Sunday, November 15, 2015

November is Chambourcin Month!

"Polite bottles:" That's what Doug calls my purchases when I buy a Chambourcin instead of a Norton at a Missouri winery. For the past 14 years I've collected Oregon pinot noir, and, since 2004, Missouri Nortons. If a winery makes a Norton not to my taste or out of my price range, I will invariably buy the Chambourcin, the Traminette, or, more regularly, the winery's Chambourcin-Norton blend. Chambourcin is not my second favorite grape by any stretch, it's quite nice, this French-American hybrid planted across 150 acres in Missouri, but I collect Nortons for my rack. Nortons can generally age longer than Chambourcin and often carry a heavier oak component than its lighter bodied dry red partner, Chambourcin. Nevertheless, I buy a bottle or a glass (if the bottles are too expensive or not that great) at every winery I visit. Because of that, I usually go home with fabulous Nortons, but also end up with lots of bottles of drink now-Chambourcin or, the extreme of the polite bottle, random fruit wines for which I have found very specific occasions for serving. Behind me as I type tonight is a bottle of a very good jalapeno-Granny Smith apple wine that I picked up several years ago, and a bottle of tomato wine. Unlike my daily reds, these two bottles will require a very specific cuisine to highlight their very specific qualities. But these non-grape wines merited purchase and will be consumed at some point. I respect winemaking as a craft, a skill, so I respect these wines that I purchased even though they're not my 'go-to' wines for drinking while I comb through my email.

Meanwhile, the list of Missouri wineries making incredibly supple wines out of the Chambourcin grape continues to increase. For those of you less familiar with the grape, Chambourcin is a lighter-bodied dry or semi-dry wine, often bottled in a pinot noir-styled bottles and used often in blending. I'm particularly fond of Chambourcin-Norton blends, or Chambourcin-Cabernet Franc blends, but regardless I treat Chambourcin like a pinot noir, using a French pinot noir Riedel glass for consumption. Unlike Norton, Chambourcin does not have its own glass. But Missouri and surrounding states are producing fantastic Chambourcin wines which are often less expensive than Norton, perhaps thanks to the larger grapes and more available juice, but equally supple and full of flavor. Chambourcin is lovely, a fantastic wine and perfect for the holidays. Light like a pinot noir but full of flavor like a Norton, Chambourcin is the ideal wine for a wide variety of meals.

I have enjoyed Chambourcin aged in steel, American oak, Hungarian oak, and French oak; my favorite is the French oak cask. While I prefer my Norton aged in American oak, preferably from barrels made with staves created from white oak logs harvested from Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest, Chambourcin is really quite nice in French oak. The French oak barrels impart a more subtle oak overtone which highlights the grape's natural fruitiness. Chambourcin is bright, a light red wine with high acidity that not only blends well but also stands alone as its own varietal. The King of Chambourcin, Herr Heinrich of Heinrichhaus Winery outside of St. James makes wines of meatier heft with the Chambourcin grape. He's the annointed King of Chambourcin. I realize that meat and heft are not wine terms, but Heinrichhaus Winery makes heavy Chambourcin, and he has been named the King of Chambourcin. When I visit Herr Heinrich, I purchase his Cynthiana with my limited budget. But his Chambourcin is certainly award-winning.

As Thanksgiving comes in, I'll bring my obligatory bottles of French Beaujolais-Nouveau, a few bottles of Missouri's Nouveau which is made with Chambourcin and a few other grapes, and a Norton for the day after Thanksgiving, a meaty wine to go with chocolate. Chambourcin is a lovely white meat wine. Because the Wine and Grape Board has declared November as Chambourcin month, local retailers are offering great sales on fabulous bottles of wine for the Thanksgiving table.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mast production

I spent a small part of my Tuesday morning listening to stories of squirrel eradication. Surrounded by folks interested in preserving, protecting, and restoring the natural world, I was a bit surprised by the number of folks at the table who admitted to shooting, trapping, and drowning squirrels to protect their backyard plants and birdseed. While I recognize that there are few natural predators left in the natural world, if squirrels dig up my bulbs or snip off my kale seedlings or decimate my gourds, isn't that part of life of living in a natural setting? Apparently not, according to the folks who think it's perfectly acceptable to shoot the squirrels who threaten their bird feeders. Harsh punishment? Sure, death is definitely a punishment for hitting up $20 worth of sunflower seeds intended for Northern cardinals. Not in my yard. My native woodland setting is full of squirrels in the canopy, in the shrub layer, at the base of my birdfeeders. I set out watering stations for squirrels. I get upset when a careless fast driver on my street recklessly kills a squirrel. I end up throwing the carcasses in the abandoned lot next door so they don't turn into disgusting messes for my dogs to sniff.

