Minnesota's Wine Industry Matures
The life of a Minnesota grape is not an easy one. For a plant that thrives in the California sun, it’s no surprise the grape would need a bit of convincing to call Minnesota home. But after several decades of research, testing and careful nurturing, Minnesota’s cold-hardy grape varieties and the wines they produce are beginning to mature. As a result, new wineries have cropped up across the state, creating award-winning local wines that are gaining national attention.
“It’s exciting to see how much attention the local wine industry is now getting,” said Karin Koenen, owner of Hinterland Vineyards and Winery in Clara City, MN, as she poured a tasting. “We’ve seen a growing number of people visiting for tastings but also touring local wine trails. We’re part of the Heartland Wine Trail, and those who visit can get a stamp on their trail passport toward free wine after they visit each of the wineries on the trail. We’ve recently seen several people complete the entire trail.”
According to the Minnesota Grape Growers Association (MGGA), there are now more than 40 wineries across the state, producing nearly 150,000 gallons of wine annually. The industry is growing at a rapid pace exceeding 10% per year. While that’s still small compared to the more than 600 million gallons produced annually in California, the industry has seen significant growth and now contributes over $40 million to Minnesota’s economy, along with growing national interest.
The rise of the industry is the result of new grape varieties developed here in Minnesota. On an 11 acre plot just west of Chanhassen, for more than 20 years the University of Minnesota has worked to develop cold-hardy grapes that can withstand our state’s cold temperatures that would typically make wine more acidic. In recent years, the University has released the Frontenac, a red varietal, and white varietals Frontenac Gris and La Crescent. Its most recent release, the Marquette, is a hybrid of the Pinot Noir family and harvests of the grapes have just begun in recent years.
In 2008, local winery WineHaven in Chisago City produced its own varietal, named Chisago, which it has recently begun to bottle. As more varieties become available, an increasing number of people are now growing grapes. Across the state there are now 632 grape growers, according to MGGA.
“We don’t just want to produce another wine and see if people will buy it, we want to produce something that people seek out,” said Karin. “Some of the Minnesota wineries have started working together to set quality standards for cold-hardy grapes.” Among Hinterland’s vines are some of Minnesota’s top cold-hardy varieties, including Frontenac, LaCrescent and Marquette. The winery’s careful attention to quality has resulted in a steady stream of medals at the International Cold Climate Wine Competition (ICCWC) in recent years.
“As the industry matures, we’re seeing more and more high quality wines produced locally. That’s also evidenced by the number of awards our local wineries are winning and the attention we’re starting to get not only across the state and the Midwest, but even nationally now,” said Karin.
The result is growing attention for the industry and wineries in nearly every region of the state.
Minnesota Wine Trails:
One of the best ways to explore new Minnesota wines is to visit one of the state’s wine tails. Minnesota now boasts four unique wine trails:
The Heartland Wine Trail in west-central Minnesota’s Prairie region features seven wineries, including Hinterland Vineyards and Winery in Clara City, arguably one of the best in the state. Visit in September for grape stomp events at five of the wineries. Throughout the trail, taste popular varieties including La Crescent, Frontenac Gris, and Edelweiss, and reds including Frontenac and Marquette. Fruit wines include apple and strawberry.
Also in Minnesota’s Prairie region, the Minnesota River Sips of History trail mixes wine and beer tasting sties with local history. Three wineries are featured on the tour, along with local August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm, and six local historic sites, like the historic house of Minnesota’s 14th governor John Lind.
In southern Minnesota, the Great River Road wine trail stretches across the blufflands of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois. Three Minnesota wineries, including Falconer Vineyards and Winery in Red Wing, MN and Cannon River Winery, are highlighted on the trail. Trail events include the Local Foods, Local Wines Event in the spring, and the Holiday Food and Wine Festival in the late fall.
In eastern Minnesota, five wineries are featured on the Three Rivers Wine Trail, including WineHaven, Falconer Vineyards and St. Croix Vineyards. Annual events include the spring Tap the Barrel event, the Wine and Art Crawl in June, and the Federweisser and Roter Rauser Festival in the fall, celebrating the first tastes of the past year’s harvest.
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