Cheat Sheet to Minnesota Varietals
What can a consumer looking to try a local wine expect? Minnesota has an ever-growing field of local wines to savor, but if you pop down to the shop expecting to pick up a Pinot Noir or a Chardonnay from the land of 10,000 lakes, you might be disappointed — or just confused.
“If we planted standard European varietals here, they would freeze to death in our winters –– the grapes can’t withstand those temperatures,” says Aaron Berdofe, wine educator and Minnesota Grape Growers Association board member. While the University of Minnesota’s grape-breeding program began in the mid-‘70s and now supplies much of the world’s cold-climate grape species, Berdofe admits, “If you went to a Minnesota vineyard 10, 20 years ago and tasted the wine, you’d probably want to spit it out because it’d be either highly sweet or acidic. But since then, the University of Minnesota has developed modern grape hybrids that combine the good taste of the European varietals and the hardiness of varietals native to northern climates.”
These varietals are the types of wines you’ll see produced by cold-climate vineyards from Minnesota to Vermont and beyond, and while different wineries will brand their flavors differently, they’ll usually include the varietal name in the title so it’s easily identifiable — “Chankaska Creek Reserve Marquette”, “River View La Crescent”, etc.
Why Local? How Local?
There are plenty of reasons to buy local — with more than 70 wineries and counting now operating in the region, the wine industry is one of the fastest growing fields in agriculture production and a boon to local economies. But if the farm-to-table movement hasn’t swayed you yet, Berdofe points out that local wine is actually hyper-local product: “The growing craft beer industry has also been great for Minnesota, but ‘local beer’ doesn’t always or even usually come from local ingredients. Minnesota vineyards, on the other hand, can point to where the grapes come from. If wineries are importing their grapes from California, they can’t call it a Minnesota wine.”
While straight-from-the source, either through a visit to or direct order from a winery or membership to a wine club is still the distribution model for many small wineries, larger local producers are carried in Haskell’s and Surdyk’s, an increasing number of restaurants now include a local option on their wine list.
As for what to expect, Berdofe says, “In general, Minnesota wines are a little more acidic than people are used to, akin to a wine from the northern part of Germany like a Riesling. But these days you’ll see a mix of sweet and dry styles thanks to the grapes developed by the University of Minnesota’s breeding program, and this is slowly creeping into the awareness of the metropolitan wine-drinking public.”
Never fear — there’s something in Minnesota wines for almost every wine drinker, and we’re here to point you in the right direction:
If you’re looking for a sweet wine similar to a Riesling — La Crescent is in many ways typical of acidic Germanic-style wines that can thrive in climates with harsh winters, but with a complex aromatic flavor that can tend toward oaky vanilla or Chardonnay-like fruit notes.
A genetic descendant of pinot noir, Marquette is a spicy, rich, medium-bodied, medium-acidity red wine representing the gold standard in cold-hardy viticulture.
Like your reds, well, red? Frontenac is a light-bodied but dark red wine ideal for rosé and port, as well as a fine drinking wine with an inviting Zinfandel-like dry berry palate.
Not bred but observed as a natural mutation over 20 years ago and cultivated from there, Frontenac Gris is a white version of the Frontenac grapes with its own distinctive aromas of tropical fruit, and can be found in many Minnesota ice wines (that’s dessert wine made from grapes purposely let freeze on the vines, a traditional northern European delicacy).
Frontenac Blanc is yet another, more recent natural mutation of the Frontenac grape, producing a semi-sweet, dry white wine similar to Vouvray, even lighter in color than the Frontenac Gris.
Released by the University of Minnesota grape-breeding program in 2016, Itasca promises to round out the pack for cold-climate wines with a fruity, low-acidity white wine not typical of traditional northern wines, putting it in the company of ever-popular classics like Chardonnay.