Lake Itasca in northwestern Minnesota is known as the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi River. Now, many Minnesota vineyards, researchers, and wine lovers say the Itasca grape is also the start of something great: wine made from its cultivar.
The white wine grape variety developed by the University of Minnesota and publicly released in 2017 is getting all the buzz because of its hardiness to cold and low acidic qualities. This harvest could be the proving point for the Itasca grape now emerging in its fifth season. Move over West Coast wines, say some growers and winemakers; the Midwest may have a new favorite showing up in tasting rooms, on store shelves, and in fine dining restaurants over the next few years.
First, some quick history on the grape and Midwest wines. Matthew Clark is an associate professor in the department of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota and also the director of research at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. He recently moved up from grape breeder to fruit breeder, becoming one of the U’s leading authorities on the Itasca grape. He explains that grapes have been grown in Minnesota since European and
other settlers moved here in the mid-19th century. “However, the varieties weren’t very well adapted to Minnesota harsh winters,” he says.
Grape breeding started at the University of Minnesota in 1908 and exploded when the program released cold-hardy grapes, such as the Frontenac in the late 1990s, then the La Crescent and Marquette grapes in the early 2000s. An economic report shows Midwest grape and wine production, along with the tourism dollars spent at area vineyards for wine tastings, weddings, and events, contributed over $80 million to the state economy in 2016, much less than California’s $73 billion last year. Still, Clark says about 200,000 Itasca plants have been sold, with an estimated value of $2.5 million for grape production
and $18.8 million in wine.
A few years ago, the U may have hit liquid gold with the Itasca grape. Nearly 20 Minnesota wineries have started using it. For reference, 55 state vineyards and wineries are registered with the Minnesota Grape Growers Association.
Regular wine drinkers likely recognize some of those other cold-hardy varieties and know the wines made from them taste … different … from those out of West Coast wine regions like Napa, Sonoma, and Willamette counties. Midwest wines were known for their sweet—sometimes cloying—qualities. Bred to withstand the winters, those grapes had a high sugar content with equally high acidity. But the Itasca grape produces a drier white wine, similar to a Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc.
“This is a serious grape because of the low acidity,” says Aaron Schram, owner of Schram Vineyards Winery & Brewery in Waconia, currently the largest producer of wines made with the Itasca grape. Schram is excited about the possibilities the grape offers.
Kelsey Long is the marketing coordinator of Minnesota’s second-largest winery in Minnesota, Chankaska Creek Ranch, Winery & Distillery in Kasota. The winery grows Frontenac, Marquette, Frontenac Noir, St. Pepin, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc, Prairie Star, and La Crescent varieties and in 2017 planted 1.2 acres of the Itasca vines. Chankaska recently released its first Itasca wine, made with estate Itasca grapes and aged for 10 months in neutral, French Oak barrels.
“This gives the wine a smooth butterscotch character,” she says. “We were very impressed working with the Itasca grape and loved how the flavor profile turned out, highlighting honeysuckle flavors.”
Irv Geary, owner and winemaker at Chateau St. Croix Winery in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, says trying to figure out where the Itasca grape really shines is a fun challenge. “It grows beautifully, from a grower’s standpoint. … With a little bit of blending, we can make a really nice dry white.” He says he can see the Itasca grape targeting the Pinot Grigio crowd. “It doesn’t have to be another sweet white.”
For anyone who hasn’t yet sampled wines made with Itasca grapes, Schram advises trying them with an open mind and clean palate. “The frustrating point is when people say, ‘Oh, I had [a Minnesota wine] 10 years ago,’ and that’s it. It’s different now.” He says most people are delighted by the Itasca’s dry finish: “People love it.”
Beyond taste—from a technical standpoint—the Itasca grape excels because it’s made for the Midwest to survive a USDA Hardiness Zone 4. The growing season is short when the temperatures drop. Annie Klodd, an extension educator for fruit production at the University of Minnesota’s Extension office, says, “Our varieties are unique, just like our climate and our Bold North culture. Our varieties echo the resilient spirit of Minnesotans.”
Clark says drought has been challenging the past few years in Minnesota, following excessive rain the two previous years, but “it goes to show that wine grape growing requires tenacity and a lot of hard work to manage vines in a constantly changing climate.” Klodd adds, “Minnesota-bred grapevines are more resilient to the recent droughts than many other fruit crops like strawberries and blueberries because of their deep root systems.
The Minnesota-bred varieties are very tolerant of polar vortex conditions.”
Another big challenge, both the winemakers and researchers say, is the waiting game of proving the grape’s success and then spreading the word. “In the grape-growing world, nothing happens overnight,” Geary says. It can take years to experiment with and perfect a new product, one that changes each season. After five seasons growing the Itasca grape on about 3 acres, Geary says last year was Chateau St. Croix Winery’s first true commercial season.
For Schram, there are commercial as well as consumer concerns. “My hope is more growers embrace the Itasca grape—it’s getting planted all over, and we are getting requests from all over, too. But, like anything, it’s a slow process.”
He continues, “You’re going to see Minnesota wine getting into some of the best restaurants in the state.” Currently, Itasca wines are available at Top 10 Liquors and the James Beard Award-winning restaurant Owamni in Minneapolis.
“If you want to see more Minnesota wines in restaurants and at your local shops, you need to ask for it by name,” Clark says. “The restaurant wine scene is really difficult to get into, and the margins are tight for our local producers. Visiting wineries is a great way to explore Minnesota and is a reminder that we are an agricultural state where a lot of families are working hard to produce a unique, local product.”
After all, the state did create those grapes with your tax dollars, so buy local to get in on the start of something big.