Nestled in the rolling hills of the Augusta American Viticultural Area (AVA), Montelle Winery is among Missouri's oldest and most respected wineries. Here, owner and winemaker Tony Kooyumjian has been producing award-winning wines for decades.
Augusta was the first federally approved AVA, gaining the status June 20, 1980, eight months before the Napa Valley APA in Northern California. This wine region encompasses 11 square miles around the city of Augusta and started with three wineries: Montelle Winery, Augusta Winery and Mount Pleasant Winery. Now home to five wineries, the AVA offers unique glacial soils not found anywhere else in Missouri, and the surrounding geographic features help control temperatures and provide optimal conditions for grape growth. The Ozark Ridge forms a crescent around the area, deflecting cold north-to-northwest winds, while the water of the nearby Missouri River ushers in moderate temperatures.
To produce an estate-bottled Augusta wine, grapes must be grown in the Augusta AVA and produced and bottled within its borders under direct control of the winery. Kooyumjian’s 50 acres of grapevines – including Catawba, Chambourcin, Chardonel, Norton/Cynthiana, Seyval, St. Vincent, Vidal and Vignoles grapes – are planted on the 300 acres he owns in the area.
Kooyumjian helps grow the reputation of the Missouri wine industry by educating the public on the intricacies of Missouri grapes, supporting the area’s recent winery boom and working with local organizations to advance agricultural research for the state. But the award-winning bottlings he produces every year are perhaps his strongest contributions toward bolstering the image of Missouri wines. To understand how he does what he does so well, we glimpse a year in the life of Montelle. And it all starts in the vineyard with the grapes.
In April, the vineyard sees bud break, when the buds on the vines break open to reveal the new growing point of the shoot. A few weeks after the buds begin developing, excessive shoots are thinned and vegetative or nonproducing shoots are removed. During this delicate stage, the sloping Augusta hills help protect the vines from the damaging effects of a late frost. Kooyumjian plants his grapes on a 3 to 7 percent slope facing south (for red grapes) or east (for white grapes), and the air flow on these slopes moves the denser, cold air away from the vines and down toward the river.
“Selecting where to plant what, how much sunlight it gets and what minerals you put in the soil all help you influence the wine you produce," says Kooyumjian. "The only thing you can’t control is the rainfall.” He doesn’t see a need for artificial irrigation systems in his vineyards, however, and he believes in using natural, sustainable methods that will preserve his land and his neighbors’ land.
He takes further measures to protect his vines from spring frost by trellising them 6 feet off the ground, and, most important, he grows grape varieties that are slow to react to temperature changes, so high temperatures early in the year are less likely to prompt an early bud break. Viticulturists were especially worried about frost this year since the warm winter and high spring temperatures mimicked conditions of the Easter freeze of 2007, which cost Missouri grape growers 1.42 tons of grapes per acre compared to the previous year’s yield. Kooyumjian’s combination of practices helped Montelle retain 60 percent of its projected yield that year. This year’s spring frost caused varying degrees of damage in local vineyards, but Kooyumjian reports that only about 5 percent of his vines were affected.
As the shoots grow, their positioning is vital to growing quality grapes. A high bilateral cordon vine training system controls the quantity of fruit produced by each cordon – the woody arms extending horizontally from the trunk of the vine. The more grapes a single cordon produces, the more the fruits’ flavors and aromas are diluted. Cordons grown bilaterally, as opposed to unilaterally, have to grow only 4 feet instead of 8 feet, and this keeps the vines vigorous longer.
Around the first of June, vineyard workers will position the shoots, either by hand or by machine, pulling them down toward the earth so they don’t tangle. This ensures that one cane – the fruiting portion of the vine – isn’t growing on top of another. If this happens, the nonproducing cane will suck up sunlight, blocking the producing cane below it. In most grape-growing regions, the canopy (the leafy growth) is trained to avoid excessive shading of the fruit. In Missouri, which is hotter and more humid than other areas, viticulturists want a canopy that filters the sunlight evenly onto the fruiting zones. In July, the leaves are pulled to create the desired effect, with thinner canopies on the north side of the vines and thicker canopies on the south side to shade appropriately.
LATE SUMMER & FALL
As harvest time approaches, Kooyumjian heads to the vineyard to take samples of the grapes and test them for taste and chemistry. He tastes the grapes himself to assess maturity, and samples go to the lab to check sugar levels, acidity and pH balance.
When it’s determined that the grapes have reached peak maturity, it’s time for harvest, which occurs between mid-August and mid-November each year. One or two days before harvest, crews inspect the vines for unripe or diseased grapes and remove them. Kooyumjian uses machine harvesting in his vineyards and believes this method results in better-quality wine.
“Grapes are only at their prime maturity for a few days,” he says. “Hand-picking takes a long time, but a machine can pick a 10-acre vineyard in two to three hours and have the grapes back to the winery at their peak ripeness.”
To prepare for harvest day, machinery is set up the night before. When the sun breaks just enough for crew members to see what they’re doing (around 5am), they fire up the machinery and begin harvesting. “You want to harvest the grapes at their coolest point,” says Kooyumjian. “Some people believe that’s at midnight, but it’s actually right before sunrise, after the grapes have spent the entire night cooling.”
Grapes are rushed to the winery and inspected for immature fruit, debris and disease, and the de-stemmer removes grapes from the stems. White grapes, which at this point are about 60ºF to 70ºF, go into a chiller with 15ºF water to bring them to a temperature of 40ºF before they are pressed whole. Pressing the grapes at this temperature ensures that the flavors and aromas of the skins are imparted into the juice without the phenolics (which cause bitterness and off-flavors) and tannins. The juice is cooled to 35ºF and left to sit for one to two days so the solids settle. The clear juice is then transferred to a temperature-controlled stainless steel tank and innoculated with a strain of yeast conducive to its particular variety to begin the fermentation process.
Forty percent of Montelle’s wines are sweet, made so by stopping the fermentation process before it has finished and leaving natural grape sugars in the wine. The fermentation process is stopped with cold to kill the yeast. The yeast is then separated from the wine using a particle separator, or centrifuge. Few commercial producers use this method for sweet wines. Instead, they complete the fermentation process and then add sweetness back into the wine with cane sugar or juice concentrate.
When fermentation is complete, the wines are put through cold stabilization, where they are stored in stainless steel holding vessels for one to two weeks below freezing, at about 28ºF, to chill and remove potassium bitartrate crystals (cream of tartar), also known as wine diamonds. All of Montelle’s whites are stainless-steel-fermented, with only Vidal and Chardonel seeing a brief barreling in oak.
After they are de-stemmed, red grapes are placed in fermenting tanks whole ‒ skins, seeds, pulp and all ‒ to impart color and tannins into the juice. After fermentation, the solids are removed and pressed to extract as much wine as possible. Red wines go through a second fermentation, called malolactic fermentation, to decrease the levels of malic acid and soften the wine.
Sweet red wines are then cold-stabilized, blended and bottled. Dry red wines go into barrels for 13 to 24 months. Montelle gets 90 percent of its barrels from World Cooperage in Lebanon, Mo. Kooyumjian has worked with World Cooperage to create barrels to his preferred specifications, made of staves with tight grains aged 24 to 36 months outdoors. Barrels are toasted to a predetermined temperature to impart certain subtleties into the wines. During the aging process, the staff conducts monthly tastings from a sampling of barrels to ensure the wines are progressing correctly. When a wine has reached maturity, staff members taste from all the barrels and rank each as premium-grade or blending-grade. Red wines are then cold-stabilized before bottling.
Grapes for Montelle’s icewine are harvested in November. Instead of leaving the grapes on the vine until after the first freeze of the year, Kooyumjian’s staff picks grapes at their full, extended maturity and freezes them artificially. This prevents the risk of losing grapes to disease and pests and subsequently allows Montelle to control the bottle price of its icewines, which are typically expensive.
Once all the grapes have been harvested from the vineyards, the vines are prepared for dormancy, and the soils are amended. The vines are spur-pruned to renew the cordon. Spur pruning is a method in which the cane is cut back to a predetermined number of buds, which controls the amount of fruit produced the following year. The prunings are weighed to determine the vigor of the vines, and the vines are tied and renewed. The entire process requires 40 man-hours per acre.
“I remind the crews on the vineyard that what they’re doing here isn’t just growing grapes; they’re making wine. So we take the extra steps,” says Kooyumjian.
Soils are tested for healthy levels of calcium, potassium and phosphorus, and minerals are added if needed. Compost is laid down to add microbes that deliver nutrients to the plants.
