first
“I see a lot of these guys in the Midwest, they try to make fruit wine with bad fruit,” says Fred Koehler, whose father kept his farm afloat during the Depression with cherry wine, and who today heads up Illinois’ Lynfred Winery. “My view is that wine is like a computer: garbage in, garbage out. You have to start with the best fruit.”
“There aren’t any good books about making fruit wine,” he adds. “The way we did it, every time we made wine,
we took good notes. There’s nothing worse than making a good wine and three years later you can’t remember what you did. We discovered certain things you do and don’t do. You only get a shot once a year.”
Good fruit isn’t enough, though. Without a grape’s made-for-wine biology, other fruit requires more care in the winery if a winemaker wants to approximate a consumer’s view of what wine should be.
“Fruit doesn’t get the sugar level of grapes,” says Galarneau. “You get 6 to 8 Brix if you’re lucky.” Wine grapes reach a sugar level of 24 Brix, even more in sunny California.
“You have to add sugar at the beginning to bring the fruit to the same level,” he says. “But if you just add sugar, you end up with a syrupy mess. You need to adjust the acid and water to get the balance right. From that point on, it’s just like grape wine.”
But fruit wine makers must adapt more than their vinous counterparts. The wine industry supports “normal” wineries but offers little help to fruit wine makers.
“Anything you use in the wine industry, it doesn’t react the way you expect,” says Paula Hegele, president of Tedeschi Vineyards, a Hawaiian winery perched high on a dormant volcano’s slope. The winery has a vineyard, but most customers stock up on its pineapple wine. “When things don’t work, we hear, ‘Oh, you have different enzymes in pineapple.’ We have to be our own R&D department. Pineapple needs a lot of filtering because of the fiber. The continual racking and clarifying takes a little bit of time,” she says wryly.
On top of that, fruit’s physiology can vary more than wine grapes, a by-product of a shift in consumer habits. In many ways, fruit wine makers follow the local agriculture trends more closely than vineyard workers.
“The pineapple industry is going through major changes,” Hegele says. “The market for fresh fruit has changed. The pineapple has changed. Growers have developed pineapples that are lower in acid, with higher fiber because pineapple is now a fresh fruit market, not a canning market like it used to be. We’re always changing because the fruit changes.”
Fruit wine makers experiment with techniques, but few use common grape wine tactics that can muddy other fruit.
“A lot of the complexity in grape wine comes from the winery,” says Galarneau. “You put it in oak barrels, or you put it through malolactic fermentation. There’s no oak in my winery.”
He compares his wine to white wine, saying, “Some white wine makers leave the juice on the skins, and some pull it immediately. I ferment on the skins.” This adds body and richness to the final wine, just as it does with white wine grapes.
Koehler has experimented with oak in the past, but says, “We got away from that. You can’t improve on the pure fruit from a stainless steel tank. We haven’t put fruit wines on wood for five years.”
Even with all this care, fruit wines remain off the radar of stores and restaurants outside the wineries’ local areas. Fruit wine makers face a persistent prejudice against their product, even when it’s not “Grandpa’s wine.”
That prejudice doesn’t show any signs of going away, in part because even the best fruit wines have residual sugar, which Americans have trained themselves to equate with inferior wine. But that residual sugar balances out the tart fruit.
“The raspberry and olallieberry have twice the acid level of a red wine,” says Bargetto. “With that much acid, we produce them to have about 8 percent residual sugar.”
Other wineries are less careful. “A lot of these young winemakers, they don’t handle their wine the way it should be handled,” says Koehler. “The residual sugar has to be balanced against the acid. We want you to have a clean, refreshing mouthfeel, not that cloying, sugar aftertaste. You want wine that tastes like wine, not candy.”
American prejudice throws one stumbling block into the path, but so does the American government. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau, or TTB, allows fruit wine makers to add sugar, acid and water as needed – natural flavors and colors are even allowed – but they don’t allow a fruit wine to bear a vintage or place-name the way a grape wine does.
“I think it’s a waste to not allow vintage dating,” says Koehler. “You have good and bad years for fruit, just like you do for grapes.”
Those laws aren’t likely to change, if only because of the effort required by the TTB to police them. What does vintage mean to Tedeschi Vineyards when pineapple is available year-round? What does place-name mean to Galarneau when he buys mangoes from around the world?
