Minnesota’s Young Wine Scene is Growing Strong

Science, hybrid grapes and glacial river valleys are working together to make wine possible amid the frost of this northerly region.
Illustration by Kavel Rafferty

The Minnesota wine industry is defined by bleak winters that can dip below minus-30˚F and grapes that are hardy enough to thrive anyway. But winter isn’t the only challenge.

“Minnesota has relatively short summers,” says Matthew Clark, assistant professor at University of Minnesota. “Spring can be a challenge, as plants may break dormancy and then be greeted with a frost in May that can decimate a crop. And a crop needs to be able to ripen before the first frost events [of fall].”

Typical cool-climate grapes like Chardonnay and Riesling might not ripen. Even many French-American hybrids grown throughout the Northeast and Midwest can struggle to survive.

Why Hybrid Grapes Matter

Instead, grapes such as Frontenac, La Crescent and Marquette have been developed at the University of Minnesota to withstand such challenging conditions. They form the backbone of the state’s nascent wine industry.

Many producers are found in the valleys of the Mississippi, Minnesota and St. Croix Rivers, in the southern part of the state.

AVAs
Alexandria Lakes
Upper Mississippi River Valley

Wineries to Know
7 Vines Vineyard and Winery, Alexis Bailly Vineyard, Cannon River Winery
Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery, Round Lake Vineyards & Winery
Saint Croix Vineyards, Winenhaven Winery & Vineyard

First Commercial Vineyard
Alexis Bailly Vineyard 1973

Important Grapes
Frontenac, Frontenac Blanc, Frontenac Gris
La Crescent, Marechal Foch, Marquette

Wine Trails
Upper St. Croix Wine Trail, St. Croix Wine Trail, Heartland Wine Trail
Three Rivers Wine Trail, Great River Road Wine Trail

“These glacial river valleys offer the topography and soils needed for making high-quality wines,” says Peter Hemstad, co-owner of Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater. “Much of the rest of Minnesota has deep, rich prairie soils that are not conducive to quality wine production.”

Commercially available since 2006, Marquette has been embraced by producers for aromas and flavors often including cherries and other red fruits with black pepper and spice, but can vary greatly depending on where it’s grown.

“I am already seeing some terroir differences from various Marquette sites here,” says Mike Drash, winemaker at Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery in Kasota.

As the university explores new varieties and winemakers refine the best ways to work with what they have, Drash thinks it’s time for Minnesota wines to reach a larger audience.

“With the whole lower alcohol, more acid movement, the Minnesota varieties hit all that and more,” he says.

Published on December 26, 2017
Topics: Wine Regions



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