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This month finishes the last drop of the first four years of writing for Julien’s Journal. With February’s edition a new bottle is opened, complete with a variety of bouquets and palate senses to experience.

The first “Wine & Spirits” article was about John Burns and what he was doing at Barrel Head Winery. In 2013, John had a few wine award medals to his name, but since then he has more hardware than can be displayed. One in particular that he won in 2013 was a gold medal for his Dry Noiret, which was also a Sweepstakes Nominee. At the same competition, Barrel Head’s The Wild One Dessert Wine also took home a gold medal. Barrel Head took a double gold in the 2014 Finger Lakes International Wine Competition for his Dry Cuvee Cougar methode champenoise (in the method of champagne). The 2012 vintage of this wine took gold in the Mid-America competition. In 2015 at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition Barrel Head took two silver medals, one for his Dry Concord and another for the Dry Apple wine. He also garnered four Bronze medals for his Sweet Blush, Sweet Cranberry, Dry La Crescent, and Dry Tom Cat Champonese. The Barrel Head Sweet Blush and Dry Marechal Foch both took silver medals in the 2015 Mid-America Wine Competition. These are just a selection of medals for John Burns and Barrel Head Winery. Several other wineries in the areas, including Heritage Winery, Tabor Home, and Park Farm, have also earned medals in competitions.

Back in 2008, Iowa boasted over 80 wineries statewide, but since then the Iowa wine industry has seen rapid growth and currently boasts more than 100 wineries and nearly 300 vineyards, covering 1,250+ acres. Just last year, Wine Diamonds, a film about the flourishing wine industry in the Midwest, was shown at a special screening during the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival. It tells the story and details of several of the area wineries that are producing regional, national, and international award-winning wines. Grapes being grown in the Midwest are relatively new in comparison to Noble Grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay that have been around for hundred if not thousands of years. The fact that Iowa and Midwest grapes and wines are beginning to catch the eye of wine enthusiasts around the world is a harbinger of things to come.

Speaking of local wineries, it is worth your time to check out the wineries just over Iowa’s borders. North of us in Minnesota, they are making some very nice, award-winning wine and the same goes for many creative people in Wisconsin. If you are traveling north toward the Twin Cities, head over to Kasota, MN and visit Chankaska Creek Winery. Or, just north of Lacrosse in Trempealeau, WI, visit Elmaro Winery. Both of these will show you a number of different quality wines being produced in our region. And don’t forget the wineries in Illinois, especially those of Galena Cellars Winery headed by the Lawlor family. Chris and her brother Scott have been pioneers in the industry and have helped many a winemaker get started. Mark Wenzell of August Hill Winery credits Chris with steering him toward making sparkling wine. He went on to form the Illinois Sparkling Company, which makes about six different varieties of bubbly (carried by Family Beer), and it is very good!

While on the road, don’t be afraid to follow signs that point toward a winery along the way. Stop and sample their wines and take notes so you’ll remember. Buy a bottle or two if you like it and tell your friend. That’s how we can support and grow our local wine industry.

One of my goals last year (and it will remain one this year) was to share with readers wines from other countries or lesser known wines to hopefully expand our knowledge and appreciation of wine. The trip to France exposed me to small, local, and regional wines that truly express terroir. Many that I visited were small productions, family-owned vineyards and wineries that just made good wine. They didn’t add a lot to the grapes; they simply cultivated the vineyards, harvested the grapes mostly by hand, and then let the grapes create the wine, which was a true reflection of where they lived.

For the most part, we don’t have that experience when purchasing wines from big name producers. Large, commercial wineries work hard to produce wines that taste similar year after year, so you know what to expect when you buy one of their wines. In this way, your 7 Deadly Zins will taste pretty much the same each year. This can be helpful when you are looking for a particular taste profile, but I feel we are missing out on the nuances resulting from year to year changes. Now don’t get me wrong, I very much like many of the name wines, it’s just that a part of me thinks we are losing a bit of the sense of place with large production wines.

You have the opportunity to experience that sense of place when you visit many of our regional wineries. When you visit a winery, ask them about the grapes. Why did they choose the grapes they are growing? What challenges are they running into with neighboring farmers and drift from crop spraying? Before you taste local wine, reset your palate to expect a new taste profile. Wine from the Midwest isn’t going to taste like California wine, or wine from Australia, South Africa, or Europe. It is going to taste like wine from the Midwest, so be open to experiencing a new flavor profile.

As an experiment, purchase a bottle of your favorite wine. Now, whether it is red or white, go to one of our local retailers and buy a couple bottles of the same varietal (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, etc.), but from different countries. Take them home, invite a few friends over and open and compare the wines. How are they the same? How are they different? This is a wonderful way to learn about wines and growing regions… and it can also be a very enjoyable evening with fellow wine lovers.

Happy New Year!

Wines I recently tasted

2014 Bien Nacido Chardonnay Santa Maria Valley – Sandhi Winery, Santa Barbara County
This wine had balanced notes of lime, almond, and a touch of spice. It was bright on the palate and had a delightful mouthfeel. This wine served to open our Thanksgiving meal. 12% ABV

2014 The Bohan-Dillon Pinot Noir – Hirsch Vineyards, Sonoma Coast
This wine was served with the primary food course of our Thanksgiving meal and it did its job well. The wine accompanied everything but the roasted root vegetables with Brussels sprouts. With all else, it was delicious. It is a well-balanced wine with an easy earthiness. Unusual for a Pinot Noir, it took quite a while to open up to its full complexities. 13.4% ABV

2005 Reserve Late Harvest Ice Wine – Terra Blanca, Yakima Valley
This wine had the most amazing amber color with flavors of ripe pear accompanied by hints of vanilla and apricot. Served with poached pears and pumpkin pie, this wine capped off an incredible meal with friends. 11% ABV

2014 Niederösterreich Gebling Grüner Veltliner – Niederösterreich, Austria
A delicious white wine offered a wonderful hint of bright, crisp, white fruit with melon, pears, and a tinge of citrus. This wine was excellent with fish, but would be splendid with salad. 12% ABV

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John B. Donovan

John, now retired, will continue to write about wine and craft beer. He now has more time to enjoy both beverages and plans to visit more places that grow grapes and produce wine with an occasional brewery along the way.

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