Success in Wine Starts on the Vine

Enhancing Missouri agriculture never tasted so good

Bacchus would be proud as Missourians use autumn as an excuse to revel in wine-filled times with good friends.

While they celebrate, University of Missouri researchers work to improve vineyards and the fruits of their labor.

“The grape and wine industry in Missouri is not just important because we’re making a product, but also because of its importance to tourism,” said Ingolf Gruen, director of the University of Missouri Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture and Enology (ICCVE). “A lot of people come to Missouri just for the purpose of going to bed-and-breakfasts, visiting wineries and tasting wine, so tourism is a large aspect of the wineries.”

MU ICCVE research and teaching teams work on viticulture (grape production) and enology (wine production), involving both undergraduate and graduate students in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. The Missouri Wine and Grape board uses a tax on every bottle of wine to help support this effort for the future of the industry in Missouri.

ICCVE hopes to pinpoint new cultivars that offer the best in traits like disease resistance in grapes and taste when those grapes are transformed into wine. The seven-year study, now in its third year, is evaluating 70 new varieties. The long span of time will balance out the impact of Missouri’s variable weather on vines. Wine taste tests each spring aim to measure the palatability of a crop.

“We identify varieties that perform well in all different extremes of weather, and we’re going to get high-quality lines out of those grapes,” said Marco Li Calzi, MU researcher and enology program leader.

Missouri wine and grape growers produced more than $1.6 billion in total economic value to the state in 2009, according to a study by the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. That includes the value of grape crops, winery revenue, jobs and the boost to tourism Missouri wine gives the state. The economic value is almost triple the benefit seen in 2005, thanks to a nearly doubling in the number of Missouri wineries from 50 in 2005 to 97 in 2009.

Yet Missouri’s continental climate presents significant challenges for grape production. Growers need hardy grape varieties than can tolerate extreme cold and blistering heat and also resist mildew and fungal diseases. At the same time, varieties need to fully ripen in Missouri weather and develop proper acidity to ensure freshness and taste in the end product.

“It is very expensive for grape growers to experiment, so that’s a service we do for the Midwest wine industry,” Li Calzi said. “With every new vintage you don’t know what to expect, and there’s quite a large variability from vintage to vintage.”

With any luck, these new varieties will join Missouri grape mainstays like Norton and Chardonel, adding to Missouri’s distinctive wine menu.

Experimental wines created at ICCVE also look to expand Missouri wine tastes. Li Calzi draws on his Italian heritage to adapt winemaking styles like that used to make Italian Amarone. To make this wine, he dries grapes on mesh racks for about a month until the sugar reaches a certain concentration. This creates a rich wine with an alcohol content around 15 percent, which is higher than normal.

Marco Li Calzi

“All the components in the grapes are concentrated, which make it a full-bodied wine with aging potential that is very long,” Li Calzi said. “Some Amarone’s last for 20 years, and I think by using local grapes we can make a wonderful product.”

Li Calzi said that new wines like this have potential to broaden the love of Missouri wine, adding the breadth of drier, less sweet wines.

People usually start drinking sweet wine, he said. “But after they keep having interesting wine they eventually become dry wine drinkers. We’re trying to improve the culture of the wine, but also educate students, growers and people.”