On my never ending quest to find good Minnesota wine, I’m often faced with a haunting question. When I taste a wine I like, I can’t help but think “Is this wine good for being Minnesota-made? Or is it an objectively good wine?” I like to think they are objectively good, but they are often so stylistically different from European-grape wines that I can’t help but wonder if go easy on them. People have even read my articles here and on Heavy Table and asked me, “OK, are they actually good wines? Or are you punching them up just because they’re local?”
So when Jason Johnson from MN Wine Club came to me with his newest shipment, I figured there would be no better time for a little experiment. [MN Wine Club packages six MN wines, once a quarter, for $109. Sign up before June 11th to get the following bottles.] I figured I’d get my wino friends together, brown-bag the wines, not say a thing about the bottles and ask for an honest, objective review of each. In sum, we were pleasantly surprised. Here are our thoughts:
Northern Vineyards “White” (Stillwater)
I mentioned this bottle in my article on the La Crescent grape at Heavy Table. It’s a stainless steel fermented mix of MN and WI-grown La Crescent and other blending grapes. It is Northern’s most popular bottle, and as well it should be. I found it to be a clean tasting, easy to appreciate, light and fun wine – and all of my tasters confirmed my original perception. Consensus notes: Fruity, pineapple, medium sweetness, zesty, light body, summery, floral and refreshing. It was the highest rated wine in the tasting. Try this bottle immediately – it’s perfect in the blazing heat.
Indian Island Winery Brianna (Janesville)
Brianna is not a grape I’m much familiar with, and my panel of tasters didn’t quite know what to make of this one either. A common response was that the sweetness tasted “thick”, especially compared to the “White”. Some found it pleasant, akin to honey. Some found it cloying and distracting. But those perceptions seemed to line up with their individual tolerances for sweetness in wine. Other notes: Riesling-like, funky, straightforward sweetness, medium body. It was the lowest rated of the five.
St. Croix Vineyards Summer Red (Stillwater)
Served slightly chilled, this is a secret blend of red grapes made into a super light, ultra fruity sipping wine. Gobs of raspberries, medium bodied, slightly sweet, very little noticeable tannin, with a slightly tart finish. Other comments: certainly refreshing, ruby red, girly, summer brunch wine. Fans of standard Beaujolais (and Beaujolais Nouveau) will be right at home with this one. And this is definitely one for the heat! I’m typing this article in my sweltering third-floor bedroom. Even left over and vac-packed, this wine is hitting the spot, big time.
Northern Vineyards “Red” (Stillwater)
This wine is made from Sabrevois grapes, vinified semi-dry in stainless steel. The wine was considered by all to have a “Welch’s” flavor profile – though that was not meant to be entirely derisive. Committed white wine drinkers on the panel said it was their favorite of the reds. Notes: Deep, sangria-like, jammy, violet, candied, grape Jolly Rancher.
This wine is a shining example of an awful tension I find in cold-climate wines. On the one hand, these wines sell. Many cold-climate wineries wouldn’t be able to stay in business without sweet reds to compete for the Boone’s Farm, Mogen David, and white blush drinkers (of which there is an incredible amount). Unfortunately, staunch red wine drinkers and those “in the know” (read: critics with blinding pretention) will taste these wines, hate them, choose not to try any more, and deem them representative of all cold-climate wines.
Maybe overcoming negative perception should be a topic of discussion at the next MGGA meeting? There’s not much of a middle ground with this type of wine. You’ll either love it or hate it.
Indian Island Winery Marquette (Janesville)
Now here’s a wine that’ll knock those haters down a peg. I’ve remained very skeptical about the quality of Minnesota red wines for quite some time. But I first tasted this Marquette at the Minnesota Grape Growers’ Association convention, and upon re-tasting I can confirm: This is one of the best MN reds currently on the market. It also recently won Best Red Wine at the 2010 International Cold Climate Wine Competition, so the industry seems to agree.
It’s a tawny-colored wine, with a dusty and soft nose of red berries. The sip is velvety, with some backbone, restrained and (dare I say) elegant. It bears shocking similarity to a young, Merlot-heavy Bordeaux. The label says semi-dry, but there’s very little, if any, palpable sugar-like sweetness to this wine. Notes: blueberries, luscious, spice component, complex, brandy-like, acidity on the finish, yum, a must-try.
It should be said that this wine had detractors. They were, however, self-professed white wine drinkers, who clearly preferred the other two reds based on sweetness.
We did not taste the final wine in the shipment, the Alexis Bailly Rose Noir. Though I have tasted that one before: it’s a fresh and light Rose, much in the vein of the Summer Red, that will nicely complement chicken on the grill. I’ve got to give Jason some serious kudos (and not just because he gave me five bottles of wine, but yeah, kudos for that too.) He’s put together a set of summertime wines that are wildly different from one another. So a bottle or two may not be 100% your speed. But the point (not only in MN wines, but wines in general) is to taste enough to figure out what you like, and why you like it. Everyone on the panel found something to enjoy, and all for different reasons. It’s hard to be fearless buying one bottle at a time, so MN Wine Club will help to ease you in. Taste them all with a group of people. Discuss, learn and enjoy.