In a few years, visitors to one of Minnesota’s dozens of winery tasting rooms will be able to sample a dry white dinner wine made from locally grown grapes.
State growers are bullish on Itasca, the new grape cultivar developed by the University of Minnesota’s breeding program, and its prospects for boosting the state’s rapidly growing vineyard and winery industry, estimated at $59 million in 2011, according to a 2013 university report.
“It’s the first cold-climate grape with low enough acid to make a nice dry white wine,” said Irv Geary, president of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association and partner in Wild Mountain Winery in Taylors Falls. “That’s a piece of the market we haven’t been able to get into, and the largest segment in the white wine industry.”
The new grape produces a wine that some liken to a sauvignon blanc or pinot grigio, with notes of pear and melon — perfect for pairing with seafood — as opposed to the sweeter whites and dessert wines more commonly produced in Minnesota.
“It fills a hole we’ve had,” said Ray Winter, owner of Winterhaven Vineyard and Nursery and Indian Island Winery in Janesville, Minn.
“I think it’s a game-changer,” said Matt Clark, grape-breeding project leader at the U. “It will allow our growers to produce a new type of product, that’s more relatable to a wide audience.”
Minnesota’s wine industry is young for one elemental reason: The harsh climate is tough on wine grapes.
“Minnesota is not the center of the viticultural world,” Peter Hemstad observed dryly. The co-owner of St. Croix Vineyards in Stillwater is the former longtime grape-breeder at the university who first crossed the U’s Frontenac grape with another in 2002 to create Itasca. “A lot of grapes are barely adapted here and not happy,” he said.
Alexis Bailly Vineyard in Hastings, the state’s first vineyard in 1973, has long marketed its wines under the tagline “Where the grapes can suffer.”
Since then, the U has developed five cold-hardy wine grapes — Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, La Crescent, Marquette and now Itasca. The new grape was identified as an “elite seedling” in 2009. Test vines weathered the polar vortex winter two years ago. “That caught my eye. It really moved up in my estimation,” Hemstad said.
In addition to being cold-hardy, Itasca has proved resistant to disease and pests. “It’s very grower-friendly,” said Hemstad, to the point that some vineyards will be able to grow the grapes organically, without spraying, and even homeowners may be able to plant a few vines and try their hand at winemaking.
Wine lovers will have to be patient, however. Itasca will be sold to growers by three licensed nurseries starting next year. Then it will take several more years for the vines to mature and produce grapes, and even longer for growers to learn its nuances.
Geary expressed “reserved optimism” about Itasca. “Yes, we are excited to have a new release,” he said. “But it’s going to take us a while to learn how to make good wine out of a new grape.”
He cited Marquette, the red wine grape that was the university’s last release.
“That was 10 years ago, and we’re just now getting to the point of real quality Marquette [wine].”
Minnesota has seen rapid growth in its wine industry, particularly in the past decade. There are about 70 licensed wineries in the state, with 60 operational, according to Geary. As recently as 2000, there were only about 10.
“A lot of it has to do with being able to grow good grapes and produce quality wine,” he said. “I won’t lie to you — that wasn’t always the case. High-quality wine creates more demand.” Many local producers are now turning out award-winning wines, and the wine grapes developed by the U have been big contributors to the industry’s growth and quality improvement.
“Without the stuff the U developed, I don’t think there’d be a lot of wineries in Minnesota,” said Winter, whose nursery is one of the three licensed to sell Itasca vines. (The other two are located in Vermont and New York.)
Winter used to grow corn and soybeans, like his father before him. But in 2000, with crop prices dipping, he planted some grapevines to diversify. “One thing led to another,” he said.
His son joined him tending the vines, and his daughter developed an interest in winemaking. Now the family manages a vineyard of almost 15 acres. “Grapes are a lot more fun — and a lot more work,” he said.
When Winter transitioned into the grape-growing business, there were only about a half dozen wineries in the state, he said. “Now there are more than I can keep up with,” including three others in the Janesville area alone.
A 1976 law allowing farms to operate wineries and sell directly to consumers also helped kick-start the state’s wine business, according to Geary. “That created a new agritourism industry,” he said, allowing wine afficionados to not just buy locally made wine but to have “a vineyard experience.”
At Winter’s Indian Island Winery, for example, there’s now a tasting room with a restaurant, live music on weekends and special events from weddings to “paint-and-sip” classes.
Winter has continued to expand his offerings “so my kids have a future out here on the farm, and hopefully the grandkids someday, too.”