In the 1970s, Francophiles were shocked to learn that California made wines as good or better than Bordeaux, and a similar realization is emerging about Midwest wines, made with grapes that can survive winters harsher than they get in Burgundy and Napa and crafted by Missouri vintners into a delicious array of whites and reds. Missouri wineries (there are about 125 of them) generally use varietals with names like seyval, vignoles, norton and chambourcin, and the wines (which have won medals in international wine competitions) run the gamut from dry reds and whites to dessert wines and port. Wineries within an easy drive of St. Louis are generally clustered into three major districts, with a few standing pretty much alone.
The closest major wine district to St. Louis runs along Highway 94 south of Highway 40—watch for signs and you can’t go wrong. Within this group are wineries in Augusta, America's first official viticultural district. Most wineries are open daily. Some offer entertainment, some more extensive dining options. Some charge a small fee for tastings, others don’t. We recommend: Chandler Hill Vineyards, equipped with a magnificent tasting room and deck overlooking the vineyards (636.798.CORK); Yellow Farmhouse Winery, in downtown Defiance near the Katy Trail and bike rentals (314.409.6139); Sugar Creek Winery, also in Defiance, offering a pleasant hillside setting among the vines and frequent live music (636.987.2400); Montelle Winery, perched 400 feet above the Missouri River valley for the best views along Highway 94 (888.595.WINE); Mount Pleasant Estates, off Highway 94 in Augusta, (800.467.WINE); Augusta Winery, also in Augusta (888.MOR.WINE); Noboleis Vineyards & Winery, relatively new but already reaping awards left and right (636.482.4500); Blumenhof Vineyards and Winery near Dutzow, where crowds convene on weekends for live music and great wine (636.433.2245).
A number of wineries are perched in the hills west of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri's oldest European settlement and home to some important French Colonial architecture. Among this group, Chaumette Vineyards & Winery is a standout, tossing fine dining and a spa into the mix along with one of the best nortons we’ve ever tasted (573.747.1000).
Picturesque Hermann, Missouri, and the road leading to it from St. Louis (Highway 100), are dotted with a group of wineries collectively known as the Hermann Wine Trail. Stone Hill Winery in Hermann offers a great tour and full-service dining to its long line of award-winning wines (800.909.WINE). We also like Hermannhof Vineyards, operating out of one of the handsomest tasting rooms in Missouri (573.486.5959).
A touch farther afield in St. James (located about 96 miles southwest of St. Louis on I-44), the St. James Winery basks in glory, recognized as one of the top 15 wineries worldwide by the World Association of Wine and Spirits Writers and Journalists, winning three major international competitions just this past year (800.280.9463). Definitely worth the drive.
You may not recognize Missouri wine varietals if you’re used to California and European grapes. They’re mostly French hybrids—European grapes grafted with hardier native American vines to create varieties that can survive the vagaries of Midwest winters. There are a few near-twins to European grapes, but most have a flavor distinctly and deliciously their own. Here’s a quick primer to get you started.
Cayuga: Named for the lake in upstate New York, from whence it comes. Light, fruity citrus flavors abound in a normally semi-dry wine.
Chardonel: This cross between chardonnay and seyval is fermented in oak or stainless steel barrels for very different taste profiles. A worthy substitute for chardonnay.
Seyval: Produces excellent dry to semi-dry wines that are refreshingly crisp, fruity and consistently good.
Traminette: French-hybrid version of gewurztraminer yields light, dry-to-sweet wines with notes of peach, apricots and florals.
Vidal: The delicious grapefruit notes in this French hybrid can often be mistaken for a good sauvignon blanc.
Vignoles: This jack-of-all-trades varietal is used in wines from dry to late-harvest dessert wines with pineapple and apricot flavors.
Catawba: This native American grape is used for off-dry to sweet rosés that often prove popular with novice wine-drinkers.
Chambourcin: Missouri wineries are crafting better chambourcins all the time, approaching pinot noir territory with earthy flavors and soft tannins. Great with pork, burgers and pasta with red sauce.
Concord: Wine made from this popular grape is characteristically fruity and sweet. If you love to eat concord grapes, you should try this wine.
Norton/Cynthiana: This native American grape is the official wine grape of Missouri, producing big, bold, dry red wines with powerful berry flavors and spice notes. The intensity of the fruit rivals cabernet sauvignon, for which it will never be mistaken but sometimes preferred. Superb paired with red meat. Norton is often fashioned into a luscious port
St. Vincent: Great in nouveau-style wines, this delicate grape is often used for blending.