Photo by Terry Brennan
I recently visited a Spanish Paleolithic winemaking site of a house-sized boulder carved with different troughs and vats to create a gravity-flow system for grapes stomped up top, and fermented down below. It really brought home that Europeans have been making wine a good long time. I goggled to consider the thousands of years of tinkering and the mistakes, the revisions, and the happy accidents that their Spanish descendants inherited.
By contrast, Minnesota wine is all but brand new, yet continues to try to conjure European-comparable products from a land with such hard freezes that none of the European wine grapes can grow. (No, not even the Riesling that grows in Ontario and Michigan can survive our winters). Valiant dreamers have spent decades developing “cold-climate” wines using grapes based on wild northern varieties. But these northern grapes always seem to have funky-in-a-bad-way notes that, when fermented in traditional, European ways, make funky-in-a-bad-way wine.
Many local winemakers have quietly given up. I was in one well-known tasting room lately and of the 10 “winery-made” wines on offer, just one was made from Minnesota-grown grapes. I bet most of the people beside me raising glasses of Minnesota Syrah or Merlot would have been surprised to learn that their wines were made not from the grapes they saw growing in front of them, but from imported juice.
To find the best Minnesota wines, I recently tasted through dozens. I found lots that were spit-it-out awful, and a few that blew me away. The latter were fresh, surprising, lively, delicious, and gave me serious hope. Unfortunately, the best I had isn’t in this list—it was a wine-club-only experiment by Nan Bailly at Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings. She took Frontenac gris (a spontaneous field mutation of a grape), made an orange wine with it, and put it through a full malolactic fermentation. Translation: She took an accident, experimented with it, and put the results through a final experiment. It came out silky and fresh with notes of sage, apricot, and orange blossom. It was like a funny white Bordeaux I’d never run into before.
Everything else I found that was amazing was similar in that it was a white (they ripen faster) and an experiment. I tasted lots of reds too—some fine—but the white-wine experiments were the magic.
If I had one bit of advice for Minnesota winemakers today, it would be to think about those cavemen and cavewomen winemakers of old. Think about all their experiments and failures, century after century. Give yourself permission to fail, all over the place, and often. On the other side of that you just might come up with something genius—like these three wines.
Dara’s Picks for the Best Minnesota-Made Wines
Schram Vineyards, 2015 | Blossom, $24
The best wine by this Waconia-based vineyard is Blossom—a Minnesota blend of four cold-hardy grapes. Find apricot and white tea notes on a lovely frame. schramvineyards.com
Cannon River Winery, 2014 | Family Reserve White, $26
The Cannon Falls–based winery made this stunner by barrel-fermenting Prairie Star grapes, making it salty and satiny, herbal, and properly acidic. cannonriverwinery.com
Alexis Bailly Vineyard, 2015 | Golden Gris, $25
Bailly adds brandy to this wine, along with elderflower blossoms, and the result is a sweet apéritif, reminiscent of a good Italian Moscato. It’s phenomenal with cheese. abvwines.com