Yes, we are crushing our first three tons of genetic hybrid Midwestern grapes next week (in December). This is a tale of horticultural perspicacity, a father-son legacy, winemaking creativity and industry cooperation.
First, let’s go back to the beginning or shall we say, “to our roots?”
In the 1960s, Oklahoma City horticulturalist, George Girourad, began to experiment genetically crossing classic European grape varietals with native Midwestern grapes. His goal was to develop a hybrid offering the same diseases resistance, mildew resistance and late ripening characteristics as the native Midwestern plants have with the taste and aroma profiles of great European wine grapes.
After thirty five years of painstaking plant breeding programs, he patented four hybrids (all reds): By George, Plymouth, Val John and Southern Cross.
His son, Chris, is a Tulsa Vintner and owner of Girouard Vines Winery has produced several fine reds and one rose from his father’s hybrids. In the spring of 2016, Pecan Creek Winery planted several rows of Southern Cross, Plymouth and Val John. We plan to make our own estate wines from these plantings in about two years. After barrel aging, they will be available in about three years. Winemaking is a slow business requiring lots of patience.
Here’s the interesting twist.
The Girouard wines are actually grown and harvested in California. The wine is produced under a “custom crush” arrangement by another winery out there and shipped in bulk to Tulsa where it is bottled. This year the California vineyard had a little extra fruit on their hands and that is why Pecan Creek will be processing three tons (Plymouth and By George) of grapes early next week.
Hybrids pose a number of challenges to winemakers that the European varietals never present. One is an abundance of an acid most commonly associated with a green apple taste. A little bit goes a long way, but these grapes are loaded with it. This challenge is easily handled through a secondary fermentation step called “Malo-Lactic Fermentation” or “MLF.”
This converts the green apple tasting Malic Acid into Lactic Acid which is a milder acid and lacks the green apple stuff. A second challenge is the low acidity of the grapes to begin with. Good wines are developed by balancing acids, sugars, tannins, acidity, astringency and other factors. We can boost the acid level with judicious blending or other means.
most hybrids will give an earthy, vegetal aroma. Some say that is a plus because it is the “terroir” of the Midwest (although European varietals planted here don’t have it). In this winemaker’s playbook, these elements of taste and aroma need to be mitigated or eliminated if possible. Addition of high surface area oak in the fermentation stage seems to do the trick. We are not sure of the chemistry here but from experience, we know it works.
Note that this story involves three wineries cooperating with a goal to produce and deliver great wines to the public. In this age where competition seems to dominate everything, isn’t it refreshing to see cooperation alive and well?