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Local Vintners Experiment with French-Style Winemaking Techniques

Popular French-American hybrid grapes like Chardonel and Chambourcin are often used to produce dry-style, food-friendly wines

  • 11 min to read

A narrow gravel road winds alongside the Meramec River, revealing at its end Claverach Farm, a vineyard and farm nestled in a lush green valley just outside Eureka, Missouri.

Here, Sam Hilmer, co-owner, farm manager and winemaker, experiments with the oldest-known method of producing sparkling wine. The French winemaking tradition, known as méthode ancestrale, produces pétillant naturel (pét-nat for short), a naturally sparkling wine. The natural bubbles are achieved by bottling before primary fermentation has finished, resulting in a wine similar to Champagne but without the added sugar.

Each bottle of Claverach’s pét-nat has noticeable sediment resting at the bottom, something Hilmer says is more common in European wines. Although popular in Europe, such “cloudy wines,” as they are nicknamed, are rarely made in the Midwest. “In France there’s this group of mostly young winemakers who are sort of irreverent to traditions,” Hilmer says of cloudy wine.

Claverach field manager Rachel Shulman says Hilmer is cut from the same cloth as those French winemakers: “Sam is nothing if not irreverent,” she says with a smile.

The winery’s pét-nat is just one example – albeit an extremely unique one – of how more local vintners are making wines with decidedly French character.

Although French-style wines are made all over the world, Kansas City-based Master of Wine and Master Sommelier Doug Frost says they’re particularly well-suited to Missouri, where popular French-American hybrid grapes like Chardonel and Chambourcin are often used to produce dry-style, food-friendly wines.

“People are trying to make more classically styled wines, which means they have fewer new oak barrels utilized, and they’re going to be higher in acid,” Frost says.

In contrast to the styles of wines typically made in California, Frost says modern French-style dry wines have more acidity and less tannin structure. “Everybody around the world is talking this game, but not everyone’s doing it,” Frost says. “But what’s cool about grapes here in the Midwest is that they sort of force you to make wine that way.”

Missouri’s grapes have a great deal of tartness, but low to no tannin, which is often the structuring element for red wines on the West Coast. Instead, Missouri winemakers use acidity as their structuring element, which resembles the French approach.

“You have to work with what nature gives you,” Frost says. “The silliest thing in the world is when somebody tries to impose a style upon grapes that is not natural to the flavors and the structural characteristics of those grapes. So, in many ways, it’s proverbial; we’re trying to make lemonade out of lemons.”

And he’s not speaking metaphorically. “In the past, Missouri winemakers made wine the same way you make lemonade – you dumped a bunch of sugar in there,” Frost says. “The question now has become, ‘Can we make dry-style wines that are respectful of the grapes and are fun to drink, even though we’re dealing with this tartness that we’re stuck with?’

“It’s a challenge for winemakers, and I think it’s one that they’re answering.”

FRENCH-STYLE VINIFICATION

Since opening in the late 1980s, Röbller Vineyard in New Haven, Missouri, has embraced the knowledge of accomplished domestic and European grape growers and winemakers to produce European-style wines.

“How do you create an outcome in a wine that takes advantage of both sides of the pond?” asks Jerry Mueller, winemaker at Röbller. “It’s really all about old-world and new-world [approaches].”

Mueller’s philosophy stems from his father, Robert Mueller, who planted his first grapevines almost three decades ago. Father and son have always approached their work with the belief that good wine starts in the vineyard.

“I learned early, on the French side of things, that complexity comes from varieties, complexity comes [from] the land and complexity comes from what you do in the winery,” Jerry says. “But it starts out there, [where] you’re growing.”

Soil heavily influences the grapes grown at any vineyard, as well as the wine made with that fruit. The French have a term for this, terroir, derived from the words for land and soil. It refers to the impact of the entire grape-growing environment, from soil to climate, on wine’s aroma, flavor and complexity.

Terroir has always been foundational for the grapes grown at Röbller. One of the reasons Robert purchased the land was due to its south-facing slopes, giving the vines an east-west exposure all day, and for its deep soil and location within a mile of a river. The roots of Röbller’s grapevines push 6- to 18-feet deep into the soil before reaching limestone. The slope of the sedimentary rock allows for quick moisture retention in dry weather, allowing the vineyards to be completely dry farmed.

Dry farming has been a tradition in Asian and European countries for centuries. Irrigation is forbidden in many parts of the world, as water supplementation changes the terroir. Water is only added when a vine is planted, after which it relies solely on natural precipitation. “It gives those little plants the help they need,” Jerry says. “But after that, the rest is Mother Nature.”

Since its first vintage, Röbller has used dry farming to capture more intense flavors from its grapes. “We’re seeing, more than anything, a well-structured fruit and really interesting fruit characteristics,” Jerry says. “We capture those aromas and flavors in the process of making wine, but we also capture the structure that leads to longer mouthfeel length on the palate and more complexity in the wine.”

The 2012 drought left its mark on the Norton wine in a big way, Jerry says, imparting tremendous tannin structure and making it one of the most interesting wines Röbller has ever produced. Jerry observed, for example, a greater expression of cinnamon in the Norton, and a change from apple to citrus notes in his Vidal Blanc.

