May 2007 Issue of Wines & Vines

Making the Impossible Possible

New cold-hardy varieties enable far-north winemaking

by Cynthia Ramnarace
Alexis Bailly Vineyard
The snowscape that is Alexis Bailly Vineyard in the winter paints a vivid portrait of the conditions grapegrowers face in Minnesota and other far-northern regions.

  • Marquette, the University of Minnesota's latest winegrape release, is in high demand. It is a descendent of the Pinot Noir grape and features high sugar and moderate acidity. It is expected to overtake Frontenac as the grape of choice in cold weather regions, and can withstand temperatures as low as minus 36°F.
  • Some vineyard managers in cold climates still plant vinifera, but doing so is labor intensive. Vines often have to be buried during the winter, and require hand harvesting.
  • Increased interest in agritourism is fueling the expansion of vineyards in new, northern locales. Many traditional farmers are switching crops in order to take advantage of higher per-acre earnings.
When David Bailly first started growing winegrapes in Minnesota 34 years ago, he was a pioneer. And, according to wine experts he consulted at the time, he was embarking on a fool's errand. How could Minnesota, with winter temperatures that average in the single digits, and at night dip way below zero, ever be home to a crop as delicate as the grape?

But Bailly was undeterred. He cleared a 20-acre field of winter rye and planted, of all things, French grapes. "We discovered pretty quickly they couldn't survive every winter, and that they had to be buried," says Bailly's daughter, Nan. Protecting the vines was labor intensive, but by 1978 Alexis Bailly Vineyard was producing Minnesota's first homegrown wine.

Nan Bailly continues the work her late father started, but her job is a bit easier thanks to enologists at the University of Minnesota (UM). Bailly still plants, and buries, some vinifera every year. But much of her vineyard is filled with hybrid varieties created by Elmer Swensen and UM grape breeders. They include Frontenac and, in the near future, Marquette, UM's latest release.

The popularity and hardiness of these grapes, as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of these new winemakers, are helping the wine industry grow in places that have little in common with Napa. The 2006 release of Marquette has the northern latitudes buzzing with expectations that this could be the grape that would put them on the winemaking map. Orders have been received from Vermont, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Iowa and Colorado.

The new Marquette grape developed by the University of Minnesota is a descendant of Pinot Noir, capable of producing fine wines and withstanding northern winters.
"What's allowing the grape industry to develop and expand in Vermont is the availability of cold-hardy wine grape varieties," says Dr. Lorraine P. Berkett, plant pathologist at the University of Vermont. "It's a very, very cold place for grapes to grow. But now that there are varieties from Minnesota that can survive minus 29ºF and minus 35ºF, grapegrowing is a possibility."

Cold-Climate Varietals

As Alexis Bailly Vineyard shows, burying vines is possible. But it's not practical, or cost-effective. For that reason, most vineyards would rather invest in cold-hardy varietals than engage in laborious vine management techniques.

The varieties available to places like Minnesota and North Dakota include Frontenac, Marechal Foch (which is still considered by many to be too tender), Leon Millot, St. Pepin, Frontenac Gris, Seyval Blanc and La Crescent. They are hardy to minus 25ºF. All are left on the trellis during winter, and are grown either in a bilateral upper cordon training system or vertical shoot positioning system. "The idea is to have a vineyard that is left up through the winter and can face the temperatures, whatever they might be," says Dr. James Luby, head of the grape breeding program at UM.

Northern grapegrowers have established their reputation primarily on Frontenac, a 1996 UM release. It is the result of a cross between vitis riparia and the French hybrid Landot 4511. It can survive temperatures as low as minus 33ºF, and is resistant to downy mildew.
Dr. James Luby
Dr. James Luby is head of the grape breeding program at the University of Minnesota, which released Marquette last year. It's being snapped up, sight-unseen, by growers across the Northern U.S.

Those are the reasons why growers appreciate Frontenac. But for winemakers, the grape presents a challenge. It is very high in acid and lacks tannins, so it can't produce a big, hearty red wine. But pH is low, making Frontenac easier to work with than a hybrid like Norton. Sugar content is as high as 27 or 28º Brix. Because of that, success has been found with rosé and port styles. "It has a fairly simple sensory profile, just a lot of cherry, maybe a little bit of black currant," says Anna Katharine Mansfield, enologist project leader at UM. "When made well, it's a respectable wine, but it's never going to be a great wine as a red wine. It will as a port."

