An afternoon in wine country

I’ve never been to Napa Valley, but after visiting Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac last weekend, I see no need to ever go.

Situated on rolling farmland near the Wisconsin River, the winery could give those in California a run for their money. In fact, it already has – in March, Wollersheim beat out 1,700 wineries from across the world to win Winery of the Year at the San Diego International Wine Competition.

A visit to this award-winning winery was third on my bucket list. I had originally wanted to visit four of southwestern Wisconsin’s attractions  – Wollersheim Winery, House on the Rock, Cave of the Mounds and Little Norway – but one weekend is not enough time to see them all, and Wollersheim was at the top of my list, so I started there.

Wollersheim building

A couple of friends and I pulled up to the winery around 1:30, and it was as busy as to be expected for a gorgeous 80-degree late spring day. The next available tour began at 2:15, so we started our visit with a tasting of some the winery’s white wines. Riesling is my usual go-to wine, and Wollersheim’s White Riesling didn’t disappoint. I also liked the Blushing Rose, a rosé wine with a subtle sweetness.

Our tour began with a brief video about Wollersheim’s past. The winery has a surprisingly long history, dating back to 1849 when Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman, planted grapes on the property’s hillside. Haraszythy’s grape varieties were not suited for Wisconsin’s brutal winters, however, and after a few years he packed up and moved to California, where he would become the founder of California’s wine industry. Peter Kehl took over the property and planted hardier vines, and his family operated the winery until 1899, when the property was converted to conventional farm crops.

In 1972, Bob and JoAnn Wollersheim bought the property from Peter Kehl’s great-grandson and transformed it back into a winery. Twelve years later, Phillipe Coquard came to Wollersheim as part of an agricultural exchange program from France’s Beaujolais region. Coquard came from a multi-generational family of winemakers and began making wine at Wollersheim as he had learned in France. He eventually married the Wollersheims’ oldest daughter, Julie, and the two now operate the winery together.

Wollersheim historical marker

After the video, our guide led us outside to the vineyard, where we learned about the winery’s 27 acres of grapes. Our guide explained that grapes grow better on slopes (their roots hate stagnant water, and slopes allow for maximum sunshine and airflow) and told us that the nearby Wisconsin River not only serves as a water source, but also acts as a temperate on the area’s climate.

Wollersheim vineyard

The winery’s oldest vines grow on the steepest slopes. Grapes from those vines are used in making Wollersheim’s signature Domaine Reserve, among other wines.

She also pointed out the winery’s cave, which Haraszythy dug into the hillside in the 19th century and Kehl expanded and lived in with his family for more than a year while they built their home. The cave is currently being restored, so we couldn’t go inside – a good excuse to visit again in the future.

The property’s original owner built this cave into the limestone hillside in the mid 19th century; it is currently being restored.

We then moved into the winery’s fermentation area. About 15 percent of the grapes they use to make wine are grown onsite; the rest come from Washington state and New York. After the grapes ferment in stainless steel tanks for a few months, some are moved into American or French oak barrels for aging. The barrels are stored in one of the winery’s original buildings, which took the Kehls seven years to build and features 2-foot-thick walls made from limestone quarried on the property. The thick walls help keep the aging rooms at a near-constant 60 degrees and 80 percent humidity, ideal for aging wine in oak barrels.

Oak barrels can be used four to six times to age wine. They are then put to other uses around the winery and sometimes sold to customers with a stamped Wollersheim logo.

The final stop on our tour was a tasting of five of Wollersheim’s signature wines. The Prairie Fumé has long been one of my favorites, but I also really enjoyed the Domaine Reserve (a dry red wine made from grapes grown onsite) and the Port (the brandy flavor was prominent). The winery actually has a brandy in the works; they expect to release it next April.

We finished our visit sharing a bottle of River Gold in Wollersheim’s Wine Garden, which overlooks their vineyards. Abundant sunshine, beautiful vine-covered hillsides and a chilled glass of wine made for a perfect ending to a great afternoon spent in Wisconsin’s wine country.

Visitors can purchase a bottle of wine and enjoy it in Wollersheim’s Wine Garden.

If you go:
Wollersheim is open year-round from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Tours are usually given every hour, but sometimes more often on busy days.
Location: 7876 State Road 188, Prairie du Sac
More information: 800.847.9463, wollersheim.com

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2 Responses to An afternoon in wine country

  1. Pingback: Wine & the Midwest « Working With What You Have

  2. Pingback: Taste of Home in Wine Country | Two Voices, One Song

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