The grape harvest begins at Mitchell Vineyards.
In an industry dependent on the whims of nature, cool-climate winemaking comes with a unique set of challenges, especially in a year like 2013: between a wet, late spring and subsequent intense humidity, growers like Dave Mitchell have had their hands full.
"Every variable seems to have a variable," he jokes.
Mitchell owns Mitchell Vineyard, a six-acre vineyard located just east of the village of Oregon. He grows 16 varieties of grapes; these consist largely of hybrid varietals like Marchel Foch, Marquette, and Millot, which are more hardy and cold-resistant than well-known vinifera such as cabernet sauvignon.
In this difficult season, which saw a spring and early summer full of rain and false starts, Mitchell battled the dangers of rot and mildew and the threat of a too-short growing season. (Grapes need a certain number of "degree days" at a minimum temperature, with sunshine exposure, to ripen fully.) Thankfully, the recent heat wave and glorious August and early September weather allowed the grapes to ripen, producing a beautiful crop despite the obstacles.
Beginning Wednesday, Sept. 4, Mitchell led a crew of employees and volunteers to pick Marechal Foch and Millot grapes to be sold to Old Sugar Distillery in Madison, where owner and distiller Nathan Greenawalt will turn them into brandy. Just as with most red wine grapes, the clusters were picked, crushed on site, and then allowed to ferment on their skins for color and tannin. Greenawalt will boil that fermented product in his pot still to produce the rich, intense flavors of brandy. The grapes harvested, all hybrid styles, offer the high acidity perfect for brandy production.
Other grapes picked at the vineyard, white varietals like LaCrescent and St. Pepin, will be used in Old Sugar's popular grappa, a digestif made from distilling the pomace (skins and seeds) of grapes. Skinned and pressed, highly aromatic white grapes are well suited to grappa's signature pungent character.
Mitchell prides himself on growing varietals well-suited to the unpredictable Wisconsin climate. "While taste is subjective, I always encourage people to try the hybrid grapes, which are so much more cool-weather hardy," he says, adding that if he had to pick Wisconsin's two most promising wine grapes, his money would be on Marquette and La Crescent. "Marquette gets you the spice and tannin to make really good reds," he explains, while La Crescent offers amazing citrusy flavors and a hint of vanilla.
In a year like this one, vineyards like Mitchell's, optimized to the local climate, are a good reason for wine lovers, and home winemakers buying grapes from California, to put aside Cabernet or Chardonnay bias and give lesser-known varietals a try.
Mitchell expects the grape harvest to continue at least the next two weeks.
[Editor's note: Julia Burke volunteered at Mitchell Vineyard for this story; she was subsequently hired to help with the rest of the harvest.]