The French-American hybrid grape St. Vincent is an orphan. Or at least, that is how it is perceived to be.
Unlike most other hybrid grape varietals found in Missouri, St. Vincent’s parentage is largely unknown. Winemaker Jerry Mueller at Robbler Vineyard and Winery says there are some who believe it comes from a spontaneous and natural hybridization of Chambourcin (a French-American hybrid) and Pinot Noir. However, there is little research to support this claim, which furthers the mystery of how the St. Vincent grape came into being.
Others say it comes from cross breeding of vinifera grapes at the Missouri State University Fruit Experimentation Station in Mountain Grove. (There is also a grape called “Vincent,” which is different from St. Vincent.)
Although the parentage is still unknown, Scott Toedesbusch of Mount Pleasant Winery in Augusta, Mo. was the first to discover St. Vincent in 1973, according to Iowa State University. St. Vincent grapes are most likely named after the Catholic Patron Saint of the Zaragoza province in Spain, Vincent of Saragossa, also known as the Patron Saint of Wine Makers.
Today, St. Vincent grapes have spread from Missouri to other states such as Iowa and Ohio. Even so, St. Vincent is still relatively unknown to the public and few wineries grow this varietal. In Missouri, a handful of wineries including Robller in New Haven, Mount Pleasant in Augusta and Les Bourgeois use St. Vincent, mostly to blend with other wine grapes.
“It makes great wine, it grows well, it’s easy to get started and it produces,” says Mueller, whose winery currently grows nearly three acres of St.Vincent. “It’s surprising to me that there isn’t more of it produced.”
As a stand alone varietal, St. Vincent is usually used to make dryer red wines similar to an Italian Chianti or Rossese style, although it has been used in blends for sweeter wines as well. St. Vincent is not heavily tannic.
St. Vincent grapes can also be used in Rosés and sparkling wines. The intensity of the wine’s red color varies from bright red to brick red and often has undertones of cherry, smoked nut or oak.
Les Bourgeois tasting room manager Marilyn Ellsasser says that St. Vincent grapes are used to make their Fleur du Vin, which also incorporates Norton and Chambourcin grapes. At 2.2% residual sugar, Fleur du Vin is a ruby-colored wine with a floral aroma and a complex flavor. Other wines in Missouri that contain St. Vincent grapes include Stone Hill’s Steinberg Red in Hermann and New Oak Vineyards’ St. Vincent in Wellington.
At Robller, St. Vincent grapes are used in two wines; St. Vincent Rosé and Le Tromp Noir, which is a blend. The Rosé, Mueller says, is bone dry in a style that is more common with blush wines in Provence France. Robller makes St. Vincent Rosé with a strong strawberry and cranberry flavor profile and a lighter to medium body. Production is approximately 350 gallons this year.
“Our Rose has the ability to present itself with really world-class characteristics that aren’t necessarily typical of what you would think,” Mueller says. “You wouldn’t necessarily try it and say, hey, ‘this came from Missouri.’”
St. Vincent grapes are normally harvested in October. According to Missouri State, it has a moderate to high degree of winter hardiness, grows vigorously upright and is only mildly susceptible to rot, phylloxera and other pests.
Mueller, who plans on planting more St. Vincent grapes in the future, says it’s a relatively easy and stable vine to grow. Cluster thinning and leaf pulling is important to get the grapes to a proper level of ripeness, he says. When St. Vincent is ready for harvest, the berries are at the point where they will nearly fall off, Mueller says.
The length of time it takes to ferment St. Vincent grapes varies from winery to winery, but it takes at least 30 days in stainless steel at Robbler. Mueller says that they have a more delicate approach to making their Rosé and, as with all of their wines, aim for a light and fruity character. After harvest, Mueller cools the grapes briefly, then gently presses them. For the Rosé, very little skin contact is key because only a small amount of coloring is desirable.
“It’s one of my favorite wines, and it’s one that I always look forward to making because it’s challenging to get it just right,” Mueller says.
Mueller comes from a long line of winemakers, all the way back to his great-grandfather. Mueller himself has been making wine since he was 14. His father, Robert, first made wine in 1965, with the help of his grandfather. Robert bought the property in 1987 and officially opened Robller’s door in the spring of 1991 on his 34th wedding anniversary. Robller started to grow St. Vincent grapes around 1993 or 1994 from cuttings they received from southwestern Missouri.
Both of Robller’s St. Vincent wines are popular, especially the Rosé. Because it’s made more like European Rosés and is different than what many American wineries produce, customers are attracted to the St. Vincent Rosé, Mueller says.
In addition, St. Vincent wines are scarce in Missouri, which helps Robller to sell out of the Rosé relatively quickly.
“Customers like what we’re doing with it,” Mueller says. “It makes a very easy-to-drink kind of wine. I think it has a broad acceptance.”
Mueller calls the St. Vincent Rosé the “cranberry salad of wine,” which goes especially well with holiday meals such as Thanksgiving. With enough character to stand up to foods that contain butter and dark meat, it’s a nice contrast to the savory elements in holiday meals. Mueller says it has good depth and is a versatile wine that has the qualities consumers want in food and wine pairings without being “thin and wimpy.”
Although St. Vincent grapes are popular with a small fan club, it lives in the shadow of other Missouri hybrid powerhouses such as Vignoles, Vidal Blanc and Traminette. Because very little research has been done on the varietal, not much is known about the best growing practices or technical St. Vincent winemaking considerations.
But whether or not St. Vincent’s reputation grows in the future, it will always have a loyal fan in the form of Mueller.
“Most people think it’s a generic grape; I find that it has tremendous qualities if you grow it right and handle it right,” Mueller says. “It’s one of those that I think if people really would go after it, it would compete really well.”
Mary Elgin is currently a senior at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is majoring in arts and culture magazine journalism. Throughout her college career, she has had works published by ALIVE Magazine, Columbia Missourian and Vox Magazine. Mary lives in St. Louis, Mo.