Grapes are native to Minnesota. You’ll find Vitis riparia (river grape) vines growing wild throughout the Land of 10,000 Lakes. But you don’t have to be a resident to know that Minnesota winters are long and cold — very cold. Down to -35° F cold. Vitis vinifera, the wine grapes that have been cultivated since the Neolithic era — things like Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon — can only survive temperatures from zero to -10°F.
Most of the cold-hardy hybrids, including recent releases from Cornell University, aren’t hardy enough either. Many struggle below -20°F. “Minnesota is on the northern edge of commercial viticulture and we have a rather severe continental climate since we are far from the moderating influence of either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans,” said Peter Hemstad, co-owner of Saint Croix Vineyards and Hemstad Genetics.
Harsh winters aren’t the only threat. The Minnesota growing season is short and sandwiched on both ends by very real frost risks. So, even if vinifera survives the winter, there’s little guarantee that the fruit will set well in the spring or ripen before the first fall frost.
Despite these challenges, you can, in fact, grow vinifera in Minnesota. It’s just not easy.
“We have been growing them at the University of Minnesota for many years and some of the vines I planted in the late 1980s are still doing well today,” Hemstad told me in an email.
To protect tender varieties that would die otherwise, growers in Minnesota developed the “mini-J” training system. With mini-J, vine trunks are planted and trained at a severe angle nearly parallel to the ground. In the fall, the upper portion of the vines is removed from the trellis, laid along the ground and covered with hay or dirt to insulate them from the cold weather.
Mini-J TrainingBryan Forbes former winemaker at the University of Minnesota who now makes wine at 7 Vines Vineyard, liked some but not all of the resulting vinifera wines. “We made a decent Riesling, some fun Tempranillo-Merlot blends,” he said, adding “(and) a really terrible Pinot Noir. Green and just bad.”
It’s perhaps important to remember that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Matt Clark, Assistant Professor, Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota told me “This method does allow us to produce a crop, although many varieties cannot fully ripen. It is very labor intensive and requires expertise to manage these plants.”
Before returning to Minnesota to work for her family’s Alexis Bailly Vineyard, winemaker Nan Bailly worked for legendary Finger Lakes winemaker Hermann Wiemer. “Hermann thought it might work here being cold hardy and early ripening,” she said. Bailly labored over an acre of Riesling for 12 years, experimenting with different rootstocks along the way, with only limited success. “I only produced a small amount of fruit and only on occasion,” she said. “It was a fun experiment (but) I don’t see the point of growing vinifera just for the sake of it.”
Some have done a bit better with vinifera — even if they ultimately reached a similar conclusion. Hemstad produced estate-grown, barrel-fermented chardonnay at Saint Croix Vineyards for several years in the 1990s. “The covering and uncovering made it a real labor of love,” he said.
When the University of Minnesota introduced new grape varieties developed specifically for the harsh conditions of the upper Midwest, Hemsted decided to rethink growing Chardonnay and those vines have been replaced with Marquette, a red wine grape Hemstad helped develop at the university. “It’s more interesting to work with an exciting new variety like Marquette than to be just one more winery in the world producing Chardonnay,” he said.
Nowadays, most quality-focused producers are focused solely on the University of Minnesota-bred grapes — grapes like La Crescent, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc, and, of course, Marquette. If you see Chardonnay or Merlot or Riesling or even something like Vignoles on a wine label, chances are that it was grown in California — or in the case of Vignoles, New York or elsewhere.
Most of the grape growers I know on the cool (or cold) fringes of the wine world still dream of growing and making great vinifera in places others thought it impossible. The desire to find just the right hillside with just the right orientation on just the slope on just the right soils drives them. Bryan Forbes is no different.
“I have a dream of one day growing Riesling in southeastern Minnesota, down in the bluffs along the Mississippi or the Root River. Dolomite, limestone, sandstone…(it) makes me a little dreamy when I’m down there fly fishing. So many good slopes with great soil! Would be a huge pain, but might be worth it if you could pull it off.”