In Missouri, native grapes like Norton, Concord and Catawba are most commonly grown for wine production, but they are more the exception than the rule. An overwhelming 60 percent of the wine grapes grown in the state are hybrids, according to the Missouri Wine and Grape Board. Hybrids combine the hardiness of native grapes with the character of popular Vitis vinifera, varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that hail from Europe.
Chardonel, a popular grape varietal in the Midwest, is a prime example: A hybrid of Chardonnay and Seyval Blanc, Chardonel thrives in hot Midwestern summers but retains the desirable characteristics of its French parent.
Twenty-four years ago, when Lucian Dressel sold Mount Pleasant Winery in Augusta, Missouri, and moved to Davis, California, he set off on a journey to create new hybrid grapes that would thrive in Missouri’s climate while capturing the flavor of European wines.
In Davis, Dressel lived on the same road as Dr. Harold Olmo, considered one of the most famous grape breeders of the 20th century. A professor emeritus at University of California, Davis, one of few universities worldwide with a grape-growing and winemaking program, Dr. Olmo helped Dressel research and breed his desired crosses. Ten years after moving to the West Coast, Dressel had seedlings to plant in California, but he knew the true test would be summers in Missouri.
In 2002, he moved back to the Midwest and put his seedlings in the ground. The result was two successful vines from a Norton-Cabernet Sauvignon cross: a red, which he called Crimson Cabernet, and a white, called Cabernet Doré. The second grape expressed a recessive white gene, likely from Sauvignon Blanc, a parent of Cabernet Sauvignon.
“These are grape varietals that really don’t like to breed with any others,” he says. “They’ve used these grapes in breeding programs, and it’s been a tremendous flop. Maybe the two of them, because they didn’t like anyone else, liked each other.”
The cross created two grapes that each make high-quality, balanced wine. The Crimson Cabernet has a medium body and flavors of cherry and blackberry that linger on the palate. The Cabernet Doré, an iridescent white wine, is refreshing, smooth and slightly creamy, with a strong floral nose.
Today, Dressel’s crosses can be found in vineyards in 26 states, including at several wineries in Missouri. “You can drive from Connecticut to California and never leave a state where they’re growing Crimson Cabernet,” Dressel says with pride.
Brandon Dixon, winemaker and general manager at Noboleis Vineyards in Augusta, Missouri, got his start working closely with the Dressel family at Mount Pleasant. However, it was a newcomer to Missouri’s wine industry, Harold Hamby, who first gave Dixon the chance to make Dressel’s crosses three or four years prior. Hamby, who owns a shipping company in St. Louis, opened LaChance Vineyards in De Soto, Missouri, last year. The vineyard has 8 acres of grapes, 6 of which are Crimson Cabernet and Cabernet Doré.
Hamby says he became infatuated with French wine after his first glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Throughout the next 35 years his adoration of the earthy, full-bodied red wine blossomed into a love of both European and domestic bottlings, which he has grown into a collection of around 600 bottles. When Hamby decided to invest in his own vineyard, he searched for a grape that would thrive in Missouri and produce wine similar to his favorite French styles. After a meeting and tasting with Dressel, Hamby was set on Crimson Cabernet and bought enough to plant 2 acres (which has now expanded to 3).
“And then I tried the [Cabernet Doré], and I’m not necessarily a white wine fan, but I fell in love with the white wine, too.” Hamby says.
Hamby bought 1 acre of Cabernet Doré, and LaChance became one of the only vineyards in the state to grow it (he's since added 2 additional acres). The idea was to make just enough wine for himself, but he quickly realized that the minimum number of grapevines he had to order would produce vastly more wine that he alone could drink. “So, I decided to grow a little bit more and start a small winery,” Hamby says. “Then I got carried away, and now we’re planting every year.”
LaChance’s first Crimson Cabernet was bottled in September, less than six months after the winery opened for business. Thus far it has been well received by customers, Hamby says.
In addition to Dixon’s work at Noboleis, he also makes wine for LaChance, where the connection to the crosses was made. At Noboleis, Dixon says his limited work with Crimson Cabernet has so far yielded good results.
“It grows more like Norton, from what we’ve seen in the past two years,” he says. “It’s very disease-resistant and seems to be pretty cold-hardy. But when I harvest it, it tastes more like vinifera; it’s more like the Cabernet Sauvignon parent. It’s a smaller grape, and it’s got some nice tannin structure, which is really hard to find in hybrids. The flavors are rock solid – I really like the body and the structure that we’re getting out of that wine.”
Unfortunately, the 2015 vintage was ravaged by birds, and much of it was lost. “We ended up having to [harvest] it early, or we would have lost it all,” Dixon says.
Because of this year’s small crop and the early harvest, Noboleis’ plan is to wait another year to release its first run of Crimson Cabernet. A small amount is aging in barrels and will be blended with other reds. Dixon is hopeful that next year’s vintage, with the protection of bird netting, will find the wine’s stand-alone potential and full character.
Using a long, elegant wine thief, Mark Blumenberg coaxes his Crimson Cabernet 2015 vintage out of a barrel and empties it into glasses for Lucian Dressel and his son, Joseph. They swirl the wine in the glass, deeply inhale and let it linger on the nose before Dressel announces his contentment. It’s a proud moment for Blumenberg, owner of Blumenhof Winery in Dutzow, Missouri, who first met Dressel in the ’70s, a few years after Dressel bought Mount Pleasant Winery.
“Lucian was making wine that was more along the lines of European wines at that time,” Blumenberg says. “I developed my palate on French wines. The first really great bottle of wine I had was a ’67 Château Léoville-Las Cases, and it was just astonishing. From then, I was hooked.”
When Dressel introduced Crimson Cabernet, Blumenberg was eager to add it to a portion of the winery’s 25 acres. In 2013, Blumenberg bottled Missouri’s first vintage of Crimson Cabernet. Although the wine was good, the volume of grapes harvested wasn’t up to par with what he had expected, likely because of vine immaturity. Despite the lackluster crop, Blumenberg didn’t give up on the new grape. For the winery’s second vintage, 2015, volume was comparable to Blumenhof’s other Cabernet varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, Blumenberg says.
“The encouraging thing about that is we got great numbers on Crimson Cabernet despite all the rain,” he says. “It had high sugars, moderate acid levels and what I consider to be manageable pHs. Those are the three key parameters for harvesting.”
Because he’s only worked with Crimson Cabernet for two vintages, Blumenberg says he hasn’t gotten to know the grape well enough to predict its success over time: “It’s still early, and because every year is so different, every vintage has its own unique characteristic.”
Crimson Cabernet and Cabernet Doré were created to enhance the very best characteristics from their parent grapes to produce wines that would thrive in Missouri. In the coming years, winemakers will put these grapes to the test in the state’s harsh climate, remaining hopeful that a bit of French character will find its home in local soil – and, of course, wine glasses.
Noboleis Vineyards, 100 Hemsath Road, Augusta, Missouri, 636.482.4500, noboleisvineyards.com
LaChance Vineyards, 12237 Peter Moore Lane, De Soto, Missouri, 636.586.2777, lachancevineyards.com
Blumenhof Winery, 13699 S. Missouri Highway 94, Dutzow, Missouri, 636.433.2245, blumenhof.com