Dryer weather conditions in Arkansas wine country this year contribute to expectations of an excellent vintage 2018 for many native varieties.
Dry conditions during the growing season raised sugar levels. An unusually wet, late summer helped muscadines bounce back from a dry, late spring, and was a “blessing” for late varieties like Cynthiana that saw stress from the drought, according to Michael Post at Mount Bethel Winery in Altus.
“This was a rather upside down year rainfall wise,” Post said. “The mid-August rain caused us to adjust our harvest schedule by a few days for some varieties … The dry conditions during the growing season lowered the disease pressure and raised the sugar levels, which we expect will yield some high-quality wine.”
While most grapegrowers around Altus reported average yields from their vineyards, Robert Cowie of Cowie Wine Cellars in Paris said he got a higher yield than average, crushing 1,400 pounds from his 3-acre vineyard.
For the eighth year in a row, Robert's Port won grand champion at the Arkansas State Fair. It's aged six years before release. Cowie will bottle this year's harvest in the spring. Cowie said he is also preparing to open an Autograph Gallery at his winery with autographs from all of the U.S. presidents, most of the Declaration of Independence signers, moonwalkers and kings.
Chateau Aux Arc
Audrey House at Chateau Aux Arc Vineyards & Winery in Altus is set to bottle in early December six different estate-grown Cynthiana dry red wines, a Red Zinfandel from 17-year-old vines, and her first estate-grown Vignole white.
“The Vignole was gorgeous,” House said of the grape she has used to replace Chardonnay as her main white wine.
With rain on her radar, House picked Vignoles early. Rather than risk losing half her crop, she brought in 300 gallons of pure Vignole that yielded 106 cases.
The challenge with making Red Zin in Arkansas, House said, comes from the grape’s thin-skin. Too much rain or a bit of hail splits the skin, killing its true potential. An April frost sent House and her crew into the vineyards on St. Mary Mountain, lighting bales of hay on fire between Red Zin rows by moonlight.
“We put up a fight in order to get a crop,” House said, laughing a little about the amount of smoke they sent over St. Mary Mountain to warm and blanket the grapes.
So much smoke, perhaps, it even helped her neighbor James Dahlem’s crops. She ended up finding a home for Dahlem’s Cynthiana grapes in the fall to make an estate-grown blend she calls Dahlem’s Red. It’s a first-time collaboration for House and Dahlem.
“Dahlem is one of those grape growers who may not be well-known but he grows excellent fruit, and it’s not even his day job. It’s his passion. It takes a little bit of crazy and a lot of passion to grow good grapes.”
After 20 years in the business, House says she is just now beginning to consider herself a sophomore in the trade. Her favorite new agricultural product to help grow grapes in Arkansas’ usually humid climate is LalVigne, an organic spray that decreases the amount of wild yeast on the grapes and as an extra protection from mildew and rot, she said.
“We’ve seen a dramatic difference because when we ferment our yeast isn’t competing with the wild yeast,” House said. “The amount of juice has increased significantly.”
The spray also allowed the muscadine grapes to “hang longer” and more evenly ripen, she added. Usually, she sees about 10 percent of the muscadines in a cluster not ripen at the same time as the rest.
House said she was inspired by two wines being produced down the road from her: Post Winery's Cynthiana Rose and their brut sparkling wine. Post Winery winemaker is Shane Oliver, and their new vineyard manager is Tyler Buelow.
Joseph Post, head of sales and distribution for Post Winery (formerly known as Post Familie Vineyards), said the harvest this year was a little lighter than last year but what they did get was "stellar" and he looks forward to trying out the wines being made with the Enchantment red grapes developed by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.
The "silver lining" to the heavy mid-August rains, Joseph Post noted, was the bump it gave to their largest crop: muscadines.
"We're thinking of releasing a dry muscadine wine this year because it was such high quality," Joseph Post said.
Ives, Chambourcin, Niagara and Delaware grapes also faired well, he added.
Enchantment, a relative of Syrah, was developed to grow in a loose cluster instead of its normal tight cluster. This allows for more airflow between the grapes to limit mildew from growing, he explained.
"It has a lot of vinifera qualities," Tina Post at Post Winery said of Enchantment.
Post Winery also makes non-alcoholic grape juice. This year's juice was bottled over the past week. While scientists have long thought a glass of red wine a day is good for the heart, the Posts say the high antioxidant count in their muscadine juice also has health benefits.
Most of the Post elders are in their 90s: Katherine Post Graham is 98; Louise Post Ritter is 97; Therese "Terry" Post Shaw is 96; Dr. Jim Post will be 95 in late December; Mat Post (Joseph's father) is 93, and his wife Betty Duerr Post is 90; the late Eugene Post (father of Michael Post at Mount Bethel Winery) passed away two years ago at the age of 89; Toni Post Plugge is turning 90 in July and Stela Post Conatser is 87.