This year I’ve taken the plunge, a deep dive into non-vinifera grape varieties. The wines we are all familiar with—Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay—almost every wine you find on the shelf in the supermarket or wine shop are made from the grape species vitis vinifera. This is the grape that grows well between the 50 degree and 30 degree latitudes and accounts for most of the global wine trade. The reason vitis vinifera is hard to find outside those coordinates is because winters are too cold, or summers are too hot, or the climate is too humid to produce healthy grapes. Frigid winters are especially damaging to vinifera which will not survive in extended sub-zero temperatures. Sustained hard freezes rupture cells in the roots and trunk leaking fluid and causing the plant to die.
But people who live outside those coordinates or who live in regions that experience exceptionally cold winters would like to make grape wine as well—it seems everyone wants in on the act. And so for many years researchers, both amateur and professional, have been searching for new cultivars that can survive the harsh winters of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other states in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.
Two names have been essential to the development of grape cultivars that will survive in the cold: Elmer Swenson and the University of Minnesota.
Inspired by an early grape breeder, a Texan by the name of T.V. Munsun, Elmer Swenson began experimenting with grape varieties in 1943on his family’s Wisconsin dairy farm by crossing French hybrid grapes with the local species called vitis riparia. Vitis riparia would survive the cold winters but made bad wine. By crossing the hardy riparia vines with French species known for their capacity to make drinkable wine, Swenson hoped to be able to produce reliable, high-quality fruit. In addition to the breeding program on his own farm, Swenson began caring for the fruit crops at the University of Minnesota where he was able to use their facilities to conduct his research. His work at the University resulted in two hybrids, Edelweiss and Swenson Red, both of which he jointly released with the University. Other hybrids were independently released; Swenson was generous with his cuttings giving them to almost anyone who asked. Here’s a list of the Swenson varietals.
Swenson died in 2004 but The University of Minnesota has remained at the forefront of this search for cold-hardy varietals. Prior to 1978, the university’s program was largely dependent on Swenson’s efforts. But in 1978 they formally launched their wine-grape breeding program with a state-of-the-art enology lab coming online in 2000. Their 12 acres of vineyards are planted with about 12,000 vines with various genetic characteristics, the product of which will go through rigorous testing to discover how they will perform in the field. It takes about 15 years to bring a new variety to the market.
Thus far, this breeding program has produced these 5 varietals that can be found on tasting menus throughout the Midwest, Northeast, and Canada:
Frontenac was introduced in 1996, a hybrid of V. Riparia and an obscure French hybrid called Landot 4511. This vine survives temperatures as low as –33 degrees, produces good yields and is largely disease resistant. The University of Minnesota might not welcome my assessment, but Frontenac makes a dreadful red dry wine. It’s acidity is off the charts and should you venture to imbibe, your mouth will feel like a battleground featuring sour cherry and lemon. Talk to winemakers about Frontenac and you will get a discourse on acid-reducing techniques. But with added sugar the wine achieves some balance and it makes an truly outstanding port-style dessert wine. Hint: If you want wine lovers to leave your tasting room impressed, don’t serve dry, red Frontenac. (Although see my review of Alexis Bailey below)
Frontenac Gris was introduced in 2003. This varietal started out as a mutation of Frontenac, producing gray fruit (hence the name gris, which means gray in French) which creates a light amber-colored wine. It has all the good-making qualities of Frontenac but also happens to make a really flavorful wine with explosive tropical and peach aromas. The high acidity is a virtue creating a powerful, long, refreshing finish. This is not a subtle wine but its rich flavors and aromas make this a promising grape.
La Crescent, introduced in 2002, is probably the most popular of the cold hardy white grapes. A hybrid of two Swenson varietals (which were themselves hybrids), this is a hardy grape which produces an intensely aromatic wine reminiscent of Gewurztraminer or Riesling. It shows peach, citrus, and some tropical fruit aromas. It is usually made with some residual sugar to balance the acidity giving the wine a fleshy, medium body. I’ve found these wines to be generally interesting and refreshing.
Marquette is the most recent addition having been introduced in 2006. This is a complex hybrid from many species some of which are related to Frontenac and Pinot Noir. Wine growers love this grape because it’s easy to handle and produces great yields. Winemakers like it because of its high sugar and relatively low acidity. It has bright cherry flavors, black pepper, and spice notes and handles oak reasonably well. I wouldn’t call it a “big red” but it has some weight to it and achieves elegance when handled properly. I get the impression winemakers are still experimenting with this grape but the results are promising.
Frontenac Blanc is a mutation of Frontenac and Frontenac Gris. (This Frontenac family seems to be as genetically unstable as Pinot Noir). It has a peach and citrus nose with a dry, crisp finish. I found this wine to be austere when fermented dry but refreshing and a wine that will pair well with seafood.
The latest release from Minnesota is Itasca. Since 2017 is the first year it has been released to vineyards, I haven’t tasted wines made from it yet.
Wine made from Swenson and University of Minnesota varietals are not the only wines found in Minnesota. Some of the French hybrids such as Marechal Foch and Leon Millot are moderately cold hardy and play a prominent role on tasting menus.
Our stay in Minnesota was brief and we had time to visit only 5 wineries in the Minneapolis area, two of which deserve mention.
Alexis Bailey Vineyard
Alexis Bailey’s family planted the first vineyard in Minnesota in 1973 and were the first to produce wines made of 100% Minnesota grapes. Their strategy today is to guarantee that in each wine 51% of the grapes are Minnesota grown. They create many interesting blends using California, New York, and Minnesota grapes but their 100% Minnesota wines, which were our focus, were also outstanding. I noted above that Frontenac seldom makes a good dry red. But this one actually had some finesse despite the high acidity, showing an attractive lifted midpalate and some grain on the tannins to stand up to the acidity. Their Voyager, a blend of Marachal Foch, Leon Millot, and Frontenac had prominent berry and vanilla notes, a soft, round midpalate and an electric finish with refined tannins. With 1 year in New American oak, this is the best wine we tasted in Minnesota. Their hybrids survive the winter because they lay the vines down on the frozen turf and cover them with straw to preserve heat.
Winehaven Winery and Vineyard
Winehaven was founded in 1995 but the Peterson family has been growing fruit for 4 generations. Winehaven occupies a favorable microclimate on a hillside surrounded by three lakes keeping some heat in the vineyard. They can actually grow Riesling here although it’s risky and takes lots of care. I was especially impressed with their Frontenac Gris and La Crescent—each with explosive aromas and a richly textured mouthfeel. Among the reds, the Marquette Reserve was intense and complex, full bodied yet refined. But the show stopper was a grape unique to Winehaven. Called Nokomis, it was developed and patented by the Petersons. The black cherry, spice and elegant medium body was reminiscent of Pinot Noir—very well made Pinot Noir. I certainly want to find out more about this grape and watch it’s development.
With the resources of the University pumping out new varietals adapted to the climate here, Minnesota is edging its way onto the wine map although it will take years to figure out the best methods of growing grapes and making wine from these varietals. As of now, quality is spotty but these two wineries give us a glimpse of what is possible.