“It’s the land,” Jerry says. “There’s something protective about this land.”

He acts as a shepherd to make sure his land will foster great wine for years to come. “We have to be good stewards of the land because this is such a generational business,” he says. “Those who will come after my father, after me, we want to make sure that the foundation in the land is maintained, preserved and protected for them.”

The grapes growing in Röbller’s vineyards are a mix of French-American hybrids including Chambourcin, St. Vincent and Vidal Blanc, as well as Norton and some Vitis vinifera, grapevines of European origin.

Jerry buys yeast directly from France and Spain, and contrary to what’s predominately done in the industry, he matches the yeast with different grape varietals to create wines with complexity and nuanced character. “I could use five different yeast selections and create five different outcomes in wine,” Jerry says.

He likens the approach to how a chef seasons food: “If you just use salt, it’s not the same outcome as using salt, pepper and garlic.”

And just as chefs build menus that incorporate many influences and flavors, Jerry describes his wines as embodying a similar diversity. “Rather than having a similar flavor or quality, I think everything here has a different profile,” he says. “And they should, because they are all very different grapes to work with and wines to create.”

But Jerry says his primary focus when making wine is to first bring out the natural flavors of the grape itself and balance them to create a pleasing finish.

“Having a balanced wine is the main thing,” he says. “The flavors are dictated by the fruit. Each year the vineyard is going to produce something different; each vintage has a different flavor. It’s about extracting from the fruit what that vintage has produced.”

Emulation of parent grape flavors is one way to extract these nuances, Jerry says. Vignoles, for example, is a hybrid of a hybrid (Seibel 6905) and a clone of Pinot Noir, Pinot de Corton.

“All of those wines are light-acid profiles and have a slight touch of sweetness that balances out that acidity,” he says. “Really, the idea here is to emulate the outcome of what its parent grape has been. That’s where yeast selection comes in; that’s where method and technique comes in. It brings interesting qualities out of the grape.”

Another wine, Le Trompier Noir, first produced at Röbller in 1993, is a field blend of Chambourcin, St. Vincent and Villard Noir, all French-hybrid grapes that grow alongside one another in the winery’s vineyard. This lighter-bodied wine expresses a character reminiscent of Burgundian Pinot Noir, with dark fruit notes and a hint of oak-barrel flavor. Jerry says it’s a prime example of how the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

“When you sit down and hear the orchestra, you don’t hear anything but the whole,” he says. “This wine is about being able to enjoy the sum, which is all of these components brought together.”

Through his former wine-distribution business, Jerry honed his knowledge of wines from all around the world – not just by tasting, but also by talking with winemakers themselves. Some weeks they tried 300 wines, including well-known and obscure varietals. He now uses that knowledge and experience to determine what varietals will thrive in his vineyard.

“My interest is making sure what we produce here fits,” he says. “Good-quality wine wins. [My father’s] idea of good-quality wine is wine with balance. I’m taking what I learned from him and adding an extra layer of complexity to that wine with extra techniques and methods. Those are things I learned from really amazing winemakers.

“It’s really about paying tribute in the cellar to what the heck we do in the vineyard,” he says. “You spend all year growing these darn things in the vineyard, might as well do something with them in the cellar. Let their lives become something compelling.”

Another facet of Jerry’s winemaking is bâtonage, or lees aging and stirring, a French technique that originated in a few small provinces in Burgundy. The term lees refers to the dead yeast cells or sediment that falls to the bottom of the barrel, cask or vat where wine is fermented. Usually they don’t impart flavor, but Jerry makes them work to his advantage.

“Instead of letting them just take a nap at the bottom, we stir them up,” he says.

Over time, the yeast begins to absorb the oak barrel’s flavor. The process allows wine to retain more of the yeast’s natural flavor while also adding complexity from the compounds released from the lees, like fatty acids and amino acids, as they break down in the wine. Jerry says it helps build a complex profile and impacts the mouthfeel more than imparting its own flavors.

He uses his Vidal Blanc as an example. “After about 16 months, all this creamy body will come to the front along with the fruit, and at 18 months fruit becomes the main player, with just a hint of oak,” he says.

White wine aged in oak barrels and stainless steel can also benefit from lees stirring. Jerry uses bâtonage to make his Vignoles, Vidal Blanc and Seyval Blanc wines.

Jerry also employs cold-soaking, a pre-fermentation cold-maceration process, to extract the most nuanced and desirable characteristics from his grapes.

Cold-soaking is an aqueous extraction, rather than an alcoholic extraction, of compounds from grape flesh, skins and seeds. The result is a more fruit-forward base wine with strong aromatics and more intense color in the finished product.

“The idea is to try to capture characteristics from fruit before you create alcohol,” Jerry says. “The amount of fruit characteristics being imparted declines with alcohol, so the longer you can cold-soak, the better the outcome in wine.”

With Norton, for example, Jerry says cold-soaking creates a softer profile in young wine, even before it’s aged in barrels, eliminating the hard-acid profile and bite that’s sometimes associated with Missouri’s state grape.

