The challenge faced by Iowa winemakers is to make a wine that can take part of the Iowa wine market share from the west coast and internationally-sourced red wines. Iowa vintners already have the ability to make sweet wines that can compete with non-Iowa sweet wines on taste, if not price. But being able to market a dry red wine that has tannins and fruit without the sweetness would allow local winemakers to sell their local wines to new customers.
The main obstacle facing Iowa winemakers is that the shorter growing season in Iowa leads to wines that are higher in acid and lower in sugar. This does not directly account for the sweetness of Iowa wines. Instead, the lack of sugar affects the fermentation process, which means that Iowa wines will not taste quite the same as warm-weather grapes. The wines tend to be higher in acid and very sweet. Also, cold-weather hardy grapes are different than many of the grapes which made the wines of Europe and California famous. Vintners and botanists in the upper Midwest have been working for decades to try to develop a grape that has the characteristics of great taste, faster maturation, and hardiness. The Marquette grape may just be the best red wine grape to come out of that research and effort and I think it could well be the launchpad for Iowa dry reds. Do I think that the 2009 Marquette from Tassel Ridge is ready to go head to head with other similarly-priced west coast dry red wines? No, but this is one of the first large-scale attempts to grow and bottle this particular wine and Tassel Ridge has the know-how and money to make it happen if it is possible.
According to the winter edition of Simply Extraordinary, the quarterly publication of Tassel Ridge, the Marquette grape is a complex cross of American grapes, French American hybrids, and Pinot Noir. Marquette offers high sugar, moderate acidity, and lots of tannins. In addition, its American grape heritage offers resistance to disease and winter hardiness. Tassel Ridge started planting Marquette in 2006 and the first harvest in 2009 is just now being brought to market.
So, how is the 2009 vintage? The nose is full and fruity. On the palate, there is much less fruit than the aroma might lead one to expect, but there are obvious tannins, a hint of fruit on the front end and a slight taste of grape and alcohol on the back side. This is no Pinot Noir fruit bomb; but it is also very different than any other dry red wine from Iowa. Most importantly, the musty, “foxy” odor and flavor that plagues Iowa red wines, especially those that are touted as “dry,” is nearly absent, and certainly not annoying. While not perfect, and probably not competitive with some of the great California reds that can be had for less than this bottle costs, this is a solid foundation. Boost the fruit and lower the alcohol and I firmly believe that this will be the wine of Iowa’s future. The day will come when Iowans can’t ignore their own home-grown red wines.
The description of the process that Tassel Ridge went through in making this particular vintage leads me to believe that Tassel Ridge has likely gained some hints as to what to do with the next vintages. I will be certain to try each successive vintage.