If you would have asked for my professional opinion on Minnesota wines a few weeks ago, I would have politely told you that there are much better things to drink. In fact, I was asked this after a wine and food pairing class I gave in Uptown last December by a small group that turned out to be employees of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. They asked specifically about Frontenac, which is a hybrid grape cultivar developed by the University of Minnesota to withstand our cold winters. As I delivered the hard truth that the wine world doesn’t think much, if at all, about Frontenac, I could see the disappointment in their faces. This group had seen a lot of work going into Minnesota grapes and wines.
Anyone in Minnesota with even a passing interest in wine has tried local wines in the past and it usually has ended in disappointment. They’re too sweet. They’re too simple. They finish short. They lack structure. Most importantly, if you asked someone what Minnesota wines taste like, what emotions they evoke, you’d probably get a lot of quiet pondering or blank stares, and certainly not a consistent answer. However, disappointed faces are usually too much for me to bear, so I decided to look again into how Minnesota wines were coming along. I wanted to figure out what the identity of Minnesota wines was now because it was clearly important to these people and just maybe it had changed from its boorish past.
On Thursday, Friday and Saturday of the last weekend in February amidst a weather battle between light snow flurries and sunshine, I got my chance and attended the Cold Climate Conference held in downtown St. Paul at the Crowne Plaza. When most people want to look into something they do some light reading or a few Google searches. I attend conferences. The Minnesota Grape Growers Association has invited local grape growers and wine makers to the conference for the past eight years which may come as a surprise to those who weren’t aware that having a wine economy and being in the state of Minnesota were synonymous. In fact, it contributed around $40 million to the state economy last year alone. What may be more surprising to those of us in the Twin Cities is that we live just minutes from the largest wine appellation in the world.
The conference packed in a trade show and three different tracks of seminars covering Viticulture (growing grapes), Enology (making wine), and Marketing. While one might expect this sort of conference to be the type that tumbleweeds pass through, it was entirely the opposite. I remarked to Mike Cronin of Kaufman Container who was displaying the company’s wares at the trade show that the place was bustling, almost too crowded. Without missing a beat, he corrected me, “Actually…this seems to be a down year.” He would know, his company supplies bottles to the majority of the winemakers that were there.
Each of the 32 sessions was intense and focused, ranging on topics from wine chemistry, vineyard frost prevention, to how to entice customers by pairing food with your cold climate wines. This was no band of amateurs. No motley crew. When an Enologist from Cornell, Iowa State University or the University of Minnesota described how to encourage the production of mid-chain fatty acids, people understood. The biggest difference between vines grown in Minnesota and other cold climate regions and those that we associate with our favorite wines, is that here we can only grow varietals that can withstand our harsh winters. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest would all suffer from frost bite and die if left exposed during the winter months much like a transplanted Californian. The U of M is conquering this deficit by developing new hybrids such as Frontenac, La Crescent and Marquette that can not only handle the cold winters, but then also produce suitable grapes for growing wine.
The Minnesota Wine Stroll event on Friday night was my chance to figure out if Minnesota wines had developed an identity yet; a side-by-side comparison of numerous local wines. Yes, I still had to sift through some overly sweet whites, sweet rosés, unstructured reds, and ambiguously developed dessert wines, but there were quite a few wines that I was pleasantly surprised by. A push is being made to finish the white varietals like Brianna, La Crescent, Edelweiss in a dry fashion with an acidity that was nicely crisp instead of untamed and sweeter as it had been done in years past. On the side of the reds, Frontenac is becoming a light, fruit-forward and floral wine with some respectable structure. Perhaps most surprising though was Marquette, which may be what brings cold climate wines out of the depths and into the spotlight. Despite only being around for a few years, the best Marquettes can be compared to some northern California Pinot Noirs. We have much more to see of this varietal.
At the tail end of the conference I snuck into a session on how grape growers practice their craft in Napa Valley with Dr. Paul Skinner. As he played videos of mechanical harvesters and migrant workers moving at a ferocious speed, the jaws of the local growers dropped. “This is real time speed,” Dr. Skinner remarked dryly. “We didn’t have to speed up the video or anything.” His presentation represented the distance to go. After all, the rest of the world has been growing grapes and making wine for much, much longer than we have here in Minnesota, with far fewer environmental hurdles. I do implore you take another look at Minnesota wines though. You will be pleasantly surprised. I, for one will enjoy finishing this glass of Marquette I have before heading out into this mild winter that seems to be trying to give it one last shot.
Aaron Berdofe is a local wine educator who resides in the East Harriet neighborhood. He blogs at aaronberdofewine.com.