New Wine from a Lost Vine in Missouri

Westphalia Vineyards releases a wine made from "Missouri Riesling"

by Linda Jones McKee
missouri riesling
Westphalia Vineyards bottled 40 cases of Missouri Riesling.
Westphalia, Mo.—In May, Terry Neuner, owner and winemaker at Westphalia Vineyards, introduced a new wine called Renaissance. This wine was a special release not only because of the limited quantity (40 cases) but because it is made of estate-grown Missouri Riesling, which represents the “rebirth” of a grape cultivar thought possibly to be extinct. Missouri Riesling is not the vinifera variety Riesling but a native hybrid grape of riparia and labrusca heritage, which disappeared from production after Prohibition began.

Missouri is an unlikely place to grow grapes. The winters are cold with bitter winds coming across the plains; the summers are very hot and humid. In between, spring and fall frosts are often a problem. In spite of the climate, the state has been growing grapes and making wine successfully since before the Civil War. In fact, in the late 19th century Stone Hill Winery in Hermann was the second-largest winery in the entire country.

Natives and hybrids
For much of its wine history the industry in Missouri has been based on native and native hybrid grape varieties. While vinifera and both French and American hybrid grapes are now grown in parts of Missouri, the flagship red wine for the state today is Norton, a cross of aestivalis and labrusca grapes that was introduced in Virginia by Dr. D.L. Norton as “Virginia Seedling.” Another popular white wine grape in the years before Prohibition was a variety known as “Missouri Riesling,” a riparia-labrusca cross introduced by Nicholas Grein in Hermann. However, with the advent of Prohibition, the only grape variety to remain in production to any extent was Concord, which was used as a juice grape.

Neuner set out to find a source for Missouri Riesling, even though the vines were thought to be extinct, and in 2005 he located one vine at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y. “The only reason we found it is because of Thomas Jefferson. He named Cornell University the first land-grant college, and he gave it one mission: preserve every American grape species.”

Beginning with five cuttings from the vine at Cornell, Neuner has now propagated 500 Missouri Riesling vines at his 8-acre vineyard along the Maries River outside Westphalia, Mo. According to Neuner, the Missouri Riesling vines are similar to Norton in that they appear to be quite disease resistant. “The interesting thing about Missouri Riesling grapes is that they have big, open clusters and therefore no issues with diseases. They ripen about the same time as red grapes, and last harvest we actually picked the Missouri Riesling after the Norton.”

Convincing the TTB
The grapes for Renaissance were picked in 2012 from 400 producing vines, fermented in stainless steel, and the 40 cases of wine were bottled in January. One problem Neuner had not anticipated arose when he sent in his label for approval by TTB. “Missouri Riesling” was not a recognized grape variety, and he had to convince the authorities that he was not making a Riesling in Missouri, but using a cultivar whose name happened to include a state name and another wine varietal name.

Neuner reports that the Westphalia Renaissance is “dry, but aromatic and fruity. While it’s a new experience, acceptance has been very good by our customers.” The wine can be purchased (but is not always available for tasting) at the Norton Room, the winery’s tasting room on the top floor of the Westphalia Inn at 106 E. Main St., Westphalia, Mo.

For more information, contact Neuner at terry@westphaliavineyards.com.

Posted on 06.21.2013 - 07:39:50 PST
I don't think that Thomas Jefferson's lifespan overlapped with Cornell University. Abraham Lincoln's administration passed the Morrill act which started land grant institutions like Cornell.
New York Viticulture

Posted on 06.21.2013 - 11:58:49 PST
From 2001 to 2004 I worked for Ferrigno Vineyards and Winery in St. James, Missouri as a vineyard and cellar hand. I know that there was a couple vines of Missouri Riesling in the vineyard there. I am not sure if these vines are healthy and producing, but might be of some interest to someone out there. The winery has sold since I last worked there and now goes by Three Squirrels Winery. I am still in touch with the original owner now and then.
Jesse Pender