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Wisconsin winemakers see impact from polar vortex

Posted at 7:01 PM, Apr 04, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-04 23:50:43-04

The harsh Wisconsin winters and periods of heavy rain during the warmer months can make winemaking a challenge for Wisconsin winemakers. But there is one Wisconsin winemaker that’s making the best wine he can no matter what Mother Nature brings his way.

At the Wollersheim Winery, winemaking is a way of life for Philippe Coquard and his family. After producing wine year after year from his 46-year-old vines, Coquard has learned more than a thing or two about how Wisconsin weather will impact his product.

“It's the coldest we've seen," said Coquard. "I've been here 35 years."

Nick Smith is an enology, or winemaking, outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin Madison campus and he agrees with Coquard that Wisconsin winters can be tough on grapes.

"When we get these polar vortexes that can freeze things down for an extended period of time we can see some winter injury issues," he said.

This winter’s period of -25 to -10 degree temperatures have Coquard a little worried about the number of grapes he will harvest later this year.

“Sometime in end of April early May this little bud will get bigger and suddenly the leaves will come out and that's when will see if it's alive," he said.

Coquard and his daughter will start to prune the vineyard in the coming weeks to evaluate the health of the trunks in the vineyard. For him, this is a tricky process but he has to do it to see whether his buds are alive and green or dead and brown.

Wisconsin grapes are cold and hardy but they don’t come with much variety.

“They are either French-American hybrids or Wisconsin hybrids or American hybrids which are bred and designed to take cold upper Midwest temperatures," said Coquard.

He believes several factors go into making a good wine.

"What makes a good wine is the right balance," said Coquard. "You know it's fruity, it's aromatic, it's nice, it's clean, it's pleasant. It's a lot easier in California. It's a lot easier in Washington, Oregon, on the west coast or even in France and you have moderate temperature."

However, Nick Smith believes California has its problems too.

"Sonoma Valley right now is under water," said Smith. "They've had forest fires and the smoke gets into the grapes."

Despite the setbacks with the weather, Coquard thinks it’s Wisconsin’s weather that makes his wine unique.

"It always goes back to farming you know we are grape farmers it is no different than a dairy farmer, than alfalfa farmer, than a soy bean or corn farmer. You have to deal with the weather," he said.

Once the grapes ripen in August, a harvest date is selected and then 50,000-60,000 pounds of grapes are pressed daily.

“Once the wine is made September, October then we put the wine in the barrel then every three to fuor weeks we taste the wine to see how it's evolving, how it's changing, how it's aging... and it's a hard job but someone has to do it and I am the designated taster," said Coquard.

But once he gets to taste his final product, he’s all smiles.

The Wollersheim Winery partners with UW-Madison and allows students studying fermentation science to learn more about winemaking from the grape to the glass.