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Wine Made From UF Grape Wows Judges At International Competition

Karen Meisenheimer

Robert Bates (352) 392-1991 ext. 208
Dennis Gray (352) 360-6686
Jeanne Burgess (352) 394-8627

LEESBURG — It’s fruity, yet unassuming. Dry with a smooth and light texture. Very pleasant to the palate.

Blanc du Bois, an award-winning table wine, is knocking the socks off wine know-it-alls from California to France.

Oh yeah. And it’s made in Florida.

The white wine, made from a hybrid grape developed By a University of Florida grape breeder 30 years ago, was awarded a double gold medal at the recent Indy International Wine Competition in Indianapolis.

Wine experts picked the 1997 Blanc du Bois, produced at Lakeridge Winery in Lake County, as one of the 40 best of 2,147 wines from 19 countries. The competition is the third-largest wine competition in the country, which places the Florida wine among the best vintages in the world.

“No grape that’s been grown in Florida has ever come close to this,” said Dennis Gray, a grape researcher with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “We knew it was a good product, but this is beyond what we expected.”

John Mortensen developed the initial cross breed in 1968 at the IFAS Central Florida Research and Education Center in Leesburg. Scientists were experimenting with new grapes that would stand up better to fungal disease,said Mortensen, who retired from UF in 1991.

“Our original objective wasn’t to breed a grape for wine,” he said. “We were making a bunch grape for fresh eating that would ripen early and was disease resistant.”

What they got was a white grape with a spicy flavor that resembled a German Riesling. Robert Bates, a professor of food processing at UF, recognized the grape’s wine potential and began testing it in the early ’70s.

“It was a hard grape to cultivate because of disease,” Bates said, “but it was a quantum leap in terms of taste.”

Jeanne Burgess, a winemaker with what was then the Lafayette Vineyards in Tallahassee, also liked the grape and persuaded the UF researchers to allow her to cultivate it and produce the new dry white. The winery began selling the wine in 1986.

When the Tallahassee vineyard moved its operation to Clermont and opened the Lakeridge Winery in 1988, they brought the Blanc du Bois with them.Today, 20 of the 50 acres of vineyards at Lakeridge are devoted to the Blanc du Bois.

“I feel like a parent whose kid graduated from college with honors,”Burgess said. “The Blanc du Bois has won a lot of awards, but none as prestigious as this. Its showing just reinforces that good wines can be made in places other than California or Central Europe.”

The judges at the Indianapolis competition agree. Although the best-of-show winner was a California Cabernet Sauvignon, and other well-known wines,such as Dom Perignon were in the top 40, judges also placed wines from New York, Portugal and Hungary in that class. The trend to try wines from non traditional regions is catching on.

“I think it’s always interesting to try wines from different regions,”Burgess said. “It adds variety to your wine repertoire, and many times the wine of the region will go well with the foods of that region.”

Burgess said the Blanc du Bois complements many Florida dishes, including spicy seafood such as grilled pompano and seafood paella. The wine, at$7.95 a bottle, can be purchased only at the Lakeridge Winery.

The double gold medal for Blanc du Bois gives the Florida wine industry as hot in the arm.

“This is the kind of thing that creates awareness and helps a wine breakthrough the barriers created By a strong resistance to new varieties,” said Gray, whose research includes genetic engineering to improve existing varieties and control disease. The IFAS grape-breeding program was turned over to Florida A&M University after Mortensen retired, he said.

The Florida wine industry is entering one of its most exciting eras. Although, the first wine in the New World was made in Florida By the Spanish settlers in the 1500s, the state often has been dismissed as an unlikely wine-producing state.

“The industry has grown and changed tremendously in Florida over the last 20 years,” Burgess said. “We have gone from 10,000 gallons of wine a few years ago to 100,000 gallons. There are also a lot of new wineries popping up all over.

“With improved technology, we are improving the wine industry.”

Mortensen said for the wine industry to be successful in the hot climate of Florida, researchers must continue to work on developing a grape with more of a “European-type fruit.”

“People are looking for this type of wine,” he said. “It’s very different from the grape that is native to Florida. It’s hard to come up with a[muscadine] grape that’s going to resist disease, grow in this climate and please the wine drinkers looking for European-style.

“Blanc du Bois is the only one to do that so far.”