The Great River Road is an American icon, a series of state and local roads that follow the Mississippi River through 10 states from Minnesota and Wisconsin down to Louisiana. The Northern end of the Road is shutterbug’s dream. Dotted with scenic overlooks from the top of towering bluffs, picturesque small towns with quaint restaurants and hotels and wildlife including the American Bald Eagle, the region has been a tourist destination for decades. And now, it is a legitimate wine region.
The Great River Road Wine Trail is a section of the Upper Mississippi Valley AVA that boasts 11 wineries mostly stretching from La Crosse / La Crescent up through Red Wing along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin and Minnesota (one additional winery is Iowa). Most of the wines produced at the Great River Road wineries are from cold-hardy and disease-resistant hybrid varietals developed at the University of Minnesota. Marquette, Frontenac and La Crescent may not be varietals most Americans are familiar with yet, but the wineries on the upper Mississippi region are crafting quality complex and noteworthy wines from them.
One of the Great River Road wineries seeing a decent amount a success with its hybrid wines is Villa Bellezza in Pepin, Wisconsin (also the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder for Little House fans). Located in a stunning Mediterranean complex with an onsite Italian restaurant and private event space, Villa Bellezza produces 25 different wines from hybrid grapes sourced from their estate 7-acre vineyard, their nearby 2.5-acre vineyard and other growers within a 2-hour radius of the winery. The styles run the gamut from dry, sweet, sparkling and rosé, with a decent distribution of each across the 25 labels. I tasted 4 different wines from their current list.
Cotes du Pepin White
A play on the name of the Côtes du Rhône AOC in France, but without the circumflex, the Cotes du Pepin white is a blend based on the La Crescent hybrid grape. From my experience with La Crescent wines in the past, I was expecting a high level of acid, but found that the blend had moderated the acid level without blending out the aromatic florals and crisp stone fruit from the varietal. There was an slight vegetal note on the back of the palate, perhaps from harvesting before the grapes were fully ripe to moderate the higher sugar levels the grape can produce (and with it moderate the alcohol in the finished wine), but overall Villa Bellezza has crafted a really nice La Crescent blend.
I asked two different staff members what production technique was used on this sparkling wine and neither knew for sure, so I don’t know if this sparkling is produced with a tank method or commercial carbonation method. This wine was pale gold in color and dry with a light array of tiny bubbles. Muted citrus fruit led to a medium finish.
I don’t often see blends using the French hybrid grape Marechal Foch, which was once widely planted in the Loire Valley, so when I saw this on the list, I jumped at the chance to try it. Blended with Marquette and Frontenac, two University of Minnesota hybrids, this wine was a medium brick red in the glass and medium body in the mouth. Aromas of black cherry and spice gave way to a palate of blackberry and plum with a hint of earthy chocolate in the short finish.
I first wrote about the hybrid Marquette grape in a blog post in 2014. Although the grape was developed eight years prior, I was anxious to see how winemakers had developed their production with the wine over the past three years. The Villa Bellezza Marquette Reserve is a really nice example of what this varietal can be. Medium ruby in color and with a light nose of cherry cola and subtle spice, this wine provides muted cherry and blueberry fruit balanced with pepper and hints of leather.
Wine should be an adventure and I love to see local wineries like Villa Bellezza crafting wines with from locally-sourced fruit and pushing the envelope on what those varietals might become. With a beautiful facility located on a gorgeous stretch of the Mississippi river serving wines worth exploring, Villa Bellezza is a must-stop for wine enthusiasts travelling the Great River Road.