Photos by Jason DeRusha
Wandering through the oak barrel room at Ridge Winery in Sonoma County, California, the word “Minnesota” was the last thing I expected to see on a barrel. Yet, there it was on barrel after barrel.
Turns out Ridge (maker of some of my absolute favorite Zinfandel wine in the world) is in love with Minnesota oak. Much of it is coming from southern Minnesota, around the town of Caledonia and the lumber mill of Staggemeyer Stave (check out this cool story we did on them in 2013 at WCCO).
Like a lot of things in our cooler climate, it takes work for Minnesota oak to grow. The trees grow slowly, the wood rings are tighter, and for whatever reason, many winemakers have decided that’s perfect for them.
Inside Ridge, I saw barrels from Kelvin Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky, and coopers from the Leroi Cooperage in Healdsburg, California. Most were stamped with “Minnesota” on them. My tour guide told me that 60 percent of the new barrels Ridge buys are made with Minnesota oak. He let us taste some wine right out of the barrel that had been sitting for a couple of months, and you could taste what the winemaker was going for. Well, you could taste what they were not going for: a woodsy flavor.
Frankly, there wasn’t much there besides the incredible fruit grown in the Lytton Springs vineyard. After 12 months of aging, I’m told there are flavor notes from Minnesota wood, maybe a mellow sweetness or a slight nutty note. But Minnesota oak tends to provide a smoother finish than French oak. Some winemakers think the tight rings lead to less wine evaporating over time, so it’s easier to leave the wine in the barrel longer.
Who knows. Minnesota oak is very popular around the world—the French are even using it for pinot noir aging! Either way, it’s cool to know that even if you don’t want to be drinking a Minnesota wine, you can still get a taste of Minnesota in a lot of great quality wines.