From grape to glass: growing Arkansas’ wines

Wine aficionados in Northwest Arkansas don’t have to travel to the Bordeaux region of France or Napa Valley in California to sip award-winning wine. Arkansas is home to 15 wineries, with scores more in Missouri and Oklahoma, so a winery may be just a short drive from home.

But the journey to a great wine really begins in the vineyard. Winemaker Robert Mondavi once said, “You can make bad wine with great grapes but you can’t make great wine with bad grapes.”

 

We don’t tend to think of grapes as an Arkansas crop. Grapevines prefer a temperate climate, but fortunately grapevines are fairly adaptable plants. At the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, a program aimed at developing Arkansas-adapted grapes for vineyards and wineries has had some fruitful results.

The Agricultural Experiment Station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

 

The late James N. Moore, a distinguished professor and Arkansas native started the fruit breeding program years ago. He had a big dream: to produce table grapes that could be grown in our Northwest Arkansas climate, and which were less susceptible to cold and disease.

 

Table grapes were developed first, but the wine grapes were a long time coming. Moore made the initial selections in 1991 for a grape called Opportunity and 1993 for one called Enchantment. Evaluations of wine production for these grapes has been ongoing for almost three decades. Wine grapes are different from table grapes in that they must have enough sugar for yeast to convert to alcohol through the fermentation process. Wine grapes also have enough acidity to balance sweetness, and thick skins and seeds which have the tannins that give wine its structure.

 

John Clark, fruit breeder for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, developed the wine grapes. Renee Threlfall, experiment station research scientist for enology and viticulture, made them into wines to learn how they fared through fermentation and how their color, taste, aromas and mouth feel evolve over time. Together, they brought the grapes to market for Arkansas vineyards and wineries.

 

Thanks to their hard work, Opportunity and Enchantment, the first wine grapes developed for Arkansas’ growing conditions, were patented and released in 2016. That was followed up with Dazzle and Indulgence, both white wine grapes, released in 2020.

 

 “Even though the grapes have been released, there is research ongoing about how the wine changes during storage and how different winemaking techniques impact the wine,” Threlfall said. In a wine testing in April, “we evaluated the 2018-2020 Dazzle, the 2017-2020 Indulgence and Enchantment, and the 2020 Opportunity.”

 

The Opportunity wine has slight tree fruit aromas and flavors like peach and pear. It’s a more mainstream white, Clark said. “Opportunity is more in the middle of the white category, something like a Chardonnay.”

 

Wines made from Dazzle “have Gewürztraminer attributes, with tropical fruits and sweet spice aroma with a subtle fruity flavor and balanced finish,” Threlfall noted.

 

Indulgence wine has a prominent Muscat — also known as Moscato in Italian wines — or sweet floral aroma.

 

By contrast, Enchantment, the single red wine grape from the program, produces a wine that has an intense dark purple color and rich flavors.

 

Enchantment “is a powerhouse of a wine with smoky, dark berry aromas and flavors with vegetative, peppery and smoky notes,” Threlfall said.

 

Even with tastings of wines from all four grapes, there is more work to be done, she said. “John and I look forward to showcasing these wines at the Arkansas Association of Grape Growers Conferences in November and other workshops and conferences in the region.”

 

Educational videos about the new fruit varieties can be found at https://www.youtube.com/user/TheAAES

 

 

Commerce Community

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