Minnesota Wine: The 3 Rivers Wine Trails


Minnesota Wine: Visiting Minnesota’s First Wine Trail

With the recent explosion of new wine trails in the United States, you can find a great weekend wine travel destination just about anywhere you turn. Especially appealing are those that combine great wine, scenic beauty and picturesque towns with a wide array of attractions.

The 3 Rivers Wine Trail in Minnesota is one of three new wine trails in the state. You might not consider Minnesota as a grape growing and winemaking state, but the climate is extremely conducive to the art. Lush river valleys moderate the harsher weather, while advanced grape-growing techniques yield interesting new varieties for vintners.

The net result is a wine culture in Minnesota that is blossoming by the day. Equally important for the state’s economy is the forward-thinking approach by winery owners and local and state tourism boards. The three wine trails in the state were developed in a few short years, and promotional efforts are taking hold. There is a real recognition in the state of the value of cross promotion to lure visitors and tourists not only to the wineries, but all the attractions in some of the most beautiful small towns in the upper Midwest.

Introducing the 3 Rivers Wine Trail

The 3 Rivers Wine Trail is an ideal add-on destination for those visiting the Twin Cities, western Wisconsin or as a destination on its own. The trail itself consists of five wineries, and the total distance north to south is about 80 miles.

We recommend two full days to explore everything. You will want to spend time in two historic towns, Stillwater and Red Wing, both renowned destinations for those seeking a relaxing experience. The name of the wine trail stems from the St. Croix, Cannon and Mississippi Rivers, all of which congregate here in southeast Minnesota. The result is spectacular scenery and an ideal area for growing grapes!

Let’s start our tour at the northernmost winery on the trail, WineHaven Winery and Vineyard in Chicago City, about an hour north, and slightly east, of the Twin Cities.

WineHaven Winery

Located in the St. Croix River Valley, WineHaven is the pride and joy of the Peterson family, who have been growing fruit in this area for generations. Now, that passion for growing fruit has manifested itself into one of Minnesota’s best known and award-winning wineries. You can visit Thursdays through Sundays.

We recommend two wines in particular, both fresh and fruity whites. WineHaven’s Riesling has won numerous awards over the years, most notably in Finger Lakes wine competitions, a notable accomplishment considering how well the Finger Lakes area is known for Rieslings. This particular vintage is crisp and fruity, with a slightly peach fragrance and taste.

The other white is made from a grape indigenous to this region, the LaCrescent. It’s the name of the wine as well, and it offers even more fruit than the Riesling but it’s not too sweet. If you visit this area, seek this variety out!

A good red style to try in this area, and this winery in particular, is the medium-bodied St. Croix. It’s medium-dry, with a smooth berry taste that is perfect on its own or with pork or beef dishes.

On to Stillwater

From WineHaven, it’s a short 25-minute drive down Highway 95 to historic Stillwater, where you will find two wineries in the vicinity — as well as great shopping and places to eat.

Stillwater is very close to St. Paul, almost close enough to be considered a suburban area. Stillwater is independent and unique, with an historic flavor that befits a river town.

The first winery to visit is Northern Vineyards Winery, located on Main Street in the heart of historic Stillwater. You can visit here year-round, so it’s an ideal day trip from the Twin Cities. Northern Vineyards uses grapes exclusively from this area, so you’ll get a real taste of this wine region here.

Be sure to step out on their back deck to enjoy a glass of Prairie Star and enjoy a close up view of the unique Stillwater lift bridge. Prairie Star is in the Chenin Blanc style, dry but without the oak characteristic. A great change of pace is the St. Pepin, made with native grapes that result in a slightly sweet, apple finish.

After you visit, we recommend exploring all that Stillwater has to offer. It’s an excellent walking town, with a relaxed pace and historic architecture. Poke your head into one of Stillwater’s many independent shops or attractive galleries. It’s an ideal stop for lunch before visiting the rest of the trail.

The next winery is located just west of Stillwater, and it’s St. Croix Vineyards. It is one of the largest wineries in the state and you can visit here from mid-April through December. Every Saturday at 1 p.m. there’s a free public tour, so arrange your visit to partake if you can.

Our favorite wine here is the Frontenac Gris, sort of like a Pinot Gris but slightly sweeter and fruitier. We were attracted to this wine because it is made from a grape specifically developed here at the University of Minnesota viticultural department. The result is nothing short of spectacular. It is an exceptional wine that is full bodied and yet light, with flavors of peaches and pears on the palate.

Two other excellent choices are the Riesling and the Rose, which are made with Frontenac grapes, resulting in a vibrant cherry flavor.

Depending on where you live, you can order any of these wines by mail, so check their website for details.

Visiting Red Wing, Minnesota

Red Wing is a weekend destination trip for surrounding states, with scenic beauty and river views that you will remember forever. This is the home of Red Wing Shoes, so be sure to stop in at their store in the heart of downtown. You’re about an hour southeast of the Twin Cities here, so it’s a perfect overnight stop. There are ample lodging options available, but always book ahead, especially in the summer months. An evening and subsequent morning are just about the perfect amount of time to explore Red Wing and the two wineries in the area.

The fourth winery on the 3 Rivers Wine Trail is Falconer Vineyards in Red Wing. Visit here on Saturdays year around, or Friday through Sunday from spring until late fall. Bring your own snacks to enjoy a picnic at one of the picnic tables set amidst the vineyards and enjoy a bottle of Marechal Foch, a spicy and mildly sweet red made from area grapes.

St. Croix Vineyards has a full line of reds and whites. So, no matter your tastes or preferences, you’ll be delighted with a real taste of Minnesota wine country.

About 20 miles east of Red Wing along Highway 52 is Cannon Falls, another Minnesota small historic town where you’ll want to spend a few hours. One of the prime attractions here is Cannon River Winery, which boasts a handsome limestone-walled tasting room and 19th century barn.

All of the grapes used in winemaking here are harvested locally and used for wines that are unique to the upper Midwest. We are very pleased to help publicize these wines, which are not well known outside of the region and the local wine communities. Try the Sogn Blanc, named after the river valley where the grapes originate. This wine is a slightly sweet wine with tropical fruit accents, perfect when served chilled. The grape is Edelweiss and the taste is delicious! The Classic White is another excellent choice. And, for reds we recommend Nouveau, a local treasure that is bursting with dark fruit taste and made in the style of a Beaujolais. All in all, there are about 20 wines to try here, depending on availability. And while it’s impossible to try all 20 in one sitting, it certainly is incentive for a return visit!

Summary

The 3 Rivers Wine Trail is the perfect introduction to the Minnesota wine scene, and very convenient to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The five wineries on the trail are about 90 minutes apart, with the two historic river cities of Stillwater and Red Wing as stopping points. Be sure to visit one or all of these wineries on any visit to the Twin Cities or western Wisconsin area. You’ll enjoy a relaxed pace, some beautiful river valley scenery, and most of all, great wine!

Cheers!

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