Minnesota's Newest Winery

While I’ve written recently about regional wineries that are currently celebrating a long history of producing local wine, some newer entrants into the local wine market are making quite an impression. From what I experienced during a local visit to perhaps Minnesota’s newest winery, the future looks very bright for Minnesota wine.

On a word-of-mouth recommendation following a recent conference in nearby Mankato, I drive north through the beautiful fall-colored rolling hills off Highway 22 in search of a winery that I, quite frankly, had never heard of: Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery. Perhaps Minnesota’s newest winery, it has only been open for about a year-and-a-half; while it is featured in brochures, it isn’t even listed on the Minnesota Grape Growers Association website. Nevertheless, what awaited me at the end of my journey was one of the nicest tasting rooms I’ve ever visited in Minnesota.

The winery is the labor of love of Jane and Kent Schwickert, whose grandfather was the founder of a successful family business: Schwickert’s Hardware in Waterville, Minnesota. Two succeeding generations continued to develop the business that became Schwickert Companies when Kent decided to follow the family’s history of entrepreneurialism and turn a passion for fine wine into a new business.

In the summer of 2008, the company was formed, named after the Chankaska Creek that flows through the property. They began growing grapes. In late 2010, the entrepreneurs broke ground on the new facilities. They completed their first harvest in 2011 and bottled their first wine in 2012. And in May 2012 the winemakers opened the doors to their magnificent 11,000-square-foot winery and tasting room. The grounds are beautiful; the winery actually comprises four buildings on 25 acres. The name is derived from a Dakota word meaning enclosed by the forest, which aptly describes the grounds. In addition to the finely appointed tasting room, guests can also use six places for special events; including a tasting patio, a tent on the bank of the Chankaska Creek, a barrel room which can accommodate intimate crowds, as well as the forest itself. Guests cross a bridge over the creek to use this open-air site for ceremonies or casual social events.

To my mind, Marquette is becoming a signature varietal in our region’s wine culture. And Chankaska makes two very good ones. A “grandson” of the very popular Pinot Noir grape, Marquette was developed by the University of Minnesota to create a very hardy varietal, but with a flavor profile of berry, cherry, and spice not unlike varietals found in warmer climates. The 2012 American Marquette is a blend of Marquette grapes grown in Viroqua, Wisconsin, with a small amount of California Petite Sirah blended in for complexity. It’s still a bit young, and will likely mellow as you let it sit, nevertheless the description’s aromas of black cherry and wood smoke from Minnesota grown oak barrels were very evident to me. I actually preferred this wine to the 2012 Marquette Reserve, which just won a 2013 Gold Medal in the International Cold Climate Wine Competition. It’s very good, and is probably Chankaska’s signature wine. Made from Marquette grapes grown on the estate, blended with a small percentage of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and aged in second-year Minnesota grown oak barrels, this bottle is the epitome of Minnesota red. “Complex, full-bodied, dry, long finish” are descriptors the winery uses for this reserve, and they are correct.

Another wine that I enjoyed very much is Chankaska’s Creekside Red, a less expensive, and interesting blend. It features California-grown Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petite Sirah and blends them with Minnesota-grown Marquette and Saint Croix, a less-well-known grape developed by Elmer Swenson at the University of Minnesota. Swenson was a pioneer in breeding fruit that could adapt to short growing seasons and cold weather, yet develop interesting and unique flavor profiles.

As you can tell, one visit has me quickly becoming a fan, and I haven’t even mentioned their food menu. If tasting wine and enjoying southern Minnesota’s beautiful countryside are part of your idea of a pleasant getaway, stop by. You’re going to be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Chankaska Creek Ranch & Winery
1179 Pearl Street, Kasota

May until January 3:
Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.- 8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.- 10 p.m.
Sunday, 11 a.m.- 7 p.m.

January through April:
Tuesday and Wednesday, 1 p.m. – 7 p.m.
Thursday, 1 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.