The very best in cold climate wine was sipped, spit and judged in St. Paul on Tuesday. The results are in for the 2015 International Cold Climate Wine Competition, and The Growler was there to taste it all. Here’s all you need to know:
2015 Winners and Standouts
MN Governor’s Cup (Best MN Wine) and Best White Wine: Three Oak Winery 2014 Frontenac Gris (Albert Lea, Minnesota)
Three Oak Winery is a new operation in Albert Lea, and this is the first year they submitted wines to the ICCWC. Their frontenac gris, while technically a white wine, has a decidedly pinkish hue since the frontenac gris is a grayish grape that produces rosy-colored wine when the juice is left in contact with the skins.
“We’re just shocked and overwhelmed,” says Jay Enderson, Three Oak owner and winemaker. “We heard [the frontenac gris] was pretty good from a few people, but you never know for sure.” 2014 was a bad growing year, and only Three Oak’s second year of producing commercial wines. Though Jay could only scrounge up enough grapes for about 600 bottles of the 2014 frontenac gris, he hopes to expand the 2015 vintage to ten different wines.
A tasting room is next on the agenda for the young winery, which until now has been focused on perfecting the product. “When we started planting five years ago, the first goal was to make quality wines,” Jay explains. “In my experience, if you start with quality, then rest of the business will follow from that.”
Best Red Wine: Lincoln Peak Vineyard 2013 Marquette (New Haven, Vermont)
Good local alternative: Parley Lake Winery (Waconia, Minn.) also scored a Double Gold for their 2013 Marquette Limited Edition.
Best Rosé: Shelburne Vineyard 2014 Whimsey Meadow Rosé (Shelburne,Vermont)
This was a gorgeous rosé – fruity but balanced, acidity perfectly in check.
Best Fortified Wine: Millner Heritage Vineyard & Winery Müllner Nice (Kimball, Minnesota)
Also check out the Double Gold-winning Frontenac Gris Ice Wine from Cold Country Vines & Wines (Kewaunee, Wisconsin)
Cold Climate Wine: A Primer
It’s too cold to cultivate European grape varieties in much of the northern United States. Cold climate wine is the result of almost 150 years of Midwest grape breeding, creating hybrids of traditional wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) with grape species native to North America (V. riparia, V. labrusca, and others). Many of the most popular cold climate grape varieties – including marquette, frontenac, frontenac gris, and la crescent – were first developed by the University of Minnesota.
How are Cold Climate Wine Grapes Different?
In general, cold climate grapes have fewer tannins and a higher ratio of sugar to acid than V. vinifera grapes like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. The sugar content makes them ideal for off-dry or sweet wines, which the Midwestern palate seems to prefer anyway. Dry wines remain more challenging for cold climate grapes. Dry whites, especially, have a ways to go.
2014: A Poor Year for Local Wine Grapes
The polar vortex took Minnesota grape growers for a ride last year. Warm weather in the early spring caused vines to bud early, then late spring frosts stunted their growth. The total harvest was hardly half of previous years.
Last Year’s Trends
Our takeaway from the 2014 competition: dry white wines were improving, off-dry la crescent remained the state’s best white grape and style, and the frontenac grape was faring better in regular red wine (as opposed to fortified and rosé applications, to which it has been better suited thus far).
The state of Vermont continues its dominance in cold climate red wines, taking Best Red in the last five competitions. Marquette, specifically, has found a natural home in the Green Mountains.
Frontenac gris showed better than la crescent for white wines this year. The acid balance in frontenac gris was more nuanced, and skin-contact frontenac gris (like Three Oak’s grand champion) is emerging as a style that more local vintners should adopt.