This is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. Or many.
A new grape with a decidedly Minnesota name is delighting local growers and vintners and starting to grab the attention of wine enthusiasts.
Called the Itasca, it is being hailed as at least a “breakthrough” and more likely a “game changer” for the state’s still-nascent wine industry. One winemaker even likened the 2017 University of Minnesota release to what the research center achieved with Honeycrisp and Zestar apples.
“What the U did with the apples, they’re there with Itasca,” said Greg Peterson, owner and winemaker of Wild Oaks Ranch in Lakeville.
While grape growers gush, consumers are just now beginning to enjoy the fruits of the university’s labors. The first commercial vines were planted in 2017, and it takes at least three years for the grapes to be viable for winemaking. The youthful 2019 Itascas have proven hugely popular at tasting rooms.
“We sold more Itasca in three months than any other wine over a year’s time,” said Aaron Schram, owner of Schram Vineyards in Waconia.
While Schram’s tasty 2019 Itasca is available at the vineyard’s tasting room, several other local wineries have already sold out of their 2019s, including Indian Island, Rustic Roots, Round Lake and Saint Croix. Wild Oak Ranch’s version, Thin Blue Line, is on shelves at Lakeville municipal liquor stores, and a few Haskell’s locations will carry it soon. Chankaska Creek, one of the state’s best wineries, will make its rich rendition available online in November, after club members get first dibs.
Consumers have enjoyed white grapes developed by the U, such as La Crescent and Frontenac Gris, for the better part of this century. But those hybrids tend to be sweet and often overly perfumey. What makes the Itasca the game-changer? In a word, acid. Itasca’s lower natural acidity makes it more akin to European grapes like sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio.
According to the U, ripe Itasca grapes come in at 8.54 grams per liter of total acidity, while Frontenac Gris averages 13.8 and La Crescent 12.6. Varieties with higher acidities require modifications after being picked and crushed.
Put simply, “When the acid is substantially lower, winemakers don’t have to fight it,” said Peter Hemstad, co-owner and winemaker at Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater.
Decade-plus in the making
If anyone should know about the Itasca, it’s Hemstad, who was there for the grape’s genesis in 2002. The U’s Horticultural Research Center in Victoria, where Hemstad worked as a grape breeder, attempted about 35 hybrid crossings a year back then (it’s closer to 100 now).
The grapes usually have in their lineage vitis vinifera, the species common in Europe, and vitis riparia, North American grapes that provide cold-hardiness but are massively acidic. (The parents of the grape that became Itasca were Frontenac Gris and MN1234, both of which have sundry vinifera varieties in their ancestries.)
When developing a new grape, the first goal is disease resistance, especially from mildew; Hemstad said at least half the hybrids are discarded because of that. Winter hardiness is naturally a crucial factor, and of course at a certain point “you want to taste them to figure out if they’re going to make a good wine.”
Still, he cautioned, “you can never get too excited in the first years.” Instead, the research center grows it for several years “to have the confidence that you’ve seen all their problems.”
During that stretch more than a decade ago, Hemstad said Itasca was a star throughout the process, and in 2009 he and his cohorts were ready to peg it as “an elite seedling.”
Since growers are the U’s primary clientele, how a grape performs is paramount. Hemstad said Itasca proved to be “such a standout vine, very, very healthy, easy to train, disease-resistant.” And then during the polar vortex of 2014, it “came through with flying colors,” surviving the hard freezes better than any of the university’s other hybrid grapes.
“It just wants to grow and grow,” says Steve Smith, owner of Brickhaven Vineyards and Winery. That prompted him to buy 12,500 vines for his property just south of Prior Lake and to state unequivocally: “It changed my world.”
Chankaska Creek winemaker John Taylor also has been impressed. “It’s very vigorous,” he said of the Itasca, “and thrives in poorer soils; we’re growing it next to a ditch. It ripens early, ripens very similarly to vinifera.”
Analogies are a tough go
All of which wouldn’t matter if the wines didn’t pass the taste test.
“It’s got a very mild, smooth flavor, great fruit, no pucker factor,” Peterson said. “It’s really distinctive.” He added that among his customers, there’s no consensus in comparing it to other grapes — except that they’re inevitably from the vinifera family.
When Taylor first tried Itasca, “I thought Albariño, clean, crisp, good acidity, solid minerality.” But the grapes grown at the winery near Kasota, Minn., ended up reminding him more of heartier Rhône varieties such as Roussanne and Marsanne.
As with many grapes, where they are grown and how they are treated in the cellar — Taylor, for example, uses older oak barrels instead of the more common steel tanks — can make a difference in what Itasca evokes.
So do individual palates. For me, the Chankaska Creek was indeed reminiscent of a Rhône white blend, tropical and lush with a delightfully dry finish, while the brisk, citrusy Schram elements were more like a sauvignon blanc. A bottle made from the U’s older, experimental vines screamed chenin blanc with its sunny, peachy presence.
But comparisons are fruitless: Itasca is distinctive enough to stand on its own.
“I think it’s a risk to say this is going to be like something,” said Matt Clark, assistant professor of grape breeding and enology in the U’s Department of Horticultural Science. “I don’t feel like we’ve landed on what will be the style. I do think Itasca has a chance to be accessible in what consumers want and successful for growers.”
What’s in a name?
Clark also is pleased with the nomenclature. “Itasca is a place that everyone knows,” he said, “and it’s easy to remember.”
That’s what Hemstad had in mind when he suggested the name. “Itasca is a real gem of Minnesota,” said Hemstad, who spent a summer at Itasca State Park as a botany student. “It’s easy to pronounce and doesn’t have any silent letters.”
Now the key will be to make more of it, a virtual certainty as the vines mature and become more prolific and as more cuttings are sold. Still, Itasca must overcome the stigma often attached to cold-climate grapes, especially as restaurants resurface, given how food-friendly the variety is.
“We’re trying to bring Minnesota wine to a grander stage,” Schram said. “I kind of feel like we’re in this boon now from 10 years ago. The growing, the science, the winemaker part — it’s all better.
“The next evolution for me is to bring Itasca to liquor stores and restaurants, introduce it to high-end restaurants as a whole new thing,” Schram said. “I think it will be a game-changer where people go into a restaurant and see Itasca and go ‘wow.’ ”
Or as Chankaska’s Taylor, a West Coast transplant, puts it: “As we build more history, Itasca is going to help put cold-climate grapes on the world stage.”
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.