One of the things I enjoy most when traveling is sampling local foods, wines and beers. I feel that food is one of the most defining features of a community’s culture, and I love discovering products that I might never see in any other area of the world. On a recent trip to Missouri, I discovered that there is a very active wine growing region that is much-beloved within Missouri but little-known outside it. So, I decided to explore a few wineries and see what Missouri wine was like.
Wine has been produced in Missouri for almost 200 years. Settlers in the 1800’s found that Missouri’s long growing season and other environmental attributes were well suited to growing grapes, and by the 1880’s, a bustling wine trade had been born. Unfortunately, Prohibition (which began in 1919) put an end to the wine making business in Missouri, and the aftereffects made it difficult for vintners to reestablish themselves.
Some of Missouri’s original wineries were reborn in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and since then Missouri wineries have slowly but surely made a comeback. Missouri wines are beginning to be recognized in national competitions and exported to other regions. However, it is still very difficult to find Missouri wines in stores or restaurants outside of Missouri and the surrounding Midwestern states.
Missouri’s long, hot summers are too severe for many well-known grape varietals, so most Missouri wineries concentrate on hardy varietals that are not as widely grown elsewhere. The Norton grape, which is used to produce a dry red wine similar to Cabernet, is actually the official state grape of Missouri. Other popular Missouri varietals include Vignoles, Seyval and Catawba.
I’m not a wine expert, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect from these wines, especially since I had never heard of most of the grapes. Upon entering the Mount Pleasant Winery, which was founded in 1859, I was greeted by an employee that was happy to tell me about the grapes and offer me samples of everything they had to offer.
While I was impressed with their generosity, I was less than impressed with their wines. All of the wines but one were incredibly sweet – in some cases, to the point where I wasn’t sure if I was drinking juice, soda or wine. I did enjoy a couple of reds – one, made of Missouri’s signature Norton grape, was delicious, full-bodied and fruit-forward, yet dry – however, it came with a price tag that while not exorbitant ($40), was much more than I was willing to pay, considering the quality of the wine. The other red, called Highland, was a very light off-dry wine with lots of cherry and berry flavor – not a serious wine, but at $10 a bottle a terrific wine to drink with pizza or burgers.
I made my way to the Stone Hill Winery next, hoping to find some drier wines that might be more appealing. The employee there was equally helpful, and after I told her that I didn’t care for sweet wine, made it a point to pour me only their driest offerings. Unfortunately, “dry” means something entirely different in Missouri than it does anywhere else, and even the dry wines at this winery were candy-sweet. However, I did come away from this winery with one winner – a dessert sherry. Since sherry is meant to be sweet, they did a great job with it!
Granted, tasting wines at just two wineries does not constitute a thorough investigation of the entire Missouri wine industry, but sweet wine seems to be what Missourians favor and therefore produce. If you are not a sweet wine drinker, proceed with caution – but if you are in Missouri wine country, definitely check out a few wineries – you never know what you might discover!