In some ways, Southern Minnesota is well suited to producing wine grapes. After all, the famous French vineyards in Bordeaux grow at a latitude of 45 degrees north, the same as Minneapolis. There’s a catch, of course: Bordeaux doesn’t have Minnesota’s short growing season and those killer winters where temperatures drop to -30 degrees.
This fact didn’t stop Minnesota wine lovers who tried to grow wine-producing grapes despite the climate. One of the first was August Schell, who founded the Schell Brewery in 1860. Schell planted vineyards on his estate to make wine for his family, and he did cultivate a small crop, but it was a challenging process.
Traditional French wine grapes can withstand a low temperature of about -5 degrees. Hybrids (French grapes crossed with American varieties) are hardier, but still can only survive temperatures that reach -20 degrees. Given that Minnesota’s winter temperatures can be even colder, these grapevines can’t make it through the winter there without special protection.
To keep vineyards alive during the winter, Minnesota growers had to detach grapevines from their trellises in the fall, lay them in trenches, and then cover them with soil or straw. The vines remained covered until the spring thaw when they could be retrellised for another crop. For larger vineyards, this meant burying and resurrecting thousands of vines every year, a job that kept costs high. Even for smaller vineyards, it was still a lot of work. And despite this intensive and expensive winter care, there was no guarantee that the vines would thrive come spring.
What local vintners needed was a grape that could produce a great drinking wine but withstand sleet, snow, and winters of -30 degrees. In the 1970’s, researchers at the University of Minnesota began a project of breeding new grape varieties in an attempt to create a cold-hardy wine grape.
After much research and experimentation, the university researchers shared the fruits of their labor in 1996. They introduced a grape for commercial sale that was hardy to about -35 degrees. They the grape “Frontenac,” for a town in the Mississippi River valley where most of Minnesota’s wine grapes are grown.
Frontenanc grapes were a huge success. They produced a red wine that connoisseurs said had a delicious cherry and blackberry overtones. Best of all, Frontenac vines don’t have to be buried in winter. The grape is now the most widely grown red-wine grape in Minnesota and has become a mainstay of regional wineries throughout the upper Midwest and Northeast.
After Frontenac came two more cold-hardy wine grapes: La Crescent (Named for one of Minnesota’s Mississippi River towns) and Frontenac Gris. La Crescent makes a white wine with apricot, citrus, and pineapple aromas. Frontenac Gris produces a crisp, flavorful blush wine.
Thanks to these cold-climate grapes, Minnesota’s wine industry is growing. In 1998, there were only four bonded wineries in the state. By 2005, there were 16.
Below is a list of the Minnesota wineries that use cold-hardy grapes.
Alexis Bailly in Hastings
Falconer Vineyards Winery in Red Wing
Fieldstone Vineyards in Morgan
Cannon River Winery in Cannon Falls
Morgan Creek Vineyards in New Ulm
Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater
Brush Wolf Winery in Alexandria
Source: Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into Minnesota