As the barreled wines back at the winery reach maturity, Kooyumjian and his son, Tom, begin the blending process. They taste through the blending-grade wines and experiment with combinations and percentages. After narrowing it down to two or three theoretical blends, they conduct blind tastings and tweak the percentages to improve the flavors. “Once we think the blends are where we want them, we take them to Cindy [his wife] to have the last word,” says Kooyumjian.
Bottling happens on site, using machinery that can bottle up to 1,500 cases per day. Since 2005, all of Kooyumjian’s wines have used a screw-cap closure, a business decision that wasn’t met with overwhelming approval by fans of his wines. So why switch from cork to screw cap if it could potentially hurt your business? “Quality,” says Kooyumjian.
Over the years, he had become increasingly fed up with bad corks. He estimated that one out of every 13 bottles he produced was afflicted with cork taint, which diminishes the wine’s aromas and flavors, imparting what Kooyumjian describes as a wet, musty cardboard odor. “People will forgive a large producer for a bad bottle of wine but not a small craft winery,” he says.
In 2001, The Australian Wine Research Institute published its findings from a five-year study that showed screw-cap closures provided the tightest possible seal on a wine bottle, prevented oxidation of the wine and eliminated the possibility of cork taint. After reading this study as well as a great amount of literature on the subject, Kooyumjian began switching his wines, a few at a time, to Stelvin closures, which are made entirely of aluminum that threads onto the wine bottle neck and creates a tighter seal, keeping out oxygen longer than cork will.
“I got a lot of letters and emails from unhappy customers who had fallen prey to the stigma of screw caps,” he says. But Kooyumjian knew it was the right move for preserving the quality of his wines. And the choice he made over a decade ago could be considered forward-thinking considering the number of wineries around the world following suit and making the switch.
Keeping an eye on the big picture is one of the secrets to Kooyumjian’s success. He works not only to produce a good vintage every year but also to influence the prosperity of the local wine industry. As chairman of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board research committee, he advises the University of Missouri’s Institute for Continental Climate Viticulture & Enology (ICCVE) on the most important areas for research as well as on the educational needs of vintners and viticulturists.
“Tony has been a leader in the Missouri wine industry,” says Jim Anderson, executive director of the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, an organization established to guide research and development of Missouri grapes and wines and to promote public interest in and patronage of Missouri wineries. “He has carved a path and made it easier for others to enter into the local wine industry.”
In 1988, when Kooyumjian started making wine in Missouri, there were just over a dozen wineries in the state. The industry has grown significantly, especially in the past 12 years, with 116 wineries and over 400 grape growers in Missouri today. Kooyumjian encourages expansion and wants to see the Missouri wine industry have a greater influence on the wine world.
He believes one of the greatest strengths of Missouri wines is the unique varietals that thrive in local conditions. Through his work with ICCVE, he guides research toward identifying more varietals that will prosper in our climate and hopes to see a greater variety of wines from local producers in the future.
And if Kooyumjian sees something he deems good for Missouri wine, you can bet you’ll be seeing it soon too.
TONY'S TOP WINES
Visitors to Montelle Winery can purchase bottles on site to enjoy alongside the breathtaking views from the winery’s patio. Kooyumjian recommends the following wines, which can also be found at retail locations throughout the St. Louis area:
2009 Norton: Aged in Missouri oak, this bold red features a bouquet of raspberry, black cherry and cassis.
2010 Chambourcin: This full-bodied red bursts with blackberry, black cherry and spices and pleases the palate with a silky finish.
River Country Red: A semi-dry red that exhibits a hint of spiciness in its black cherry and raspberry profile and boasts a long, rich finish.
2010 Seyval Blanc: This crisp, fruit-forward white offers notes of citrus and tropical fruits with hints of pear in the lingering finish.
2010 Chardonel: A medium-bodied, stainless-steel-fermented white with hints of apple, pear and fig in the bouquet.
2010 Dry Vignoles: This dry white exhibits crisp acidity with notes of strawberry and pineapple.
Experience Missouri's Wine Country On Us!
We’re giving away a dinner for two to one of Montelle Winery’s Sunset Dinners, held each Friday and Saturday overlooking Augusta’s rolling hills. To enter, follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/feastmag and send us a tweet with the hashtag #feastgiveaway. The gift certificate is valid from May 1 to Aug. 31 and does not include alcoholic beverages. Reservations are required.