I walked into Chankaska Creek Winery in mid-May just as the grapevines were burgeoning for spring. With the time of year square between bottling the last harvest, and harvesting for this year, I couldn’t help but wonder — what’s a winemaker to do all day? Kick back in a shady corner of the vineyard and watch the grapes grow, whilst sipping some wine (for research, wink wink)?
I was warmly greeted by winemakers Mike Drash and Josie Boyle, and among the answers you might expect: topping barrels, monitoring aging and fermentation — a few you’ll only hear from this corner of Kasota, MN where the winemakers keep busy throughout the year: riddling bottles and tending the still.
Have you toured a winery? They’ll all have parallel highlights: a peek at some grapevines, an impressive line of equipment, and a room full of oak barrels.
You likely haven’t heard of riddling and distilling on other winery tours because Chankaska Creek is Minnesota’s first (and currently only) winery and distillery, and one of only a few producing sparkling wine in the traditional Champenoise method — hence, bottle riddling.
The site of Chankaska Creek still hosts the original homestead built in 1864, also a speakeasy during prohibition and presently the winemaker’s private residence. Bringing in a distillery seems a natural fit for the premises combined with Drash’s roots from the bootleg state of Tennessee, and Boyle’s appreciation for gin — but how do two winemakers with virtually no distilling experience end up distilling the smoothest, most effervescent gin I’ve ever had — and I don’t even like gin?
“We make what we like” resolved Drash — this distilling duo’s keen taste, the constant of Chankaska’s award-winning ferments.
With several years of distilling and sampling small batch tests under their belt (the still arrived in 2014), Chankaska Creek’s whiskey, brandy, and gin just reached distribution in liquor stores throughout the state this spring.
The Watched Pot
A watched pot never boils — but the same can’t be said for a still, a 132 gal steaming copper kettle which must be babysat under Drash and Boyle’s watchful eye.
A distillation run can take several hours and consists of heating a fermented product and vaporizing off water, resulting in higher-alcohol spirits. Drash and Boyle constantly sample the spirit run for quality. The first spirits to run from the still — the “heads” is a low-quality distillation not used in the final bottling. Along the distillation run after the heads comes the sweet spirits known as “heart” — this is the high quality product collected for bottling as brandy or whiskey. Last along the spirit run, the “tails” — another lower quality product separated from the final bottling.
Gin, combines the heads and tails discarded from the previous run, where they are then infused with botanicals (juniper, spruce, citrus peel, coriander, lavender, licorice to name just a few) and re-distilled, again keeping only the purest of the run.
Its up to the skilled tastes of Drash and Boyle to determine the heads, heart and tails of the run — and ultimately, the desired flavor for the heart, or final bottled product.
Two to look for:
Hard Hops Nut Brown – Made with Mankato Brewery’s Nut Brown Ale, this spirit was aged in toasted oak barrels for two years and has warm notes of sweet toffee and smoked nuts.
Ranch Road Gin – Lavender, elderflower dominate along with light notes of citrus peel in this incredibly effervescent, smooth gin.
Prior to visiting, I’ve been particularly impressed with the quality of Chankaska’s sparkling program, Equinoce and Boyle’s partner label, Dew Drop Wines. Boyle, a native Minnesotan who studied abroad in Paris and worked in New Zealand as a cellar hand returned her home state to share her passion and worldly experience with us.
There are a number of methods for creating a sparkling wine— at Chankaska Creek each bottle of sparkling wine has been painstakingly made using the Traditional, or Champagne-method of hand “remuage” or riddling — which means, the bottle is rotated daily by Boyle for weeks before reaching shelves for sale.Wine created in the traditional method have undergone a second fermentation in the bottle creating the carbonation. Riddling is used to manipulate the yeast from the secondary ferment s to make the spent yeast cells easier to remove (for a crystal clear finished product).
Sparkling to watch for:
Equinoce – A blend of Blend of Frontenac Gris and Frontenac blanc, with long-lasting, tiny bubbles. Medium-lemon in color, refreshingly crisp with nice minerality and distinct toasty notes. Enjoyed this alongside their mixed cheese plate featuring local cheeses (which vary — I enjoyed the most decadent blue cheese!)
There is a lot of potential for the use of Champagne-style wines in Minnesota: for one, Champagne’s northern climate produces grapes which struggle to ripen fully, making wines regarded for their vigorous levels of acidity. Minnesota’s cold-climate grape varieties are also highly acidic.
Champagnes are typically blended from a variety of vintages, mitigating risk for bad crop years and helping to create a consistent product. Minnesota’s varied — and, lets be honest, sometimes just plain wacky weather makes it challenging if not maddening to produce quality-consistent wines. Could more cross-vintage blending offer some benefit?
Upcoming at Chankaska
July 15, enjoy a 5k Trail Run through the immaculate grounds of Chankaska Creek, finishing at the wine cellar where you’ll be congratulated with a glass of wine. If running isn’t your thing (or, you’re just looking for a cool-down after the run), the Sip & Stroll is a relaxed walk through the grounds including wines to sample and surprise cocktail along the way. Both have some killer swag, too! Events at Chankaska
You can visit Chankaska at 1179 East Pearl Street in Kasota, MN or online at chankaskawines.com.