Minnesota wines, and store shelves, improving mightily

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 21, 2014 - 3:10 PM

Local wines, along with local retailers’ shelves, are getting major upgrades.

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Minnesota wines, such as those at Alexis Bailly Vineyard, are getting better and better — and it’s not just local folks who are noticing.

Photo: Courtney Perry • Special to the Star Tribune,

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When it comes to the Minnesota wine scene, the news is all good.

Not only are the state’s wineries cranking out better fermented juice, especially with University of Minnesota-developed grapes, but local shelves have been augmented beautifully with new brands, thanks to intrepid wholesalers large and small.

During the past month, I have tasted two Minnesota wines that rival anything from the West Coast at their price points, and rank with Alexis Bailly’s Voyageur as my favorite locally made wines ever.

At the seriously fun Savor Minnesota event late last month, some lovely whites were upstaged by the fantastic Chankaska Creek Marquette Reserve ($32). This earthy, hearty red from the Kasota, Minn., winery imparts beautiful red-berry and spicy flavors, a lovely mouthfeel and a near-endless finish.

Shortly thereafter, I was a judge at the Riverside International Wine competition in California, and our panel got a flight of Minnesota red table wines. We awarded a double gold (all four judges voted “gold”) to a wine that turned out to be the Vintner’s Reserve from Alexandria’s Carlos Creek; it will be released July 1 and cost $25.

We learned it was a blend dominated by the U of M’s two red hybrids — at 56 percent Marquette and 29 percent Frontenac — and I volunteered to do the tasting note that goes with every best-of-class wine: “Gorgeous nose of red berries and spice. The blend is brilliant with earth tones meshing beautifully with the red fruit and spot-on-tannins. Long finish with silky and earthy notes.”

Panel mate Clark Smith, who knows as much about grapes as anyone, had an interesting assessment: “Marquette fills in the holes in Frontenac. Everything Frontenac is missing is in Marquette.”

Since its U of M release in 1996, Frontenac has frustrated many vintners with its acidity and year-to-year inconsistency. Many wineries now use it just for blending with their table wines, and make good to great rosé and Port with the grape. Marquette, which arrived in 2006, has proved much more promising as a varietal grape. “Marquette is more consistent when fermented as a dry red than Frontenac,” said Russ Funk, Carlos Creek’s winemaker since 1999.

Added winery co-owner Kim Bredeson: “The potential for Marquette is really just being discovered. We are still experimenting with vineyard density, trellising options, oak programs [length of aging as well as type of barrel], harvest parameters and blending combinations to learn what will create a consistently excellent wine.”

Well, they nailed this one.

Minnesota-made wines are still hard to find in local stores and restaurants — one notable exception: Total Wine & Spirits in Roseville — but a slew of new brands are popping up there, thanks in part to some new, smaller distributors. Some of them have focused on ferreting out small domestic wineries in unexpected places; others look for those using unexpected grapes or boasting unexpected (read: Old World) flavor/texture profiles.

One such operation, Oeno, goes for sustainable/organic outfits in the northern tier of states (including Washington and Oregon) and has brought in dandy stuff from emerging regions to the east, Michigan (Chateau Grand Traverse, Left Foot Charley) and New York (Dr. Konstantin Frank, Ravines).

At Tradition Wine & Spirits, Michael Kuperman has homed in on the wineriess featured in Jon Bonné’s “The New California Wines,” such as Knez, Ground Effect, Mark Herold and Donkey & Goat. Tradition also provides some otherworldly pinot noirs from Drew Family and splendid value-priced whites from Dancing Coyote.

Even the bigger operations are getting into the game. Wine Merchants, a division of Johnson Brothers, is bringing in the spectacular Hirsch San Andreas Fault Pinot Noir, one of those ethereal, mystical wines that remind us why we fell in love with pinot.

Bourget stocks wines from Bedrock, sourced from ancient vines that produce beautiful concentration and depth.

And the newer giant in town, Southern Wine & Spirits, has a strong fine-wine division, World Class Wines. Dana Bonelli, like many of her peers with local importers big and small, is scouring Europe to unearth wines of character and distinction.

That might sound like fun incarnate, but trust me, it’s hard work and involves kissing a lot of frogs to find princely products to bring home so that we can enjoy them.

And perhaps serve them alongside the ever-improving products from our neck of the North Woods.

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