INTEREST IN REGIONAL wines of the United States is growing. In the next few years the consumption of regional wines is expected to increase dramatically, due in part to a greater interest in wine, the power of chauvinism that leads local people to buy local products and an improvement in the quality of regional wines. For decades California and New York were considered the only worthy producers. Then Oregon, Washington and even Idaho began to market excellent wine. Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania proved that good wine could be made in the eastern United States, and not just from the French hybrid grapes that were once the mainstay of the industry. The classic European varieties of Vitis vinifera flourished in what was once considered impossible terrain, such as that of Ohio and even Arkansas.
"Wine in Arkansas?" says Al (Alcuin) Wiederkehr, owner of Wiederkehr Wine Cellars in Altus, Ark. "People used to say that to me all the time. I realized that to make them aware of our wine, I had to enter the competitions."
That was almost 10 years ago.
Since then Wiederkehr has won
more that 100 medals for his wines,
mostly in industry-sponsored tastings. Some have included the best
American and European wines. To
say that Wiederkehr Wine Cellars
now has a spot on the international
map would be stretching it, since
the wines can be bought only in the
South. But good wine can be made there, just below the Ozarks in western Arkansas.
Wiederkehr's wines tend to be German in style, which means fruity and low in alcohol. Over the years he has done considerable research to determine which vines grow best here. About 600 acres are planted with an extraordinary array of vinifera and French hybrids, and the winery produces an astonishing number of wines and blends to compete for the local trade.
None of the wines could be described as great, but some are good accompaniment with food or aperitifs. One, the muscat dessert wine called Di Tanta Maria, is remarkable. Fragrant, complex and not too sweet, it conveys a wild, honeyed quality all its own and sells for only $7 a bottle.
Wiederkehr also produces a cabernet sauvignon, a sauvignon blanc that is on the sweet side, a pinot noir and a blanc de pinot noir that is quite refreshing, a chardonnay and a gewurztraminer, as well as a number of hybrids. The scope and diversity may detract some from the quality of the traditional wines, since money and effort must be rationed. The cabernet is aged in old barrels once used for bourbon, for instance. The barrels have been steam cleaned, but they imbue the cabernet with very little of the essence of oak that one expects. If the cabernet is left too long in these barrels, it loses its fruit without acquiring complexity.
"If I had the money for French oak or new American oak," Wiederkehr says, "people would be amazed at what we could do here."
Whether or not Wiederkehr will further refine his vinifera offerings remains to be seen. He has big plans for attracting Ozark-bound tourists to his replica of a Swiss village, and that could be a further distraction. But the Wiederkehr family has proven that Arkansas wine is no anomaly.