Cold Climate Grapes
Most wine drinkers are familiar with varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling – all of which grow under a multitude of conditions as long as the winters don’t get too cold. Despite the fact that the Twin Cities are at approximately the same line of latitude as Bordeaux, famous wine regions like Bordeaux do not experience winters with temperatures consistently below zero degrees fahrenheit. At these temperatures, the vines of European varieties would perish.
But Native American grape varieties found in the northern states do survive our brutal winters. So in Minnesota, we cross-breed the native varieties with European ones to produce grapes that not only survive the winters, but taste good as well. The names of these hybrids are what you’ll find on the wine labels in Minnesota and numerous other cold climate regions.
Grape growing and winemaking has been a part of just about every state’s history starting with the European early settlers. In the northern states, European grape varieties never fared well. It wasn’t until the 1970s that successes from notable Wisconsin grape breeder Elmer Swenson and the University of Minnesota showed that cold climate grape growing and winemaking could be a viable industry. In 1976 the MN Grape Growers Association was formed. Two years later, the first vineyard exclusively growing cold hardy grapes was established.
The Minnesota Legislature soon recognized this potential and in 1985, they directed the University of Minnesota to research grape growing and wine production in cold climates. In 1996, the University released Frontenac, its first truly cold hardy grape variety, which has since been followed by numerous others, including La Crescent and Marquette.
Over the years, the University of Minnesota has been recognized for having one of the top wine grape research programs in the United States. The industry’s contribution to the economy surpassed $40 million in 2011 and has continued to grow (even through the cold winters) ever since.
There are currently 77 registered wine producers and blenders in the state of Minnesota. The number of wine products in the state has nearly doubled over the past 5 years and is expected to continue to grow.