U, vineyards develop tastier Minnesota wine

Whether it’s full-bodied, smoldering and fleshy, or has a fragrant and aristocratic nose, wine is as complex as it is difficult to perfect.

Although usually associated with the mild fertile climates of France and California, University and state wineries are using cross-breeding techniques to defy nature and create an industry.

A variety of grape native to Minnesota, Vitis riparia, can survive extremely low temperatures, horticultural science professor Gary Gardner said.

“But it tastes horrible,” he said. “(The wine) would taste very bitter and very medicinal.”

Hoping to create a more flavorful wine, the horticultural department began breeding the bitter, hearty grape with tastier varieties in the mid-1980s, said Anna Katherine Mansfield, who leads the project.

The process was time-consuming because the vines take three years to grow mature grapes, said Mansfield, a senior research fellow in the University’s horticultural science department.

“Then you have to wait 10 or 20 years until you know if it will consistently make good wine,” she said.

The University successfully created two hybrid varieties that have proven to be “cold-hardy,” said viticulturist Peter Hemstad at the University’s 10-acre Horticultural Research Center.

The grape called Frontenac, which became available in 1996, makes red wines, while LaCrescent, which became available in 2002, makes white wines, he said. The two can be grown readily without using any special techniques, he said.

The new varieties have changed the popular conception that grapes cannot survive cold winters, Hemstad said.

Although some grapes traditionally grown in milder climates might survive a Minnesota winter, they must be buried in a labor-intensive process, Hemstad said.

The new grape varieties “should really be a shot in the arm for the wine industry,” he said.

Without the new varieties created by the University, Minnesota winemakers would be at an economic disadvantage when compared to countries like France, he said.

Chad Brown, winemaker and operations director for the largest vineyard in the state, Carlos Creek Winery in Alexandria, Minn., said Minnesota wine is a growing industry.

“There are certain aspects of the climate that are beneficial for growing grapes,” Brown said.

The large temperature difference between night and day helps create good maturation conditions for grapes in Minnesota, he said.

“The temperature-swing boosts acids and flavors in the grape – both of which are good characteristics,” he said.

But growing wine in the Midwest is not without its problems.

“Deer eat new growth green buds, and we can lose up to 5 to 10 percent that way,” Brown said.

Brown said vineyards can lose another 5 to 10 percent through “winter kill.”

The cold winters also help keep pest populations manageable, he said.

“We over-plant, so we don’t have to use any pesticides,” he said.

The fruits used must be sound, but a little bit of damage won’t hurt the wine, he said.

“(Fruit) doesn’t have to be supermarket pretty to still make good wine,” Brown said.

Gardner and Mansfield also co-teach “Vines and Wines,” a biology class in the College of Liberal Arts. The class focuses on enology – the study of wine – and viticulture – the growth of grapes, Gardner said.

Students must be at least 21 years old to enroll in the course, which focuses on biology and offers wine tasting.

Mansfield said wine’s scent is more important than its flavor.

A person can only taste sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, which means meaty, she said. But a person can smell hundreds of different scents, she said.

“You stick your nose right in the glass so you get all of the volatiles, or smell components, released from the wine,” she said. “Wine is incredibly complex. There are hundreds of compounds that interact with each other.”