Minnesota Wine Overview

Did you know that Minnesota and the famed Bordeaux wine region of France have something very important in common?

Both Bordeaux and Minnesota lie along the 45th north parallel, but in terms of being a famous wine region, that’s where the similarity ends. That’s not to say Minnesota doesn’t turn out some excellent wines — indeed they do! But climatic factors, namely early frosts and cold winters, give Minnesota grape-growers a relatively short growing season. Most grapes normally wouldn’t survive here, or would need harvesting well before their peak maturity.

Fortunately for wine lovers, the University of Minnesota has been grappling with the short grape growing season for almost 50 years, dedicating specific research resources toward developing grapes that can thrive here. They’ve experienced a fair amount of success, too. Four different cold-hardy grape varietals have been developed which, in turn, helped the Minnesota wine industry to blossom.

There are now over three dozen Minnesota wineries, largely concentrated in the central and southern areas of the state. You will also find Minnesota wineries in the north and west areas, too. Minnesota now has one of the fastest growing wine industries in the United States, and the wine industry contributes more than $40 million dollars to the state’s economy, much of it directly from wine travel and tourism.

Each of the four wine Minnesota-bred grape varietals were introduced in the last 20 years, and have become fairly common in vineyards not only in Minnesota, but neighboring cold-climate states such as Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota. The four grapes are Frontenac, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris and Marquette. Two others of note are St. Croix and St. Pepin grapes. All of these styles are commonly grown in southern Minnesota vineyards and used in Minnesota wines. La Crescent has Riesling characteristics, while Marquette is similar to a Pinot Noir, although the end result is a tad spicier. Frontenac is a red grape with dark cherry and plum notes and Frontenac Gris is a white grape, producing Pinot Grigio-style wines.

Agritourism is in full speed ahead mode in Minnesota, and wineries are a big part of the draw for tourists. The Minnesota Grape Growers Association, Minnesota’s main wine industry site, lists all kinds of statistics on the wine industry’s positive effect on the state’s economy, as well as an updated list of all Minnesota wineries. It seems that wines made with the Marquette grape are drawing the most positive attention. Its Pinot Noir style characteristics have won Minnesota wines considerable praise, with comparisons to best in style examples from Oregon. Further, Minnesota vineyards have developed a market for their grapes to other wineries outside the state, both cold climate and warmer. All of this bodes extremely well for the future of Minnesota wine.

Four Minnesota-bred wine grape varietals were introduced in the last 20 years: Frontenac, La Crescent, Frontenac Gris and Marquette.

It should also be mentioned that two American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) are primarily and partially located in Minnesota. The Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA spans four states, one of which is a portion of Minnesota. Another is the Alexandria Lakes AVA, located in the west-central part of the state, northwest of St. Cloud. One of Minnesota’s most popular wineries, Carlos Creek Winery, is most representative of this AVA and is located in the town of Alexandria.

Three wine trails have been named, as well as another which contains three wineries in Minnesota and seven wineries in neighboring Wisconsin.

Minnesota Wine Trails

The Three Rivers Wine Trail is Minnesota’s first wine trail, and an exceptionally scenic wine trail to visit. You’ll travel through beautiful river valleys forged by the Mississippi, St. Croix and Cannon Rivers and see charming and renowned Minnesota towns like Stillwater and Red Wing.

The Marquette grape is drawing positive attention. Its Pinot Noir-style characteristics have won Minnesota wines considerable praise.

This trail takes you into Minnesota’s primary grape-growing area, and you’ll see many vineyards along with picturesque views from high atop river valley bluffs.

Five wineries are on the Three Rivers Wine Trail, and we recommend you take your time so you can experience all there is to see — particularly in Stillwater and Red Wing. Best of all, most of the trail is within an hours drive from the Twin Cities.

The second Minnesota wine trail is the Heartland Wine Trail, a circular trail in the south-central part of the state. You can start from Minneapolis and either circle south then west, or north then west. One of the seven wineries on the trail is Millner Heritage Vineyard and Winery in Kimball, which isn’t far from St. Cloud, making it an excellent overnight destination on the trail.

You’ll get a real sense of the diversity of Minnesota’s geography on this trail, from rolling hills and river valleys, to some of Minnesota’s lakes, and sprawling prairies, as well.

The third Minnesota wine trail is the Minnesota Sips of History Wine Trail. The common denominator of this wine trail is the Minnesota River, which meanders through the southern portion of the state through wonderful small towns like New Ulm and Mankato. From most stopping points on the trail, you’re about 90 minutes southwest of the Twin Cities.

This is a fairly small trail with only four wineries, and it’s known as a history trail because several stops are historic mansions, museums and estates. As an added bonus, one of the trail stops is the August Schell Brewery in New Ulm. Schell’s is one of the oldest and most revered breweries in the United States. It’s an institution here in Minnesota. Be sure to stop for a tour, then explore downtown New Ulm for a great German meal and a stein or two of Schell’s Deer Brand Beer (the locals’ choice as well as ours), or Grain Belt Beer, which is also brewed at Schell’s.

The final Minnesota wine trail is the Great River Road Wine Trail, which is actually more in Wisconsin than Minnesota. This trail has three Minnesota stops in the southeast portion of the state, roughly from Cannon Falls to Winona. The entire area is part of the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA. In addition to the five Wisconsin wineries on the trail, there’s also one farther south in Marquette, Iowa.

Two of the three Minnesota wineries on this wine trail are also on the Three Rivers Wine Trail, the exception being Garvin Heights Winery in Winona, which we visited. Garvin Heights Winery might be one of the most scenic winery locations you’ll ever visit! The grounds are located high on a bluff overlooking the town. Winona is another spot to spend the night — it’s a college town, and there are plenty of places to stay and plenty of great places for lunch, dinner or both.

Travelogue: Minnesota Wine: The 3 Rivers Wine Trails

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