Thursday, June 23, 2011


The wine industry in Nebraska began in the late 1800s, but never really got a major foothold.  What was left of the Nebraska wine industry after Prohibition was decimated by a huge blizzard in 1940.  There's an interesting story about that storm here.

Nebraska's first winery of the new era didn't open until 1994 and there are a couple dozen on the books now.  There are no AVAs designated for Nebraska, but the University of Nebraska - Lincoln has a viticulture program.

Deb and Rick Barnett are the proprietors of Big Cottonwood Vineyards and Winery, a small farm winery located in the rolling hills of northeastern Nebraska four miles west of Tekamah and about 43 miles north of Omaha.

Big Cottonwood uses estate grown fruit as well as grapes from nearby Nebraska vineyards.  They rely heavily upon grapes which are suited to cold weather - Frontenac, Seyval, Brianna, St. Vincent, De Chaunac, St. Croix, Vignoles and Prairie Star.

The Barnetts say Big Cottonwood is the only Nebraska winery they know of which makes a m├ęthode champenoise sparkling wine.  It's made from Brianna, a fairly new grape variety which can survive the brutal winters and is found mainly in Nebraska.

Their line known as The Pelicans are wines made as a tribute to Lewis and Clark's westward exploration over 200 years ago.  There is a mural commemorating the trek on the side of the VFW hall in Tekamah.  I like this facet of Nebraska wine, as the Wine Country series dabbles a bit in history, too.  We are usually restricted more or less to the grape history of America.

The pelican tie-in results from the fact that the Lewis and Clark expedition stopped along the Missouri river east of Tekamah and shot a pelican there in order to measure it.  That's how it was back in the pioneer days - shoot first and break out the tape measure later.

Big Cottonwood Winery was kind enough to supply two wines from their Pelican line as the Nebraska entry to Now And Zin's Wine Country series.

Big Cottonwood PelicansPrudent Pelican

This white wine is a blend of Brianna and Prairie Star.  Brianna is a hybrid grape developed by Wisconsin grape breeder Elmer Swenson, who also developed Prairie Star and St Croix.

It has a lovely golden color and the nose shows a honeyed herbaceousness.  The wine is off dry with a medium mouthfeel.  Flavors of dried pineapple and banana - are carried along on a vibrant acidity.  I’d love some shrimp or a swordfish steak with this.

Saintly Pelican

This red table wine is a blend of St. Vincent and St. Croix - another pair of hybrid grapes - hence the "sainted" name.

Medium ruby in the glass, it's not so dark that I can’t see through it.  The nose has a rubber aroma and a strong scent of mint.  An unusual spice aroma wafts in and out, and there’s a note of brown sugar.  To say the least, it's quite a striking and distinct aroma package.

On the palate, it’s just as distinctive.  Very dry and rough hewn, the tannins are not too tough to handle, but they do speak up.  Flavors of sour cherry draped in tart raspberry make me want to pair it with grilled chicken or venison sausage.  A ferric quality persists into the finish, which is lengthy.

Both of these Nebraska wines from Big Cottonwood are very different tastes for a palate accustomed to wine made from vinifera grapes.  This is part of the American wine experience, though.  I’m glad I had the chance to get to know these grapes a bit.  I hope you'll get that chance, too.

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