Archive for the ‘Minnesota Wine’ Category

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.

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Here are a few jumbled thoughts – I think all the pushing, digging and shoveling this weekend just wore me out.  I feel more deflated than the Metrodome.

It’s called Petit, but it’s not small: Looking for a big red blend to warm up with?  Get to Surdyk’s and pick up the 2007 Bogle Phantom [$15.99 on sale, usually $19.99].  A blend of Petit Sirah, Old Vine Zinfandel and Old Vine Mourvedre, it has a dusty currant and violet nose and a super smooth, silky and powerful body with dark blueberry and some vegetal flavors just barely peeking through.  The tannin is heavy but luscious.  This is a crowd pleaser – and at 14.5% ABV it’ll warm you to the core.

A good red from MN?: One of my biggest wine goals for the year was to seek out locally made wines on a more regular basis.  I usually opt for the whites, because cold-climate red wines are much more stylistically different from those made from European red grapes.  I like to think that cold climate red wines taste clean, in that they’re usually a lighter, leaner expression of grape flavor.  Though people who hate local wines because of this style would probably term it hollow. So I’m always thrilled when I find a new local red that I can heartily recommend to those who prefer both styles.  The 2007 Northern Vineyards St. Croix Reserve is a wine with fantastic depth and flavor for being MN-WI grown.  It’s medium-full bodied, a little peppery, and quite dry.   Make sure to open and decant this for an hour – it smells and tastes like a Ziploc bag right after uncorking, but opens up beautifully after that.  Take a trip to Stillwater and check the place out – nice little tasting room, friendly staff, and the St. Croix Reserve is currently on sale for $14.95.

‘Inn’?  Keeper:  Made my first visit to The Inn recently.  The place just looks like a winter bar – from the wooden-crate bar backing and bookshelves to the dim lighting and mustachioed bar staff, it’s the kind of place I’d want to wind down in after running a dogsled race.  On DeRusha’s advice, I had the Captain Wentworth which is pretty much the best Manhattan you’ll ever have, and though it was maybe a bit heavy on the walnut bitters, it was delicious.  What really warmed me up [though it was still a balmy 30 degrees out] was a sample of a Hard Cider with Tequila that were being passed around the bar – classically spicy, but the tequila added a nice floral/earthy component that was incredibly tasty.  I didn’t even think to ask if I could get a mug of it, which is probably for the better since I don’t think I would have stopped at one.

Vin Brule: It’s about this time of year I start getting the craving for Mulled Wine.  One of my favorite things about Italy around Christmastime is street vendors selling little mugs of it for about 2 Euro.  I was in Venice this time two years ago – it was cold, rainy and cloudy all week.  My respite was in a Piazza just north of the Ponte dell’Accademia that was decked out like a mini Christmas village.  I’d get a cup of mulled wine and a sfogliatina, sit back and watch the piazza – pigeons swarming, teenagers loitering, tourists photographing, and the marvel of tall Italian women deftly navigating the uneven cobblestone in their five-inch stilettos.  I really like Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit version, though I might substitute brandy for vodka.

That’s all for now – time to find my Ugly Sweater.   

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“We call that a good party when we spill wine on the ceiling” he says, recounting wine bottling efforts gone awry.  Fresh off his first blue ribbon win at the Minnesota State Fair, U of M Med Student Dean Langenfeld and his wife Robbie took some time over a few glasses of Amarone [while beginning fermentation on a batch of Amarone] in their South Minneapolis home to discuss amateur winemaking and his State Fair victory.

“My set up?” he laughs “I’ll show you my kitchen.”  His required equipment: a 5-gallon primary fermenter [plastic bucket] with an air-lock bubble stopper, a similarly sized carboy, a siphon and a Portuguese floor corker.  “Oh, and I have a piece of poly pipe to stir the wine while it’s in the carboy.  Robbie got me a kit from one of those Discovery or Science Channel stores about 10 years ago. It made two or two and a half gallons of wine, you didn’t need any other equipment than what they sent you.  It was made in a sturdy plastic bag.  It was a Chardonnay, it was okay, but it was a little watery.”  Since then they’ve been buying kits from Northern Brewer or Midwest Supplies, entering their wares in the Minnesota State Fair for the past three years.  He’s won 5 ribbons for 9 bottles entered, finally getting a top prize this year.

“[The blue ribbon] was for the Rosé.  I entered it last year and they didn’t like it – they didn’t give me anything.  So I reentered it this year and got the blue ribbon.  This was their commentary on the Rosé last year, so it will be interesting to compare [reading judges’ notes] ‘Has unusual apple essences.’ That’s it. [laughing]  The state fair, they have a little sweet tooth.  They seem to like the German style…Of the four ribbons for whites this year, two were Gewürztraminer and one was a Riesling.”  Dean is currently mulling these options for the white he’ll enter next year.

His winning Rosé was a blend of White Merlot and Symphony.  My tasting notes – it had a really pretty copper-salmon color to it, with strawberries on the nose, just off-dry.  Same kind of sweet berry on the sip, not much acidity, a little watery, but very light and berry-filled.  I haven’t tasted much homemade wine but I found it a very worthy effort.

His tips for other amateur winemakers: don’t worry about the ‘integrity’ of the finished product or to try to be too professional about the process.  “I remember trying to use a hygrometer to measure the sugar content, that was dumb.  I don’t have any control over the sugar content, or the alcohol content at the end.  So who cares?  Why risk contaminating it?”  Dean’s preferred method of quality control: Tasting.  “People say ‘You’re making wine’ it has to be from grape juice!’  Look, I’m making it from kits, how pure can it be?  The goal is to make it taste good.  I’m after the final product, not the art of making it.  So, I can buy these organic fruit juices… if I’m making a Gewürztraminer that usually has apricot notes, instead of when I have to add a gallon of water, I’ll add [a mixture of] apricot juice and water.  It adds a little more sugar, a little higher alcohol content, and a little more flavor.”

As we talked, he mixed up his new batch of Amarone – intrigued by the inclusion of corn sugar in the kit, and laughing at the bag of sawdust-like mixture that will impart oak flavor.  Home winemaking is much easier than home brewing, and it’s a great hobby for those constantly on the go.  “It’s great for a medical student,” he says, “If you get busy or procrastinate…it rarely goes wrong.  It’s more likely to go wrong if you take a step too fast.”

Hopefully I can go back when the Amarone is ready to bottle.  Langenfeld’s enthusiasm makes me want to get going on my own home booze project – more on that in the weeks to come.

[Thanks to Sarah Jane Walter for the terrific photos – she’s available for photography and graphic design work – check out sarahjanedesigns.net]

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I can’t believe I’ve been tending to this forum for a few months now, whilst completely ignoring wines from my own backyard.  While making no claims about the prowess of our wines on a national scale, Minnesota grows some fine vino, thanks to a state university committed to engineering cold hardy grapes.  Those and other advances helped what was an almost non-existant industry in 1990 grow to over 600 vineyards across the state with 1,000+ total acres under vine.  With such an inspiring local produce movement really having taken hold, G Sheaves pledges to you renewed effort to focus on Minnesota wines and wineries commencing immediately.  Today, a great selection from Minnesota’s oldest winery.

Seyval Blanc is a hybrid grape developed in France during WWI.  It’s widely grown in England, New York’s Finger Lakes region, and all along the eastern seaboard from Virginia to Maine, as well as in Canada where it can make nice sparkling wine.  As a cold-resistant variety, it is widely planted all over the upper Midwest.  It takes well to oak aging as well as malolactic fermentation, though many producers choose not to do the malo so as to retain the grape’s high natural acidic flavors.  Chardonnay is also a common blending partner.  It tends to produce dry and minerally wines with fresh citrus flavors, somewhat like heavier Loire Valley Sauvignon Blancs, though much Canadian Seyval Blanc is destined for dessert wines, especially Icewine.

The 2009 Alexis Bailly Seyval Blanc [$14 at the Cork Dork Wine Co] is the premium white wine of the Alexis Bailly Vineyard, located just south of Hastings.  It has a wet straw color with a wonderful nose of sweet melon.  The sip starts with juicy bright grapefruit citrus, with a somewhat viscous texture – like a lighter Gewurtztraminer but with nice acidity.  Medium bodied, the finish is dry with those aforementioned minerals that sit on your tongue.  It’s just a well-rounded, juicy, clean flavor.  I can’t imagine every MN wine I taste this year will be this good [in fact, I remember a few at the Food & Wine Expo that were pretty nasty] but this is a pretty darn good start.

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