It’s time for your Missouri wine update

I’ve been trying to figure out when I first started judging at the Missouri State Fair Competition; I think it’s been twenty-five years since my first competition. Maybe it’s been longer, but the interminable feeling as one fatally flawed wine after another passed my lips is long gone. Sitting down to several hundred wines at the 2008 Missouri State Wine Competition, there’s no feeling of grim trepidation.

Instead I’m excited, if worried. 2007 was the annus horribilis, as the British Queen once said of another vintage. The vintage was unkind to Missouri’s favorite grape, Norton, most of which was wiped out by the so-called “Easter Massacre”. On April 5th, Easter Day, the temperature plunged into the low twenties (and even lower in many areas) where it stayed for five or more days.

By itself, these frigid temperatures wouldn’t have done a great deal of damage. But the preceding three weeks had been unseasonably warm and sunny and most vines had wakened up, believing spring was at hand. The sap had risen up into the wood and when that sap froze, vines literally exploded. The result was the loss of three quarters or more of many of Missouri’s crops, not least of which included most of the state’s wine grapes.

The initial report was that 95% of Missouri’s Norton crop was gone. Other grapes suffered to similar degrees (pun intended). So for the 2008 Missouri State Wine Competition, I wasn’t sure there would be many 2007 vintage wines to taste. And a weather disaster like the Easter Massacre was bound to leave a lasting impact on the wines fashioned from those grapes and vines that survived. Would there be balanced wines?

The short answer is yes. Among the white wines, there were a number of lovely dry 2007 Vignoles, the finest of which was from the oft-awarded Montelle Winery. Their 2007 Dry Vignoles was judged to be the best wine of the entire show, and was handed the Governor’s Cup, giving Montelle’s winemaker, Tony Kooyumjian, the Governor’s Cup four out of the last five years. A remarkable achievement.

Most of the wines in the flights of Vidal Blanc and Vignoles contained attractive 2007’s. The entire Seyval Blanc flight was far more encouraging than last year’s group; the 2007 vintage clearly had some benefits for Seyval Blanc.

Tony Kooyumjian’s Semi-dry Seyval Blanc, which he produces at Augusta Winery, was every bit as good as his superlative Dry Vignoles. Between Augusta and Montelle Wineries, Tony managed to bring home six of the ten “Best of Class” awards. His other Best of Class winners included Augusta River Valley Red, Montelle River Country Red, and two absolute beauties: Augusta 2007 Icewine and Montelle Peach Brandy. I would put those last two up against competitive products from anywhere and they would match or even beat the competition.

The sad truth is that most people reading that last statement don’t believe that I’m serious. Of course, they haven’t really tried most Missouri wines. And despite probably tasting only a few inexpensive Missouri wines, most tasters think they know the quality of Missouri wine. It’s like tasting some California box wines and saying that you can extrapolate from those how Phelps Insignia tastes.

It shouldn’t be, but it might be a surprise to some people to know that the Missouri wine industry has a pretty strong reputation outside of the state. At least within the wine industry, there is a strong sense that there are a lot of smart people working here. Even many California winemakers have heard good things about Norton, Missouri’s state grape, even if they’ve never actually tasted one.

At the 2008 competition, there were other surprises, if smaller and less momentous. For one, there seemed to be fewer Chardonels than last year; that was welcome news. I hate to badmouth a grape and its entire output, so I won’t. But far too much Chardonel is boring or worse.

Add to the good news that those who are making Chardonel are less frequently smothering it in oak in the vain hope that the lightweight grape can grow wings and fly away as a fully formed Chardonnay, one of its parents. As they say, you can put lipstick on the pig but…

The other top winners were Stone Hill’s Golden Spumante and their 2007 Vignoles, made in a delicious, sweeter style. Not surprisingly, Stone Hill took home the award for the best fortified wine as well, with their 2005 Port, fashioned from the Norton grape. Blumenhof Winery had an absolutely stellar Cynthiana (that’s Norton, as well) from the 2006 vintage; that wine deserves your attention as well.

It’s exciting that Blumenhof is back in the winner’s column; their wines can be first-rate and they don’t show up in the press as often as they deserve. Best of all, their victory in the Norton competition reflects a sea change in Missouri wine. No longer is the winner for top Norton a predictable battle between the heavyweights in the state; these days more and more wineries are making great Norton.

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