American Wine History has Deep Midwestern Roots

Midwest wine Oliver
Oliver Winery / Photo by Casey Thompson

When many think of the Midwest, its diverse wine industry doesn’t always come to mind. “America’s Heartland” is better known for its endless corn and wheat fields, abundant dairy farms and brutal winters. But for generations, farmland has also been cultivated to grow table and wine grapes. Vintners and winemakers create unique, noteworthy wines on breathtaking vineyards.

With 20 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) across six states, here’s your guide to some of the most notable wine regions of the Midwest.

Illinois

Before Prohibition, Illinois was one of the largest wine producers in the U.S. In the 1830s, German immigrants settled in what’s now Belleville and made wines from Isabella and Norton grapes. Known as Vitis labrusca and Vitis aestivalis, respectively, these grapes had an earthy aroma and were used primarily for red table wine. Grape varieties common in Southern Illinois also include Chambourcin and Vignoles, both which can be made into quality dry or sweet wine.

In 1997, there were just 14 wineries statewide. Today, there are more than 100 wineries that make their own bottlings, offer tours and host events. They contribute almost $3 billion to the state’s economy.

Tasting room Midwest wine
Courtesy Oliver Winery / Tod Martens

The 150-year-old Pour Vineyard in Red Bud is located less than an hour from St. Louis. Before it became a vineyard, the plot was used as a pasture, sawmill and farm.

“Our six acres of vineyard is now the centerpiece of bringing people together,” says Travis Pour, son of owners Mike and Judy Pour, who also works in the cellar and on the vineyard. “Prior to planting the vineyard, soil samples were taken and tested, and nutrients were added to meet the nutritional needs that grapevines need to thrive.

“We believe great soil produces great grapes, and that makes great wine.”

Indiana

The “Hoosier State” is home to more than 110 wineries. In 2018, the state produced 2.4 million gallons of wine. However, its wine history began when Swiss immigrant Jean Jacques Dufour arrived in the U.S. in 1796. He began to harvest the region’s first grapes in the early 18th century.

Dufour’s success had a lot to do with the fertility of the Ohio River Valley. It’s the second-largest wine appellation of origin in the U.S., and it spreads across Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

The Midwesterners Creating Their Own Natural Wine Scene

In the south-central part of the state is Indiana Uplands, an AVA that encompasses 17 wineries and 19 vineyards, for a total of nearly 200 acres under cultivation. It’s home to Oliver Winery, one of the state’s best-known wineries. Oliver produces sweet, dry and sparkling wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Chambourcin, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Cabernet Doré.

Michigan

Home to five AVAs, each with their own terroir, plus more than 13,000 vineyard acres and access to the Great Lakes, Michigan is a premier Midwestern wine destination. The state’s wine history began in the 1600s, when French arrivals found grapes growing along the Detroit River. Today, Michigan grows more than 30 varieties of wine grapes, including Riesling, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Pinot Grigio.

Sometimes referred to as the “third coast” for its more than 230 miles of freshwater lakefront, the Traverse City wine region is on the same 45th parallel as Bordeaux. It has the ability to grow cool-climate Vitis vinifera grape varieties. Thanks to insulation from Lake Michigan, Traverse City can protect itself against frost in the late fall months and early spring months, which extends its growing season.

Rove Winery
Courtesy Rove Estate

In 2016, Rove Estate Vineyard & Winery opened on a multigenerational farm in Traverse City. Proprietor McKenzie Gallagher and her husband, Creighton, whose family was one of the first to farm in Traverse City, credits the glacial bedrock for Rove Estate’s soil and elevation.

“Above everything else, we are farmers first, stewards of the land,” says Gallagher. “We always make beautiful wines, but sometimes instead of a big red, we make an incredibly balanced rosé. We may be an emerging wine region, but there is no doubt that we are making some incredible world-class wines in Michigan.”

Ohio

From Lake Erie to the Ohio River Valley, Ohio’s wine country consists of five AVAs and six wine trails. It’s also one of the top 10 wine-producing states in the U.S., responsible for 1.23 million gallons annually and an industry that contributes more than $1.3 billion to the economy each year.

In 1823, Nicholas Longsworth tried to cultivate a vineyard of European grapes, all of which died. So, two years later, he planted Catawba grapes, discovered to be a hybrid crossing of Vitis vinifera and Vitis labrisca, to make then-popular sparkling wines.

Rove Estate
Courtesy Rove Estate

With 280 wineries across the state, Ohio winemakers bottle Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Riesling wines, along with heritage wines from Catawba, Niagara and Concord grapes. Notable Ohioan producers include Ferrante Winery, Firelands Winery and Gervasi Vineyard.

Wisconsin

Known for its cheese curds and beers, Wisconsin is also part of Upper Mississippi River Valley, the country’s largest AVA. There are two additional AVAs in the state, including Lake Wisconsin, located within the Upper Mississippi River Valley, and Wisconsin Ledge.

After Hungarian immigrant Agoston Haraszthy planted the state’s first wine grapes in the early 1800s, he discovered that harsh winters made them difficult to cultivate. Despite that, he established a vineyard and winery on land that’s now Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, before he moved to California in 1849. Shortly thereafter, German immigrants developed their own wine with both European and American heritage grapes, but it wasn’t until 1967 that the first modern winery opened in the state.

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Today, producers in the state’s five wine regions make wines from fruits like apricot, boysenberry, peach and even watermelon. In the Driftless Region in western Wisconsin, wineries like Fawn Creek, Hawk’s Mill and Bailey’s Run grow cold-climate wine grape varieties like Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay.

Missouri

Missouri is home to the country’s first AVA, Augusta, designated in June 1980. The second, Napa Valley, received its designation in February 1981.

The state now has 130 wineries spread across five AVAs, and grows primarily American Heritage grapes like Norton, Catawba, Niagara and Concord, plus French-American hybrids like Vidal, Seyval, Vignoles, and most recently, Chardonel.

Vox Vineyards
Courtesy Vox Vineyards

Jean-Louis Horvilleur, the winemaker at Vox Vineyards in Weston, about 30 miles from Kansas City, believes that American heritage grapes will be the next big thing once consumers discover their diversity.

“Our challenge was first to figure out how to properly grow them, and then figure out how to best express them through wine,” he says. “Hidalgo, Vignoles, Ellen Scott, Traminette, Cloeta, I would love for people to explore wines made from these grapes because it will finally demonstrate that Americans can make wines as beautiful as the historically famous French, Italian or Spanish wines.”

Published on March 11, 2021
Topics: Wine and Ratings