By growing grapes in rich soil and drawing inspiration from French winemaking techniques, both old and new, Jerry hopes to create wines that people will enjoy in much the same way that they were produced: slowly, carefully and with intention.

“This is about finesse and elegance,” Jerry explains. “It’s about creating that kind of an outcome.”

WINEMAKING TECHNIQUES

Back at Claverach, Sam Hilmer has been making wine for almost 20 years. He first became interested in grape growing while raising vegetables on his family’s farm, where Claverach now operates. It wasn’t long before wine grapes were added to the list of crops. Claverach’s first wine, made with Norton and Chambourcin grapes, was bottled in 2002.

The vineyard has expanded over the years to include European and French-American hybrid grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Petit Manseng, Marsanne, Viogner and a tiny planting of Pinot Noir, along with Chambourcin. European varietals now account for about 60 percent of its yield.

Shulman says the vineyard’s soil is particularly suited to these varietals. “We have very high limestone in the soil, which is common in France,” she says. “That’s one of the things that keeps us growing French wine grapes.” The limestone in the soil allows for quick drainage, even after heavy flooding from the nearby Meramec River.

Hilmer plants his vineyards in a European fashion, as well. Unlike other Missouri wineries, where the average vine density is 500 an acre, the European varietals in Claverach’s vineyard have up to 2,500 vines an acre. Hilmer plants the rows extremely close together, and harvesting and pruning must be done by hand. “It’s more difficult to farm, but the ultimate reward is a more interesting flavor,” Hilmer says.

Over the past 14 years, Hilmer has made many European-style wines, but this is the first year Claverach has released its pét-nats, those “cloudy wines” inspired by the oldest-known method for making sparkling wine that has made a resurgence in Europe.

Claverach produced about 1,000 bottles of red and rosé pét-nat this year, which will be sold at the farm and might make it into a few retail stores in the St. Louis area. The rosé is made with 100 percent Chambourcin grapes, and the red is a blend of Chambourcin and Cabernet Franc. Hilmer has also experimented with a blend of white European grapes grown at the winery (Bianca, Petit Manseng, Viognier and Marsanne) but he’s still perfecting the wine.

And then there’s the sediment resting at the bottom of each bottle of Claverach’s pét-nat, giving it that signature cloudy quality. Usually such sediment is dispelled by disgorgement, a process in which the lees are frozen and removed from the wine. Hilmer decided to skip the step to achieve a more authentic French-style pét-nat.

Some revere the cloudiness as superior – a sign that wine hasn’t been manipulated. Others see it as form of rebellion in the industry, or pushing the limits of new-world winemaking. “That’s an old-world thing; the resurgence of cloudy wines is America looking to Europe,” Hilmer says. “Most wines in the commercial market are disgorged because it’s not common to have cloudy wine, whereas in beer it’s accepted these days. But I think as we go forward, we’ll see more wines that are cloudy.”

Another traditional quality of Claverach’s pét-nats is the absence of added yeast. “After a period of time in a winery or in a cellar, yeast become indigenous, so you don’t necessarily have to add anything,” Hilmer says. “It’s sort of a leap of faith, initially, when you don’t know what you’re going to get.”

The inherent risk involved in producing pét-nats and their unknowable quality is what makes them exciting to Hilmer – and other contemporary winemakers.

The movement first began to emerge in France in the ’90s when several young winemakers left their jobs in vineyards and at wine cellars to experiment with making small batches of unique wines in garages and other small spaces. They were dubbed garagistes, and their wines were called vins de garage, or “garage wines.”

Like Hilmer, these winemakers were exploring techniques and approaches outside of the mainstream wine industry. Their yields were extremely low, and the vines were heavily pruned by hand. Everything was hand-picked and de-stemmed, and often crushed by foot, in an effort to master every step of the winemaking process. They plucked individual leaves off grapevines to expose grapes to specific windows of sunlight for targeted growth and let grapes hang on the vine long past normal harvest to yield fruit with more concentrated flavor.

Inspired by the garagistes, Hilmer says Claverach’s pét-nats offer something unique in the local wine industry. “It’s not that I dislike traditions; it’s just that I think we have to question why we do things in certain ways,” Hilmer says.

By combining European grape-growing methods with traditional and modern French winemaking techniques, Hilmer and Jerry Mueller have produced wines made with grapes that thrive in Missouri’s climate – and yet are truly French-inspired in structure and character.

“I’m looking to do something different,” Hilmer says. “I think there is a place for people making Norton and Chardonel and the standard varieties here, but I think there’s also room for people who want to grow European grapes. As consumers become more educated and open to different things, you’re going to see more experimentation with producers.”

Jerry also sees an opportunity for the local wine industry to grow through European approaches. “[Missouri wines have] been categorized and boxed into this idea that if it’s from here, it’s sweet or it’s uninteresting,” he says. “But if we apply these techniques, then the industry has an ability to compete at a high level.”

Röbller Vineyard, 275 Robller Vineyard Road, New Haven, Missouri, 573.237.3986, robllerwines.com

Claverach Farm, 570 S. Lewis Road, Eureka, Missouri, 636.938.7353, claverachfarm.com

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