Cold-hardy doesn't mean bulletproof. La Crescent, a white grape, is a 2002 hybrid that produces a Riesling-style wine. "It has a lot of problems in the vineyard," Bailly says. "It's susceptible to shatter, so to go out in your vineyard one day and see that you have no grapes--that's a little devastating."

What winemakers are really excited about is Marquette. That Pinot Noir is one of its grandparents adds to the intrigue. "It's really a much more complex kind of deeper red wine," Mansfield says. "Plus, you don't have to pull your hair out trying to get that acid lowered."

To say sales of Marquette have been brisk would be an understatement. The vines are sold out in many places, and are often being bought sight-unseen. "A majority of these people who are ordering it have never tasted it," Mansfield says. "They're just taking our word for it that it's going to be a good grape. But it really is that good." Ray Winter, owner of Winterhaven Vineyard and Nursery in Jamesville, Minn., says sales of all varieties are swift but "everybody wants the new Marquette."

The aptly-named Snowfarm in South Hero was Vermont's first winegrape vineyard. Owner Harrison Lebowitz plants, trains and trellises to accommodate the harsh conditions.

Insisting on

Many winegrowers invest the extra time and money to grow French hybrids, which are more hardy than their traditional counterparts, but still tender by UM standards. Bailly continues to grow vinifera because Frontenac needs to be blended in order to produce a quality wine. "We use these French hybrids that allow me to blend and get my total acidity down to a reasonable level," Bailly says. "And the Frontenac has some tendencies toward herbaceous characters. The French hybrids give us the opportunity to manipulate the flavors a little bit more. Blending is the key for this grape. It's tough for it to stand on its own."

In South Hero, Vt., Harrison Lebowitz has had the same issue at his Snow Farm Vineyard. He relies on French hybrids because while Frontenac has a great yield, it can't stand on its own as a varietal. To round it out, he plants Leon Millot and Pinot Noir. They present their problems in a climate where temperatures can dip to minus 20°F. "We keep our trunks low to the ground so we get radiant heat," Lebowitz says. "We're limited in the way we train and trellis. Everything comes up like a candelabra from a 10-inch trunk. We get full production, but we can't do machine harvesting."

Lebowitz tried burying his vines, but it was problematic. The heavy clay soil presented problems, and the hay they used invited mice. Snow cover and keeping vines low to the ground seems to be enough to stop bud loss, which occurs at minus 11°F. Riesling and Pinot Noir, however, are protected with plumber's insulation.

Started in 1996, Snow Farm is still a young vineyard, even though it was Vermont's first. There is still a lot of experimenting to do, but so far consumers have responded well to the Vidal ice wine and Frontenac port. Lebowitz has several experimental vines planted, but in reality, he's seven years away from really knowing what will work and what won't.

At Snowfarm Vineyard, hybrid Leon Millot vines are trained low to the ground to take advantage of radiant heat. Riesling vines, however, are protected by plumber's insulation for winter warmth.
Winemaking as Tourism

The grapegrowing and winemaking are labor-intensive, but the payoff extends beyond the wine. For most states new to the industry, making wine is about attracting tourists. Minnesota, for example, has gone from one vineyard in 1973 to more than 20. "Mostly (the growth) is tied in with a sort of tourism," Luby says. "The interest has just been exploding in this part of the country, and it also ties in with the interest in local food products and things like that."

Vermont is hoping to make good on the tourism link as well. In the last decade, 12 wineries have opened. "It would be my hope that this would be a viable industry for the state of Vermont that adds to the diversity of the state's agriculture and supports local communities and sustainable agriculture by keeping land open and in farming," Berkett says. "In doing so, we're supporting local communities where the farms are, as well as the overall vitality of the state."

Many conventional farmers in the Corn Belt states are seeing dollars in winemaking and tourism. Nurseryman Ray Winter has spent the last 31 years harvesting corn and soybeans. Next year, he plans to open his own winery. "In farming, it gets harder and harder to make ends meet unless you have 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 acres," Winter says. "This is a lot more fun anyway."

(Freelance writer Cynthia Ramnarace specializes in health, family and lifestyle subjects from her Brooklyn, N.Y., base. Contact her through
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