By Aaron Berdofe, Minnesota Wine Educator/Writer
Minnesota may be known across the nation for its bitingly cold winters and its craft beer scene, but one thing it isn’t known for yet are wine trails. Recent advancements in wine making and grape growing practices, in addition to a handful of new grape varieties that can survive the northern winters from the University of Minnesota, are changing that notion, though. There are now around 70 licensed wineries in the state of Minnesota and new ones opening every year, meaning that there are way too many to visit in a single weekend. However, this fall may be a great time to start whittling — or sipping — down the list.
Regular visitors of wine country will know that every region has its own unique blend of grape varieties and style that create a fingerprint for that area. In Minnesota and the surrounding states there are four grape varieties that are emerging to create defining wines: Marquette, La Crescent, Frontenac, and Frontenac gris. Marquette, a red grape is a grandchild of the often-lauded pinot noir with a similar taste and feel. The wines made from Marquette are full of vibrant red and dark fruits with a thin line of green over the top that do nicely with a touch of oak. La Crescent, a white grape, is reminiscent of a muscat in its highly aromatic nose, but carries with it a fuller body much like a viognier. Frontenac, is another red grape that is wonderfully versatile creating either light-bodied red wines, delightful summer rosés, or even fortified port-style wines. Frontenac gris grapes create a lighter-bodied white wine which can be delightfully crisp with a more understated nose making it a great alternative for the pinot grigio drinker. Unlike typical past Midwestern wine, these wines are generally being made in a drier style, making them ideal for food pairing.
A comprehensive list of Minnesota and surrounding area wineries can be found on the Minnesota Grape Growers Association (MGGA) website: www.mngrapes.org. Additionally, the non-profit organization also sells a winery passport for $25 which gives the holder 10 free tastings at any of the 38 participating wineries which are open for tours, tastings, and events. A tasting generally costs between $5 and $10 at a winery so the passport pays for itself pretty quickly and most wineries also give special deals or activities to passport holders, making it a must-have for a fall wine trail tour, bachelor/bachelorette party, or bike tour. The passports are for sale through the MGGA website or at a participating winery providing that they have some in stock. However, for the weekend escapade, 35 wineries across the state and into bordering ones may be a bit much to take in. Fortunately, there are some wine trails that are more geographically focused.
The Great River Road Wine Trail (www.greatriverroadwinetrail.org) rolls down the mighty Mississippi with 11 wineries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. The wine trail gets its namesake from the designated scenic highways that it is located off of, so not only is their plenty of good wine to sample, but the drive will also be astoundingly beautiful with the autumn colors. Passport wineries that can be found on this trail: Cannon River Winery, Falconer Vineyards, Flower Valley Vineyard, Villa Bellezza Winery, Danzinger Vineyards, Elmaro Vineyard, and Garvin Heights Vineyard.
Just north is the Upper St. Croix Wine Trail (www.upperstcroixwinetrail.com) winding its way around a smaller, but no less beautiful, river. The wine trail includes five wineries in both Minnesota and Wisconsin and wine tasters can mix in a hike around Taylors Falls. As with the other wine trails in the state, this tour is self-guided, but Lee’s Limousine (www.leeslimo.com) is a regular charioting service recommended by this wine trail. Passport wineries that can be found on this trail: Chateau St. Croix Winery and Vineyard, Dancing Dragonfly Winery, North Folk Winery, and Wild Mountain Winery.
Wineries and vineyards are also clustering around certain towns in addition to being found in river valleys. In Waconia, three vineyards can be located within bicycling distance of each other: Parley Lake Winery, Sovereign Estate Wine, and Schram Vineyards. In addition to having quality wines, lake views, orchard views, and lawn games, these wineries are down the street from the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and Horticultural Research Center where Marquette, La Crescent, Frontenac, and Frontenac gris were all developed. The Landscape Arboretum (www.arboretum.umn.edu) is open to the general public for those interested in getting as close to the source of Minnesota wine as possible. To boot, Waconia is only minutes away from the southwestern suburbs of Minneapolis.
Mankato is another hub with three wineries clustering around its northeastern edge: Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery, Next Chapter Winery, and Indian Island Winery. Visitors to these wineries can enjoy live music or perhaps learn how to paint while they decide which wine is their favorite.
The number of wine tasting opportunities in the state and the immediately surrounding areas is growing significantly and visitors will not only taste the increasing maturity in the wines, but also see the rapidly expanding vineyards attached to a number of wineries. This past winter and growing season have been wonderful and will turn out one of the highest volumes of grapes that the state has seen. Yet visitors will probably note the number of new vine plantings that aren’t ready for production in this current season. Anyone that goes out tasting Minnesota wines this fall will be in for a treat as they taste the wines from grapes that are now being planted in not only the Midwest, but Vermont, New York, and Canada. Fall may signal the end of the growing season and warmer weather, but it may just prove to be the start of a new Minnesota tradition.