Minneapolis, Minnesota lies at the same latitude as the Bordeaux region of France (45 degrees North), and several hundred miles farther south than the great Rheingau region of Germany. As in these regions, the summers in south-central Minnesota are well-suited to grape vines – sunny, warm, and with ample rainfall. Also, we too have an abundance of good vineyard sites, with rolling hills and bluffs along rivers and lakes. But unlike Europe, Minnesota has a continental climate. Early autumn frosts often cut short the growing season here. The severe winters sometimes damage even the hardiest of grapevines. The noble wine grapes of Europe can neither ripen their fruit here nor survive our winters. So, the challenge to Minnesota grape growers has been to find alternative grape varieties that can be grown within the limits imposed by our climate. That search has taken two directions…
The French American Hybrids
These grapes were developed many years ago in France by crossing premium wine grape varieties like Chardonnay and Gamay Beaujolais with native American wild species (including our own vitis riparia or wild riverbank grape). The best of these hybrids combines the wine quality of fine wine grapes with the disease resistance and early ripening of our native wild grapes. The French Hybrids lack winter hardiness in Minnesota, but can be grown successfully if they are protected from the winter cold. Late in the fall, these grapevines are cut down from their trellis supports, pinned flat on the ground and covered with soil or straw. In the spring, as soon as the snow melts, the vines are uncovered and tied back up on the trellis for another growing season. This process is time-consuming and costly. But it has allowed us to produce some excellent wine grapes and wines here in Minnesota.
Breeding Improved Varieties For 50 years, Wisconsin horticulturist Elmer Swenson has worked at breeding new improved grape varieties especially adapted to the rigors of our climate. Since 1979, seven of these varieties have been named by Mr. Swenson and introduced to Minnesota grape growers. Swenson’s hybrids ripen fruit early, well within the short Minnesota growing season, and are much more tolerant of the winter cold than the French-American hybrids. The wines show great promise. Thanks to the pioneering work of Elmer Swenson, we believe that genetic improvement of grape varieties will be the key to unlocking the winegrowing potential of this region.
Information supplied by the Minnesota Winegrowers Cooperative.