On a recent visit to one of Nebraska’s many fine wineries, we sat down with winemaker Dominic Burke to find out how the South African oenologist came to work and reside in rural Nebraska, and what he might share with us about the complexities and nuances of the budding wine-making industry in America’s great Midwest.
M&S: Grapes and wine are interesting, sure, but what lead you to make a career out of them?
“I got involved in winemaking, after doing a vandage, a grape harvest,
in Beaune, Burgundy, in 1993, picking chardonnay grapes, and asking
the local winemakers loads of questions about the art and science of
winemaking in France, and what their philosophy was in this
regard. The rest is history.”
M&S: You’re a long way from South Africa. How did you come to be in the United States? And what lead you to Nebraska?
“I started my career in the US, as a consultant and full time
winemaker to two wineries in Tennessee, and then finally moving across
to Nebraska, where I have been for the last three years.”
M&S: So far, what is the biggest difference between winemaking in South Africa and the practices employed here?
“My career in the US, has primarily been working with French-American
hybrid grapes, which was completely new to me. My training in South
Africa involved working only with French varietals, using a
combination of old and new world winemaking philosophies.
Together with the fruit, that you have to work with (hybrids), you have
have the inherent challenges of establishing the vineyard, and dealing
with the multitude of pests and diseases that prevail in a vineyard, in
the Midwest and the South. I think the winemakers on the West
coast of the US, and those in the southern hemisphere, actually have
it quite easy.”
M&S: What was the most surprising thing you’ve encountered upon arriving in Nebraska?
“People love sweet wines in Nebraska, which is okay. The winemaker is
really the craftsman, creating this “elixir of life”, but he
essentially is dictated to, by market trends and demands. If the market
wants a sweeter wine, then that is his directive. Peoples’
pallets, over time, also evolve, and the more they savor and
appreciate a wine, eventually, they will naturally move across, from a
sweeter style of wine, to a drier wine, with time.
One little analogy of this subject, that I use with people in
enriching their knowledge of wine, is to ask them, what they think one
of the most famous wines in the world is? The hint I give them, is
that it is one of the most consumed wines across the globe, and you
will always see it at a celebration. What is it? Champagne of course,
and it is a dry wine!”
M&S: Do you prefer making reds or whites? Why is that?
“I don’t have a preference, as far as red or white winemaking is
concerned. I enjoy the challenge of making either style of wine. For
me, being adaptable and flexible in your winemaking beliefs, and
never following a recipe, is what differentiates the serious
winemakers from the winemakers who lack a good palate.”
M&S: What, would you say, is the key to good wine making?
“Attention to detail, being focused, and cellar hygiene have probably been
the most important prerequisites to making good wine. And it has to be a labor of love!”
M&S: What is your greatest challenge as a winemaker in the state of Nebraska?
“Apart from the challenging weather conditions that prevail across
the state, I think one of the main challenges facing the Nebraskan
wine industry is the need for a more concerted effort to educate and inform the
Nebraskan wine consumer about some of the excellent, well-made wines
coming out of Nebraska. Another point, I think worth mentioning, is
for the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association to consolidate and support all the players, as a collective whole, in raising the quality standards of the wines destined for the retail shelves.”
M&S: Aside from your own, of course, what is your favorite glass of white wine?
“A good, chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc, either from New Zealand,
South Africa, or California, or a good Sancerre.”
M&S: What about red?
“I enjoy good, full bodied red wines, from any prominent wine
region of the world, but one particular red, that I do miss, is the
South African Pinotage, which is actually made at the Kanonkop wine
estate, in Stellenbosch, South Africa.”
M&S: What is the most creative thing you’ve ever done with wine? Tell us about the process of crafting that particular vintage?
“I think, making my first fortified Port, using Cinsaut grapes, as an
intern in South Africa. The process involves picking the fruit at a
particularly high sugar concentration, then fermenting the must, down
to 5% alcohol by volume, thus retaining a high natural residual sugar,
and fortifying the wine, to a final alcohol concentration of 18 volume
%. The wine was then pressed off the skins, and matured in a 60 gallon
French oak barrel for a year, and bottled. It turned out to be a
delicious wine, which I was very chuffed with, as it was my first,
real commercial wine.”
M&S: You’re making some great wines at Superior Estates, and some of the other local wineries are doing very nicely as well. What, in your opinion, would it take to put Nebraska on the map regarding our wines?
“Getting local legislation to implement a quality control program, ensuring all
wines that are destined for retail space undergo a thorough,
chemical and organoleptical analysis prior to bottling. This should be
carried out at a state-sponsored oenology laboratory in
Omaha or Lincoln. This will ensure all wines meet strict quality control
standards, prior to sale. Presently, there are no such measures in
place to encourage a benchmark of quality in Nebraska.”
M&S: If you were going to do anything else for a living, what do you think it would be?
“Probably be a music producer!”
Superior Estates Winery is located in Superior, Nebraska, on the Kansas border, a few hours drive from the major metropolitan areas of the state. A visit to the winery should include a tasting of their excellent wines, a glass of wine enjoyed in their incredible tasting room and, if you’re lucky, a tour of their state-of-the-art facilities by their charming and knowledgeable winemaker, Dominic Burke. For Nebraskans, Dominic’s wines, including the exclusive (and delicious) Johnny Rodgers collection, can be found in local groceries including HyVee. To learn more, visit http://www.superiorestateswinery.com or call 402-879-3001.
For more on wines from around the Midwest, enter your email address at itheewine.com to receive our blog updates, follow us on Facebook or Twitter @itheewine, and check out our reviews of Midwestern wineries at http://www.americanwineryguide.com.