During a recent tasting of US wines with Clark Smith of ApellationAmerica.com, Smith pulled out a wine cloaked in a brown paper bag. We had just tasted a dozen or so wines from “unsuspecting places” -- among them Iowa, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Ohio -- so I figured that the mystery wine had to be really unusual. Like Cyndy Lauper.
It was a very pale white wine with a faint minerally aroma. It tasted a bit like lemon-lime soda without the carbonation and sweetness. The finish was crisp, limey and grapefruity. I was certain it wasn’t Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or a Clare Valley Riesling, and in fact, after sniffing and tasting the wine a few more times, I said to Smith, “I don’t think it’s made from grapes. But I don’t have a clue as to what the fruit is.”
Smith, with a bird-ate-the canary grin, pulled the bottle from the bag and said, “Avocado!”
Who knew? Avocado is indeed a fruit (although most of us think of it as a vegetable) and it has enough natural sugar in it to be fermentable when it’s introduced to yeast. The oils in the fresh avocados separate during fermentation, leaving a light, crisp acidity that is so important to the texture of a wine.
The producer of this “AvoVino” is Schnebly Redland’s Winery & Brewery near Homestead, Fla. On their Redland farm, owners Peter and Denisse Schnebly grow nearly 100 acres of exotic tropical fruits and gourmet vegetables for their produce company, Fresh King. When they have an abundant perishable crop that needs to be sold immediately, they often turn the excess into wine, from guavas, mangoes, passion fruit, star fruit and yes, avocado. And AvoVino comes in a sweet version, too.
South Florida’s warm, humid, tropical summers pretty much kill the hopes of winemakers who’d like to grow vitis vinifera grapes, and the conditions are challenging even for hybrid grape varieties such as Vignoles, Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin. After all, Schnebly bills itself as the “Southernmost Winery & Brewery in the U.S.,” and hurricanes are a fact of life.
Only native Muscadine and Scuppernong grapes, which are nearly impervious to mold and rot, can handle the warmth and dampness of the growing season; wines made from them can be acquired taste for those accustomed to drinking Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Muscadines are confectionary-sweet and have a musky, “foxy” aroma that takes some getting used to. So, good on the Schneblys for being creative in using other fruits to make wine.
They certainly aren’t alone. In many states and regions in the United States, climate and soil conditions aren’t appropriate for growing wine grapes. Vintners instead look to orchard fruits, berries and even vegetables such as rhubarb and pumpkin, to produce wine. Many that I’ve tasted are damn delicious.
In the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Vojta family does remarkable things with non-vinifera grapes at their Prairie Berry Winery. Its biggest seller is Red Ass Rhubarb, a blend of rhubarb, raspberries and native grape varieties. For purists, there is Uncle Ralph’s Rhubarb -- 100 percent the real deal. Prairie Berry wines made from chokecherries, cranberries, raspberries, blueberries and other produce taste just like the fruit before it undergoes fermentation.
In Missouri, St. James Winery produces 200,000 cases of wine a year, much of it fruit other than grapes (hybrids and the native variety Norton/Cynthiana are also in the mix). The Hoefherr family’s raspberry and strawberry wines are knockouts and impress many a California wine competition judge.
In North Dakota, Maple River Winery bottles pumpkin wine. Michigan vintners produced cherry wines long before Riesling and Traminette became stars. Maui’s Winery (Tedeschi Vineyards) in Hawaii distributes its Maui Splash sweet pineapple wine through the country. Mead (honey wine) is made just about everywhere.
It’s all too easy for “sophisticated” wine drinkers to dismiss non-grape wines as being for simpletons -- for those who really don’t like the taste of wine and are looking for a beverage more akin to fruit juice. Yet true sophistication comes in trying new things and appreciating well-made and delicious wines, no matter the produce source. I would happily drink chilled St. James strawberry wine on a warm summer afternoon or evening, and enjoy it for it is, rather than for what it is not (i.e. vinifera). There exists a huge market for these styles of wine, and those who drink Red Ass Rhubarb should be congratulated for making wine a part of their lifestyle.
I suspect there is an avid market for Schnebly’s AvoVino, CocoVino (coconut and lemongrass), Cat 3 Hurricane Red (guava and avocado) and Sparkling Lychee wines, not simply as novelties, but as wines that many consumers adore to drink.
Would I purchase AvoVino for myself? Not likely. I think the avocado is the finest food on earth, and I could eat one every day. I prefer these treasures in their natural state, but can attest that AvoVino is a competently made, “real” wine, with 11.5 percent alcohol. It likely appeals to those who prefer lighter, easy-drinking wines, and I can also imagine it complementing oysters or an avocado and Swiss sandwich on sourdough.
It may not be from the vine, but it’s certainly still wine.