30 Second Wine Advisor: Wineries ... in Florida?

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 Wineries ... in Florida?
A casual visit to Florida's largest winery, in the lake-studded hill country west of Orlando, can be a pleasant surprise if you're willing to think outside the box.
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 Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
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Wineries ... in Florida?

Most people are mighty surprised to run across a winery in Florida, but in fact, said our tour guide, a friendly and knowledgeable fellow who introduced himself as Bill, the Sunshine State boasts about 20 wineries.

What's more, he said, Florida claims bragging rights of the first European-style wines made in the land that would become the U.S. Spanish colonizers were producing wine from native Muscadine fruit a full century-and-a-half before Spanish missionaries made the first wine in California.

During a visit to Florida over the weekend, we made an impromptu visit to Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards in Clermont, an easy side trip less than a half-hour west of Orlando in the lake-studded hill country perhaps best known for its race-horse breeding industry.

Lakeridge is Florida's largest winery, making more than 1 million bottles of wine a year from 90 acres of estate-grown grapes on its 127-acre property (the rest is wetlands) as well as fruit from another 400 acres in Florida's northwestern "Panhandle" region near Tallahassee.

It's all made from grapes, too ... although jokesters might assume that Florida should produce "wine" made from orange juice (and indeed, one or two of the state's wineries do just this), Lakeridge has been quite serious about making traditional wine since Gary Cox, a retired accountant, and his son Charles Cox started the winery in 1988.

You'll find no Pinot Noir, Merlot or Chardonnay here: As the early Spanish settlers soon found out, European-style "Vitis vinifera" grapes don't thrive in Central Florida's searing summer heat and sort but unpredictable winters. Rather, working with fruit bred at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), Lakeridge wine maker Jeanne Burgess has done a remarkable job making eminently drinkable table wines, dessert wines and aperitifs from Muscadines and Florida "hybrid bunch grapes."

Few but the most ardent grape-varietal collectors will have ever heard of these grapes - Muscadine varieties called Noble, Carlos and Welder, and bush-grape hybrids Blanc Du Bois, Stover and Suwannee. It's not every day that a Wine Century Club member can tick off six rare varieties in one quick tasting, but we accomplished just this thing at the end of a quick tour of Lakeridge's impressive winery and tasting rooms.

I'll confess that I didn't expect much from my first Florida winery tour. The conventional wisdom holds that wines made outside a narrow band of temperate climates - and particularly those made from modern grape hybrids designed to survive in non-temperate regions - rarely compare favorably to the more traditional table wines. And Muscadines, frankly, share a bad reputation with the Concord grape and its cousins for strongly grapey aromas and flavors - a musky character that wine judges call "foxy" - that overwhelms more subtle flavors in the grapes.

At Lakeridge, though, I frankly found all the wines we sampled in a quick tasting to be well above my most optimistic expectations. No, they probably won't replace Pinot or Cabernet in most wine lovers' affections. But Lakeridge, using serious cooling and insulation technology to ferment and vinify wines in stainless steel tanks kept cold through the Florida summer, holds those musky Muscadine flavors under control and, even in the sweeter wines, frames them with crisp, tangy acidity that keeps the wines from cloying.

Perhaps most remarkably, the best wine of the tasting, of all things, was a slightly sweet, faintly pink sparkling wine called "Pink Crescendo."

I wouldn't have poured any of them out of my glass, and based on this experience, I can recommend without reservation that anyone visiting Central Florida might consider adding Lakeridge Winery to Disney, Epcot and Universal on your tourist list. And save room in your suitcase to bring a couple of bottles home.

Here are my brief notes on the wines we tasted:

Lakeridge Winery Florida Cuvee Noir Reserve ($10.95)

Billed as Lakeridge's driest wine and made from hybrid Florida bush grapes, this is clear, garnet color. Although it shows a whiff of native-grape "foxy" aroma, it's held well within bounds and presents a dry, crisp and appropriately tart fresh-grape flavor accented with a whiff of oak. (Lakeridge uses oak chips to provide wood presence in some of its wines; this somewhat maligned process is handled well here.)

Lakeridge Winery Florida Cuvee Blanc ($8.95)

A blend of the white Florida bush grape hybrids Stover, Suwannee, Miss Blanc and Blanc de Bois, it's pale in color and very pleasing in aroma, offering up aromatic peachy aromas and more crisp and light citrus flavors. It's billed as "semi-dry," but I don't find it at all sugary; it would make a great match with lobster or stone crab.

Lakeridge Winery Florida Chablis ($7.95)

I was sorry to see Lakeridge abusing the classic French name "Chablis," an unfortunate practice that even most of California's industrial wineries have abandoned. That gripe aside, however, this all-Muscadine blend holds the "foxy" character well under control and adds a pleasant note of spice. Ripe and fresh on the palate, it's certainly Muscadine, and tastes a lot like eating fresh Muscadine grapes on a steamy summer afternoon.

Lakeridge Winery Florida Sunblush ($7.95)

Another wine with a commercial name perhaps aimed squarely at the least common denominator, it turns out to be a great deal more palatable than most of the mass-market pink wines sold as "blush." A blend of mostly white Muscadine with a sweet splash of red Muscadine juice, it's not pink but a pretty gold in color; Muscadine aromas and flavors are held on the delicate side, and fresh-fruit sweetness is well-balanced by crisp acidity.

Lakeridge Winery Florida Pink Crescendo ($16.95)

Made by the traditional Champagne method in which fermentation in the individual bottle imparts the sparkle, this pale pink bubbly is all Muscadine, mostly the bronze Carlos variety with just a touch of red Noble added during the "dosage" step just before corking. Red fruit and heady floral aromas are not obviously "foxy" at all, and perceptible sweetness is held well under control by crisp carbonation and tart acidity. This wine was impressive enough to win a gold medal and best in class at a recent Pacific Rim wine competition.

Lakeridge Winery Florida Southern White ($8.95)

Billed as a dessert wine, it's a sweet but hardly syrupy Muscadine blend. Slightly "foxy" on the nose and more so on the palate, it's kept in balance by lively acidity that makes it easy to sip.

Lakeridge Winery Florida Southern Red ($8.95)

Far and away Lakeridge's biggest-selling wine, it accounts for 40 percent of the winery's sales. Because of its sweetness, it's recommended served lightly chilled, a practice that did not seem to detract from its balance. Dark garnet in color, lightly "foxy" and floral, it comes across as only gently sweet, with a good, crisp acidic core and a light, pleasant touch of bitterness in the finish.

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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index

The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns (we skipped Friday because of my Florida travel):

 Petite Sirah, old and new (Feb. 6, 2008)

 Wine Focus - Malbec around the world (Feb. 4, 2008)

 Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:

 Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Lighten up, old fella (Feb. 7, 2008)

 Wine Advisor Foodletter archive: