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Well…I am impressed. America’s first wine country not only boasts some solid wines, but also has its very own state grape glass – the Riedal Crystal Norton Wine Glass. Hardly anyone gets that, let alone a small wine district in the middle of the country. I had a chance to taste some great wines in that glass and spend a few days in Lake of the Ozarks and Columbia, Missouri, hanging out at some great wineries, tasting and talking with owners, winemakers, and chefs. If you’re headed to the Midwest, make time to tour this up-and-coming wine region, and be sure to bring home the Norton glass as a souvenir. The unique glass is specially designed to showcase the floral notes, high tannin levels and full-bodied fruit flavors of the Norton wine. Its etched base reads “Norton” and sells for about $30.00 a pair.
As the saying goes, “Great wines begin in the vineyard.” Missouri gets a variety of weather --from snow and ice to intense summer temperatures and an occasional “wind storm” or two. It takes a resilient grape variety to stand up to such dramatic weather, but in the last century, viticulturists have cultivated and developed strains that flourish in the precarious climate. Here's a primer on the most prominent grape varieties you'll encounter on your trip to Missouri Wine Country and some information on the wines that come from these grapes.
Chardonel (shar-du-nel) – A cross of the well-known Chardonnay grape with Seyval, Chardonel is generally barrel fermented, very dry and full bodied. Depending on barrel time and winemaker style, it can display notes of oak, butter or citrus fruit.
Seyval (say-vahl) Blanc - A French-American hybrid grape that makes a dry to semi-dry, clean, crisp medium-bodied wine with an herbal, fresh flavor. The barrel fermented Seyval takes on an oak complexity more indicative of Chardonel.
Vidal (vee-dahl) Blanc - A French-American hybrid used to make a dry to semi-dry, full-bodied wine with fruity characteristics, Vidal's clean citrus flavors of lemon and grapefruit create a nicely balanced wine that's "Germanic" in style.
Vignoles (veen-yole) - One of Missouri's most versatile white grapes, this French-American hybrid produces wines ranging from dry to sweet, late harvest dessert wines depending on the winemaker’s vision. Vignoles displays flowery aroma and fruity flavors of pineapple and apricot making this citrus white wine a favorite.
Chambourcin (sham-bor-san)- A French-American hybrid grape, Chambourcin produces a medium-bodied red wine with a fruity aroma and cherry and earthy/spicy complexities. Medium to dark red in color, Chambourcin is a very food-friendly wine.
Norton - Norton is an American grape, found near Richmond, Virginia. A hardy grape with vigorous vines, Norton is Missouri's official state grape. It produces a rich, full-bodied dry red wine with berry flavors and spicy overtones. Genetically the same, this wine may be bottled as either Norton or Cynthiana and is often made into a sweet red wine.
Two wineries stand out from my visit to The Lake of the Ozarks and Columbia: Seven Springs Winery and Les Bourgeois Winery. Seven Springs Winery and Vineyards sits atop 160 beautiful acres of rolling green Missouri foothills. Located between Camdenton and Osage Beach, the winery is less than a 10 minute drive from either location. It was about 30 minutes from my luxe accommodations at Camden on the Lake Resort. Owner Mike Bleile met us at the door leading us to the covered porch and patio area to enjoy a private wine tasting, a lovely deli lunch, some great music by Sax on The Beach, and sweeping views.
The tasting was a flight of wines showcasing owner’s vision for food-friendly quality wines. We were treated to a Muscato Sparkling wine ($24.85). Light straw with tropical fruit & flower overtone this light bodied, fruit forward sparkler hit the spot. Next up was the Vignobles ($18.85), a tangy sweeter style wine showcasing peach, melon & citrus. The Vignobles was followed by a nice Pinot ($26.85). A little different from some Pinot’s I’ve tasted, but still a very pleasant medium bodied wine with plum, berry & spice flavors. Next was a bright sweeter-styled Sangiovese ($18.75). Many customers love to make a Sangria-style drink from it. The Pinot ($26.85 Next was a nice Norton ($24.85) showing cherry and vanilla flavors along with a deep plum color and subtle oak, and a spicy finish. We ended the tasting with a light patio wine called Seven’s Red Heaven. Nice fruit forward flavors with distinctly sweet finish.
Chef Josh Juarez calls his menu “Gourmet Deli” and I can see why. The Spicy Shrimp and Crab Bisque (an award winner - $7.99) was rich and flavorful, speaking to the “taste of place” where it was created. The Cranberry & Curried Chicken Salad ($9.99) was my favorite. It would pair nicely with a glass of Vidal Blanc. It was superb with its unique Turkish influence of mild yellow curry, cranberries mixed field greens and roasted almond all wrapped up in whole wheat tortilla. For a moment there, I thought I was in California. We also got to try Josh’s Mediterranean Turkey Wrap ($9.99) which was equally as delicious. Try pairing with a glass of Sangiovese.
At Les Bourgeois Vineyard near Columbia, I met with winemaker Jacob Holman. He oversees the 52,000 case winery that dedicates 48% of its wine production to less tannic, fruit forward, palate friendly, sweet red wines. Approximately 50% of their wine is sold through their own retail outlets, with the remaining sold through wholesale distribution. I see great things for this winery if the tasting I experienced was any indication. I think this winemaker has a strong vision for his wine program that includes wines made for the more sophisticated palate. Among my white favorites was the Collector’s Series ’09 Vidal Blanc ($25). This dry estate bottled wine was crisp with notes of citrus, grapefruit and lemon drops. For a winery that makes mostly sweet wines, I’d say they definitely have their dry groove going on as well. The ’09 Chardonel ($20) showcased with a crisp pear and apple nose. Light oak on the palate made this full-bodied wine a delight to taste.
Red wine favorites included a sassy red Collector’s Series ’08 Chambourcin ($25). The lean flavors of this ruby red wine showcased yummy ripe red fruits. I also appreciated the light tannins and sweet smoke notes from the oak component. The Norton ’08 Reserve Claret ($30) was a stunner. I am guessing this is how Norton is supposed to be made. Full bodied, rich fruit forward flavors and spicy earth tones and hints of violet made this a WOW tasting. Definitely dressed to impress, this is a “buy me” wine.
Les Bourgeois also has a bluff top restaurant you’re going to love. In 1994, the winery purchased an additional 15 acres of bluff property adjacent to the family home. This scenic property became the site for a new, year-round 6,000-square-foot wine garden and Blufftop Bistro restaurant. The group I was with enjoyed several luncheon items including the unique BLT Salad ($8) with house cured bacon, herb garlic croutons , roasted tomato comfit, Vermont Cheddar Cheese and a creamy black mustard seed dressing. Our entree was the Braised Veal Cheeks Norton Veal Reduction featuring a butter sautéed Veal Boudin Blanc, a white truffle creamy polenta, and Sweet Pea Coulis $24.
Whatever it is you’re looking for in a wine adventure, I think you’ll find it here. This is an appellation to watch develop over the next few years. With over 50 wineries, great lodging choices, and some great culinary finds it’s a place to put on your travel-to wish list. Be sure and check out the Missouri Passport program. The 7-level passport can help you earn rewards. Just bring it with you and get it stamped at every winery you visit. You’ll be glad you did when the prizes start falling into your suitcase – everything from a deluxe wine opener to a weekend winery getaway for 2!