Island Grove Wine Company’s Kinda Dry and Sorta Sweet blueberry wines.
When talking blueberry wine, most Floridians just kind of stare at you. Of the pie graph that makes up the Florida Farm Winery program, blueberry wine producers come in second behind grape winemakers, edging out the tropical fruit sect, but still well behind grape producers in terms of market share. Just five producers have been granted the Florida Farm Winery seal of approval: Keel & Curley hailing from Plant City, Bluefield Estate Winery from Gainesville, True Blue Winery in Davenport, Whispering Oaks Winery in Oxford (south of Ocala), and Island Grove Wine Company out of Island Grove (in between Gainesville and Ocala).
While muscadine grapes tend to make for a sweet wine, blueberries run a range from dry to sweet, which can be much more palatable to those engrained with Old World wine sentiments. A rather common wine in New England, it is relatively new here in Florida, with really only two winemakers producing the lion’s share of the goods: Keel & Curly, and Island Grove.
Florida’s blueberry farms almost exclusively use southern highbush varieties, praised for their adaptability, and early ripening, essentially beating its northern cousin, the northern highbush, to the market.
Pictured: Southern Highbush cultivar ‘Primadonna’
Using Southern Highbush blueberries, a cultivar first developed in the 1950s by the University of Florida to survive and thrive in Florida’s temperate winters, the wine produced can have a complex flavor, coming in both sweet and dry varieties with a nose that resembles Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. But the process of winemaking does vary quite a bit from wine made with grapes.
“The tanins in a blueberry are a lot like the tannins in a grape, so we ferment with the skins just like a merlot or cab,” said Chase Marden, Island Grove Wine Company’s winemaker. “But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Grapes come with nearly perfect acid, water, and sugar to make wine, so they don’t really need to be adjusted. We have to adjust acidity, pH and sweetness in order to make the wine taste acceptable. Its pretty tough but I think we do a pretty darn good job.”
Like most Florida wineries, Island Grove grew from an overabundance of crop. Part of Island Grove Ag Products, one of the largest growers of blueberries in the state with a combined 300 acres of blueberry crops located on two farms (as well as 45 acres of strawberries and blackberries), there was literally thousands of pounds of blueberries that could not sell in the fresh market. This culled fruit, deemed imperfect either because it is non-A-grade in appearance (not large enough, misshapen, under ripe, overripe, etc.) or had stem tear when harvested, was essentially a total loss before opening the winery in 2009.
Winemaker Chase Marden checking on the specific gravity of a batch of blueberry wine at Island Grove Wine Company.
“There is nothing wrong with the blueberries, I eat them straight,” says Marden. “They are very particular about A-grade blueberries. Before the winery, the partners spent years researching what to do with the non-A-grade product, making salsas, jams, jellies, salad dressings—something catchy to use the extra blueberries. When I brought the idea of wine to the table, they kind of dove all in.”
The name says it all. Island Grove’s Sorta Sweet blueberry wine is a medium body, sweet sip with plenty of berry flavor from start to finish.
The winery, located in the small town of Island Grove, is a remarkable, state-of-the-art facility, with a capacity to produce up to 500,000 bottles a year. Island Grove is all about the details, from the climate-controlled facility—a constant 70 degrees—and the consistency of the wine bottled, to even working hand-in-hand with UF for specialty research projects [click here for more on Island Grove’s research with UF]. And while blueberry wine might be their calling card, the winery is producing quite the portfolio of labels. Sticking with alternative (non-grape) fruits, Island Grove has sweet and tart Southern Strawberry, a semi-dry Bold Blackberry (a great choice for Merlot drinkers in the group), and the fruit-forward Backporch Peach (light in body, full in flavor), to name but a few, while the newest creation, Island Grove Blueberry Vodka will be coming to market soon.
“I think there is a misconception that all things made to wine other then grapes is sweet,” said Marden. “I’d say 95 percent of the people I’ve met think it is going to be sweet.” But upon sampling a glass, especially Island Grove’s Kinda Dry, they are pleasantly surprised. “I would say five out of ten wine connoisseurs are extremely surprised that we can make a dry wine out of blueberries.”
It all goes back to being a little adventurous with your palate, and going into a tasting with an open mind. “Give us a chance,” Marden says to the doubters. “Even if fruit wines are not exciting to you, keep your mind open because there are a lot of people making excellent wines that are out of the norm.”
For me, Island Grove’s Kinda Dry was the best Florida wine I have tried, hands down. While many wines made here in Florida have a rather sweet profile, as the name suggests, Kinda Dry is, well, kind of dry: a slightly sweet sip that maintains a complex, full-bodied flavor. If you’re looking for a bottle that most resembles an Old World style vino, this is it.
- Island Grove Wine Company is open for tastings, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. For more information, call 352-481-9463, or visit islandgrovewinecompany.com.
For more on Florida wine, click the links below: