Monday, September 24, 2007

"There's more than corn in Indiana..."

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I needed some rest.

Without going into too much detail, I'll simply say that this was the least relaxing summer either of us can remember. Thankfully, as the season wound down and things began to calm somewhat, we decided we needed to get away for a few days. We'd heard about some wineries in neighboring Indiana, and we figured "Why not?"

This trip was about relaxation. The wineries simply provided structure for our wanderings. Our expectations weren't sky high for the wine itself. Why? Our experiences with "nontraditional wine growing areas" haven't exactly been stellar. Many times we've bought a bottle because it was the best wine at the tasting room but, as a friend of mine often comments, "That's damning with faint praise." The best of the wines are generally mediocre and twice as costly as they should be.

There are now wineries in all 50 states, but there's a reason the "traditional" locales make most of the wine. Vinifera grapes are persnickety. They generally need a very specific climate to produce at their best. Certain places (read: "Pacific Coast, Finger Lakes, and a few other patches") support that cycle. Outside these areas, climate and terroir make growing many kinds of grapes problematic. The blast furnace summer days and high humidity of the South and Midwest aren't exactly ideal.

Sometimes a place gets lucky. A grape used sparingly somewhere finds a spot and becomes a winner. Think Malbec after moving from France to Argentina. Other times, science comes to the rescue -- discovering a hybrid grape that can thrive in a new climate. Unfortunately, many of these hybrid grapes simply don't produce quality wine.

There's also a winegrowing saying: "A little sugar makes up for a lot of mistake." When we've visited many small wineries, almost universally the best seller is some version of syrupy sweet Concord-tasting grape juice with a little alcohol, or worse, a berry wine of some kind. (There are a few decent fruit wines we've found, but they're the exception.)

With taste expectations at a minimum, we set off down the Indiana Uplands Wine Trail. Our itinerary wasn't to crash around to every winery in the state. We just wanted to see what we could at our leisurely pace.

We were heading down US-150 when I spied a little sign on the side of the road in Hardinsburg which simply said "Winery" with an arrow pointing down a narrow road. Couldn't resist. Three miles later, we arrived at Vinetree Farm Winery. They opened up their tasting room for us and Patricia (who had some wonderful watercolors for sale in the tasting room) poured for us. She and her husband started the winery because they wanted "fellowship beyond just square dancing." Their wines, named after local friends, animals, and landmarks, were reasonably good. The highlight was a Vidal Blanc (one of the aforementioned hybrids, often used for ice wine) called "Lorretta." A little sweet, but still refreshing.

After some time rolling through the small towns in rural Indiana, past Patoka Lake and the nearly-abandoned town of Birdseye, we stopped at Winzerwald Winery in Bristow. I'd seen their website before and was intrigued by their logo:

Wine and pretzels -- a great combination. We met Donna Adams, who owns the place with her husband Dan. They did a number of very decent wines, several with German varietals I'd never heard of -- Lemberger, Liebfraumilch, Black Riesling, and several others. These wines were certainly distinctive -- definitely worth trying. Our favorite was their 5th Anniversary "Schaumwein" (German for "sparkling wine") that would have fit in nicely with the semi-sparkling varietals. The wine was crisp and only a little sweet. We tried it with [I can't remember] and we agreed on the quality. A very pleasant sparkler -- especially in the heat we've been having. They also did a very nice straight-up Gewurztraminer, which was semi-dry and nicely spicy.

The next day led us down a number of twisty roads to eventually land at Huber in Starlight, Indiana. The winery is a small part of this "agricultural entertainment complex." U-Pick fruits, cheesemaking, an ice cream factory, a kid's park, a huge wine-related gift shop, a café, and on and on. Our experience had typically been that the more extraneous stuff there was at a winery, the lower the quality. We were pleasantly incorrect. Huber did a number of very decent hybrid wines -- Seyval Blanc (similar to Sauvignon Blanc and grown widely in England), Traminette (a hybrid of gewürztraminer), and Chardonel (a Seyval/Chardonnay cross). They also have an on-site distillery, and their reserve apple brandy was nothing short of impressive. I was reminded more of scotch than brandy -- but I plan to pick some up for wintertime.

Our last stop in Indiana was Turtle Run -- a small winery outside of Corydon. Turtle Run was, at least for me, the highlight of our discoveries. Nestled among rolling hills, winemaker Jim Pfeiffer constantly tinkers with varietals and blends to create some very solid, relatively inexpensive selections. His Chardonel is "in the style of a French Burgundy," and he's dead on. We had that with a grilled swordfish and some saffron rice, and it was delicious. His Summer Solstice (a blend of Chardonel and Traminette) is the "prettiest" wine that I had on the trip.

You may notice that all of the wines I've mentioned are whites. I think white wine grapes must be much more forgiving -- because very few red grapes, in my opinion, grow well outside of the "usual" places. The most common red grape is Chambourcin -- and I've yet to find one of those I'd actually pay for. I've seen some cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon, but they've not generally been anything outstanding. (Although Smith-Berry winery in Kentucky seems to be on the right track.)

We also had a wonderful night's stay and some delicious cookies at the Leavenworth Inn, had a fantastic burger at Pinky's Pub in Paoli, and discovered that West Baden is "The Carlsbad of America."

Mike's recommendations:

Vinetree Farms Winery "Lorretta" White -- $11
Winzerwald Gewürztraminer -- $15
Huber 2006 Seyval Blanc -- $12
Huber 2005 White Blossom -- $15
Turtle Run 2006 Summer Solstice -- $14
Turtle Run 2005 Chardonel -- $14

I believe all these wineries are able to ship out of Indiana, so if you're curious about wines grown outside the "normal" places -- these would be well worth a purchase. Even better, take a drive and visit. And tell them The Naked Vine sent you.

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