In the cellar room at Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery, just outside Kasota, Minnesota, there are three A-frame racks full of wine bottles. This is where sparkling wine gets riddled—and no, that doesn’t mean it gets asked trivia questions. Riddling is how the bottle-fermented wine gently loses the dead yeasts that have created its bubbles. The bottles are turned and tilted, ever so slightly, over the course of many weeks, so the sediment collects in the neck of the bottle before being expelled.
“Just set these up yesterday,” says Chankaska’s assistant winemaker Josie Boyle. “And another one set up today. And I’ll be down here riddling away every day.” This is the traditional way of making a sparkling wine, the slow, methodical way—what the French would call méthode champenoise. It’s the kind of detailed work that she became accustomed to in a previous life. The Stillwater, Minnesota, native discovered winemaking in Iowa, where she was working as a librarian.
“It was fine, but boring. It was a desk job,” she recalls. “I found some winemaking classes at a community college, so I started taking those, discovered I really liked it, and I love traveling. After a year or two, I quit my job and moved to New Zealand and worked a harvest there.”
Eventually she secured a job at L. Mawby Vineyards, a winery on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula north of Traverse City, which has become highly regarded for its bubbly. That’s where she fell in love with sparkling wine, a love she’s brought back to her home state. She’ll produce 300 cases of traditional sparkling wine this year, the second year of méthode champenoise production at Chankaska Creek.
As we discuss how Minnesota’s cold-hardy wine varieties are well suited to sparkling wine (high acid grapes are great for aging) we’re joined by head winemaker Mike Drash. He’s from Tennessee, but he’s lost his southern drawl if he ever had one. Perhaps it slipped away over 22 years of winemaking in California.
“It’s a lot harder to make wine here. We’d say in Northern California ‘Oh, our vines struggle’. Yeah, just like you struggle on the beach in Malibu,” Drash laughs, while pointing out it isn’t exactly easy to make wine there, either. “But I always wanted to find somewhere other than California to make great wine.” His wife is originally from Wisconsin and about three years ago they began to entertain the idea of moving back to the Midwest.
“When my wife saw the ad [for the position at Chankaska], I thought, ‘They make wine in Minnesota?’ And I’m in the wine business!” he recalls. “It’s not an easy perception to change. But once people come here and they see the grounds, you could drop this in Italy, California, France, anywhere, and it would fit right in.”
It’s true—the grounds at Chankaska are idyllic. We stroll up against their 12 acres, planted with 11 grape varieties, amidst the droning of insects from the trees that shade the small peninsula. The lot was originally homesteaded in the 1860s, along the Shanaska Creek that drains Lake Washington into the Minnesota River. Both the creek and the winery come from a Dakota word that means “forest-enclosed.”
The gently rolling vineyards are sporting grapes about midway through veraison—the point in the growing cycle when the fruits start to soften and change color. Drash estimates about six or seven weeks after the midpoint of veraison the grapes will be ready. That means these grapes are tracking for harvest in early-to-mid September.
“The growing season is about 30 percent shorter than it is in California, about 110 days from bud break to picking,” he says. “And of course we could get a frost on May 15th, and then again on October 1st. You don’t have to worry about that in Northern California.” In fact, several vineyards in southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin lost portions of their crop thanks to a mid-May frost this year. Drash estimates about 10–20% of this year’s fruit was lost at Chankaska.
“The window for getting things ripe without them being frosted or frozen is small,” he says. “Also insects, we had a yellow jacket infestation all over the state last year. They’d just poke the grapes and move on and they’d just rot.”
Despite these challenges, Drash and Boyle are making some of the best wine in Minnesota. They were awarded Best Minnesota Winery by the Star Tribune in 2015, as well as taking home the Governor’s Cup, given to the best Minnesota wine, at the 2016 International Cold Climate Wine Competition for their 2015 La Crescent.
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