Raise a glass
MINNESOTA’S WINE INDUSTRY IS THRIVING, THANKS TO U OF M RESEARCH
If you haven’t tasted Minnesota wine in the last five years, you may be in for a surprise.
Minnesota wines have been criticized in the past for being too sweet for some tastes, says Matt Clark, an assistant professor of grape breeding and enology at the University of Minnesota. But that’s changed since the release of the University’s latest grape cultivar, ‘Itasca’, in 2017. Unlike most cold-hardy grapes, ‘Itasca’ produces dry wines rather than sweet ones.
“We’re at a point in the industry where we’re dispelling a lot of myths about what Minnesota wines are and aren’t,” says Clark, who also heads the U of M’s Grape Breeding and Enology Project, one of the top wine grape research programs in the country. “There are so many unique wines available now, people really need to get out there and taste some of them for themselves.”
NAPA OF THE NORTH?
Minnesota is home to about 80 wineries, more than 60 of which currently produce wine. Although that doesn’t exactly make the Land of 10,000 Lakes wine country, the development of cold-hardy grapes is helping build a strong wine industry here. According to a 2016 University of Minnesota Extension report, Minnesota’s cold-hardy vineyards and wineries pumped $80.3 million into the state’s economy and supported more than 10,500 jobs.
The University released its first cold-hardy table grape, ‘Bluebell’—mainly used for juice, jams, and jellies—in 1944. Two more introductions followed.
In 1978, amidst growing interest in wine and wine-making in the United States, the U of M began developing cold-hardy wine grapes. The goal? To grow grapes that can not only withstand temperatures as low as -30°F, but also resist disease and make great wines.
The program’s first release, ‘Frontenac’, debuted in 1996. Four years later, the University opened an enology lab and research winery at its 12-acre horticultural research center near the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
Since then, the U of M has released additional cold-hardy cultivars—‘Frontenac Gris’, ‘Marquette’, ‘La Crescent’, and ‘Itasca’—thanks in part to support from the Minnesota Nursery Research Corp. In addition to funding the development of plants that are cold-hardy and resistant to pests and diseases, the nonprofit collects nominal, voluntary propagation fees from nurseries that grow University-developed plants.
Those funds are distributed annually to various programs in the Department of Horticultural Science, which has received more than $2 million so far. “It’s great because we can use the money to support graduate students, purchase supplies, and offset costs for equipment,” Clark says.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND WINE
Each year, the University grows about 10,000 unique seedlings of what researchers hope will be new varieties of cold-hardy wine grapes. Breeding a new grape that meets all of the program’s criteria can take 10 to 15 years of painstaking work, including cross-pollinating plants by hand and cloning new seedlings from cuttings. Scientists also use high-tech research techniques like DNA sequencing and mass spectrometry to understand seedlings’ genetic makeup and fruit quality.
Once a grape passes the field test, it moves on to the enology and wine research lab, where enology specialist Drew Horton makes between 50 and 150 wines each year. The wines are not meant for selling or sipping; instead, they’re tasted, evaluated, and poured down the drain. The goal is to gain an understanding of how to help wineries grow grapes sustainably and make tasty, balanced wines from cold-hardy grapes.
“It’s easy to grow stuff in California where the climate is benign and there aren’t so many bugs,” says Horton, who was a winemaker in California and later in Minnesota before joining the U of M in 2016.
“Minnesota is 180 degrees from that, which has been really exciting and interesting.”
Even if a wine Horton makes seems like a winner, it takes years before the grape behind it is released. In fact, the research winery was making wine from ‘Itasca’ grapes for more than 10 years before it got the thumbs up.
Currently, the breeding project is focused on reducing the use of chemicals to control mildew and disease, which is difficult in Minnesota’s cold, wet climate.
Fortunately, Horton says, one of the best things the Minnesota wine industry has going for it is Minnesotans. “They could go anywhere and get a Malbec from Argentina for $8. But Minnesotans love their agricultural heritage, and love to support mom-and-pop wineries,” he says. “I’m never moving back to California.”
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis.