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Minnesota: Growing Grapes & Making Wine

Minnesota: Growing Grapes & Making Wine

I took a long break from blogging while getting my new website up and running, enjoying the holidays and working with some new and established clients.  My visit to the Cold Climate Conference in Minnesota is a great opportunity to break back into blogging!

Looking out my hotel window, the mighty Mississippi is completely iced over…and yes, by the way – they make wine here. Welcome to Minnesota!

It dipped down to 9 degrees last week in while I was attending and speaking at the Cold Climate Conference in St. Paul. Polar vortices have been sweeping storm fronts across the States, creating one crazy winter. Temperatures are reaching well below zero in the Great Lakes and Minnesota area and yet the wine industry there is not concerned about losing their grape vines and their wine industry is growing.

Thanks to the University of Minnesota, the godfather of the Minnesota & Wisconsin cold hardy grapes, Elmer Swenson, and support from the legislature, Minnesota began developing their wine industry in the late 1970’s. By 1997, there were three wineries, and now there are over 40. They have a winery passport program and estimate they will produce 150,000 gallons of wine in 2014.

98% of all grapes grown in Minnesota are cold hardy grapes, cold hardy defined as able to bare a full crop after reaching -30F or colder. And the vast majority of these grapes are hybrids – bred to resist disease, withstand frigid temperatures and produce fully in short growth seasons. Due to the short growth seasons, the older hybrids tend to have a high acidity and be a little “foxy.”

University of Minnesota is making great headway into new hybrids


The University of Minnesota crossed a native grape and another hybrid in 1978, and introduced the Frontenac in 1996. They are grower-friendly, high in sugar and now the most widely planted red wine grape in Minnesota. Also interestingly, it also produced a bud mutation yielding gray (thus named gris) fruit, similar to the Pinot Gris mutation from Pinot Noir. From this mutation, Frontenac gris was born, the white wine version of Frontenac. Since 2003, propagation is increasing rapidly. But the Frontenac does not stop there! Discovered white-fruited mutations of the Frontenac and Frontenac Gris, comes Frantenac Blanc, just released for planting.


Introduced in 2006, Marquette is a cousin of Frontenac and grandson of Pinot Noir. Wines are complex, ruby in color with pronounced tannins. It is in high demand and short supply. Look for it to grow in popularity.

La Crescent:

A little more finicky than the Frontenac and Marquette, the La Crescent is a wonderful grape. Producing wines reminiscent of Vignoles and Riesling, it makes a wonderful late-harvest wine.

Not to leave any wonderful (old and new) hybrids out, there is also the St Croix, Seyval Blanc, St Pepin, Brianna, Marechal Foch and more.

These new hybrids are important because they can withstand colder temperatures and do not have the “foxiness” that many of the older ones do. This trait can be strong and lots of people do not like this kind of characteristic. Example: The Concord grape produces a very intense and distinct aroma that identifies it with a Concord grape. Even though this is not the exact aroma of the older hybrids, it gives you an idea of how bold it can be.

Another interesting characteristic of these new varietals is that you can’t tell it’s from a hybrid. La Crescent is very similar to Blanc du Bois, grown on the Gulf Coast of Texas, in flavor and aroma. The reason this is important, is that you can blend any style you want because can’t taste that it’s a hybrid grape. They have the same quality as vinifera with one distinction: Because of the short growing seasons and cold weather, the wines tend to be very high in acid. They produce plenty of sugar at 25-27 brix, but with the high acidity, they are often additionally sweetened to balance the acid. Another distinguishing characteristic is that they are not particularly complex and tend to be simple aromatically. Individually – they are very nice, but they are simple.

White there is nothing wrong with the individual varieties, blending is a great way to deal with some of these challenges. During my seminar, “Designing Wines – Structure and Blending” the participants tasted some of the single varietal wines made in Minnesota. Most agreed the single varietals tasted very nice. I then presented a wine blend I had crafted from the same varietal wines. Many of the participants were pleasantly surprised to experience the difference. Although the single varietal wines were very good, the blended wine was well-rounded in all areas. I heard “The Marquette was very nice, but I could drink this blend all day.” The point is you can do both!

The Minnesota growers and wineries are growing quality grapes and making quality wine. As with any new wine industry, the challenges they are facing are often the same. The wineries are small (producing under 3000 cases/year), they are trying to find their niche, learning how to market themselves and getting people out to their wineries, fighting pests and disease, growing grapes that do well in the region and playing with what they can do with their wines.

Even with my thin Texas blood, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit with the grape growers and wineries of Minnesota. With these fascinating hybrid varieties coming out of the University of Minnesota and the support each gives the other, wineries are popping up all over the state.   If you are visiting, don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy some of the fine wine these committed and hard-working people are making!

Much appreciation!

To the Minnesota Grape Growers Association for inviting me to speak!

To all the wineries who provided wine for my blending seminar:

Flower Valley Vineyard, Wild Mountain Winery, Elmaro Vineyards, Millner Heritage Vineyard, Indian Island and Buffalo Rock Winery.

For the volunteers:  Mark Hedin, Kathy Beckstrom, Aaron Berdofe, Mary Mohn, Jennifer Ronnenberg and Logan Ellenbecker.

 To Missy Machkhashvil, Irving Geary and Kent Schwickert for all you did to make the conference a success and my visit so enjoyable.

For more information on the Minnesota wine industry, check out this Wines and Vines article.

Salut Minnesota!


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