While I do not conduct scientific surveys on Missouri's mast production, I can attest to a bumper crop of acorns in my immediate vicinity. Massive bur oak acorns, thousands of black oak, Northern red oak, and chinquapin oak acorns cover my yard. And the squirrels and blue jays are going crazy with them. I was told at the table yesterday that "I don't shoot fox squirrels, they can stay, but all the rest must go." One person shoots squirrels and throws the lifeless carcasses into his yard to "feed local foxes." I have learned that squirrels who mature to three years or greater will begin to forage on non-acorn food, which means that the squirrels eating my green tomatoes and snipping off my kale leaves are older individuals. I live in a city, a very urban area, but a city full of big trees and unkempt yards. I do appreciate knowing that the plush Gund toy-look-alike squirrels in my yard may be old natives, and, hopefully reproducing. I have both fox squirrels and gray squirrels inhabiting my yard. They have as much of a right to the yard's food production as the black-capped chickadees, blue jays, cedar waxwings, cottontail rabbits, and yes, even the hawks that prey on the crummy Eurasian sparrows who hang out in my brushpile.

The spring months were incredibly wet, wetter than normal for April and May. Vegetation is rank in my yard these days, and seed production is high. The white-throated sparrows are gorging on the seeds of Silphium perfoliatum. Black-capped chickadees and Northern cardinals are enjoying the seeds on the goldenrods, asters, and cedar berries, which are plentiful this year. Reports from the area claim huge numbers of acorns for wild turkeys and white-tailed deer. If we can only have a drier spring--not too dry!--the Northern bobwhite quail population may be able to rebound. The climactic changes that may seem imperceptible to folks not trying to implement prescribed fire, or trying to plan a farm planting, or trying to track phenology of wild plants are very real. The ideal burn days that once happened all November just don't occur anymore; humidities are too low, winds too high, fuel moistures too low. Weather events are more erratic, increased moisture has directly impacted wildlife, namely ground nesting birds and others are surely documenting the whole natural web of life.

So I have my yard. I don't shoot squirrels. I feed birds, I burn my yard, I have brushpiles that infuriate my local neighborhood association, and I don't have control over external forces and it's frustrating. A cold front with no rain is moving through tonight. High winds, predictions of 40 mph which may impact my old growth trees but hopefully not. I can't go outside and look at the windsock and feel the crunch in the leaves and call it a good burn day anymore. And I will never kill squirrels.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Natural Integrity

Not too long ago, after I had become trained to recognize landscape degradation while under the wing of scholars in the field, I migrated to the good places, the sites with a high level of ecosystem functioning and integrity. Few and scattered, these sites include my first jobsite in Missouri, an area in the Niangua Basin that I truly thought represented all of the Ozark Highlands. How abysmally wrong I was, of course, but even today in the darkest hours I return there, I hike the trails and go cross country to witness nature on a landscape scale, one without signs of degradation and human impact. I go there like a pilgrim rubbing a damned stone or coin for faith: the rest of the world is doomed ecologically, but we'll always have this place.

The past week, while surrounded by natural history experts, I thought often of visiting this place, the one place I know where I can always go to see a functioning system on a landscape scale, one managed with properly applied prescribed fire. It seems that in the past five years every field visit I've taken results in either a prognosis that the woodlands are doomed from a deer overpopulation problem, a feral hog problem, an exotic species out of control problem, or that most woodlands in Missouri are so out of context with their historic character and an artifact of overgrazing and fire suppression that nothing will bring them back to a level of natural integrity. So I go here, to the Niangua Basin country with stunted post oaks, landscape-scale fire regimes, high quality forbs and grasses and with no exotics. High quality systems with functioning fire regimes generally don't have exotic species problems. Exotic species generally take hold in damaged systems, areas of soil disturbance or where there is no competition by the strong native flora. The only exotics here exist on roadsides or where the powerline easements are maintained with less-than-ideal management regimes.

We looked once more for the Asplenium hybrid between A. platyneuron and walking fern, but to no avail. Both parents are there, existing on the sandstone cliff, but all of the A. ebenoides have been collected to the point of extirpation. I'll keep checking for the cross, and if it shows up I will not collect it. While I understand the value of herbarium collections, there is also value in allowing the natural crosses to exist on the landscape. This is the same location where compass plant crosses with prairie dock, both species of Silphium and they intergrade here. No, I haven't collected it but it has been documented in literature.

As daylengths shorten to a ridiculous degree, dark by 5:30 and the tennis court lights coming on at 5, camping season draws to an uneventful close. It's no fun to camp out when darkness comes so early, especially after a long summer of going to bed in the tent at a 9:30pm sunset. This is the season for buckling down and actually analyzing all of that data we collected this summer, of writing the reports, and planning for another growing season coming soon.