Consider the experience of Champagne, Barham says, the region of northern France where growers and winemakers long ago banded together to proclaim the uniqueness of their bubbly white wine. Thanks to these efforts, and a century-old treaty signed in Madrid, a winemaker can make what he believes to be an equally wonderful bubbly in the Spanish Penedès, Italy's Tuscan Hills, or anywhere else one might grow a reasonable approximation of French chardonnay, pinot noir and meunier. He can carefully ferment and blend the fruit, pour it into a bottle, perform the remuage, complete the dégorgement, age it in a cellar, then pop the cork and shout "Happy New Year." But unless the label says Champagne Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), meaning it's been certified as produced in and according to the standards of Champagne and the French Republic, all the world knows it's nothing but sparkling wine.
"I wrote a paper about the French concept of terroir, about how, yes, there is this concept and it sounds pretty nifty," Barham says. "But terroir actually has an institutional embodiment in their appellation system and the way that they administer that. Administering an appellation isn't an easy thing to do. They have hundreds of professionals who work on it. But I'd like to see us construct something similar in this country."
With this in mind, just over three years ago Barham launched what she called the Missouri Regional Cuisines Project, a program aimed at helping Missouri winemakers, small farmers, chefs and artisans use this "regional environmental sensitivity" to develop and market up-scale products that will, one day, carry an internationally recognized Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée of their very own. "The reason we're starting with wine as the lead product is that the appellation systems that you see in Europe all started with wine," Barham says. "That's because nobody questioned that wine was affected by where it came from."
On a crowded tabletop in her Gentry Hall office, Barham unfolds a colorful map representing what she and her colleagues have dubbed the Mississippi River Hills Region. The map, designed in consultation with faculty and staff from MU's College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, MU Extension, the Missouri Department of Agriculture's Grape and Wine Program and other related groups, delimits a six-county area that Barham hopes will give birth to the first of Missouri's appellations.
"A lot of people here in Missouri don't realize the scale and quality of the state's wine industry," she says. "I think people would be really surprised. Of course, once they get out and start visiting the wineries they learn quickly: Missouri is becoming well respected on the national and even global scene for the wines we're producing."
One of those producers, Hank Johnson, is the owner of the 310-acre Chaumette Vineyards and Winery near Coffman, Mo., in Ste. Genevieve County. Johnson was one of the first to get on board with Barham's plan to develop a Mississippi River Hills appellation. He remains a passionate supporter.
"We feel like we owe a great debt to Beth for what she's already accomplished. There is a lot of enthusiasm for this project, a lot of momentum," Johnson says over a glass of what he describes as one of Chaumette's signature wines, an Estate Chardonel bottled in 2003.
Chardonel is a cold-climate-friendly hybrid born of chardonnay and seyval blanc, a grape that is itself a hybrid of two distinct species. When vinified by talented winemakers, chardonel can make a wonderfully unpretentious white wine. This bottle of Chaumette Estate Chardonel, for example, has a lovely golden color and the faint aroma of ripe pear. It tastes of citrus and pineapple, with a crisp, slightly acidic finish that complements lighter fare.
Chardonel, along with the North American-native Norton grape, have become the two most promising fruits for winemakers throughout the Midwest. Johnson is particularly excited about selling Americans on the virtues of Norton, a disease-resistant, full-bodied, red wine grape that is particularly rich in resveratrol, an antioxidant scientists say could have health benefits. "Stop and think about it," Johnson says. "Ten years ago, who ever heard of Shiraz? Fifteen years ago, who had ever heard of Zinfandel? In 1975 there were fewer than 1,000 acres of Chardonnay in California, now it's 25 percent of their entire market. So there have been new names to emerge in the national marketplace."
Next big thing or not, bottlings of Norton, along with chardonel and grape varieties such as Vignoles, Chambourcin, Catawba and Concord, have contributed to a recent jump in Missouri wine sales. Last year, according to statistics from the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, a state government-sponsored promotional organization, close to 60 wineries produced around 600,000 gallons, an increase of 20 percent over the last three years.
Published by the Office of Research.
©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.