At one time, Missouri was the number one producer of wine in the United States. The history of Missouri wine is interesting because of its importance in our wine heritage and is intriguing especially for those traveling to Missouri wine country.
History of Missouri wines
Growing wine in Missouri began in the mid 1800s where most early wineries were also breweries. The first Missouri wine regions developed were in Hermann and Augusta and resembled the riverbanks of the Rhine, drawing settlers because of its familiarity to their homeland.
It started with the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia who settled in the area in 1837. The Society wanted to establish a German “fatherland” in America. Hermann was the perfect location situated along the Missouri River with its scenic reminder of the Rhine River and adjacent picturesque rolling hills. Viewing Hermann today, one finds similarity to the Rhine Valley’s Rüdesheim. Mornings with the silent beckoning of the river and all its twists and turns leave the impression of being on the Rhine.
From 1850 to the 1880s, Missouri was the top United States wine producer. Yet with the advent of the transcontinental railroad, California rose to the top and became number one. Missouri remained the second largest wine-producing region in the country until Prohibition when the wine industry came to a halt. Between Prohibition and the Depression, Missouri was hit hard. The government came in, uprooted the vineyards, and confiscated and destroyed equipment.
During Prohibition, only sacramental wines were allowed. Missouri had only one winery, St. Stanislaus Novitiate, where Jesuits produced wine. Some wineries converted to growing mushrooms in their cellars to sustain themselves while others totally went under. Many wineries that survived the winters by making furniture turned to making furniture all year round.
The devastation to the Missouri wine industry was vast and did not reassert itself till the 1960s, a good thirty years after the repeal of Prohibition.
Missouri wines today
Many of today’s Hermann Wine Trail wineries are in the same location they originally were back in the 1800s. Stone Hill Winery is considered Missouri’s oldest winery. Adam Puchta Winery and Hermannhof Winery also date back to the 19th century. Adam Puchta is Missouri’s oldest family owned and run winery, dating back to its opening in 1855. Some of these original wineries feature marvelous caves, which stored the wines.
Missouri was the first in the United States to receive an American Viticulture Area Designation when Augusta received its AVA title in 1980.
Due to the inclement weather, Missouri cannot grow the same varietals seen in California. It was early on that Missouri made advances in the wine industry by creating hybrids capable of growing in harsher climates. These hybrids were a combination of wild and cultivated grapes. In the 1860s when the vineyards of Southern France were devastated by phylloxera, Missouri growers shipped over phylloxera-resistant hybrid grapes.
Two non-hybrid grapes varietals that can grow in Missouri are Norton and Concord. The Norton grape is native to America and is said to have originated in Virginia. Norton, also known as Cynthiana, is now considered the official grape of Missouri, producing a rich full-bodied dry wine similar in style to Cabernet Sauvignon with the spiciness of Zinfandel although a little more pungent. The Concord grape is typically used to make very sweet wine.
Missouri’s hybrid grapes
- Chambourcin: This grape produces a medium bodied more cherry-like wine with earthy qualities suggestive of a Bordeaux or Pinot Noir.
- Seyval: This grape produces a very dry, crisp wine in the style of Chenin Blanc but also resembles a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio.
- Chardonnel: This hybrid is a cross between Chardonnay and Seyval. Most Chardonneys are dry, medium bodied and closest to a Chardonnay.
- Vidal: This is a white hybrid used for both dry, semi dry and sweet wine as it has very fruity flavors.
- Traminette: This is a newer grape variety that is very floral with spicy flavors suggestive of its parent, Gewurztraminer.
- Vignoles: This grape is used for both dry and sweet late harvest wines. Its fruity flavors are similar to a German Riesling.
- St Vincent: This hybrid creates very delicate, elegant reds or Rosés giving it an almost Burgundian character.
- Cayuga: This hybrid produces a very light fruity wine similar to the sweeter German Rieslings. It is also used to create sparkling wines.
- Catawba: This is a pink grape often used in Rosés. It is a late ripening grape and is categorized as sweet and fragrant.
A large percentage of Missouri wines are very sweet and not to the liking of many wine enthusiasts unless considered a dessert wine. The demand for sweet wine is the norm in the midwestern states. Most wineries and their winemakers would prefer to make dry wines, but the wineries oblige by meeting the public demands for sweeter wines.