Fruit wines. Every
summer they pop up at local farm stands, or in the hands of an eccentric uncle
or a neighbor with an overambitious garden. They’re cloyingly sweet, and taste—at
best—intensely fruity. But serious fruit wines are on the rise, often made with
the same level of technique and sophistication as the grape wines served at high-end
As the winemaker for Obsidian Ridge, Poseidon Vineyard, and his own, namesake wines in California, Michael Terrien has plenty of experience with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Sauvignon. But as a Maine native, he and childhood friend Eric Martin had been for decades kicking around the idea of making a wine from the state’s wild blueberries. In 2012 they began experimenting. Two years later they made their first commercial blueberry wine. It’s called Bluet, and it’s bubbly.
“We knew that making a
sparkling wine was the way we would have to go,” says Terrien. “It has low
tannin, low sugar, and high acid, which lines up pretty well with making a
bubbly.” In that sense the blueberry is more like a white grape than a red one,
despite the resulting wine’s deep blue color. Today Bluet makes two wines. One
is made the same way as Champagne, where a second fermentation creates the
bubbles directly inside the bottle. In the other, Charmat Method wine, the
secondary fermentation takes place in a tank and then is pumped into the bottle
One of the core ideas of wine is terroir: Wines represent the conditions where they were grown. So if conditions call for blueberries instead of grapes, that may be just another aspect of terroir’s expression in the wine. “The reason Maine and the Canadian Maritimes are the only places that grow wild blueberries has to do with the glaciers leaving this endless expanse of sandy, acidic soil,” Terrien says, underscoring soils that most plants struggle with, but to which wild blueberries have adapted.
Other fruits prefer other conditions, and not every fruit is suited to wine production. Idunn Winery, in the north of Sweden, works with blueberries but also lingonberries; MauiWine in Hawaii, with pineapples. The winery was founded in 1974. At first, the founders made pineapple wine to practice making sparkling wines while they waited for the vineyards to start bearing fruit, but today pineapple wines make up two-thirds of their production. “Consistency is our biggest challenge,” says Joe Hegele, whose family has worked with the winery in various capacities for 25 years. “It’s a year-round fruit. January might not have enough ripeness, but July or August may be too ripe.” Consequently they keep a lot of batches on hand, which they can blend together to create a given style.
MauiWine makes three pineapple wines, one sparkling and two still. Most of its wines sell within Hawaii, but the company distributes to 25 states and even exports to Japan. Hegele says today’s drinkers are receptive: “The wine world is a little more traditional, but with the beer scene and craft spirits out there, people are more interested in things they haven’t tried before.”
Harald Krabbe says the same thing about cherry wine in Denmark. “We’ve created a whole new taste, and we can’t explain it to customers without them tasting the wines. People have fruit wines in their heads, and they think sweet and very fruity. We start off with minus points.” When Krabbe took over Frederiksdal Estate from his father in 2000, the then-dairy farm included cherry orchards, which his father had intended for making cherry juice. Krabbe says that wasn’t financially viable. In 2006 he met wine journalist Morten Brink Iwersen and chef Jan Friis-Mikkelsen, who persuaded him to make wine and signed on as partners.
Different fruits call for different tools. While blueberries lend themselves to sparkling wine production, Krabbe and his partners at Frederiksdal found that sour cherry’s high acidity called for techniques more common to Port production. Two wines make up most of their output, but they offer seven others. All are fortified. The Reserve is barrel-aged, and the Rancio is aged outdoors in glass demijohns, an unusual approach more commonly found in Banyuls in the south of France.
Krabbe was not a wine
connoisseur when they began, but a trip through Italy and France with Iwersen
opened his eyes to a different way of thinking about his farm. “All my emotions
got started,” he says. “This is how I want to farm.” Being able to make farming
decisions that had repercussions in the glass rather than just financial
implications was a revelation. As with vines, pruning choices, spacing between
trees, and other orchard practices show through in the wine.
On the other hand, it
helps to be able to pay the bills. Today Frederiksdal wines are sold in six
countries, with placements in top restaurants like Agern in Manhattan. The
estate includes a manor house that’s a National Heritage site, which Krabbe is
required to maintain properly. Making fruit into wine rather than selling it as
a commodity boosts revenues and makes the farm viable.
That economic impact can reach beyond an individual farm. In Maine, Terrien has met with political representatives and other agricultural stakeholders to discuss how blueberry wine might help save the state’s struggling farmers. Wild blueberries yield only two tons per acre, compared with 10 to 15 tons for hybrid blueberries grown in other parts of the world. While the wild versions are often more flavorful and have greater concentrations of healthful antioxidants, they compete in the same commoditized market as hybrids. Terrien is on the steering committee for Maine’s Wild Blueberry Wine trade group. They aim to grow the industry to the size of Massachusetts’ grape wine industry—about 4 million bottles a year—within two decades, a move that would find homes for more than a quarter of the production of Maine’s smaller wild blueberry farms.
Going even further, they cite the growth of the U.S. cider market, from 100,000 cases 25 years ago to 30 million cases today, as a model of what could be done. The growth of fruit wines elsewhere, such as cherry wine in Michigan, is bringing new opportunities to farmers there as well. “In a way we’re fortunate to be coinciding with the misery of these growers,” Terrien says. “That gives us a sense of purpose beyond just the pursuit of flavor.”
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Australia’s new wave of winemakers won’t make Shiraz
—How to drink–and enjoy–red wine in the summer
—What I learned in inclusion training at the world’s top cocktail festival
—Tap these bottles of wine with your phone to learn more about their makeup
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.