Canon River  Winery and vineyard in the Sogn Valley, Goodhue County, Minnesota.

MN Impact: From grape to wine—helping Northern wineries succeed

May 27, 2020

Issue

Everybody knows Napa and Sonoma, but what about the Upper Mississippi River Valley or Alexandria Lakes? Since the 1970s, cold climate grape growers and winemakers have been slowly but surely making a name for themselves and along the way have built a cold-climate wine industry worth an estimated $400 million ($80.3 million in MN). But, because of the young age of cold-hardy grapes cultivars, northern winemakers require guidance on how to get the best results from their grapes.  

What has been done

The U of M Grape Breeding and Enology project blends variety development and winemaking expertise. On the enology side of the project 50-150 experimental wines from test cultivars are developed each year. The project aims to benefit the regional wine industry by determining the optimum processing methods for both new and existing cold-hardy grape cultivars, and providing local support for the analytical, technical, and educational needs of the Minnesota wine industry. The University hosts regular winemaker roundtables where practitioners meet and evaluate each other’s wines, learn about production practices, and build a community of practice.

In addition, researchers in the project are interested in characterizing the unique components of new cultivars introduced to the industry. Due to their interspecific ancestry, U of M cultivars have different color, tannin structure, and flavor compounds than traditional wine grapes that affect the finished wine. The better these unique matrices are understood, the easier it is for growers and winemakers to produce high-quality wine.

Results

Today, there are over 80 wineries in Minnesota and the industry supports about 10,500 jobs. In 2019, 22 workshops or field days supported 533 grape growers and others to learn about best practices in managing grape growing, including disease and pest management, supporting cold hardy grapes, and troubleshooting grapevine issues. In addition, U of M experts conducted a sensory analysis at the Cold Climate Grape Conference in 2017 and 2018 with experimental ‘Itasca’ wines (made with the new Itasca grape, which is about 30 percent lower in total acidity than Frontenac gris) to provide some initial insight to winemakers making ‘Itasca’ wines for the first time. Sensory panelists preferred wines without Malolactic fermentation (MLF), with Yeast V116 and no MLF, no skin contact for a “less sour” wine, and cold treatment at 45°F to increase tannins and/or raise pH.

By providing the industry with the latest advances in propagation, hybridization, cultivation and winemaking, U of M researchers and extension specialists are ensuring the introduction of vines with superior performance in both vineyard and winery and helping guarantee the continued growth of the wine industry throughout MN and the world.