Even in the face of this bias, fruit wines sell well at the winery, and some get picked up for national distribution. Perhaps some customers buy the wines as novelty items, but their makers push their food-friendly qualities, especially with light summer fare.
“It kind of fits our cuisine,” says Hegele of her pineapple wine. Her Maui Blanc, which has just a trace of sugar, evokes quaffing wines made with Trebbiano or Albarino, though her wines have an intense pineapple flavor those simple wines lack. “It works with spicy foods, like ginger and Szechuan cuisine. It’s a very good palate cleanser. It’s not a big meal kind of wine. It goes with Pacific Rim cuisine.”
The sugar in the wine often pushes it to the dessert course: Bargetto’s bottles suggest pairing them with ice cream or cheesecake. As a rule, most fruit wines have a similar profile to QbA Rieslings, the simple, refreshing and somewhat sweet German wines.
Fruit wines are a part of our culture’s tradition, a souvenir of our frontier heritage when homesteaders needed to use every scrap of food around them. They fermented fruit to warm their bones during the winter and prolong the memories of summer and fall. Fruit wine may never reach the gourmet aisles the way cheese has, but take a sip and you’ll taste a bit of the past.
A TASTE OF FRUIT
Tedeschi and Bargetto wines, the latter of which are sold under the Chaucer’s Cellars label, are both available at Beverages & More. Adams Point and Lynfred wines are available from the wineries. All of the wines are non-vintage.
Adams Point Winery Mango ($15) Don’t bother trying to make your friends guess the fruit in this wine: Intense mango aromas put a ripe piece of fruit in the glass, and the pure mango flavors linger on a medium finish. The acidity doesn’t temper the marked sweetness, but this is a pleasant adult drink. adamspointwinery.com.
Adams Point Winery Mango Papaya ($15.50) This wine, which has natural flavoring added, has an aroma both more complex and more muted than its pure mango brother, like mango custard to the other’s ripe fruit. Take a sip and you might imagine a tropical fruit salad with toasted marshmallows. Despite the low acidity, there’s not much sweetness to this wine, but there’s also not much finish.
Adams Point Winery Persimmon ($15.50) The natural color added to the wine gives it a blushing orange color, similar to an oxidized wine. Delicate persimmon aromas with floral components evoke a baked persimmon pudding, complete with a lightly spicy finish. There’s enough acidity to refresh, but not enough to clear the persistent sweetness.
Chaucer’s Cellars Olallieberry ($14) Even if you’ve never tasted an olallieberry, you’ll appreciate its complicated berry heritage in the burst of blackberry and raspberry aromas flowing from the glass. The tongue-curling acidity overwhelms the delicate berry flavor and tempers the mild sweetness.
Chaucer’s Cellars Raspberry ($14) You’ll think you’ve picked up a dark rosé as you hold the glass, but one whiff will tell you the fruit: This wine smells and tastes of pure raspberry and has a spine-tingling, mouth-puckering acidity. Though it has a fruit wine’s characteristic residual sugar, this fruit wine sits on the dry end of the spectrum.
Lynfred Winery Montmorency Cherry ($10) This ruby-colored wine tastes and smells like cherry Life Savers, with just a hint of cinnamon. The initial sugar and intense acidity remind you of a Sweet Tart, but the short finish gives your lips time to unpucker before the next sip. lynfredwinery.com.
Lynfred Winery Plum ($10) Fans of Austrian and German wines know how tart those wines can be, but this plum-scented and candy-flavored wine may have them beat.
Lynfred Winery Rhubarb ($8) The barest hint of pink color in this wine matches the cotton candy and delicate rhubarb aromas. (Though rhubarb is botanically a vegetable, it is often treated as a fruit.) Think baked rhubarb muted with cream, not raw strips. There’s a marked sweetness in this wine, but also a tart acidity that rushes in at the end.
Tedeschi Vineyards Maui Blanc ($8) Chop open a fresh pineapple or pour a glass of Maui Blanc: You’ll get the same intense fruit flavors either way. Of the fruit wines tasted for the article, this is the most like a dry white wine, with refreshing, clean acidity and only a light sweetness.
Tedeschi Vineyards Maui Splash (Passion Fruit) ($8) This wine has strong pineapple aromas like its all-pineapple kin, but the passion fruit flavors make them seem deeper and riper; the finish is a mélange of tropical fruit flavors instead of the straightforward pineapple. Lower acidity than the Maui Blanc makes this a sweeter wine overall.
– Derrick Schneider