Anyone who says “a raisin is a tragic tale of a grape that could have been wine” is completely wrong.
In fact, some really amazing wines come from raisins.
There are many methods of making dessert and specialty wines around the world that involve grapes that have been depleted of some of the moisture content, leaving behind concentrated sugars and flavors that can result in concentrated wines — specifically, dessert-style wines.
Ice wine, or Eiswein, is a method for making dessert style wines, allowing the moisture content in the grapes to freeze.The frigid crop is pressed, allowing the sugary nectar to pass through and stopping before water is pressed.
Botrytis, also known as “Noble Rot”, is a fungus that serves as a catalyst for wines in a dessert style. Botrytis punctures the skin of the grape and water dissipates, leaving sugar and potent flavor behind. You may be familiar with wines such as Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany, Sauternesfrom Bordeaux and Tokaji Aszú from Hungary, which are made with Botrytis afflicted grapes.
Sadly, not all winemaking regions are an optimal host for the friendly fungus and have need to dehydrate their grapes by other means.
While Minnesota has no shortage of frigid temperatures from which to freeze grapes, Jon Millner, the second-generation winemaker at Millner Heritage Winery has been yearning to make a wine similar to Hungary’s Tokaji Aszú, but alas the challenge remains: how can a one make something similar to Aszú without the required fungus?
“I won Best of Show [at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition] with our ‘Müllner Nice’ pseudo-ice wine a few years ago, and the Governor’s Cup the year before that. Not that those are small accomplishments, but emulating Tokaji Aszú is a greater goal that requires long term vision, I’ve been pondering it for about 12 years now” noted Millner, adding that the winemaking techniques he is experimenting with “can transform a wine region.”
Finding the small town of Kimball, Minnesota to be devoid of the fungus necessary to create Aszú, Millner can’t rely on Botrytis to make a world class dessert wine, but he and father Don Millner, the winery’s founder, built chambers within which they can dehydrate grapes similar to a process used in Italy.
Italian Vin Santo, or “Passioto” is evidence of one such time tested technique used in Italy whereby grapes are either hung to dry, or laid on straw mats to dry for several months prior to pressing.
In a way, what Millner is trying to accomplish is to bring together a raisining method similar to Vin Santo with a winemaking technique like Tokaji Aszú, and our region’s cold-hardy grape varieties to create a world class dessert wine right here in central Minnesota.
Why Tokaji Aszú?
It is safe to say that Millner would probably not have developed such an appreciation for Tokaji Aszú had he not met his wife Anna who grew up a short drive down the road from Tokaj in a town called Tiszaújváros.
Immensely beautiful, the road from Tiszaújváros to Tokaj is lined with vineyards, elderberry trees, apricots, apples, and plums as the landscape transforms from a great plain into rolling foothills.
The Millners still travel to the great Hungarian plains region of Tiszaújváros almost yearly to visit family and friends, but the draw of Tokaj lures them through the vineyards and down into their ancient wine cellars every time.
“It is a wine that sustains a person’s smile, but if you are Hungarian, your soul too” said Millner.
Tokaji Aszú is the Wine of Kings and King of Wines or “Vinum Regum, Rex Vinorum” as Louis the XIV had declared, truly is a prize to behold.
According to Millner, Kimball and Tokaj share a few similarities, such as “climate, soil, grape selection, production methodology and aging. These are the foundations of any great wine in the world, whether made here or in Tokaj,” he declared.
“Tokaj is further inland than many other major European wine growing regions, and thus a more continental climate than most. That’s pretty similar to us in many regards, and latitude wise, Tokaj is the same as Duluth or Fargo” Millner reasoned.
Well, ok — we’ve all got dirt, and weather. But what about the grapes?
Hungary uses Sárgamuskotály, Hárslevelű, and Furmintas their three main grapes for making Tokaji Aszú.
Sárgamuskotály is a very fruity aromatic variety. “Here in Minnesota, I would say we have La Crescent as a good substitute. It’s just a big fruit bomb. Tons of fruit, big nose. It even has genetics in the Muscat family,” adds Millner.
The second variety, Hárslevelű, tends to bring more body to the mix.
Millner compares Hárslevelű to the role Frontenac Blanc plays, at least in terms of adding body: “I would say a bit like Chardonnay, just because everyone knows Chardonnay has body, but it doesn’t really taste like Chardonnay. It’s more citrusy actually. In Minnesota, I think Frontenac Blanc is fairly comparable to Hárslevelű.”
The third common grape commonly seen in Tokaji Aszú, called Furmint.
“Furmint is actually a parent of Hárslevelű and the closest comparison I have found to the new grape, Itasca, coming out of the University of Minnesota. Itasca seems to get compared to Sauvignon Blanc a lot, which… I guess I’ve made that comparison too because people know Sauvignon Blanc, but really, Furmint tastes a lot closer in character in my opinion.” Millner explained, also noting he isn’t currently working with Itasca, but intends to as soon as the vines are old enough.
Three Minnesota grapes that are similar to their Hungarian counterparts.
Equipment and aging are also important factors in Tokaji Aszú
As for the barrel ageing, Millner has already been using barrels from Zemplén, Hungary, a forest just North of Tokaj. This is the same forest, coopers, and barrels that Hungarians themselves trust their crisp spirited wines with. While Millner already had the barrels figured out, ageing in them could be the tricky part. As Millner puts it, “a little oak is okay, but too much is a problem.”
So what do you call something that could be the crowning achievement of years of effort? Millner believes it should be called ‘Király, explaining that, “This is not me really coming up with a great way to make a great wine but standing on the shoulders of generations that have been doing this and merely tweaking it in my own way. In the end, I still believe we are continuing this tradition of making dessert wines that knock the world’s socks off, just… on the other side of the ocean now. It is a wine emulating the great Tokaji Aszú and Aszú being the Wine of Kings, and King of Wines, ‘Király’ means King in Hungarian.”
“I’m hoping with Király we will forge something of a regional following for a very top notch wine that people can’t get anywhere else… except it’s counterpart in Hungary I suppose… That’d be really cool, though, no?” Millner concluded.
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You can visit Millner Heritage Winery at 32025 MN-15, Kimball in MN or online at millnerheritagewinery.com.