The quest for a full bodied red varietal that will survive the frigid winters in the Northern U.S. is on-going, but winemakers for years have had several options for making crisp white wines from non-vinifera grapes. St. Pepin, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris and Brianna are among the varietals popular in tasting rooms throughout the upper Midwest that have the cold hardiness and disease resistance required for this region. All of these varietals have high acidity and so benefit from some residual sugar which also pleases their local patrons who enjoy some sweetness in their wines. Thus far I have not found anything to make me forget about Russian River Chardonnay or Viognier from Condrieu but all of these wines make pleasant quaffers and versatile food wines and as winemaking continues to improve in the region these varietals have enormous potential.
Here are some of my favorites I discovered in my recent journey through the wine regions in Wisconsin and Iowa.
Jay Stoeger and his wife Kay opened Cold Country in 2014 and they are already making some very serious wines. Their 16 acre vineyard is one of the largest in this area. This La Crescent was particularly striking. A beautiful, exuberant nose of rose and tangerine, matched by voluptuous tangerine on the palate, and a mineral-inflected finish, this intense, full-bodied, semi-sweet wine is one of the best we tasted. La Crescent was developed by the University of Minnesota and has a complex lineage which includes St. Pepin and Muscat. It is difficult to grow but its high acidity and sugar levels and explosive aromas reminiscent of Riesling make this a very promising grape.
This off-dry white wine has a pleasing, intense nose of grapefruit, lime and a bit of flint. It shows simple pear on the mellow, gentle palate with a refreshingly crisp, fruit-laden finish. Bred by Elmer Swenson and released in 1983 with Seyval Blanc as one parent, St. Pepin is unusual because it doesn’t self-pollinate and must be planted next to closely related male vines.
This semi-sweet wine has gobs of apricot, pear and tropical fruit on the nose and palate. Intensely aromatic and full bodied, it starts out sweet, but it finishes with plenty of crisp, refreshing acidity. The complexity, clarity and focus of the aromas on this wine are remarkable. It is quite beautiful. Frontenac Gris is a mutation of Frontenac that emerged while the latter grape was under development at the University of Minnesota. It produces gray fruit and the color of the resulting wine can vary significantly.
Brick Arch “Honey Bee” White Blend Iowa NV $15
One strategy many winemakers adopt is to blend wine from local, cold hardy grapes with wine from more familiar vinifera grapes imported from New York, making for some interesting flavor profiles. “Honey Bee” is 80% Brianna and 20% Finger Lakes Riesling. Brianna adds tropical notes and tangerine to the apple aromas from the Riesling. Off dry to semi sweet, the palate shows prominent tangerine on a medium plus frame, well balanced with good acidity, and fresh, clean fruit on the finish. A distinctive, subtle earth note hangs in the background giving the wine some complexity. Brianna is another grape developed by Elmer Swenson with Muscat in its parentage, it performs very well in blends.