Matthew Clark, PhD, is the Assistant Professor of Grape Breeding and Enology at the University of Minnesota.
I often get asked, why even try to make wine and grow grapes in Minnesota, when there are already well-established production areas around the world. It’s true, growing grapes in Minnesota means encountering challenges not faced in most grape growing regions — like harsh winters and cold temperatures — but, we are literally surrounded by native grapes that thrive here. The Vitis vinifera species, which is the backbone of the wine and table grape industry, was developed alongside human civilizations throughout the Mediterranean and parts of Europe and Asian with less severe winters than Minnesota and cannot survive here.
When Europeans settled into Minnesota they saw plants that they were familiar with and provided the creature comforts that homesteading and civilization required: sugar, nutrients, and the potential for alcohol. This phenomenon did not only happen in Minnesota, but also in New York, Missouri, Virginia (and so on in every state).
Grapes ARE native to the United States and can be found from Canada and into central America. The most common ones include V. labrusca (the Concord industry is based on this grape), V. aestivalis (Norton grape), V. riparia (Frontenac, Marquette, and other Minnesota grape hybrids), and V. rotundifolia (Muscadine grape). Breeding efforts at the University of Minnesota captured the best traits of disease resistance and winter hardiness from the native grapes with the wine making qualities of the European grapes and have developed a commercial grape industry.
Growing grapes and making products like jelly and wine seem to be a shared part of the human experience. And now we see a resurgence in consumers who want and often require locally sourced and produced foodstuffs of all kinds, including grapes and wine.
Celebrating 40 Years
The commercial wine industry in the state is in its 40th year, with most of the growth happening since 2007. With over 70 wineries in the state, Minnesota has established itself and continues to elevate the products it produces. There are award-winning wines that represent the cold-hardy varieties and reflect the diverse wine consumer palette. Exploring Minnesota wineries is an experience that brings agriculture and tourism together in a way that is sophisticated, self-indulgent, intrinsically local, and captures the spirit of taming the wild Northland and putting it into a bottle of delicious wine.
Our winemakers are producing an array of products like ice wine, sweet and dry red and white wines, barrel-aged red wines, scrumptious dessert wines, and even sparkling wines.