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Science-driven Minnesota wines pioneer the unforgiving North

Time:2019-12-09 13:23wine - Red wine life health Click:

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In an experimental vineyard 30 miles west of the Twin Cities, fruit breeder Matt Clark grasps the gnarled trunk of an emaciated grape vine and considers ripping it out of the frozen earth.

It’s a braid of tendrils with shriveled pink berries and saw-toothed leaves that crumble in his hand. The arctic blasts of early November have left it weary. Clark’s vineyard is brimming with 10,000 unique grape varieties, and culling this one will make room for another, potentially stronger cousin. Still, he’s reluctant to mark the plant for death because it survived last winter’s polar vortexes.

Clark heads the University of Minnesota’s grape breeding program, and his goal is to develop fruit hardy enough to withstand the misery of Minnesota’s winters. The essential idea was to mate Vitis riparia, an acid-punch of a grass-flavored grape growing wild in Minnesota, with old-world European varieties that are tasty but of frail constitution.

He does to grapes what the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel did to peas 300 years ago—cross-pollinating by hand and cloning new seedlings from cuttings—but in the year 2019 he enlists the help of mass spectrometry and DNA sequencing, technologies borrowed from modern mapping of the human genome.

It takes the U about as much take to develop a commercial wine grape as it takes to raise a child. It could be five years before a vine bears fruit. If the fruit shows potential, it’ll be cloned. Another five years pass before those clones produce enough clusters for winemaking. The most promising samples are deployed to farmers throughout the upper Midwest to perform under conditions of increasingly unpredictable adversity.

Grape breeding is slow, but the climate is destabilizing fast. Spring polar plunges, fall floods, and biblical insect invasions of recent years have thrown nature’s calendar into flux. For scientists, breeding an ideal grape for Minnesota is like trying to score between moving goal posts.

The challenges of crafting a wine region in a place where none could exist without scientific intervention are enormous.

Yet since the U began grape breeding in 1908, it’s released a handful of grapes now grown plentifully from Washington to New York. They have names like Frontenac, La Crescent, Marquette, and Itasca, evoking river towns and the icy headwaters of the Mississippi. Each iteration improves upon the last in cold hardiness, flavor, girth, and disease resistance.

The wines made from these grapes are infants in the long scheme of humanity’s winemaking tradition, which dates back to the Neolithic Revolution. Consumer tastes have already been established. The industry’s gatekeepers are Europe’s oldest winemakers, masters of a craft perfected hundreds of years before Minnesotans dared to entertain the possibility of growing wine grapes on North America’s unsparing plains. Critics’ minds are made up as to what constitutes “good” wine, a definition that almost always rejects northern varietals.

Nevertheless, Minnesota competes.


II. “Where the grapes can suffer”

Nan Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyard is awaiting a ruling on the legality of Minnesota’s farm winery license.

Nan Bailly of Alexis Bailly Vineyard is awaiting a ruling on the legality of Minnesota’s farm winery license. Star Tribune

Minnesotans have been trying to make wine in the brutal north since 1880. Yet homesteaders who tried to transplant the grapes they’d grown on the East Coast found that none could survive its peerless winters.

A German immigrant came up with a grape called Beta, which was a second-generation cross between the Concord juice grape of New York and Minnesota’s Vitis riparia. Too sour for fresh eating or winemaking, it was consigned to jelly.

The University of Minnesota began to study grapes in 1908 with humble ambitions of improving on Beta. But grape specialists were proles compared to the apple department’s heavyweights (who are responsible for the Honeycrisp) and didn’t release anything new until 1944.

Almost no one noticed. World powers were preoccupied.

The Minnesota hybrids did make an impression on a Wisconsin dairy farmer, Elmer Swenson, who’d traverse the St. Croix to attend the U’s open houses. He took some prototypes home and made crosses from them, toiling in obscurity for 25 years. When he returned to the U in the 1960s, the fruit of his life’s labor surpassed what the scientists had come up with.

Many grapes in Swenson’s repertoire, such as the Summersweet and Prairie Star, still carry the taste of the wild.

The first Minnesotan to open a winery was the eccentric Minneapolis lawyer David Bailly, who, according to his daughter Nan, wanted to work with his hands after a lifetime of working with his mind.

In 1973 he bought land down in Hastings, and put all six kids to work growing finicky French hybrids that had to be taken off the trellis, laid down on the ground, and covered with straw in winter like heirloom roses. Their slogan was, “Alexis Bailly Vineyards, where the grapes can suffer.”

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